Chocolate! The name brings memories of a sugary and scrumptious sweet in your mouth. Each and every person in the world, whatever be his age or his sex, loves the delicious sin.
Whether whipped into an ethereal mousse or baked in your favorite oatmeal cookie, chocolate desserts can be elegant or homey, dressed up or dressed down. Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with nibbling it by the bar, just the way it is!
There are few foods that evoke as much passion as this decadent treat. Folklore from many cultures claimed that consuming chocolate instilled faith, health, strength, and sexual passion. Once an indulgence of royalty, it is now a treasured and accessible – and yes, even a healthy treat. So where did our infatuation with chocolate begin?
Chocolate has been described as being more than a food, less than a drug. This description points to the singular position this wildly popular confection plays in our lives. Popular to the tune of $74 billion annually, chocolate begins as a tiny blossom on a small tropical tree. Only three out of a thousand of these will produce the cacao pods that after a labor intensive and lengthy journey, with several chemically and technically complex steps along the way, will end up in your hand as a candy bar.
The oldest records related to chocolates date back to somewhere around 1500-2000 BC. The high rainfall, soaring temperatures and great humidity of Central American rain forests created the perfect climate for the cultivation of the Cacao Tree. During that time, the Mayan civilization used to flourish in that region. Mayan people worshipped Cacao Tree, believing it to be of divine origin. They also used to roasted and pounded seeds of the tree, with maize and Capsicum (Chili) peppers, to brew a spicy, bittersweet drink. The drink was consumed either in ceremonies or in the homes of the wealthy and religious elite.
Chocolate comes from the seeds of the Cacao tree. The cacao tree is indigenous to tropical rainforest environments. Although it is thought that cacao originated in South America, cacao was first produced and used in Mesoamerican regions of Mexico, Belize, Honduras, & Guatemala, as well as Oaxaca Valley and Valley of Mexico.
The cacao tree was named by the 17th century Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus. The Greek term theobroma means literally “food of the gods”. Chocolate has also been called the food of the devil; but the theological basis of this claim is obscure.
Cacao’s scientific name is Theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods.” The word cacao has been reconstructed back to approximately 1000 BC. Maya called it kakaw and appears as a loan word in their language between 400 BC – AD 100. The Maya are believed to have borrowed the word from Izapan culture; an Olmec influenced culture located on the Pacific Slope of Chiapas, in the rich cacao-producing region of the Soconusco, on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, during this time period. Aztec called it cacahuatl. The origin of the Aztec word “chocolate” is thought to be derived from the Classical Nahuatl word xocolātl meaning “bitter water.”
Everything about the tree is just as colorful as its history. An evergreen, the cacao tree has large glossy leaves that are red when young and green when mature. Overlays of clinging moss and colorful lichens are often found on the bark of the trunk, and in some areas beautiful small orchids grow on its branches. The tree sprouts thousands of tiny waxy pink or white five-petaled blossoms that cluster together on the trunk and older branches. But, only 3 to 10 percent will go on to mature into full fruit.
The cacao tree is very delicate and sensitive. It needs protection from the wind and requires a fair amount of shade under most conditions. This is true especially in its first two to four years of growth.
To truly study the history of chocolate is to embark upon an extraordinary journey through time and geographical space. The chocolate story spans a vast period from remote antiquity through the 21st century. Historical evidence for chocolate use appears on all continents and in all climes, from tropical rain forests to the icy reaches of the Arctic and Antarctic.
The story of chocolate is associated with millions of persons, most unknown, but some notables including economists, explorers, kings, politicians, and scientists. Perhaps, no other food, with the exception of wine, has evoked such curiosity regarding its beginnings, development, and global distribution. But there is a striking difference: wine is a forbidden food to millions globally because of its alcohol content but chocolate can be enjoyed and savored by all.
A Frenchman reputedly opened the first chocolate house in Europe in London in 1657. Then, in the early 19th century, after the introduction of cocoa powder in 1828, the English developed solid eating chocolate. Richard Cadbury introduced the first chocolate box in 1868, when he decorated a candy box with a painting of his young daughter holding a kitten in her arms.
