Chocolate has been described as being more than a food, less than a drug. This description points to the singular position this wildly popular confection plays in our lives. Popular to the tune of $74 billion annually, chocolate begins as a tiny blossom on a small tropical tree. Only three out of a thousand of these will produce the cacao pods that after a labor intensive and lengthy journey, with several chemically and technically complex steps along the way, will end up in your hand as a candy bar.
The products of this tropical tree have played many roles through the centuries. In 1753, Linnaeus designated the tree Theobroma cacao, which translates to “cacao, food of the gods.” Several hundred years later, chocolate lovers would agree with this appellation although for the Maya, who honored a cacao god, the term had a more literal and spiritual meaning. The Aztecs used cacao beans as currency and as food and drink for the privileged. Spaniards introduced the drinking of chocolate to Europe where, in the medical system of the time, those who could afford it used chocolate as a tonic and remedy. The purported health benefits of chocolate are once again creating a buzz as industry sponsored research suggests that dark chocolate might possibly lower blood pressure and provide antioxidant benefits.
Five hundred years after its adoption in liquid form by the Spanish court and nearly two hundred years after a Dutch chemist’s invention paved the way for its creamy solid form, chocolate continues to expand its role. A recent market for premium chocolate has created connoisseurs who seek out rarified confections in the form of single origin bars with a 72% cacao content infused with such back-to-the-future flavors as the aboriginal Mexican combination of ground chilies and vanilla. Today’s consumers of chocolate can have an effect on how it is grown and harvested by buying a bar with a “Fair Trade” label, insuring that the growers and workers that produced it earn a living wage under humane conditions. Those aware of the loss of biodiversity in tropical forests caused by cacao plantations can buy organically grown chocolate, which supports the more time consuming practices of ecological agriculture.
And remember, the food of the gods might, just might, be good for you.