Chocolate is made from the roasted, shelled, and ground beans of the tropical cacao tree, Theobroma cacao. Consumed in the form of candy bars, milk shakes, hot beverages, cereals, cakes and cookies, it is one of the world’s favourite foods.
Why should I be aware of this?
- In spite of its popularity, few people are aware about what chocolate actually is. How was something so delectable first created? Is it good for health, and how safe is it for children? These are some of the questions this article will address.
- Chocolate contains more than 300 chemicals, and its health benefits have been studied extensively. Dark chocolate contains types of Antioxidants known as flavonoids, which slow the processing of bad LDL cholesterol into material that clogs the arteries, and at the same time make blood platelets less likely to clump and cause clots.
Chocolate and health
Studies suggest that people who eat significant amounts of chocolate live longer than chocolate abstainers. A recent study of 8000 Harvard graduates arrived at this conclusion, hinting that their longevity could be explained by the fact that Chocolate increases antioxidant levels in the blood. Polyphenols present in Chocolate reduce the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins, thereby protecting against heart disease. These compounds are also found in red wine: in fact, a 1.5-ounce chocolate bar has as much antioxidant power as a 5-ounce glass of red wine.
Chocolate also contains Tryptophan, an essential amino acid that aids the production of serotonin, the body’s endogenous opiate. Enhanced serotonin function typically diminishes anxiety and reduces sensitivity to pain. Chocolates also make the brain trigger off Endorphins, the feel good compounds in our bodies.
It is often noted that some women have acute cravings for chocolate just before their menstrual period. This may be partly explained by its rich magnesium content. One study reported that 91 per cent of chocolate-cravings associated with the menstrual cycle occurred between ovulation and the start of menstruation. Chocolate cravings are admitted by 15 per cent of men and around 40 per cent of women, and are usually most intense in the late afternoon and early evening.
On the negative side, Chocolate may trigger headaches in migraine sufferers. Further, it is high in calories, saturated fat and sugar, a factor that could outweigh some of the more debatable contentions about chocolate's health benefits.
All about chocolate
In 1519, Spanish conquistadore Hernando Cortes led an expedition to Mexico in search of treasure. They found plenty of that, but also discovered a cold, bitter drink that the Aztecs loved. It was called cacahuati, and was made from the beans of the cacao tree. Cacahuati was reserved for warriors, nobility and priests, and was believed to confer wisdom and vitality upon those who drank it. The Aztecs even believed this drink enhanced their sexual prowess. Cortes and his men found the drink too bitter, and sweetened it to make it more palatable.
When Cortes introduced the drink as Chocolatl to the Spanish court, it was a huge success. The Spaniards kept the source of their Chocolatl a secret for a century or so, after which it went on to become the rage in Europe. The first chocolate shop in London opened in 1657, and it served liquid chocolate in little gold and silver cups.
A Dutch inventor in the early 1800s figured out how to extract cocoa butter from the beans. Soon a Swiss chocolatier in Vevey, Switzerland mixed cocoa butter with evaporated milk (made by Nestle) to get chocolate in the form that we know and love today. During the First World War, soldiers ate chocolate bars for energy and after the war was over, carried back this habit with them. Thus the world’s love for chocolates was born.
Chocolate therapies in history
Mayan healers pounded cocoa beans into a paste with water, and prescribed it to people suffering from fevers, liver disease, and kidney disorders. Ground beans, mixed with resin, were prescribed as a cure for dysentery. A cocoa drink was reputed to foster needed weight gain — especially if augmented with ground maize. Hot chocolate was even prescribed as a laxative and an aid to digestion.
By the early 1600s, European researchers were reporting that chocolate may affect moods. A 1631 treatise by the Spanish physician/surgeon Antoino Comenero de Ledesma, for instance, reported that chocolate makes people amiable, and "incited consumers to . . . lovemaking."
By the 1680s, reports emerged that chocolate could restore energy after a day of hard labor, alleviate lung inflammation, or strengthen the heart. By the 1800s, cocoa was being mixed with ground amber dust to relieve hangovers. Combined with other ingredients, it became the basis of treatments for syphilis, hemmorhoids and intestinal parasites.
In traditional healing recipes, chocolate often included little or no sweetening. Moreover, the Native American view of medicine in which chocolate therapies evolved was somewhat different from that practiced in Europe. Rather than illness being caused by disease, Native Americans viewed health as the state of being in balance with the environment. Losing that balance — perhaps through a perturbed diet — could create sickness. Chocolate was viewed as one of means of restoring lost balance.
Chocolate in spas
Cocoa butter has amazing moisturising properties and is considered to be good for cell renewal. Pregnant women use it to reduce the appearance of stretch marks and more and more manufacturers are including it in their creams and lotions. Modern day spas have incorporated luxuriant chocolate therapies to deeply moisturize the skin. Some of these include Chocolate Fondue Body Wraps, Whipped Cocoa Baths, Chocolate Bean Body Polishing Treatments and Cocoa Massages.
What can I do?
Here are tips for recognising good chocolate.
- Go for the dark kind, preferably containing at least 60 per cent cocoa.
- Use the nose -- the chocolate should smell good as one unwraps it; sweet and complex but not overpowering.
- The chocolate should be visually appealing -- smooth and flawless in colour.
- When one breaks a piece off the bar, it should snap cleanly and not crumble.
- On the tongue, it should taste silky not sticky.
- The Aztecs reserved chocolates only for warriors, nobility and priests.
- Casanova ate lots of chocolates before his amourous escapades in the mistaken belief that it was an aphrodisiac!
- In 1875, a Swiss manufacturer, Daniel Peters of Vevey, produced the first milk chocolate bar using powdered milk.
- It is estimated that the per capita consumption of chocolate among Americans is over 12 pounds, while Europeans eat even more.
- Until the 14th century, as chocolate was perceived as an intoxicant, it was deemed unsuitable for women or children.
Myths about chocolate consumption
The celebrated Italian libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) ate chocolate before bedding his conquests on account of chocolate's reputation as a subtle aphrodisiac. The Aztec king Montezuma did the same thing. However, research evidence indicates that chocolate has no direct physical effect on the libido.
Many also believe that Chocolate is addictive and can make people physiologically dependant upon it. Indeed, until the 14th century, as chocolate was perceived as an intoxicant, it was deemed unsuitable for women or children. While it is true that Chocolate contains small quantities of anandamide, a cannabinoid found in the brain, one would need to consume several pounds of chocolate for any noticeable psychoactive effects to occur (it is estimated that an adult would need to eat about 25lbs at one sitting to get fully stoned!)
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- To see a review of some of these spa treatments, go to Chocolate Spa Treatments