Adam Kavalier is the founder of Undone Chocolate in Washington D.C., and he also happens to be a plant scientist whom we like to reach out to when we’re trying to understand the compounds in our beans. Here, he explains the mysterious properties of Theobroma cacao, and why a plant would dare to taste so good.
Many plants are a source of nutrition for humans and animals, but some plants are so much more than just that. Some plants taste better than other plants, and some just feel good to eat. And then there is Theobroma cacao, a special plant at the intersection of those two worlds that tastes as good as it makes us feel. But why, if we look at this from an evolutionary perspective, would a plant create compounds that we like to eat, and more so, that make us feel good? What’s in it for the tree?
As far as plants go, Theobroma cacao is especially, unusually rich in compounds that impact the way humans feel and function. While it wouldn’t seem critical for T. cacao to make polyphenols (antioxidants), methylxanthines (stimulants), or biogenic amines—(the neurotransmitters that are released in the brain when we feel good and are in love)—all of these actually play a major role in the way a plant survives.
Plants produce sugars through their remarkable ability to photosynthesize, combining the sun’s energy with carbon dioxide and water to produce energy to survive. This process is the basic foundation for life, and the reason we are all alive and able to live on this green planet (and enjoy chocolate). The synthesis of sugars and other compounds such as amino acids, DNA, and RNA, gives a plant cells the ability to survive on a primary level. These compounds are therefore referred to as primary metabolites.
A second group of compounds that includes polyphenols, methylxanthines, and biogenic amines, are more indirectly associated with survival. These compounds are referred to as secondary metabolites. Plants are sessile, which means they cannot move like many other organisms, and therefore can more easily fall victim to predators that are looking to eat (in the case of animals), or infect (in the case of bacteria or fungus) them in order to fend for themselves.
It has been well documented for centuries that the difference between a medicine and a poison is often a matter of dosage. Many secondary metabolites are bitter and toxic to small plant predators but, luckily for us, can be medicinal in large mammals such as humans. So, while secondary metabolites can provide a defense system for plants against insect and animal predators, they can provide medicinal benefit to animals large enough in proportion to the dosage. It is known that theobromine (the most abundant methylxanthine in chocolate) can increase good cholesterol, or HDL levels, and the polyphenols in chocolate can have a positive impact on the vascular system which controls blood flow and blood pressure.
Although they can be toxic to small animals and plant diseases, the wonderful compounds in chocolate are incidentally good for human health, and have the added bonus of making us feel good and tasting delicious!
Cheers to healthy and tasty craft chocolate that makes you feel good!