The COVID-19 pandemic ramifications disrupting our lifestyles have unquestionably been too prominent to pigeonhole in a modest three-year time span.
The near-obsessive reactivity to a perceived urgency to improve immune system health was—and still is—a major theme dominating consumer choice priorities and impacting the entire food industry since 2020.
Another aspect intimately connected to health concerned the pursuit of mental well-being as an element inescapable from the physical one for a swath of consumers noticeably more disposed to a holistic vision of their lifestyle. As a result, it is no coincidence that in the last three years the demand for certain foods has been oriented even more toward a set of qualities functional to the possibility of providing an experience of existential escapism from a reality excessively destabilized by continuous messages of emergencies inducing anxiety and uncertainty as the only constant of our times.
As mental health in the public discourse has evolved from stigmatization to glamorization to normalization to respond to the alarming necessity to manage people’s increased stress from challenging paradigm shifts, nutrition and taste have become pillars of hedonistic well-being.
In particular, food positively uplifting human morale for providing “permissible indulgence” through exciting flavors and intriguing textures with accessible budget elevated its status of being plain “comfort food.” For some, comfort food can be a slice of pizza; for others, it’s ice cream, butter cookies, potato chips, or creme caramel. Even if most of the readily-available comfort foods are unhealthy for their intricacy of ultra-processed ingredients, they raised the rank to better-for-you alternatives in the last years, setting out a trend that COVID-19 just contributed to accommodate and accelerate.
The rationale attracting people to comfort foods today is that having a tasty product is not mutually exclusive of having a product with health beneficial effects.
Chocolate with premium qualities, for instance, represents a “healthy comfort food” people craved particularly during the pandemic. Market research during the pandemic reaffirmed chocolate’s quasi-universal appeal as it found out that most people were tending to chocolate-based treats on a twice a week to an everyday basis.
Viewed as an indulgent reward, mood lifter, energy booster, and the secret to surviving a tough day, people look for a piece of fine chocolate whenever they seek emotional well-being in stressful periods and reap some health benefits from a moderate consumption, especially for the anti-inflammatory fortification of the cardiovascular system.
While classic inclusions like nuts, fruits, and coffee remain big favorites among gourmet chocolate consumers, there’s a subtle but salivating addition that matches chocolate cravings with unaltered success: sea salt.
And it’s not marketing but neuroscience to reveal the tempting nature of sea salt chocolate as a big hit for a broad share of tasters. Opposite to nutty, fruity, and spicy flavors that immediately sound a fit with chocolate meltiness and sweetness, saltiness is an element surprising enough to lure chocolate consumers into something less expected to pair with a product made of cacao mass, cocoa butter, and sugar. The complexity that results from the contrast of salty and sweet notes and textures in sea salt chocolate takes our taste buds to a different level to keep coming back for more.
Specifically, what makes a light pinch of sea salt in chocolate such an irresistible and evergreen addition?
Sea Salt Chocolate has an addictive (engineered) combination of Fat, Sugar, and Salt known as “Bliss Point”
Humans have had a long and beneficial relationship with fat, sugar, and salt that dates back to the species’ origin. Fats of various types represent an energetic reservoir for the body, help absorb essential fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) for health maintenance, and protect against dementia by regenerating brain neurons’ sheath. Sugar provides immediate energy for physical and mental activity, while a little salt is essential for fluid balance.
Over time, food science discovered these three combined ingredients’ magical properties to maneuver and engineer the ideal appetite for soldiers vulnerable to stressful situations like those on the field. As a result of their ability to add a magical twist to a vast array of foods—ranging from fried chips and sliced cheese to savory cookies and extruded snacks—fat, sugar, and salt went to be associated with comforting memories from our youth. In contrast to sensory serendipity, when the triad of fat, sugar, and salt coexists, it acts as a triggered addiction. (If you can recall that iconic slogan ‘Once You Pop, You Can’t Stop,’ you get the perfect idea!)
The addiction elicited by the co-presence of fat, sugar, and salt in foods was first pioneered in the 1950s by American psychophysicist Howard R. Moskowitz, who termed the powerful effect of the three-nutrient combination “bliss point.” The bliss point of processed food is when food reaches the level of being as delicious as possible, yet never running a peak of satisfaction that would stop asking for more. Moskowitz’s work was influenced by his early professional years at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, developing the perfect Meals Ready-to-Eat (MRE) that soldiers would unconsciously finish consuming.
Over the decades, the downside of tricking the bliss point revealed its evil nature for being geared to bring more harm than good to people’s health. As interest and consumption of instantly-rewarding “junk” foods surged, healthier staples such as fresh fruits, seasonal vegetables, and whole grains began to sink, proportionally with the incidence of overweight and obesity increasing at concerning rates. Bliss-point-designed foods have the power to hijack the brain’s reward system by promoting a feel-good release of endorphins and dopamine, thus literally making them an addictive concoction that overrides the sense of satiety as a drug does that of behavioral restraint.