Cadbury also introduced the first Valentine’s Day candy box.
In 1875, after experimenting for 8 years, Daniel Peter of Switzerland added milk to chocolate to create today’s familiar chocolate. He then sold his creation to his neighbor, Henri Nestle.
The 17th century French Cardinal Mazarin never traveled without his personal chocolate maker. King Louis XIV of France established in his court the position of “Royal Chocolate Maker to the King.” M&M sweets were launched in military ration packs in 1940.
But not all countries are able to enjoy the sweet taste of chocolate equally. There is a profound dichotomy between those nations that extract the raw materials and those who indulge in the finished product.
The reality exists that the processing and consumption of chocolate products is Western World dominated.
However, over the centuries chocolate has evolved into a universal taste sensation enjoyed by millions of people every day.
Chocolate contains over five hundred different flavors – over two and one half time more than any other food known to humankind.
It is said that the word ‘Cacao’ was corrupted by the early European explorers and turned into ‘Cocoa’.
Cacao beans were used by the Aztecs to prepare a hot, frothy beverage with stimulant and restorative properties. Chocolate itself was reserved for warriors, nobility and priests. The Aztecs esteemed its reputed ability to confer wisdom and vitality. Taken fermented as a drink, chocolate was also used in religious ceremonies. The sacred concoction was associated with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility. Emperor Montezuma allegedly drank 50 goblets a day.
In fact, Cacao beans were considered to be so prized by Aztecs that they started using it as a type of currency. Aztec taxation was levied in cacao beans. 100 cacao beans could buy a slave. 12 cacao beans bought the services of courtesan.
They also made a drink, similar to the one made by Mayans, and called it ‘Xocolatl’, the name, which was later, corrupted to ‘Chocolat’, by Spanish conquistadors.
Chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac started when Cortes and the Spanish Conquistadores in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan discovered the drink in Montezuma’s palace. The Spanish documented Montezuma’s habit of drinking frothy chocolate from golden goblets, about 40 at a feast, then visiting his harem.
Thoughtful theorists, such as Michael & Sophie Coe (leading academics and authors of THE TRUE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE) believe the connection between chocolate and sex related to nourishment and stamina rather than a chemical reaction specifically affecting arousal and performance.
The pleasant feeling of eating chocolate is caused by a chemical called anadamide, a neurotransmitter that also is produced naturally in the brain.
Both men and women crave chocolate, but far more women than men experience chocolate cravings. Why do women crave chocolate more than men? Chocolate cravings may be linked to low blood sugar, stress or changing hormonal levels prior to a woman’s menstrual cycle.
The stereotype that women are crazy about chocolate has become virtually axiomatic. Many women happily propagate the idea that chocolate is feminine fare: Bookstores teem with cocoa-themed titles written by and geared toward women, be they heartwarming (Chocolate for a Woman’s Soul), prescriptive (The Chocolate Lovers’ Diet), or sardonic (Give the Bitch Her Chocolate).
Profiles of female celebrities routinely feature confessions of chocoholism—or at least occasional indulgences in the dark stuff. Even women who are keenly aware of stereotypes and double standards have a soft spot for chocolate; feminist blogs Jezebel and the Hairpin regularly feature posts on chocolate, with varying degrees of tongue-in-cheekness. So, where did this stereotype come from?
From the very first time chocolate was “discovered: in the New World it has been associated with sex. And quite rightly so.
Sex and chocolate are the nearest we’ll get to heaven while still alive. Both of them lift our mood, calm our restless passions, lift our spirits and make us happy, and generally enhance our well being. Without them we are lesser beings. And just imagine combining the two of them!
Like other palatable sweet foods, consumption of chocolate triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s endogenous opiates. Enhanced endorphin-release reduces the chocolate-eater’s sensitivity to pain. Endorphins probably contribute to the warm inner glow induced in susceptible chocoholics. This sensation explains why chocolate gifts are a great way to bring joy to a loved one.
