The pods of the tree demand a moist, warm climate to flourish and the temperature it likes best is found within fifteen or twenty degrees of the equator. Inside those precious pods is a pulpy mass containing seeds, and it’s the inside of these seeds that hold the brown kernel treasure with a bitter taste commonly referred to as cocoa beans.
History of Chocolate
Since the cacao trees are indigenous to Central and South America, it’s not surprising to learn that the Olmec people as early as 400BC, and later the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Toltecs, all used the beans. They may have even been used as currency by the Aztecs. Typically these peoples would grind the beans into a paste, add water to thin it, honey to sweeten it, and chilies to spice it. The mixture was then beaten into a froth and served as a drink called xocolatl (pronounced Shoco-latle).
The Spanish explorers introduced the beverage to the continent of Europe and had the monopoly on the drink for almost a hundred years until the Italians reached the West Indies and returned with their own stash. The first chocolate house opened in London in 1657, and was soon followed by dozens more. The first chocolate factory sprung up in 1728 Britain, and the naturalist Linnaeus assigned the Latin name Theobroma Cacao to the fruit of the cacao tree meaning “food of the gods.” After the advent of the chocolate factory, refining the process and creating new products occurred in every major European country and eventually found its way into the United States where the first chocolate factory was established in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1765.
The average American consumes 11.5 pounds of chocolate per year, but that figure is far surpassed by the Swiss, who polish off twice that amount. The addictive quality of chocolate has not gone unnoticed anywhere, and chocolate is the most craved substance in our culture. Word has it that 40 percent of women and 15 percent of men admit to being “chocoholics.”
The Chemistry of Chocolate
With over 400 discrete compounds found in chocolate, researchers take chocolate seriously; many of its chemicals are pharmacological agents affecting brain chemistry. Some of the compounds called “biogenic amines” are related to adrenaline and amphetamine, which have the ability to regulate mood and depression. Modern day addicts of the drug “ecstasy” have been known to develop strong chocolate cravings when trying to wean off their abuse problem.
When broken down, chocolate chemistry is interesting. The sweet and fat within chocolate may directly stimulate brain opiate receptors, the same brain cells that respond to heroin and morphine. And certain fatty acids in the chocolate compound called anandamine are known to activate some of the same receptors that are influenced by marijuana.
The sugar used to sweeten the chocolate is generally table sugar or high fructose corn syrup and has no intrinsic value, but the fat in chocolate does not seem to increase cholesterol levels and, according to one report, may actually cause a drop of bad fat, (triglycerides) and raise the good form of cholesterol (or HDL). There is caffeine in chocolate, but as compared to the 80 mg. found in a regular cup of coffee, the 10 milligrams in a 1.65-oz. bar are minimal. A chemically related compound called theobromine probably enhances the caffeine effect but it’s not likely to keep you up at night.
Women usually crave chocolate during their menstrual cycle primarily because of the hormonal fluctuations inherent in the brain chemistry. It’s these fluctuations that are responsible for triggering fat stores and appetite, making sweet, high-fat foods very attractive. Chocolate is actually a good choice because its indulgence increases serotonin, a chemical regulating depression and mood in the brain. The extra magnesium in chocolate has also been shown to help with other, premenstrual symptoms.
Some other interesting points: Chocolate improves your antioxidant defenses, which helps to fend off the stresses of air pollution, smoking and UV radiation. Those same antioxidants equal those found in most anti-ulcer drugs. And cocoa powder extract is good for cardiovascular health. The most beneficial type is cocoa powder, dark chocolate, followed by milk-flavored. Enjoy!