The Latin name for the cacao tree is “Theabroma Cacao.” It literally means “food of the gods.” In today’s times, we can easily see how this name applies, because chocolate is mixed with sugar, flavors, fruits and smooth buttercream. But around 600 A.D., without any of these additives, the people truly felt that the fruit of the cacao tree and its delicious derivatives were indeed fit for the deities. Both the early Mayans and the Aztecs, who were the first known consumers of this plant, believed that the cacao bean held magical and divine attributes as well.
The ancients also believed that the plant was appropriate for service in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death. Montezuma himself drank 50 golden goblets of liquid cacao on a daily basis. He offered Cortez a cup of cocoa upon their meeting for the first time, thinking that the Spaniard was the Aztec god Quetzacoatl who promised to return to that same spot at which Cortez landed in the New World.
Even later on in the 17th century, chocolate in drinking form was a beverage for the European elite. They were the first to blend cacao with sugar, making it much more popular. And the royal families, who were the only privileged ones allowed to enjoy the beverage, believed the cocoa bean had nutritious, medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. It’s been said that Casanova, and even the Marquis de Sade, were both enamored by its charms.
There are enormous health benefits and advantages yet to be learned from cocoa. The main chemical found in chocolate, theobromine, is used to treat high blood pressure. Cocoa butter is used as a coating for all pills. Even the cocoa shells are used for fertilizer and cattle feed. Chocolate is a healthy food to eat, and it is rich in flavonoid nutrients. Flavonoids are also antioxidants. If our body does not have extra antioxidants, it cannot fight the elements we ingest or inhale, therefore causing oxidation, which is an aging process. An increase in oxidation causes bad cholesterol to form, and both cocoa and chocolate contain flavones, which are anti-oxidants that fight plaque build-up. Cocoa and chocolate make blood platelets less sticky and reduce the likelihood of them creating that dangerous plaque build-up.
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Of course there are other foods that are flavonoid-rich: cranberries, tea, apples, peanuts, onions and red wine. And one thing to note is that the flavones are lost if chocolate has been heavily processed. Therefore you need to select your nutrient source carefully to select a quality chocolate that avoids heavy use of sugar, processing and excess chemical ingredients, no matter if you are eating chocolate for health reasons or for pleasure.
In addition, the brain benefits of chocolate are noted by research out of Tufts University: Chocolate may improve cognitive performance and memory and may curb anxiety. Chocolate may improve your mood. It has been shown to boost blood flow to the brain. The Journal of Neurology reports that if we consume a moderate amount of chocolate, a greater amount of oxygen flows to the brain. Swinburne University reports that eating chocolate at least once a week, subjects do better on tests of memory, concentration and reasoning. The majority of these research studies advocated consuming high-flavonol dark chocolate and not the creamy milk chocolate that has higher amounts of sugars and milk fats.
Instead, 1-2 ounces of chocolate per day is a good way to consume this tasty treat that has multiple nutritional benefits. Choose chocolate that is smooth and velvety on the tongue. Sugar should not be the main ingredient of the chocolate you choose. For the most nutritional benefit, choose a chocolate treat that has at least 70 percent cocoa, is lactose-free and ranges somewhere between semisweet and bittersweet. There should be a slight snap when biting into your chocolate and it should be glossy and shiny, not dull. It should have chocolate liquor and cocoa butter as its primary ingredients.
It might be good to follow the advice of some famous chocolatarians. The earliest one on record was Charles Dickens who said, “There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
Or the Peanuts creator, Charles Schulz who noted, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
As for myself, I say, “Carpe Cocoa.”
OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — is offering more than 140 courses this semester. Paula Donson will lead an OLLI course the history and health benefits of chocolate. To receive a free catalog. call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.
Paula Donson is a retired professional who is working in a specialty chocolate shop.