Public Health

Chocolate Medicine

Do we need permission for pleasure?


There's something a little sad about the way people latch onto the slightest evidence that the things they enjoy might also be good for their health. Consider how Franz Messerli, a hypertension specialist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, reacted to a study in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association that suggests eating dark chocolate can lower blood pressure. If the result is confirmed, he told the Associated Press, "You can sin with perhaps a little less bad feeling."

I suppose the "sin" Messerli had in mind was consuming calories purely for pleasure. If chocolate has medicinal value, eating it could become, if not virtuous, at least morally neutral.

Yet why must chocolate be redeemed? Like anything, it can be consumed to excess, but enjoying it is not tantamount to gluttony. Unless the pleasure itself is a problem, it's hard to see why chocolate has to be mixed with guilt.

Another possible objection to chocolate is the effect it has on our moods and minds. Chocolate contains a variety of psychoactive substances, including the stimulants caffeine, theobramine, and phenylethylamine. Although the precise mechanism is uncertain, "it is clear that eating chocolate can have significant influences on mood, generally leading to an increase in pleasant feelings and a reduction in tension," says the British food researcher Peter Rogers.

There would be no room for chocolate in a truly "drug-free America." But there's little danger that it will be placed on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, despite its potential for abuse. Everyone knows that chocolate is a food, not a drug.

Even Mormons, who are more consistent when it comes to intoxication than the typical drug warrior is, give chocolate a pass.

The Word of Wisdom–a revelation received by Joseph Smith, according to Mormon tradition, on February 27, 1833–proscribes alcohol, tobacco, and "hot drinks," later interpreted to mean coffee and tea. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that "the message of the Word of Wisdom is to avoid all substances that are harmful to our bodies," and that "drugs are harmful when used outside of specific medicinal purposes."

There has long been controversy over whether the Word of Wisdom applies to caffeinated soft drinks, which many Mormons avoid. But chocolate's psychoactive properties seem to have been overlooked. Despite its "significant influences on mood," chocolate is featured in recipes published by church magazines. In a 1990 article, a church leader recalled sharing chocolate with Masai children while doing missionary work in Kenya; he likened the taste of a chocolate bar to "the taste of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

The JAMA study suggests a way to resolve this apparent contradiction. If "specific medicinal purposes" can include the treatment of depression with Prozac and anxiety with Valium, surely the medical exemption would cover a treatment for high blood pressure. Red wine, despite its life-lengthening potential, presumably is ineligible for this loophole, since the Word of Wisdom specifically bans alcohol.

Still, those of us who do not feel bound by Mormon teaching should not need a medical excuse to enjoy chocolate or wine, whether we're attracted by the taste, the buzz, or a combination of the two. Speaking of combinations, you might want to try them together.