Theobromine

Theobromine is a mildly stimulating alkaloid, commonly found in chocolate and cocoa. If you’re a chocolate lover, you’ll be interested to know that theobromine is what provides that pleasing bitter taste to dark chocolate. Both theobromine and caffeine belong to a class of substances known as methylxanthines, which can have stimulant effects on the central nervous system.

Theobromine, a molecule found in chocolate, cocoa products and tea, was discovered in the 1840s in cocoa beans. Despite its name, theobromine doesn’t contain bromine but consists of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. The name originates from “Theobroma,” a genus named by biologists exploring Central and South America, meaning “food of the gods” in Greek. As an alkaloid, theobromine shares the “ine” suffix common to similar compounds, indicating its nitrogen content.

While theobromine is harmful to dogs and potentially dangerous for cats due to their inability to efficiently process it, humans can usually consume chocolate and tea safely in moderation.

Examining LD50 values, which represent the “Lethal Dose-50 percent” or the dose lethal to 50% of a population, reveals that theobromine poses a greater risk to certain species than to humans. This measurement, typically expressed in milligrams of the substance per kilogram of body weight, shows that theobromine’s LD50 for humans is approximately 1000 mg/kg. In contrast, for cats, it’s 200 mg/kg and for dogs, it’s 300 mg/kg, indicating that these animals are significantly more vulnerable to theobromine poisoning than humans.

Not all alkaloids, which include a vast array of plant molecules, are harmful; some, like quinine, are beneficial and even essential for treating conditions like malaria. However, in large doses, theobromine can cause mild effects in humans such as sweating and headaches. It’s also been explored as a method for controlling coyote populations. While theobromine and phenylethylamine contribute to chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac, their effects on the heart rate are similar to those of caffeine or cocaine, indicating the complexity and varied impact of these compounds.

The theobromine content in chocolate varies by type with dark chocolate having the highest concentration due to its greater cocoa solid content, ranging from 500 to 1,000 milligrams per 100 grams. Dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa can contain up to 1,000 milligrams of theobromine per 100 grams and this amount increases with the cocoa content, potentially reaching even higher levels in chocolates with 90% or above cocoa. Milk chocolate contains significantly less theobromine, about 150 to 200 milligrams per 100 grams, because of its lower cocoa solid percentage, making it sweeter and less bitter. White chocolate, on the other hand, has negligible to no theobromine as it’s made from cocoa butter without cocoa solids. While these figures offer a general guideline, the exact theobromine content can vary between different brands and products, so checking packaging for precise information is advised. White chocolate, although low in theobromine, tends to have higher sugar and fat content.

Evidence suggests that excessive chocolate intake can lead to discomfort due to theobromine content. The National Hazardous Substances Database indicates that consuming large quantities of theobromine can lead to nausea and loss of appetite. Ingesting 50-100 grams of cocoa, equivalent to 0.8-1.5 grams of theobromine, may result in symptoms like sweating, trembling and intense headaches. There have been instances, primarily involving older individuals, where hospital care was necessary to treat reactions to theobromine.

There is a lack of solid research to confirm that theobromine or chocolate enhances mood or libido. Summarizing the findings from multiple research labs, one journal article states, “The mood-enhancing effects of chocolate consumption are short-lived,” while another suggests, “These substances might positively affect sexual health and function both directly and indirectly. However, controlled studies are necessary to verify these theories.”

So, next time you enjoy a piece of dark chocolate, remember that the slightly bitter taste is thanks to the theobromine content.

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