The Theobroma Cacao tree produces a bitter seed which when processed becomes chocolate. The use of cacao beans was discovered more than 3000 years ago by the Olmec civilization who found the tree growing wild in Eastern Mexico. In November 2007, scientists discovered evidence of the cacao in Honduras, which dates back 500 years earlier than find by the Olmec clan.
This second discovery showed that the beans were fermented to produce a drink not dissimilar to that of beer for celebrations.
The Mayans and Aztecs started cultivating the beans which were used in religious and social rituals and soon became a monetary unit.
Cacao beans were first brought to Europe by none other than Christopher Columbus and Henry Cortez though at the time did not realize the value of them. Cortez noticed how important these beans were to the natives when he landed there in 1519.
For almost 100 years after it arrived in Spain, chocolate still remained a mystery to Europe. The Spanish replaced the water and chilies that the Aztec
used, with sugar and more palatable substances making chocolate syrup.
For quite some time after it was discovered all around Europe, chocolate remained a delectable experience for the noble and rich with the first shop opening in London in 1657 called ‘The Coffee Mill and Tobacco Roll”.
A Dutch person invented chocolate as we know it today. Casparus Van Houten a Dutch chocolate master, invented a hydraulic press in 1828 that extracted oil from the cocoa which made chocolate difficult to digest.
The residue was ground up to produce cocoa powder which enabled the price to fall, leading to availability to the masses and paved the way for mass production of chocolate bars. His son Coenraad Van Houten introduced Dutching which is a process whereby the powder was treated with alkaline salts to make it more soluble.
From this time on, chocolate became a worldwide treat with a therapeutic effect which was widely recognized.
The fruit of the cacao tree are harvested twice a year with each pod containing 30-40 seeds which is the first step in the processing of chocolate.
Once harvested, the pods are carefully opened by hand so the fruit or beans are not damaged. The beans that are still sticky after being released from their pods are put into earthen pits or wooden bins, covered with banana leaves and left to ferment. Good quality beans will take only a couple of days whereas the poorer quality will take almost a week to ferment. The bitter taste of the bean takes on a more chocolaty taste as they ferment. After this fermentation process the beans are put out to dry in the sun for approximately a week
By this time, the beans have a very strong chocolate flavor and once drying is over, they are packed and shipped to chocolate manufacturers.
On arrival to the factory, the beans are then sifted to remove any debris, than sorted into type. Next, they are roasted at 210-290 degree Fahrenheit for approximately half an hour to two hours. This heat treatment makes the beans harder, the flavor stronger and the color darker.
The outer shell of the beans are taken off leaving what is known as the ‘nibs’, this is the real chocolate but seriously bitter. These nibs have to be further processed whereby a thick chocolate paste is made by grinding them. This is known as chocolate liquor. To make this more palatable, sugar vanilla cocoa butter and milk are added. At this point, this is chocolate much the way we know it. Further processing is required to make it into a smooth chocolate bar.
Chocolate today is available in a wide variety, some containing caramels, nuts or dried fruit, but what of the suggested health benefits? As it is comes from plants, it offers a few health benefits, containing antibacterial agents which can in the prevention of tooth decay. The smell of chocolate enhances brainwaves which assist in relaxation, with another ingredient phenlethylamine which elevates the mood.
Chocolate is a rich source of vitamins and minerals, consisting of vitamins A, B1, C and E as well as iron, calcium and potassium. It also contains high amounts of magnesium and phosphorus which is important for the teeth and bone formation in children. Magnesium helps maintain normal functioning of muscle, nerves and beneficial for strong bones and a healthy immune system.
Antioxidants in chocolate can offer health benefits such as reduced cancer risks, while serotonin acts as an anti-depressant as well as increasing happiness and alertness. Caffeine, theobromine, phenylamine and tyramine found in chocolate have been known to decrease fatigue and offer an extra boost.
There are many other health benefits of chocolate, which include the health of the heart and lowering of blood pressure, but we could go on and on and still have a lot to write about.
Basically, a little chocolate a day is good for your health and has the ability to keep you happy, but this does not mean you should gorge on it as it does contains sugar.