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Chocolate & Roses

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Aromatic magic...

Box of choclates and bunch of red roses

Whenever a customer takes the lid off a tester pot, their primitive brain kicks into action. The first thing they will do is put the open pot to their nose and smell the cream. Only after having done that will they explore it further, checking texture, permeability and general feel.

Woman sniffing an open pot of cream

In the recent covid outbreak many people lost their sense of smell. As they say: you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. We take it for granted until it’s temporarily absent, and then we realise how perpetual it has been, to the point where we generally overlook it.

Our sense of smell evolved differently to the other four main senses because it was closely tied up with survival. More primitive air-breathing creatures depended on it in order to source food, and to know if something was good to eat or poisonous.

We’ve all experienced the phenomenon of catching a whiff of something that immediately sends us back to childhood – somebody’s perfume; pipe tobacco; a particular cooking smell; even something as basic as the smell of a new pencil! Odour-cued memories are known as the “Proust phenomenon”, since Marcel Proust described his vivid memory of Sunday mornings with his aunt that was triggered by eating a madeleine cake that he’d dipped into a cup of tea, just as he used to do in his childhood.

Diagram showing visual processing pathway

Without getting too technical, our other senses deliver information to the brain through a relay system. When we see, touch, or hear something, signals travel first to the thalamus, which then refers them on to the relevant part of the brain that specialises in processing the sensory information. Eg: when we look at something, information gets sent from the eyes, to the thalamus, which interprets it as visual information, and it then sends it on to the back of the brain where the visual processing centre is.

The sense of smell, however, shortcuts this process. Not only does it not depend on a relay system, but the olfactory (smell) nerve is also the shortest nerve in the head, allowing smell information to travel and be interpreted much faster than any other sensory information. This olfactory info gets split and some of it goes directly to the centre for olfactory processing, while the rest goes directly to the amygdala.

Woman recoiling from a bad smell

The amygdala performs a number of functions, a major role being the detection of danger. It interacts automatically with our fight or flight response, and it is this which is responsible for our dramatic recoil away from horrible smells. The amygdala is also closely linked to our memory centres as we need to recognise and remember information about what is dangerous or safe. It is because of this close relationship that smells can evoke immediate recollections from the past.

Smell and taste are called "chemical senses" because both respond to molecules in the food we eat or in the air we breathe. When we experience the flavour of a food, we are really responding to the food’s taste, and its smell, together. But enough of the complicated stuff! Let’s talk about chocolate...

Solid and molten chocolate

Chocolate or cocoa is a food made from roasted and ground cacao seed kernels that is available as a liquid, solid, or paste” (Wikipedia) The botanical name for the cocoa tree is Theobroma cacao. Theo – meaning God, Broma – meaning food (Greek), therefore Food of the Gods. This implies that even hundreds of years ago cocoa was both valued and revered.

According to a BBC article women crave chocolate twice as much as men do, and despite research into the constituents of cocoa there is no conclusive evidence that explains why chocolate is the most craved food in the West by women before and during menstruation.

One main constituent, Theobromine, has an effect on the nervous system a little like caffeine in that it boosts energy, alertness and cognitive function. It boosts blood flow to the brain, but doesn’t cause the sort of caffeine rush that strong coffee would. As well as this beneficial effect on brain function, chocolate

• Enhances immunity, by being anti-inflammatory and by helping in antibody production

• Reduces blood pressure

• Balances cholesterol

• Supports the lungs and helps to calm respiratory distress

Apart from these good excuses to indulge our guilty pleasure, there are other reasons why chocolate may be such a comfort to us. Firstly, it contains an amino acid called Tryptophan. The more tryptophan we have available the more serotonin we can produce. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in mood regulation and is known to be a key factor in overall mental health. Low levels of serotonin can cause depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health conditions.

Chocolate cake

But to make serotonin from tryptophan we need carbs. So a slice of chocolate cake, (made with organic wholemeal flour of course) will be more effective than a couple of pieces from your favourite bar. Especially as the eggs in your cake recipe also contain tryptophan.