Arguably the food with the greatest impact on mood is chocolate. Eating chocolate makes you feel good, because it increases levels of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that is responsible for feelings of well being and enhanced mood. Many women experience lowered serotonin levels in the 7 to 10 days prior to their menstrual periods, which is one reason why premenstrual women often have powerful cravings for chocolate.
Those who crave chocolate tend to do so when they feel emotionally low. High levels of stress can also make women and men crave chocolate, since increasing serotonin levels can also lead to significant reductions in anxiety. Chocolate is a popular comfort food. Emotional eaters choose it, since eating it can raise serotonin levels and help comfort eaters forget about emotional or other problems, low self-esteem or mildly depressed mood.
There have been a series of suggestions that chocolate’s mood elevating properties reflect ‘drug- like’ constituents including anadamide, caffeine, phenylethylamine and magnesium.
However, the levels of these substances are so low as to preclude such influences. As all palatable foods stimulate endorphin release in the brain this is the most likely mechanism to account for the elevation of mood. A deficiency of many vitamins is associated with psychological symptoms.
In addition, chocolate is composed of components that are smart for lowering cholesterol. It is also peppered with body nourishing minerals like magnesium, copper, iron and zinc.
In some elderly patients folate deficiency is associated with depression. In four double-blind studies an improvement in thiamine status was associated with improved mood. Iron deficiency anemia is common, particularly in women, and is associated with apathy, depression and rapid fatigue when exercising.
Indeed, chocolate’s ability to nourish the Mesoamericans predates the Aztec Empire and developed fully with the Maya culture, whose warriors and tradesmen were able to sustain long journeys because of their reliance on the nutrients of cacao. Like an avocado or walnut, the cacao bean is densely loaded with complex chemicals.
To date, most of the health claims for chocolate have centered on cocoa’s antioxidant capacity. Although the studies are inconsistent, some evidence does link cocoa’s polyphenols, flavanols and other antioxidants to a positive effect on circulatory system diseases, mental health, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, inflammatory diseases and weight loss.
A new study explains the molecular brain mechanisms by which cocoa compounds can protect the aging brain against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Recent studies have supported the ability of chocolate compounds called flavanols to protect neuron cells against degeneration and dementia. Flavanols are abundantly present in cocoa beans. These cocao flavanols are natural and have powerful antioxidants that keep the body healthy.
Recent studies have shown a direct correlation between the consumption of chocolate leading to a lower blood pressure, reduced risk of stroke and heart attack. The flavanols increase the blood flow and reduce the clotting of platelets that cause blocked arteries.
The new research confirms the antioxidant properties of polyphenols, the larger class of compounds that includes flavanols, and establishes how they work to protect the brain on a cellular level.
Researchers led by Annamaria Cimini of the University of L’Aquila in Italy created cellular models of Alzheimer’s disease, treated with the Aß plaques and Aß peptides associated with neurodegeneration. Applying cocoa polyphenols to those cells triggered the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes neuron growth and counteracts cell death caused by oxidative stress.
“Our studies indicate for the first time the cocoa polyphenols do not act only as mere anti-oxidant but they, directly or indirectly, activate the BDNF survival pathway counteracting neuronal death” said Cimini in a statement.
The results, published in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, seem to confirm that flavanols in chocolate can indeed protect your brain from neurodegeneration, or at least slow it down.
Mainstream media has even teased with headlines such as, “Should cocoa flavanols be classed as a ‘vitamin’? The chocolate industry, of course, has taken this hype straight to the bank. And with few people aware that for bitter cocoa to taste good and become the chocolate we all love, sugar — sometimes a lot of sugar — goes into the mix.
So before you grab that chocolate bar, remember that there is an inverse relationship between chocolate and the milk and sugar present in chocolate that make it calorie rich.
The higher the percentage of chocolate in a bar the healthier it is for you. Flavanols are lavishly present in dark chocolate as compared to milk chocolate. Whereas, it is completely absent in white chocolate.
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