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Is chocolate addictive?

By Nick Saxby  ·  18th July 2021  ·  Health & Eating

Chocolate is NOT addictive.

Unlike the likes of caffeine, alcohol and other drugs, theobromine (the primary stimulant in chocolate) doesn’t meet any of the standard definitions for addiction.

But various ingredients can be added to your chocolate bar that ARE highly addictive. Top of the list of these additives is sugar, especially if combined with a little salt and fat (e.g. cocoa butter, milk, etc.). And in excess, this added sugar creates highs, and lows, which are much faster-acting than caffeine, nicotine, theobromine, cocaine or alcohol; and addictive.

At the same time, sugar helps make chocolate palatable and reveals the myriad flavours in the cocoa bean. For most of us chocolate is too bitter and astringent to enjoy without some sugar (although come to a virtual tasting to explore how you can learn to handle the astringency of a 100% cocoa chocolate very easily).

To showcase how sugar (and salt) can enhance and reveal the flavours in cocoa, we’ve highlighted a few new bars (including some 100%s) below. And next week we will review how different sweeteners work with chocolate through a range of bars that use different sweeteners (including the likes of dates, maple syrup and a few that don’t use anything other than milk to caramelise the chocolate).

What is addiction?

For a word that is bandied around so much, addiction is hard to pin down. The UK’s NHS offers a simple definition:

Addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you. …There are lots of reasons why addictions begin. In the case of drugs, alcohol and nicotine, these substances affect the way you feel, both physically and mentally. These feelings can be enjoyable and create a powerful urge to use the substances again.

The American definition (DSM-5) is more complicated, and more granular, with 11 components. It differentiates “addiction” from “dependency” which can be confusing as (arguably) these two states are two sides of the same coin.

On a practical level, it’s insightful to see how industry experts approach addiction; for example, to quote Michael Szymanczyk, the CEO of tobacco giant Philip Morris:

My definition of addiction is a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit”.

Or as his chief lawyer, Steven C. Parrish, says:

“…it’s easier …to quit (my) company’s cigarettes than its chocolate cookies”. (For more on this, please see Michael Moss’ new book Hooked).

So when you can’t stop eating those chocolate biscuits, and really crave the sugar rush (or sugar, salt and fat “bliss point”) of mass market confectionery, you need to beware ‘addiction’.

But it’s not chocolate that is addictive; it’s what is added to chocolate that is addictive. In particular when sugar becomes a, if not the, primary ingredient.

What is going on with chocolate?

But neither theobromine or caffeine create an immediate craving for another fix. They don’t make you seek out that second slice of cake.

However, caffeine can create a dependency and addiction. For example, just one cup of coffee (100g of caffeine) taken daily for a few weeks can leave many people with withdrawal symptoms including headaches, irritability etc. without their daily fix. By comparison, scientists have tried to find how much theobromine humans would need to eat to start to develop withdrawal symptoms and estimate this to be over 1 kg (i.e. ten BIG bars) of 70% dark chocolate eaten daily for two weeks before you’d get cravings.

Note: Chocolate does also contain small amounts of caffeine (about a tenth of the amount of theobromine in the bar), and if you take a 70% dark chocolate bar of 70g, even if you ate the whole bar in one go, this would be less than chewing 3 coffee beans.

All chocolate contains some sugar (even 100% bars), and it’s in how much sugar, and how the sugar is being used, that the problems and crucial differences emerge.

Sugar’s Unique Qualities

From birth, humans are attracted to sweetness, and we recoil at the other basic tastes of bitterness and sourness (saltiness is more complex, and astringency, spiciness etc. aren’t ‘tastes’).

Sweetness is a way for humans to identify foods that are full of energy (like ripe fruit, cooked meats, etc). And our brains are hardwired to respond to sugar in foods with an immediate craving for MORE. We are encouraged to gorge on these sweet foods until we were full of things like ripe bananas, for example. Our penchant for sweet and sugary foods helped us to find calories and survive.

For most of human history our craving for more sugar and sweetness hasn’t been a problem. There really wasn’t much sugar, let alone added sugar, in our diets until the modern era. In 1700s Britain the average sugar consumption per capita per year was less than 2kg. By 1850 this had doubled to 5kg. It’s now over 75kg!

But today the uses (and abuses) of sugar are becoming more and more problematic. Sugar is very cheap. It’s a great preservative. And it’s hard to resist when ‘gamified’ in ultra-processed foods, drinks and chocolate bars.

And the way sugar is used in modern day foods like breakfast cereals, biscuits, cakes and mass market chocolate bars is very different to the way sweetness in fruits etc. encouraged us to seek out these foods. The sugar in ultra-processed junk foods make us eat more and binge. We just want to eat more and more until the bag, bar, bowl is finished (and even then we may well come for more). We don’t get sated in the same way as we do from eating a piece of fruit (or savouring a craft chocolate bar). We’re being ‘gamed’ via practices like the ‘bliss point’ where sugar is combined with salt and fat to the extent that it really is harming our health.

