Should we be worried about theobromine in chocolate?

Only if you are a dog. Theobromine was first isolated from cacao beans back in 1841, which explains the name. Cacao beans grow on a tree named Theobroma cacao in 1753 by the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus who derived the term from the Greek “Theo” meaning God and “brosi” for food. Linnaeus obviously thought the tree produced the “food of the gods” and many would agree given that cacao beans are of course the source of chocolate. The cacao tree originated in South America and its product was one of the first novelties Christopher Columbus and his crew encountered in the New World. In 1502 he and his men captured a canoe that contained some mysterious looking “almonds.” There’s no evidence that Columbus explored these any further, but Hernan Cortez certainly did. When he met the Montezuma in 1519, Cortez noted the vast quantities of a beverage the Aztec emperor consumed, becoming the first European to experience the consumption of cocoa. It wasn’t long before the cacao beans found their way back to Spain and Spaniards began to enjoy drinks made from the ground up beans, soon followed by chocolate produced from the beans. Chocolate contains hundreds of different compounds, including theobromine which is present to the extent of one to three percent, depending on the type of chocolate. The compound is very similar in molecular structure to caffeine but is not as potent a stimulant. In a purified form it has actually been used as an antihypertensive medication and as a diuretic based on its ability to dilate blood vessels and increase urinary flow. Humans metabolize and eliminate theobromine quite quickly, but dogs and some other animals such as horses do not, meaning it can build up in their system, leading to toxicity. Depending on the size of a dog, 50 to 400 grams can actually be a lethal dose. Cats are also susceptible to theobromine poisoning but since cats do not have taste receptors for sweets they are not likely to consume chocolate.


Joe Schwarcz

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