Theobroma cacao or the cocoa tree, is a small (4–8 m tall) evergreen tree, native to the deep tropical regions of Central and South America. Its seeds are used to make cocoa powder and chocolate. Humans have consumed the cacao bean and its surrounding fruit for over 2000 years. Theobroma (cocoa) is Greek for “food of the gods.” Its main psychoactive component is theobromine.
Many people would testify that they are chocoholics. This may be related to both its sensuous eating and taste qualities and its effects on the brain. Chocolate is a comfort food, with high fat and sugar levels. It stimulates dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasure and has similar, yet milder, properties to caffeine. Besides theobromine, cocoa also contains other psychoactive compounds which may contribute to its addictive nature, e.g. methylxanthines, biogenic amines and cannabinoid-like fatty acids. Yet there are no recognised physical withdrawal symptoms.
Modern processing may include chemicals used in growing cocoa and other additives which deplete theobromine. Milk chocolate contain high levels of milk, fat, sugar and emulsifiers such as soy lecithin. The sectors of the chocolate industry have been accused of using child and slave labour.
Food as close to its natural state generally has more benefit. Good chocolate contains cocoa butter, cheaper variants contain vegetable fat. If organic products are unavailable, dark chocolate is healthier than milk chocolate. It has less sugar and dairy but has a far higher cocoa content.