Pleasure in its darkest form

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The Independent Online
The word ``addiction'' has gone through some strange phases in our time. When I was growing up in London, one knew, socially, rather more addicts than one meets today. Perfectly polite ladies and professional men doped themselves moderately on laudanum or tincture of opium; the fast set had cocaine, and in between were the usual drunks.

My father, an abstemious athlete, and my mother, innocent of any vice, were of necessity exposed to a normal cross-section of London life and were reasonably tolerant of sin. It certainly would not have occurred to them to talk about an ``addiction'' to smoking or chocolate.

Now we can be ``addicted'' to almost anything. As far as I am concerned, however, the only dangerous thing we are addicted to is medicine. So-called chocolate ``addiction'' has to be one of the finest examples of pure scientific nonsense ever propagated. Chocolate is a perfectly healthy foodstuff. It does not constipate, it does not cause spots or headaches, it does not add to ``bad'' cholesterol. It is a pleasure to eat, gives a quick energy fix and, like many other pleasures of life, it does you far more good than ill.

I do not think anyone would thrive on a diet of pure chocolate, but then I do not think anyone would thrive on a diet of pure coffee, either, or carrots. This said, there are many different types of chocolate.

About half the world's production of cocoa beans comes from Africa. South America provides about a quarter. There are three basic varieties: the Forastero, which accounts for three-quarters of world production; the Trinitario (some 20 per cent) and the Criollo from Central America (between 5 and 10 per cent), which is of the highest quality. To make chocolate, the beans are removed from their husks, allowed to ferment for two to seven days and dried. The dried beans are processed by roasting (as with coffee) and mixed with sugar, then blended for between 12 and 50 hours.

More important than the process, however, and accounting for the different tastes of various chocolates, is the proportion of fat (cocoa butter which is extracted from the beans) and dry beans. To be defined as chocolate (white chocolate is not chocolate, but sugar and cocoa butter), chocolate must contain minimums of 14 per cent of dry beans and 18 per cent of cocoa butter.

Superfine chocolate must have 43 per cent of dry beans (which give most of the flavour), while dark or bitter chocolate contains over 59 per cent. Milk chocolate contains 25 per cent cocoa beans and 55 per cent or more sugar. The greater proportion of dry beans, and the higher the percentage of the best cocoa beans, the stronger the chocolate.

I have strong prejudices about chocolate. Not having a sweet tooth, I am not a big consumer, and I am positively unable to eat milk chocolate. I do not think this kind of chocolate is any more ``addictive'' than any other, but we British, with our Europe-high sweet consumption, and children in general take more kindly to blended, ultra-sweet chocolate than to the real thing with its sharp, indeed pungent, taste.

To revert to my original argument, there is a vast difference between a ``craving'' for any pleasurable substance - a chocolate, a cup of coffee, a cigarette, a drink - and an ``addiction''. The craving is generally stimulated by stress, and many pleasurable substances are not only effective in dealing with stress far more quickly and economically than many other means, but may actually, as a result, enhance performance by increasing concentration and reducing fatigue. An ``addiction', by definition, is habituating: the body, used to taking tranquillisers, finds them less and less effective. Withdrawal is painful and often leads to undesirable side-effects.

The ``risk'' of chocolate addiction is just about nil. The main risk in any kind of indulgence is to the income and political power of puritans, who dislike pleasure in any form.