‘Tis the season for chocolate! Globally, 9 out of 10 people say that they adore chocolate. And it is estimated that 1 billion people eat the delightful confection on a daily basis. It is official—humans love chocolate.
Needless to say, we all have our preferences. Some of us are partial to dark, while some enjoy a pure white (though many would argue that white chocolate, being absent of any cocoa, does not actually count as chocolate!); and of course, there are the many others who prefer the classic milk chocolate. But while we may have our little differences, there is no doubt that this sweet candy is beloved by people the world over.
So you claim to adore the chocolate confection, but just how much do you know about its history? According to anthropologists, we have, as a species, been addicted to this delectable treat since at least 1900 B.C. Explorers dug up evidence of chocolate being made by the Olmec civilization in Mexico (although it wasn’t known as Mexico then), which is even older than the Aztecs and the Mayans. When translated, the Latin name of the cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, means ‘food of the gods’. So you get an inkling of how well-loved and cherished chocolate was, even 4,000 years ago!
A Most Divine Treat
When it comes to chocolate, words such as sweet, creamy and decadent are just some of the first adjectives to pop up in our heads. But the fact is that this wonderful treat was not always eaten (or drunk) because it tasted good. In fact, based on today’s sensibilities, we may consider chocolate of yore to be quite awful. During the sixteenth century, chocolate wasn’t actually eaten but drank. The flavour of the chocolate drink was more bitter and spicy and is not like the hot chocolate that we enjoy today. Chocolate was consumed because people back then believed that it had divine and magical properties, and was often an important part of their rituals. Indeed, they were held in such high regard that cocoa was a form of legal tender (100 cocoa beans could buy you a turkey).
Around the sixteenth century, the Europeans were not impressed with the bitter taste at all and actually modified their chocolate drink by sweetening it with sugar cane. It was in the seventeenth century that chocolate became truly popular in Europe. And people believed different things about the wonders that chocolate could do. For instance, the Spanish believed that the chocolate brew can boost energy levels, while the English used it as a medicine for curing certain diseases. Interestingly, the French believed that a chocolate treat can act as an effective aphrodisiac.
For centuries, chocolate was only accessible to the rich and powerful. The general public only got to enjoy this divine treat in around the 1800s, which was when the Industrial Revolution came about. That was also when Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented the cocoa press. This impressive device utilised hydraulics to extract cocoa butter from chocolate liquor, which ultimately created a chalky slab that was then crushed into a lovely fine powder (what we know as cocoa powder). This powder would then go through alkalinisation in order to take away chocolate’s bitterness and to make it so that the powder could be dissolved in water. Van Houten’s marvellous invention is what brought us the chocolate bar that we all know and love today.
Thirty years on, Swiss chocolatier Rodolphe Lindt came up with the conching machine, a contraption that allowed chocolate to be made in massive quantities. Soon after, the familiar brand names of today—Nestle, Cadbury and Hershey—began to produce milk chocolate bars and other mouthwatering variations that are now found easily in stores all over the world. Today, chocolate is a multibillion-dollar global industry. Successful marketing has meant that gourmet chocolates are bought as gifts to others on special occasions as expressions of their affection.
Benefits of (Dark) Chocolate
These days, research is showing that our ancient ancestors did have it right and that chocolate does have many health benefits. Chocolate is rich in antioxidants and has the potential to significantly lower cholesterol levels, reduce the chances of heart disease and stroke, and can help support good brain function. Chocolate also has anti-ageing effects such as helping skin to maintain good hydration levels, defend against the harmful effects of UV-rays and reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
Does that mean we can grab ourselves a Mars bar whenever we feel like it? I’m sorry to say that the answer is no. Most of the milk chocolate that is found in supermarkets and convenience stores only contain very small amounts of cocoa. Plus, they are often very high in sugar content and include things like artificial flavouring, preservatives and food additives. In fact, many of them contain either very little nutritional value (if at all). The health benefits, including the anti-ageing effects, of chocolate are found in its dark variants because these hold higher quantities of cocoa and have less sugar.
When it comes to dark chocolate, the higher the cocoa content, the better it is for you.