Spice Up Your Life
Who doesn’t like snuggling in front of a fireplace on a chilly evening with a cup of hot chocolate?
Many modern historians estimate that chocolate has been around for about 2000 years, however some research indicates cacao was widely used in the Americas at an even earlier date. Anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania discovered cacao residue on pottery excavated in Honduras that could date back as far as 1400 B.C.E. It appears that the sweet pulp of the cacao fruit, which surrounds the beans, was fermented into an alcoholic beverage of the time.
It's hard to determine exactly when chocolate was born, but it's clear that it was cherished from the start. Cacao beans were considered valuable enough to be used as currency. In fact, according to a 16th century Aztec document, beans were traded for chickens or corn.
Cacoa was used by the Maya as a hot drink and by the Aztecs as a cold drink. The Maya added chili to their hot drink and both cultures used it in religious ceremonies because they believed the cacao bean had magical, or even divine, properties.
Etymologists trace the origin of the word "chocolate" to the Aztec word "xocoatl," which referred to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans. The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, means "food of the gods." Cacao is generally used to refer to the plant or its beans before processing, while the term "chocolate" refers to anything made from the beans.
Sweetened chocolate didn't appear until Europeans discovered the Americas and sampled the native cuisine. At first they thought it bitter but when mixed with honey it quickly became popular throughout Spain. By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, believed to have nutritious, medicinal and even aphrodisiac properties (it's rumored that Casanova was especially fond of it).
The medicinal properties of this delicacy are finally getting closer scrutiny. Research has shown that flavanols naturally found in dark chocolate have been shown to suppress compounds that create such immune responses in the body.
Two recent lab studies on cocoa and the growth of cancer cells in test tubes have shown promising results. One study showed that cocoa reduced the growth rate of colon cancer cells. Another study showed that breast cancer cells stopped multiplying when combined with specific flavanols.
When rats were given supplements of the flavonoid antioxidants similar to those found in chocolate, researchers observed that they performed better on memory-testing water maze tests. Another study using a catechin antioxidant similar to one found in chocolate showed improved memory for mice with previous brain problems.
Cacao contains the same anti-oxidants (phenols) as red wine, which has been shown to possibly protect against heart disease.
Perhaps Thomas Jefferson said it best: "The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain."