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Gratifying delusions (like that we're in touch with "reality") are so addictive, we tend to hang onto them no matter what they cost us.

Slaves to Chocolate

What makes chocolate addictive isn't what you think

My fondness for Lindt's "Excellence" chile chocolate (LECC) began harmlessly enough, but lately I find myself in its grip. By "in its grip," I mean that when the grocery down the block ran out of LECC bars, I walked six blocks to the next potential source, and panicked when I couldn't find a single chile-infused confection on either side of the store's six-by-seven-foot wall-o'-chocolate shelves. The next time I stumbled upon a cache -- at a Rite Aid in Upstate New York - I bought four.

I routinely order myself to limit my intake to one square (50 calories) a day, as I used to do. But these days I just as routinely disobey myself. Six squares have been known to happen, or sort-of-known, because I have partially blocked the memory, six squares being 300 calories, the equivalent of an entire meal if you're dieting, which I pretend to myself I am, delusional me. So, I'm obliged to wonder: do I have a bad low-end gourmet chocolate habit that I can break by force of will, or am I enslaved by chocolate's merciless molecules, out of control, beyond responsibility, in some sort of denial?

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My first defense is the popular notion that chocolate is somehow good for you. After all, raw cocoa, minimally processed, is being touted by many as a health food because of its anti-oxidants. In the stuff I like, however, most of those friendly flavonoids have been processed out, as has cocoa's phenylethylamine (PEA),the chemical made famous by brains in love. Nor is the cocoa content of my beloved LECC likely to contain enough anandamide a component of cocoa that some believe will stimulate my THC receptors enough to get me zonked.

It's certain that I'm not craving the lead that contaminates most of the world's cocoa. So what in this particular chocolate bar that makes me love it so?

Does its chile extract stimulate me to produce endorphins? The heat of these bars on the Scoville index can't be higher than an Anaheim's 500-1,000 units, and it takes at least a 5,000 unit Jalapeno to give me a blip, never mind a buzz.

Is chocolate's serotonin-precursor, tryptophan---the amino acid for which Thanksgiving turkeys are somewhat unjustly notorious---providing a calming effect?

If I'm hoping that the tryptophan in chocolate is going to buoy me up, it's bound to be counteracted by the depressing truth: Of all the supposedly "addictive" ingredients of the sort of chocolate most of us savor, the biggest hook is sugar. When carbs stimulate the pancreas to secrete insulin, amino acids that compete with tryptophan scoot off into muscle cells, making the concentration of tryptophan in the bloodstream relatively higher, and that's what's boosting the chocoholic's serotonin-a sugar rush.

But from what I can glean from my research, the most drug-like action of chocolate isn't due to its chemical after-glow. Wired by my thousands of years on the African veldt, I am programmed to thrill to sugar and fat. And the neurochemistry of that thrill itself, as researchers (and their captive lab rats) are finding, can create a little vortex of moral incontinence all its own. I've been surfing that vortex a little too much lately, but while I've been in denial, all right, it hasn't been about my chocolate problem. I've been in denial about my role in other people's chocolate problems.

I know what's going on in the cocoa plantations of Africa: the enslavement of children, the heinous work conditions, the theft of young people's hopes, and I find it so painful that I turn to chocolate to distract myself from the suffering I exacerbate when I buy the stuff. It's that ethical duplicity, and not some trace molecules in my THC receptors, which makes my chocolate habit more than a captive lab rat's sugar-fat addiction.

So, holiday weight-control dieting aside, after I've polished off the three bars I bought between drafting and posting this, I'm going on a slave labor diet. I'm looking forward to the self-righteous rush I'll get from sticking to Fair Trade or organic. I promise to resist any impulse to reward myself with the purchase of blood diamonds. And, as I go into chile chocolate withdrawal, I'll be in the ideal state in which to tell you what those pleasure-crazed captive lab rats have been up to.

Lynn Phillips is the author of Self-Loathing for Beginners. She has written (sometimes as "Maggie Cutler") for a variety of publications, from The Nation to T Magazine. more...

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