Secondly, alongside tryptophan another beneficial chocolate molecule is Anandamide. This affects the same receptors in the brain that are affected by cannabis, and are linked with endorphin production. An article on calls anandamide the “bliss molecule for happiness & mental balance” and states that chocolate is its no. 1 food source.

So there are numerous reasons for our positive relationship with chocolate. I think I have only come across one person who has told me they categorically dislike it. One or two people say they can take it or leave it, but nearly everyone else expresses … keenness… to a greater or lesser extent, regardless of age or gender.

Toddler enjoying licking the bowl

Truth be told, there’s not a lot of chocolate in New Leaf products! I do use cocoa butter in the Wintergreen Cream as it is more of an ointment, so cocoa butter’s richness contributes to the balm-like texture. I use cocoa butter frequently in soap recipes too. But the main product where it is featured is Choc Chip arnica balm It gives weight and richness to the cream, but - more than that – it offers comfort by way of its chocolatey smell. As mentioned in a previous blog post, wherever possible New Leaf products have light-hearted names that imply that they are good enough to eat. Choc Chip is so called because I created it when I was living in France. The French word for a bump or bang is “Choc”, as in shock. My hands were tied! What more appropriate title could I give a cream that treats bumps, bangs (and more serious physical shocking injuries) than Choc Chip? And what we always need to “make it better” is consolation and comfort. The smell of the cocoa butter actually helps to calm an upset child (of any age ;-) )

A New Scientist article states “Eating a bar of chocolate may cheer you up, but sniffing it calms you down, says a British psychologist. Among several food smells tested, only chocolate had a significant calming effect on the brain.” The smell of chocolate reduces theta brain waves and encourages a sense of calm. This BBC Bitesize article states: “Chocolate has chemical compounds present in it that make us feel good. It releases endorphins in the brain so just the smell can make you feel better.

Valentine's gift of chocolate and roses

Recent German research has shown that the mouth-watering aroma of chocolate is down to the same chemical that contributes to the fragrance of roses. Beta-ionone - found in perfume and essential oils – has only recently been identified in chocolate. Adding all of this up, it’s no co-incidence then, that chocolate and roses are classic gifts that express affection, love and caring.

When we sniff something and experience its scent, we are taking a chemical vapour into our body. These inhaled chemicals trigger brain and body response. There is increasing interest in the use of essential oils in pharmacology. The internet is littered with studies about how essential oil components benefit both the nervous system and various bodily functions. An advantage of inhaling your medicine is that it doesn’t get digested and then broken down by the liver, it can access parts of the body far more directly and far more intact. In the quest for treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, research is ongoing into how oils such as rosemary benefit the memory centres of the brain and help with mental acuity. Rosemary is an essential (pardon the pun) ingredient in the New Leaf spot-on: “Inspire”, a blend of oils known for their ability to focus the mind.

Dr Chris Van Tulleken, from "Trust Me I’m a Doctor" fame, has written a feature on rosemary and generously states: “Traditional healing practices weren't all quackery. Modern medicine of the kind I practise in London may have many sophisticated treatments but it comes with side effects and can leave people feeling disempowered. We have spent many years rubbishing alternative treatments but there is, I believe, a real benefit in allowing people to take control of their own health with treatments that make them feel better - even if we haven't been able to prove how.

So again, my mantra: don’t underestimate the power of nature! We take the idea of natural fragrances as being something common or garden… Yet the beautiful scent of a rose is the result of up to 300 volatile compounds. That’s quite miraculous! Engaging with flowers – how they look and how they smell - can stimulate the production of several chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin in our brains. These are the ‘happy’ chemicals. I’ve mentioned serotonin above, and most of us are familiar with dopamine, but oxytocin is also very important for our sense of wellbeing. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘bonding hormone’ or even the ‘cuddle chemical’. That’s because oxytocin creates the feeling of trust and love. When we smell a rose, we trigger the same chemicals in our brain as when we are in love. No wonder the red rose has been the symbol of love since time immemorial.

Single watercolour rose

Lesley King

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Fascinating blog as always. Explains so much......


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