Why You Should Indulge in Chocolate

“Theobroma, the genus name, is from the Greek and translates to “food of the gods,” a designation that chocolate-lovers would agree is befitting.”  Exhibit Curator @ Cornell’s Mann Library, Ashley Miller

Book of the Week: Cacao and Chocolate

Many of us already know that alongside corn, chocolate was a top food staple for the ancient Olmec, Mayan and Aztec cultures long before it was ever introduced to the western world. However, did you know that the first place that chocolate was sold in America was in Boston, MA? Or that the Spanish monarchy closely guarded the secret Aztec recipe for hundreds of years in order to maintain a European monopoly on the substance? Or that many religious leaders in Europe wished to ban chocolate because women found it more heavenly than priestly sermons at Sunday mass?  We will continue our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month this week by highlighting a book all about Theobroma cacao — better known to most of us as chocolate. This week’s book of the week, Cocoa and Chocolate, outlines the natural history of the Cocoa tree, the evolution of production methods and health benefits of chocolate. Yes, we said health benefits. It’s hard to believe that something that is so sinfully delicious could actually also be extremely beneficial to your overall health. If you want to feel justified in your addiction to chocolate we suggest reading chapter four which, explains why chocolate is the “perfect food.” Linnaeus even thought so, for he is the one to have christened the species “Theobroma cacao.”

How did chocolate finally make its way into my mouth?

It was Conquistador Hernán Cortés who brought chocolate back to the Spanish court in the early 1500’s however, Central American natives were enjoying chocolate long before European contact. There is evidence of cacao bean cultivation that dates back to 1400 BC. The Cacao tree is a native of the Amazon basin but moved-up to Mesoamerica thousands of years ago. This region that stretches from central Mexico through most of Central America is the traditional home of chocolate. The bean from this plant has historically been so engrained in the culture of this region that the Aztecs used the cacao tree as a representation of the universe and as recently as 150 years ago, villagers in outlying areas of “Nicaragua still traded the cacao bean, the fatty seed that grows in a pod from the trunk of the cacao tree, as currency.” (Johnson) In ancient times, chocolate was not sweet but, rather eaten as a spicy energy treat, in bar or beverage form. According to popular legend, Montezuma enjoyed 50 cups of chocolate per day. While we think drinking 2 cups of chocolate per hour seems somewhat excessive, the Swiss fall closely behind Montezuma ranking number one in chocolate consumption by ingesting 22 pounds of chocolate per year; Americans for once seem to exhibit a bit of moderation eating a modest 11½ pounds of chocolate per year. Globally, humans consume 3 billion pounds of chocolate each year.

Chocolate was once a food exclusively for the very rich however, it has made its way to the masses through improved production techniques. The founding of the first American chocolatier, Walter Baker & Co. predates the founding of America by twelve years, having established itself in in Dorchester, Mass in 1765.  It seems that early American settlers were more interested in eating chocolate than having a country to call their own. At least we know that they had their priorities straight! To keep-up with the American appetite for chocolate, Walter Baker & Co. revolutionized the production methods of the cacao bean, and were thus able to produce vast quantities so that all could enjoy.

How is chocolate good for your overall health?

In researching chocolate, we found all sorts of studies and vetted factoids that confirm that indeed, chocolate is both heavenly and healthful. Here is a point-by-point summary of what we found:

  • Vitamins & Nutrients: Chocolate contains essential trace elements and nutrients such as iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and the vitamins A, B1, C, D, and E. Additionally, it is the highest natural food source of magnesium.
  • Heart Health: The flavonoids in chocolate and cocoa encourage vascular wall improvement and the function of blood vessels. The Mayo Clinic report suggests that moderate amounts of dark chocolate may be used to reduce the risk of blood clots and platelet formation in the arteries that can lead to stroke – similar to a low-dose aspirin.
  • Mood enhancer: Chocolate contains small amounts of a chemical called phenylethylamine (PEA) that is a mild mood elevator.This chemical produces happy feelings in our brain of joy and love.
  • Antioxidants: Part of the polyphenol group, antioxidants present in chocolate neutralize or delay the processes that age to the body’s cells and tissues by attacking free radicals in our bloodstream. (Note: milk binds to antioxidants, inhibiting their absorption. Thus, milk chocolate is not a source of antioxidants)
  • Mild stimulant: Chocolate contains a number of natural stimulants, such as caffeine and theobromine; these coupled with sugar can certainly provide an energy boost.
 ~Facts mostly from Burdick’s Chocolatier, Harvard Square, Mass.

Lastly, in no particular order, chocolate has multiple other benefits such as reducing high-cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, joint problems and pre-menstrual symptoms. Did we mention that chocolate also tastes amazing?

Ask yourself this: Are you eating enough chocolate? Please feel free to use any of the above excuses to get out there and enjoy a food fit for the gods.

Chocolatey Links

Chocolate: The Exhibition, California Academy of Sciences
Choice Recipes, Chocolate and Cocoa Recipes, Duke University
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JJ Dearborn (née Ford) is co-owner of the Makers Guild, Inc., a Design+Build firm focused on biophilic design solutions. Formerly, she served as the Digital Collections Librarian for the Biodiversity Heritage Library at Smithsonian Libraries and Digital Projects Librarian at Harvard University's Botany Libraries.