Given the double-edged effects on the circuits of reward response, balanced nutrition without indulgence loss can still strategize the proportions of fat, sugar, and salt in a food to achieve bliss points accustoming the palate—and memory—to acceptably-healthier limits.
High-quality fine chocolate, made with specialty cacao and natural ingredients, could ideally be recognized as a healthy comfort food for the variety of flavor experiences it brings with contained sugar contents and minor gourmet additions like sea salt—alternatively worded as “fleur de sel.”
Fine flavor cacao doesn’t need to be alkalized or added as a powder to chocolate to minimize nasty off-flavors from an uneven and superficial fermentation process because it already contains the most varied bouquet of aromatics, ranging from tropical fruit to nutty, floral, and spicy notes. In comparison to most mass-market products, fine chocolate is not only naturally high in cacao. The cacao used for fine chocolate is harvested and processed with utmost care from farm to bar and in a more ethical trade that incentivizes farmers’ best practices by rewarding a premium typically 2‒5 times greater than the price paid for bulk cacao.
Besides the richer chocolate flavor profile, fine chocolate can count on texture contrasts by adding optional ingredients like sea salt and cacao nibs (the broken pieces of roasted cacao beans before being turned into chocolate.)
Beyond Good Sea Salt Chocolate 63% with Cacao Nibs is one of the most accessible and delicious sea salt chocolate bars you can find. The crispy crunch conferred by the cacao nibs versus the slow melt of the fruity Madagascan cacao in the dark chocolate forms an irresistible contrast, further expanded by sea salt.
(Warning. You would need to first break a few squares and then set aside the rest of the bar before tasting the chocolate, since the “bliss point” combo of flavors and texture could work nonstop as an irresistible addiction!)
In 2021, the American company converted its entire production from an outsourced contractor in Europe to a fully made-at-origin cacao country factory in Madagascar. This line with an old packaging was still made by a renowned company in Lombardy, Italy.
My honest impressions were the chocolate tasted better with the contractor than with the changed operation at the source. The delicate cherry notes of the chocolate were more detectable because the cacao bean roasting was likely better controlled by the more experienced contractor. (Of course, those who can taste only the current product cannot tell the difference if comparison is no longer possible.)
To make things even more enticing than your average bliss point, sea salt may even be declined in different varieties, characterized by a specific origin or flavor. The Artisan Salt Company, for example, provides creative and innovative specialty food makers with a plethora of single-origin or flavored gourmet salts, such as Fine Hawaiian Red, French Fleur de Sel, Mediterranean Sel de Mer, Chardonnay Oak Smoked Fumée de Sel, or Tropical Flower of Bali.
For those sticking to the unflavored and pure thing, adding sea salt to great-tasting chocolate is already a noble inclusion. The first human civilization prized salt as one of the most special seasonings and preservatives to add to food since the dawn of time, dating as far back as 6050 BC.
Used as a part of Egyptian religious offerings and traded between the Phoenicians and their Mediterranean empire, salt and history have been inextricably intertwined for millennia.
The word ‘salary’ is derived from the word ‘salt.’ Salt was highly valued and historically used as a trade and currency method. The term ‘salad’ also originated from ‘salt’ and began with the early Romans seasoning their leafy greens and vegetables. Undeniably, salt’s history is both broad and unique, leaving its indelible mark in cultures across the globe. Salt’s ability to preserve food was a founding contributor to the development of civilization. It helped eliminate dependence on seasonal food availability and made it possible to transport food over large distances.
Of course, it’s not just the addition of salt to its texture that makes chocolate appealing.
A few studies suggest that alongside the merry combination of fat and sugar, some of the hundreds of chemical compounds in chocolate with psychoactive properties—such as anandamide—influence the reward and pleasure centres of the brain.
Anandamide, a neurotransmitter whose name comes from the Sanskrit “ananda” means, not by chance, “joy, bliss, delight”. Anandamides stimulate the brain in much the same way that cannabis does.
Chocolate also contains tyramine and phenylethylamine, which have similar effects to amphetamines, and small traces of theobromine and caffeine, both of which are well-known stimulants.
For a while, food scientists got very excited about the discovery of these substances in chocolate, but it is now known they are present only in trace amounts. Your brain is not going to get much of a chemical rush from eating a few squares. Nonetheless, they may play a small part in seducing our senses, caressing our mood, and letting us indulge in a moment of forgiving pleasure that is beneficial to our overall health.