Psychoactive compounds in Chocolate
A few months ago came by our lab a friend, chef Arnaud Hauchon (@chefarnaudhauchon), and tasted some of our cacao. After having two roasted beans he looked at his fingertips, then up at me said “oh my. I think I’m high.”
How is this possible?
Well, the good/bad news is that this is a rare experience, and while chocolate of cacao which was cultivated, fermented and roasted very well naturally carries stimulating compounds, to feel their effect as viscerally as my friend you will need to have a high metabolism, a high sensitivity to these compounds and probably an empty stomach. Arnaud’s lifestyle and diet are very clean without frequent exposure to drugs like caffeine, and very mindful making him highly aware of change in sensations in the brain hence his access to this feeling. But you may be able to simulate these conditions in other ways.
The ancient Mayans were situated in some proximity to areas of South America where the coca plant (known worldwide for its psychoactive alkaloid cocaine) was cultivated, and found their own stimulants in cacao. They believed that consumption of cacao can offer a powerful supernatural effect and thus in parts of history only warriors and royalty had access to its consumption.
Only two types of methylxanthines can be found in cacao: caffeine and theobromine. Caffeine is in a very small concentration, with quite a bit more theobromine. At times when your system is more sensitive, for example on an empty stomach (especially after a fast or detox) or post-exercise, or simply as someone who does not regularly consume caffeine, you will be more acutely aware of their effects.
Theobromine is the primary bitter-tasting alkaloid found in cacao and chocolate. Chocolate contains 0.5–2.7% theobromine and about 0.4% caffeine, according to Stephen T Beckett, The Science of Chocolate (The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2018).
Both of these compounds can be damaged or diminished by heat, meaning over-roasted chocolate (most commodity-cacao made chocolate, which is most chocolate available today) will carry a much lesser effect if at all. To enjoy them you will also want to target high cacao-concentration chocolate, ideally 70% and above.
Theobromine’s softer effect on the body and caffeine’s low concentration make an excellent balance for chocolate to work as a “pick me up” for energy in the day, or a natural pre-workout. At this low impact you can also enjoy the benefits of stimulants such as sharper focus, increased motivation and improved mood and blood flow, without the jittery and sleep-depriving effects of a cup of coffee or tea.
Beside Theobromine and Caffeine, cacao beans produce further compounds during fermentation (according to this review of research papers on whether theobromine is a cognitive modulator) including phenylethylamine which increases
attention and relieves depression and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that at normal levels makes you feel more focused, emotionally stable, happier and calmer (according to this clinic in the US).
Theobromine’s name is derived from Theobroma, the name of the genus of the cacao plant, Greek for “food of the gods” with the suffix “ine” given to alkaloids and other basic nitrogen-containing compounds.
Like Caffeine, it crosses the blood-brain barrier and binds to adenosine receptors.
Theobromine’s elimination half-life is between 6-8 hours. This is the time it takes concentration in the blood to go from full to half.
It is also a bronchodilator, meaning a substance that dilates the bronchi and bronchioles, increasing airflow to the lungs.
It is far weaker than caffeine, and unlike caffeine has no impact on the central nervous system meaning it should not negatively impact sleep even if consumed late in the day. In a study comparing it with caffeine it was shown to decrease blood pressure (while caffeine increases it) and impart no strong alerting effect (while caffeine does).
Authors of this study also found a significant decrease of age-related cognitive impairment in mice supplied with a diet rich in theobromine, polyphenols, and polyunsaturated fatty acid (LMN diet).
Lastly, in another study on mice who’s diet was also rich in theobromine, they found significant improvement in motor learning, such as sequence, skill, adaptation, and reversal learning compared with normal nourished mice.
There is more evidence of positive effects of theobromine on brain health but for the sake of not making this into a list, if you’re curious I recommend reading inside the linked studies, especially this review.
Caffeine exists in cacao in a relatively low ratio, about 1:5 compared with Theobromine (according to this study). In Human culture it is much more common and studied than theobromine. Compared with other sources of caffeine, it is present in cacao at a very low level, almost negligible, especially to an average coffee drinker.