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Science  |  Dossier Sensuous Pleasure

Pleasure bomb Everyone loves chocolate – and we know why

©Giorgio Pesce Atelier Poisson

Eating chocolate is a unique sensory experience. It all starts with the nose. The subtle aroma of chocolate is composed of many volatile molecules that stimulate the olfactory receptors in the back of the nasal cavity. This generates the characteristic chocolate smell with its complex caramel, vanilla, fruity or spicy notes. The smell already heralds the pleasure and makes us start salivating…

The mouthfeel experience of chocolate comes from complex chemical and mechanical interactions. The melting temperature of cocoa butter – just below body temperature – is what makes this experience so special. After we bite on a chocolate bar, the chocolate will melt in the mouth smoothly, slowly releasing molecules onto the tongue together with volatile molecules into the nasal cavity as we breathe out. While the cocoa butter gently distributes the flavour around the mouth, the activation of taste receptors and other sensory receptors produces the mouthfeel. It is full, creamy and velvety.

Refining chocolate by mixing in other ingredients enriches the enjoyment. Sugar adds sweetness to mask the natural bitter taste of chocolate, which many people dislike. The conching (kneading) process contributes to the smoothness of chocolate, which might otherwise seem gritty. In milk chocolate, the added milk also softens the texture, boosting the creaminess for maximal mouthfeel.

More than any other food, the sensory experience of chocolate has an immediate impact on mood. The moment of consumption is a treat and generally makes people feel fulfilled, happy and relaxed. Chocolate is also rich in powerful nutrients. Sugar, fat, proteins from milk, vitamins and minerals – particularly magnesium – provide direct fuel for the body and brain to feel energetic and perform well. Chocolate is also rich in polyphenols, which have an antioxidant effect that may be beneficial for the heart and vascular health.

Chocolate has been consumed for at least 3,000 years, but has not been always such a treat. Around 1000 BC, Mesoamerican people used the beans of the cacao tree to prepare a beverage known as “bitter water”. In spite of its unpleasant taste it was considered a fine product and believed to be beneficial for health. Flavouring with vanilla or spices and mixing the beverage with honey were the first attempts at improving the taste and enjoyment.

The chocolate we eat today results from a complex process – fermentation, drying, roasting, grinding, refining and conching – during which the flavour of the bean is naturally enhanced and the texture optimised. The end products, cocoa solids and cocoa butter, are combined in varying proportions with other fats, sugar and sometimes milk to create the different types of chocolate: unsweetened dark, milk or white chocolate.

Like all good things, for optimal pleasure, chocolate should be consumed in moderation!

Julie Hudry

Scientist

Julie Hudry holds a PhD in neurosciences from Claude Bernard University in Lyon (France) and completed a post-doctoral degree at McGill University in the Montréal Neurological Institute (Canada). She joined the Nestlé Research Center in 2004.

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