(And How Do They Contribute to Flavor?)
The chemistry of chocolate goes beyond fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Chocolate contains hundreds of nutrients, minerals, and compounds which make it tasty, and maybe a bit addictive.
Different types of chocolate are made with slightly different ingredients, but all chocolate finds its base in cacao beans. White chocolate’s base is in only the fat of cacao beans— cocoa butter— while milk and dark chocolate both use whole cacao beans in their recipes. Cocoa butter accounts for over half the weight of a cacao bean, and is made up of fatty acids, over 95% of which are oleic acid, stearic acid, and palmitic acid.
Compounds in Cocoa Solids
Chocolate also contains hundreds of chemical compounds, some of which react within the human brain to alter mood. These include:
Theobromine: Theobromine is a bitter chemical which widens the blood vessels, stimulates the heart, and acts as a mild diuretic; found in small amounts in cacao. Structurally the theobromine molecule is very similar to caffeine, and has similar effects.
Phenylethylamine: A bitter chemical which stimulates the body to make mood-altering drugs; often credited for chocolate’s uplifting effect.
Caffeine: A bitter chemical with similar structure to theobromine, with stimulant and slight anti-inflammatory properties; found in very small amounts in cacao.
Cannabinoid Receptor Activators: Chocolate contains three compounds which stimulate the production of anandamide, which binds to and activates cannabinoid receptors.
Beyond bodily and hormonal stimulants, cacao also contains salts made with metals, such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron. These essential minerals may be present in small amounts, but they add up when you’re consuming chocolate with high cacao percentage.
How Do Compounds in Chocolate Contribute to Flavor?
Beyond the compounds found in cacao, it’s important to consider how the addition of sweeteners affects chocolate. Many of the compounds found in chocolate are bitter, which the brain associated with poison, making them unpleasant to eat. Sugar balances out those flavors, freeing the brain to focus on the hundreds of other compounds contributing to chocolate’s complex flavors.
Most chocolate contains a sweetener, usually some form of cane sugar, and those sugar molecules are also smoothed out and enveloped by cocoa butter during the conching process. Using a non-traditional sweetener, such as sugar alcohols or stevia powder, changes the composition and mouthfeel of the chocolate, sometimes making it taste sweeter. Erythritol in particular has a cooling effect in the mouth, which changes how you experience a chocolate’s flavor. With so many compounds in chocolate, it’s not possible for one chemical to completely dominate chocolate’s flavor more than sugar.