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Choc and Awe

From the Aztecs to early Europeans, who believed it could serve as both a love potion and medicine, not a lot has changed in our centuries-old love affair with the cocoa bean.

Tiffany Duncan
April 28, 2019

On average, every American eats half a pound of chocolate per month (and possibly much more last month with all those caramel eggs and dense chocolate bunnies). We love it, we crave it, and almost all of us keep some variation of it in the house at all times. But chocolate comes in a lot of forms, and depending on the processing it’s almost an entirely different product (think cocoa versus cacao; milk versus dark). And does this beloved treat have the power to make you feel in love?

To understand chocolate at its basic essence, we must go back in time to examine its origins. Historians do not precisely know when chocolate came onto the scene, but according to smithsonianmag.com, cacao residue was recently found on pottery excavated in Honduras that is believed to date back as far as 1400 B.C.; evidence suggests that the sweet pulp of the cacao fruit (yes, chocolate is derived from a fruit, so stick that in your back pocket the next time someone tells you to eat healthier) that surrounds the beans was fermented to create an alcoholic beverage.

The word “chocolate” can be traced to the Aztec word “xocoatl,” which meant “sour” or “bitter.” Beverages made using roasted cacao beans were drunk ubiquitously in both Aztec and Mayan cultures, but they bore no resemblance to what we think of as sweet, chocolate beverages today. The roasted cacao beans created an extremely bitter drink that was often mixed with chilies, honey, or water. Cacao beans were so prized and revered that they were commonly used as currency, or in ritual sacrifices to the gods. Montezuma II, the mighty ruler of the Aztecs, supposedly drank goblets full of the stuff per day for energy and its believed aphrodisiacal qualities.

But it wasn’t until it was brought back to Spain in the 16th century that chocolate began its long journey into what we now know as modern-day chocolate. Spanish monks tweaked the recipe used in Mayan culture and adjusted it to better suit Spanish tastes, which included the addition of cinnamon, nutmeg, and finally, sugar to sweeten up the bitter drink. They also discovered it tasted better when hot.

Soon, drinking chocolate was all the rage throughout Europe, but it wasn’t until 1828 that chocolate underwent another pivotal change in its production. A Dutch chemist named Casparus van Houten introduced alkaline salts to the chocolate, which cut its bitter quality. Houten also created a press that removed the cocoa butter and paved the way to create solid forms of chocolate, as well as making it cheaper to produce and more consistent in quality. Then, in 1875, milk chocolate was introduced by an inventor named Daniel Peter when he utilized a powdered milk developed by Henri Nestlé, a name easily recognizable now.

Shortly after that in 1879, a man named Rodolphe Lindt, another name you may recognize, invented the conching machine. That smooth, melt-in-your-mouth quality that we associate with chocolate — especially those packages of Lindt truffles that can easily be devoured in one sitting — are the result of the conching machine, which aerates the chocolate and gives it that butter-like texture. By the late 19th century, chocolate companies like Cadbury, Hershey, Nestle, and Mars were mass-producing chocolate sweets and treats, many of the very same ones we know and love today.

So What’s the Difference Between…
Cacao versus Cocoa: The term “cacao” will generally refer to the plant or its beans before any roasting or processing. Both cacao and cocoa are often sold in powder forms, and in many cases may be used interchangeably in a recipe. However, they are not the same thing —  especially when it comes to nutrition content. Cacao powder is created from raw (unroasted) cacao beans that have been cold-pressed. Because there is no heat involved, the process can keep the living enzymes while also removing the fat (or cacao butter). Cocoa powder, on the other hand, has been roasted at high temperatures, which lowers the overall nutritional value.

Milk versus Dark: For many of us it’s a taste preference thing, but what exactly is milk chocolate, and what exactly is dark chocolate? Milk chocolate — as the name might suggest — contains cocoa solids that are diluted with milk solids, as well as added sugar and cream. This creates a sweeter, smoother texture that many people prefer to the more abrasive taste of dark chocolate. Milk chocolate has much less cocoa content (cocoa solids with cocoa butter) than dark chocolate, which can range from containing 35 percent cocoa content to 100 percent. Naturally, the higher the cocoa content, the more bitter it will taste.

Myth or Fact?
Chocolate is good for you: Fact. But also a myth. It honestly depends on the chocolate that you are eating. If it’s a Snickers bar, or something else highly processed that is almost always made of milk rather than dark chocolate … sorry, it’s not good for you. But chocolate with a high cocoa content (usually 60 percent dark and above), or raw cacao, is one of the highest antioxidant sources in the world. Minimally processed dark chocolate also contains fiber, essential minerals, and is thought to lower your risk of heart disease. It should still be consumed in moderation, however, as it still is fairly high in calories and likely also contains moderate amounts of sugar.

Eating chocolate simulates the feeling of being in love: This is mostly a myth. When we fall in love, a family of chemicals called phenylethylamine work to produce endorphins — our brain’s “feel good” molecules. However, according to The Washington Post, chocolate does contain small amounts of phenylethylamine, but enzymes in our liver degrade the chemicals before they have a chance to reach our brain. Luckily, chocolate also contains both serotonin and tryptophan, as well as other molecules and neurotransmitters that do contribute to a positive mood.