Is chocolate an aphrodisiac?

Dear Cecil: Help me before my love life becomes even more messed up. When chocolate became a mini-craze not too long ago, I heard several times that “chocolate contains some of the same chemicals that the human brain produces when you’re in love.” First of all, O all-knowing one, is this true? And if so, what is the practical effect? Might shrewdly feeding it to my date increase my chances? Please let me know quickly; I’ve got a hot one lined up for Saturday night. Tom R., Hollywood, California


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

So you figure this is the real story behind Hershey’s kisses, huh? It all started a number of years ago with a theory proposed by two doctors at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Donald F. Klein and Michael R. Liebowitz. They suggested that the brain of a person in love or otherwise feeling groovy contains large quantities of phenylethylamine, a chemical that supposedly produces an amphetaminelike high. Chocolate, it turns out, also contains a lot of phenylethylamine, so Klein and Liebowitz whimsically suggested that maybe people like chocolate so much because it makes them feel like they’re in love. Please note that we are not talking about an aphrodisiac or sexual stimulant here. You have fallen prey to the typical male assumption that love equals sex. (Then again, I suppose if you fed your date some Hershey bars she might imagine that she had fallen in love with you, making her more receptive to your amorous advances. Worth a try, I guess.)

Other research has failed to confirm the Klein-Liebowitz hypothesis. One study found that phenylethylamine levels in the blood failed to rise after people consumed chocolate, suggesting that most of the chemical is metabolized during digestion and never reaches the brain. Klein and Liebowitz therefore set about doing another study, the results of which I will pass along when they become available.

The preceding notwithstanding, chocolate is still considered to be mildly addictive, in the same sense that coffee, tea, and cola drinks are, because it contains the stimulant caffeine. In Chocolate to Morphine: Understanding Mind-Active Drugs, Andrew Weil passes along the testimony of one hapless choco-addict who “could not remember the last time I had managed to get through the whole day without eating chocolate in one form or another. … I would think nothing of getting in my car and driving halfway across LA for a fix.” Eventually she went to a clinic where they gave her electric shocks while she was chewing choco-bits. Not surprisingly, this eventually broke her of the habit. Delighted, she now reports that “the only problem is, I am now addicted to cake.” Clearly, this woman has a problem.

Cecil Adams

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