Vol.1, No.3

All about chocolate

Chocolate has been around for centuries, originating in Central America with the discovery of the cacao tree. There are many myths surrounding chocolate. Whether one wants to believe the scientific evidence of the healthy benefits or just wants to enjoy a good chocolate bar, chocolate is plentiful in most parts of the world.

Melted chocolate
Photo Credit: Maartje van Caspel
Just say the word, "chocolate", and mouths start to water, eyes start to gleam, and hands reach to take a piece from the box. Chocolate has a reputation like no other food morsel. Some of that reputation is fact; other is pure fiction. But they say any publicity is good, right? Well, people are talking about chocolate.

There are five basic kinds of chocolate produced from the cocoa bean: milk chocolate, sweet chocolate, semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, unsweetened or baking chocolate, white chocolate, and cocoa.

It's a fact that chocolate comes from the cocoa bean. The beans come from the pods of cacao trees. The cacao tree is a tropical plant and grows only in rainy hot climates like in the tropical rainforests of South America, on the Ivory Coast and in West Africa and Southeast Asia.

Picking the fruit of the cacao tree is labor intensive and requires a keen experienced eye to know exactly when the pods are perfectly ripe. Most pods produce from twenty to fifty beans. To make a pound of chocolate you'll need four hundred beans. Then the beans will need to be fermented for up to nine days. This brings out the characteristic chocolate flavor.

Next is the drying process. Beans are often laid out on mats and left to dry naturally under the intense heat of the sun. During the drying the beans lose most of their moisture. After the beans are completely dried, they're packed and shipped to chocolate manufacturers all over the world.

It's believed that the Maya Indians first brought cacao from the rain forests in Central America to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico more than 2000 years ago. There they built large plantations and began to grow cacao.

The Mayans practically worshiped cacao. They built massive stone temples with carvings of images of the cocoa pod. It was also the Mayans who created the first beverage from crushed cocoa beans. The drink was served to royalty at sacred ceremonies.

Though the majority of chocolate in the world is made from forastero beans, the cacao pods also produce criollo beans, which have a light color and a pleasing smell. These beans are used in some of the finest most expensive chocolate. Another bean is the trinitario, which is a cross of the forastero and the criollo bean. More cocoa beans are imported from the Ivory Coast than anywhere in the world. Other major importers are Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and New Guinea.

It's a myth that chocolate can be a true addiction. A true addiction causes chemical changes in the brain and results in physical changes like the development of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms don't occur as a result of chocolate consumption.

Theoretically though, there are bioactive compounds in chocolate that can stimulate the nervous system. They include small amounts of theobromine and caffeine, phenylethylamine and tyramine and anandamide. These same compounds are also found in other common foods that aren't craved. Scientists believe they have evidence that the sensory eating of chocolate accounts for at least part of the belief in the addictive qualities of chocolate. Chocolate is creamy and sweet with a unique smell and this combination can produce an immediate sense of well being upon consumption and a strong desire, but not a true addiction.

It's true that chocolate melts in our mouths and our hands. That's because cocoa butter's melting point is just below the normal human body temperature.

It's a fact that women often experience an increased desire for chocolate around the time of menstruation. During a woman's menstruation the body is deficient in magnesium, which is found in chocolate and could contribute to the craving. But other foods like lentil and kidney beans are also rich in magnesium; however, there's no research that suggests women ever crave kidney beans.

The chemical in chocolate, which is similar to caffeine, is theobromine. Theobromine can be toxic to a dog when it ingests amounts up to 150 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Because different types of chocolate have varying amounts of theobromine, it depends on what type of chocolate a dog has eaten as to whether it will be deadly. To be safe, keep all chocolate away from the family dog.

It is a fact that chocolate is not high in cholesterol. The cocoa butter in chocolate contains stearic acid. Stearic acid is considered a trans fat, which has been shown to neutralize cholesterol levels. Added health benefits from the cocoa bean are the antioxidant qualities. Dark chocolate and cocoa powder contain the highest level of these polyphenol antioxidants because they contain more of the ingredients straight from the cocoa bean. Milk chocolate ranks the lowest in antioxidant qualities.

Because chocolate is high in carbohydrates it is thought to relieve stress by raising serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is one of two neurotransmitters, along with endorphins that help people feel relaxed and calm. This could account for cravings for sweet foods like chocolate when in an agitated or depressed mood.

Chocolate is enjoyed by the rich and the not so rich equally, with inexpensive candy bars and ultra expensive truffles available for all to enjoy. The quality though, varies, because of the quality of the cacao beans and other ingredients and by how extensively the manufacturer refines the ingredients. And of course, the labor to form the chocolate into a confection also comes into play in the price equation.

"Life is like a box of chocolate", so says Forest Gump, played by Tom Hanks in the popular movie by the same name. We can thank Richard Cadbury for inventing the very first box of chocolate in 1868. He painted a portrait of his young daughter holding a kitten onto a box. After that, he invented the very first Valentine's Day box of candy.

So whether you eat chocolate because of its rich creamy texture and sweet taste or because you're convinced of its health benefits, there is no shortage of chocolate ready to melt in your mouth