Native to tropical South America, cacao has been cultivated for thousands of years in Central America and Mexico, with its earliest use to be dated to 1100 BC. The majority of the Mesoamerican peoples – including the Maya and Aztecs – made chocolate beverages, called xocoatl, often flavored with vanilla, chile pepper, and achiote.
Cocoa beans were also used as currency by the Aztecs who prized it as their ceremonial drink, by the famous Montezuma who drank gallons of the thick, unsweetened brew on a regular basis.
There are three families of cacao trees, each with highly characteristic beans. The criollo is of exceptional quality, and rare – grown for the most part in South America. The forastero is originally from the Upper Amazon and has a full-bodied, robust flavor and the trinitario is the hybridization between forastero and criolo and is named after the island of Trinidad. About 3,000,000 tons of cocoa beans are produced yearly and 40% of the total world production now comes from Cote d’Ivoire.
Health and medical findings state that regular, small amounts of dark chocolate (that contains at least 60% cocoa) may have some healthy benefits:
- contains high amounts of anti-oxidants
- reduces inflammation – important in cardiovascular health
- helps to reduce blood pressure
- increases HDL, the “good” cholesterol
Cooking with Chocolate: How to Make a Healthier Choice
- Always choose the dark, 60%, real cocoa.
- The antioxidants are best absorbed if the dark chocolate is eaten plain instead of combined with milk, says nutritionist Joy Bauer, because consuming it with milk may block absorption by the intestines.
- Limit yourself to small portions, a one-ounce square, since chocolate is high in fat and calories.
- Avoid “chocolate-flavored” desserts and drinks as they probably contain loads of sugar, fat, and potentially harmful preservatives.
What Makes Chocolate So Addictive?
Chocolate contains a variety of substances, which definitely have an effect on the mind or body chemistry. These include:
- Theobromine – the primary alkaloid in cocoa and chocolate also stimulates the heart and has many theraputic uses. People associate the “chocolate high” with the theobromine content. Theobromine has a stronger biochemical effect for horses and is normally banned in horse racing since it’s considered to give them a competitive edge.
- Tryptophan – an essential amino acid and precursor to serotonin, that can calm and relax the body.
- Phenethylamine– an endogenous alkaloid sometimes described as a “love chemical”, it is quickly metabolized by monoamine oxidase-B and does not reach the brain in significant amounts.
- Caffeine in small amounts.