About Chocolate
Chocolate History | Cocoa Plant | How Chocolate is Made | Cocoa | Good News

Chocolate History
Originally consumed as a spicy drink, chocolate can be traced back to the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations in Mexico, Central and South America where the Theobroma cacao tree, or cocoa tree, grows wild in tropical rain forests.

Solid chocolate as we know it today wasn't created until the late 1800's in Europe. Hundreds of years before the Europeans got into the act, the Mayans and the Aztecs treasured the cacao beans, or later to be called cocoa, for both their value as an ingredient for their special drink and as a currency. Their drink was made from ground cocoa beans. Since sugar was unknown to the Aztecs, they flavored the ground beans with spices, chili peppers and corn meal. Some say it was frothed and eaten with a spoon. The Aztec emperor, Montezuma, was said to drink chocolate that was thick as honey and dyed red. He liked it so much that he drank 50 goblets of it every day, and when he was done, he threw the golden goblets away. They weren't valuable to him, but the chocolate was.

Christopher Colombus is said to have brought the first cocoa beans back to Europe between 1502-1504. However, with far more exciting treasures on board, the beans were neglected. It was his fellow explorer, the Spain's Hernando Cortez, who realized a potential commercial value in the beans. Cortez, upon conquering the Aztec emperor and his people, sampled the drink, but didn't care for it. However, he did take some beans back to Spain where it was made into an agreeable drink by substituting sugar and vanilla for the chili peppers. This beverage was kept a secret from other European countries for nearly a century. And when the British captured a Spanish vessel loaded with the cocoa beans in 1587, the cargo was destroyed as useless.

During the 17th century, the chocolate beverage quickly became the fashionable drink all over Europe, but not without opposition. Some condemned it as an evil drink. Frederick III of Prussia prohibited it in his realm. In the countries that did accept the drink, it was limited to the wealthy because of its high price. The London chocolate houses became the trendy meeting places where the elite London society savored this new luxury beverage. The first chocolate house opened in London in 1657, advertising "this excellent West India drink." As cocoa plantations spread to the tropics in both hemispheres by the 19th century, the increased production lowered the price of the cocoa beans and chocolate became a popular and affordable beverage. In England, the heavy import duties which had made chocolate a luxury for the wealthy were reduced in 1853, allowing a number of cocoa and drinking chocolate manufacturers to get into the business.

Chocolate was still exclusively for drinking until around 1830 when solid eating chocolate was developed by J. S. Fry and Sons, a British chocolate maker. Then in the 1870's, Swiss manufacturers added milk creating the first milk chocolate.

Industrialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have since made chocolate a food for the masses. But despite its availablilty, people continue to hold onto the notion of chocolate as a special treat. In the early 1990s, annual U.S. production of chocolate and related confections exceeded 1.2 million metric tons. Annual consumption in the U.S. was about 11.3 lb per person.

Cocoa Plant
The Cocoa Plant grows only in a narrow band around the center of the Earth, approximately 20 degrees north to 20 degrees south of the equator. The first cocoa trees-Theobroma cacao-grew wild about 4,000 years ago in either the Amazon Basin in Brazil, the Orinoco Valley of Venezuela or somewhere in Central America.

How Chocolate is Made
The processing of the cacao seeds, better known as cocoa beans, is complex. The fruit harvest is cured or fermented in a pulpy state for three to nine days, during which the heat kills the seeds and turns them brown. The enzymes activated by fermentation impart the substances that will give the beans their characteristic chocolate flavor later during roasting.

The beans are then dried in the sun and cleaned in special machines before they are roasted to bring out the chocolate flavor. They are then shelled in a crushing machine and ground into chocolate. During the grinding, the cocoa butter melts, producing a sticky liquid called chocolate liquor, which is used to make chocolate candy or is filtered to remove the cocoa butter and then cooled and ground to produce cocoa powder.

Common name for a powder derived from the fruit seeds of the cacao tree and for the beverage prepared by mixing the powder with milk. When cocoa is prepared, most of the cocoa butter is removed in the manufacturing process. After the fat is separated and the residue is ground, small percentages of various substances may be added, such as starch to prevent caking, or potassium bicarbonate to neutralize the natural acids and astringents and make the cocoa easy to dissolve in liquids. Cocoa has a high food value, containing as much as 20 percent protein, 40 percent carbohydrate, and 40 percent fat. It is also mildly stimulating because of the presence of theobromine, an alkaloid that is closely related to caffeine.

Good News
Recent research suggests that chocolate may have some health benefits. For example, scientists at the University of California at Davis revealed in 1996 that chocolate is rich in antioxidants called phenolics, the same compounds in red wine that seem to offer protection against heart disease. The researchers calculated that a 1.5-ounce chocolate bar contains 205 mg of phenolics, comparable to the 210 mg found in a 5-ounce glass of cabernet. Even a cup of hot chocolate made from 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder delivers 146 mg of phenolics.

And cocoa butter, the fat in chocolate, does not appear to be so bad for your heart and arteries. Its principal saturated fat, stearic acid, is converted by the body into oleic acid, a heart healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil. A 1994 study at Pennsylvania State University found that volunteers put on a diet high in milk chocolate (which also contains a small amount of milk fat) did not experience a rise in blood cholesterol levels. In contrast, volunteers who consumed a similar amount of saturated fat from butter had a significant increase in cholesterol levels.

Scientists are also testing out why eating chocolate makes us feel good. In 1996, researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego announced that a compound in chocolate called anandamide activates the same receptor in the brain as marijuana. While you would have to eat a Herculean quantity of chocolate (25 pounds, by one account) to get high, the substance may promote a sense of well-being. The researchers also found two other substances in chocolate that interfere with the brain's ability to break down anandamide, making the effect longer lasting.

Chocolate History | Cocoa Plant | How Chocolate is Made | Cocoa | Good News