Why Do We Crave Chocolate?

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Getty Images

If you’re like most people, you simply can’t pass up the opportunity to partake in a piece of chocolate (or five). Some have even said that chocolate melting on the tongue is better than a kiss. But why do we love chocolate so much?

Our cravings can be traced to two places: Our guts—studies have shown that chocolate lovers have different bacteria in their intestines than non-chocolate lovers—and our brains. We crave chocolate because eating it results in the production of opioids, which dull pain and increase levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward system that helps us experience pleasure. (Drugs like cocaine and amphetamines work directly on the dopamine system.)

Chocolate can have many health benefits in moderation, but often, people can’t stop popping truffles—and scientists might know why. In a recent study, researchers working with rats injected a drug directly into the neostriatum, a region of the brain primarily associated with movement. When the rats began to eat M&Ms, a naturally occurring chemical produced in that region of the brain, called enkephalin, surged, increasing the rats’ desire to eat the candies. The animals ate twice the number of M&Ms they would have eaten normally.

Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, a researcher at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor who ran the study, says this same area is active when obese people see food, or when drug users take in a drug scene. “This means that the brain has more extensive systems to make individuals want to overconsume rewards than previously thought,” she said. "It seems likely that our enkephalin findings in rats mean that this neurotransmitter may drive some forms of overconsumption and addiction in people."

When the French Village of Pont-Saint-Esprit Went Temporarily Mad

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iStock

On August 15, 1951, dozens of people became terribly ill in Pont-Saint-Esprit, a quaint commune in the south of France. In the days that followed, hundreds more joined them. They complained of nausea and stomach pain, weak blood pressure and faint pulses, cold sweats and low temperatures. Worst of all, everybody had insomnia and smelled. “A state of giddiness persisted accompanied by abundant sweating and a disagreeable odour,” reported the British Medical Journal [PDF]. People would compare the stench to the fragrance of dead mice.

For hundreds of victims, that’s where the inexplicable mass illness stopped. For others, it was only the beginning. Dozens upon dozens of people began experiencing nightmarish hallucinations.

The town became gripped in pandemonium. A little girl screamed as she was chased by man-eating tigers. A woman sobbed about how her children had been ground into sausages. A large man fended off terrific beasts by smashing his furniture. A husband and wife ran around, chasing each other with knives. Even the local animals had gone mad: A dog chewed on stones until its teeth chipped away. Ducks began marching like penguins.

Everywhere, people ran wildly as they tried to avoid imaginary flames. One man, convinced that red snakes were devouring his brain, jumped out of a window. Another reportedly leapt from a window, broke both legs, stood up, and continued running.

Outside, a local postal worker complained that he was shrinking. A person sprinted down the lane, claiming he was being chased by “bandits with donkey ears.” Near the Rhône river, a man—convinced that he was a circus tightrope walker—attempted to balance his way across the cables of a suspension bridge. Another tried to jump into the river, only to be saved by friends. “I am dead and my head is made of copper and I have snakes in my stomach and they are burning me!” he yelled [PDF].

(Not everybody was having a bad experience. Some people, according to The New York Times, “heard heavenly choruses, saw brilliant colors … the world looked beautiful to them.” It was an especially productive experience for the head of the local farmers' co-op, who began writing hundreds upon hundreds of pages of luminous poetry.)

But overall, the scene was apocalyptic. “I have seen healthy men and women suddenly become terrorized, ripping their bed sheets, hiding themselves beneath their blankets to escape hallucinations,” the mayor of Pont-Saint-Esprit, Albert Hébrard, said. Asylums were filled with people wrapped in straitjackets and tied to beds. According to the British Medical Journal, “Every attempt at restraint increased the agitation.”

By the time the mass illness had subsided, approximately 300 people had been in some way affected. At least four died. In the immediate aftermath, the outbreak was blamed on … bread [PDF].

The summer of 1951 was especially wet, and ergot fungi grew all over the country's rye fields. Tainted grains were sourced back to the Roch Briand bakery, where a miller had used fungus-contaminated flour, causing widespread poisoning. The last time ergotism—or what's colorfully known as Saint Anthony’s Fire—had reportedly struck France, it was 1816.

Today, ergot poisoning remains the most commonly accepted explanation of what happened in Pont-Saint-Esprit, though there have been competing theories. Just weeks after the incident, the president of France’s miller’s union, Pierre Jacob, refused to acknowledge the ergot explanation, Reuters reported. Jacob argued that ergot was always present in French flour and, therefore, could not be responsible. To prove his point, he offered to eat ergot-tainted bread in front of a group of experts [PDF]. (There's no record of whether he actually completed the stunt.)

Other theories blamed mercury, fungicide, and various other types of fungus. Some people claimed it was the water used to make the bread, and not the grain, that had been infected.

And, of course, there are conspiracy theories.

In 2009, writer Hank P. Albarelli Jr. claimed that he found a fishy document belonging to the CIA. It contained this label: “Re: Pont-Saint-Esprit and F. Olson Files. SO Span/France Operation file, inclusive Olson. Intel files. Hand carry to Belin—tell him to see to it that these are buried.”

According to the BBC, Frank Olson was a CIA scientist researching LSD; David Belin was executive director of the White House commission investigating the CIA's abuses. Were these men connected to the Pont-Saint-Esprit poisoning? Was it some kind of hidden CIA LSD experiment? Or was the CIA—which was certainly studying psychoactive substances at the time—simply curious about what had happened in southern France?

Steven L. Kaplan, a bread historian at Cornell University, who wrote extensively about the fallout from the outbreak in a French-language tome titled The Cursed Bread, doesn’t buy into the CIA conspiracy theory. LSD, he says, was an unlikely culprit; the symptoms suffered by residents don't match those caused by the hallucinogen. But he’s not convinced that ergot was the cause, either.

Which raises the question: If not ergot or LSD, then what happened in Pont-Saint-Esprit in the summer of 1951?

The Most Popular Halloween Candy in Each State

If you've ever argued that no one actually likes candy corn, you're probably not from Alabama, Iowa, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, or Rhode Island. The controversial confection is a favorite treat among residents in those states, according to sales data from online candy retailer CandyStore.com.

As they've done for more than a decade, the bulk candy retailer combed through 11 years of data (with a particular focus on the months leading up to All Hallows' Eve) to gauge America’s top-selling sweets. They created the interactive map below to display their results.

Source: CandyStore.com.

In addition to the divisive—yet classic—candy corn, Skittles, M&Ms, Snickers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Starburst were among the nation's favorite candies. Hot Tamales, Tootsie Pops, Jolly Ranchers, and Sour Patch Kids have all earned some candy lovers' devotion, too.

Some states are unique in their top candy choices: Mississippi was the only state to name 3 Musketeers the best, while Connecticut opted for Almond Joy and West Virginia showed their love of Blow Pops. Meanwhile, trick-or-treaters in Kentucky have a sweet tooth for Swedish Fish, Louisianans love Lemonheads, and Delawareans would die for Life Savers.

After seeing which treat is number one in your state, check out the chart below to learn how many pounds of each top-ranking candy are consumed in each state (and then go buy a new toothbrush).

Source: CandyStore.com

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