Love Trees

Generally speaking, I love trees, even those I must admire from a distance, such as the love-tree, a.k.a. the cacao, Theobroma cacao, from which chocolate is derived. Not only is chocolate associated with romance—most notably on Valentine’s Day—it can potentially help us feel more lovey-dovey thanks to some of the chemicals the tree produces.

Native to Central America, the cacao tree grows almost exclusively within about twenty degrees latitude either side of the equator—in other words, where most of us wish we were in mid-February. The seeds of the cacao have been ground up and made into a drink known by its Native American (generally believed to be Nahuatl) name, chocolate, for perhaps as many as 4,000 years.

The cacao is a small tree, about 15-25 feet tall, in the family Malvaceae, the same family to which hibiscus and okra belong. I have to wonder if there is a recipe somewhere which incorporates all three elements. Our beloved love-tree bears seed pods measuring between 6 and 12 inches long, and packed around the 30 to 40 cacao beans in each pod is a sweet gooey pulp, which historically was also consumed. After harvest, cacao beans go through a fermentation process before being dried and then milled into powder.

Prior to European contact, chocolate was a frothy, bitter drink often mixed with chilies and cornmeal. Mayans and Aztecs drank it mainly for its medicinal properties—more on that later. In the late 1500s, a Spanish Jesuit who had been to Mexico descried chocolate as being “Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant [to] taste.” It’s understandable, then, that it was initially slow to take off in Europe.

Chocolate became wildly popular, though, after brilliant innovations such as adding sugar and omitting cornmeal. Another reason for its meteoric rise in demand is that people noticed it had pleasant effects. One of these is similar to that of tea or coffee. There isn’t much caffeine in chocolate, but it has nearly 400 known constituents, and many of these compounds are uppers.

Chief among them is theobromine, which has no bromine—go figure. It is a chemical sibling to caffeine, and its name supposedly derives from the Greek for “food of the gods.” Even if people knew that it more closely translates to “stink of the gods,” it is unlikely that would put a damper on chocolate consumption.

These days, chocolate is recognized as a potent antioxidant, but throughout the ages it has had a reputation for being an aphrodisiac. I assume this explains the tradition of giving chocolate to one’s lover on Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, and other events. Chocolate may not always live up to its rumored powers, but another stimulant it contains, phenylethylamine (PEA), may account for its repute.

Closely related to amphetamine, PEA facilitates the release of dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical in the brain’s reward center. Turns out that when you fall in love, your brain is practically dripping with dopamine. Furthermore, at least three compounds in chocolate mimic the effects of marijuana. They bind to the same receptors in our brains as tetrahydrocannabanol or THC, the active ingredient in pot, releasing more dopamine and also serotonin, another brain chemical associated with happiness.

Don’t be alarmed at this news—these dopamine-enhancing effects are quite minimal compared to what pharmaceutical drugs can do, and it is perfectly OK to get behind the wheel after a cup of hot cocoa. Ingesting chocolate has never impaired my ability to operate heavy machinery, at least not the way my lack of training has.

Most people would agree that chocolates are no substitute for love, but their natural chemical effects may be why romance and chocolate are so intertwined. Well, that and marketing, I suppose.

Dogs cannot metabolize theobromine very well, and even a modest amount of chocolate, especially dark, can be toxic to them. This is one reason you shouldn’t get your dog a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day, no matter how much you love them. And assuming it is spayed or neutered, your pooch couldn’t benefit from any of chocolate’s other potential effects anyway.

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