Sugar’s Highs and Lows

Sugar is remarkable for the the speed it gives us both a ‘high’ and a ‘low’. And these attributes can be (ab)used to encourage scoffing and binge eating. Compare the speed at which sugar gives us a ‘buzz’ or ‘hit’ relative to other stimulants; along with how long it stays in our system to other addictive substances:

  1. Sugar takes between 6/10ths of a second to one second to “register and reward”, and then within another 10-30 minutes it will start to give you a ‘sugar high’ and energised feeling. Thereafter (normally 30-60 minutes later) you’ll get a sugar crash, and a craving for more sugar (note: this is highly dependent on the amount of sugar you consume),
  2. Tobacco (via a cigarette) takes 5-10 seconds to hit, and it has a relatively short half life of 2 hours (i.e. the amount of time the nicotine is still in your system is relatively short you’ll want another fix relatively soon, but not as immediately as sugar),
  3. Coffee (e.g. an espresso) requires 5-10 minutes to perk you up, and has a half life (i.e. half the caffeine is still in your system) of 4-6 hours, so you don’t get the same cravings for another fix as fast,
  4. Alcohol (e.g. a glass of wine) is a bit more complex and depends on lots of factors (what you’ve eaten, your size etc.) as after a drink is swallowed, the alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the blood (20% through the stomach and 80% through the small intestine). And the first effects are felt within 5 to 10 minutes after drinking, with the peak after 30-90 minutes and wearing off after 3-4 hours (again, depending on how much you’ve drunk).

Note: Theobromine (the stimulant in chocolate) is harder to find details for as it’s studied far less. However whereas caffeine peaks in the blood 30–40 minutes after ingestion, and has a half-life of 2.5–5 hours, theobromine attains peak blood concentration 2–3 hours after ingestion, and has an estimated half-life of 7–12 hours (which is why it keeps you feeling full for so long).

Mass Produced Chocolate Bars

The predominant ingredient of mass-produced chocolate confectionery is SUGAR. And it’s this predominance, combined with the bliss point, that creates problems, including addiction.

For example, a snack, pocket-sized Dairy Milk that is 45g contains 25g of sugar and 1g of salt. And it only has 20% cocoa in the bar. The Dairy Milk’s standard 85g bar contains 48g of sugar (12 teaspoons of sugar). And the so called ‘dark’ Dairy Milk 85g bar (which is still only 39% cocoa) contains 42g of sugar (10.5 teaspoons of added sugar).

A standard 100g bar of Bournville Dark Chocolate contains 58g of sugar (16 teaspoons of sugar), so if you compare this to an 85g bar of dark Dairy Milk it actually contains MORE sugar than a dairy milk (49 vs 48g).

And the main pleasure or ‘hit’ from these bars is their sugar rush and familiarity. There really isn’t that much to savour. It’s all about the dopamine ‘fix’ from that hit of sugar. And just as with caffeine (or alcohol or tobacco), you can become habituated to this fix. At the same time the sugar fix encourages binge eating to the point that people know they shouldn’t be consuming so much. And so sadly for some, the sugar in mass market chocolate can become addictive.

Hint: Look at the Packaging (and Check the Ingredients)

If you look at the packaging of mass market chocolate it’s not designed to be resealable. You can’t save the bar for later. The bars are all packaged with the expectation that you’ll eat them in one go. It’s about scoffing and bingeing.

In comparison craft chocolate makers use boxes and packaging that is resealable. They want you to savour their bars over a few sessions. And that’s why we send out resealable pouches with your first subscription kit (and following requests from subscribers, we’re going to include one of these every 3 months from now on, not just with your first box).

Sugar and Craft Chocolate

To be very pedantic, all chocolate bars (including craft ones) will contain some sugar. Even 100% bars. This is because there is a small amount of natural sugars in cocoa beans (depending on the bean, this varies between 0.2-0.7g per 100g of chocolate).

Thanks to the work of Martin Christie and his Seventy% club, most chocolate aficionados argue that dark chocolate bars should contain at least 70% cocoa and then 30% “other stuff” (which is generally refined cane sugar that is responsibly sourced; and see next week for more on this). Milk chocolate bars are more complex; the vast majority of the milk chocolate bars we sell contain over 40% cocoa, and what we call “dark milk” chocolate bars contain more than 50% cocoa. And there are some dark milk chocolates where the main sweetener is the milk, not added sugar (note: milk contains lactose a sugar; see more next week)

Important side note: These percentage rules are “there to be broken”. As many chocolate makers will tell you; the exact percentage they choose is dependent on the bean, its fermentation, roast, conche, and how the makers want to showcase the flavours of the bean (see below for some great exceptions from Bare Bones and Chocolate Makers).

Putting this into context, the amount of added sugar in an ‘average’ (i.e. 65g bar that is 70% dark) is 21g, or about 4 teaspoonfuls of sugar.

4 teaspoons of sugar is quite a lot. It’s not insignificant given NHS guidelines are to eat less than 30g of sugar per day.

But very few people want to eat a whole bar of craft chocolate in one go. Most people savour the flavour in their craft chocolate bars. And there is a LOT of protein, carbohydrates and fibre in a craft chocolate bar. And this is very filling. So rarely does anyone eat a full bar in one go. You aren’t scoffing to the point you know it’s harming you.

Most people report being sated with 15-30g of craft chocolate (i.e. 4-8 squares). That’s about 5-10g of sugar, or 1-2 teaspoons of sugar. To put this in context, a low fat vanilla yogurt contains 6-7g of added sugar. Or a small glass of dessert wine contains 6-7g of sugar.

Bottom line: People aren’t savouring craft chocolate for the sugar fix. Hopefully you’ll fall in love with craft chocolate. But you won’t get addicted to it.

Thanks as ever for your support. And looking forward to reviewing more different sugars next week.

Spencer

PS As you may have read, the UK is coming out of lockdown on the 19th July. Whether or not you agree with all aspects of this ending, I think we all agree that we owe the doctors, nurses, cleaners and staff of the NHS a HUGE thanks. So we are re-opening ‘Chocs for Docs‘ (see here), and, we will donate 10% of all sales this Sunday to this cause. Thanks.