10 fun facts about chocolate

Whether you call it chocolate, cacao or xocoatl, it’s a popular Valentine’s Day food that starts with the Theobroma cacao tree, native to the Amazon region, and now grown commercially in moist tropical areas.

  1. According to historic records, cacao (xocoatl) was originally consumed as a drink, made by mixing finely ground roasted cacao beans with hot water, and possibly flavorings like chili.  This was definitely not a sweet treat, as we know it.  You can get an idea of how strong this must have tasted by nibbling a bit of unsweetened baking chocolate.  The ground powder was also used as a spice.  Cocoa powder is still used as an essential ingredient for rich mole sauces.
  2. Spanish conquerors brought cacao back to Spain in the 16th Century, where it was still served unsweetened until someone got the idea to add sugar.  The rest is history.
  3. Well not quite, since the idea of using chocolate in baking or candy didn’t evolve until the 17th Century.
  4. Certainly chocolate tasted good, but there was also an appreciation for the stimulant or “therapeutic” properties of cacao.  Caffeine, theobromine and bioactive flavonoids like catechins and procyandins can all contribute to these effects.
  5. Chocolate contains phenylethlyamine, which supposedly gives it aphrodisiacal powers, mimicking the first stages of falling in love.
  6. The fat in cocoa beans is mostly saturated, which is why natural chocolate stays hard at room temperature.  However, it isn’t known to raise blood cholesterol.
  7. Chocolate contains a number of mineral nutrients, particularly magnesium, as well as several B vitamins.
  8. Plain chocolate has about 150 calories per ounce, give or take, depending on whether it’s sweetened and how much sugar was added.
  9. Research links chocolate consumption with improved cardiovascular health and blood pressure, possibly due to the flavonoid content.  The darker the chocolate, the more benefit typically noted.  However, it’s unlikely you can improve the adverse effects of a junky diet by adding chocolate to your day.
  10. Other research, mostly funded by chocolate manufacturers, claims chocolate has anti-inflammatory and pre-biotic benefits, and could help with weight loss and joint health.

Is there anything chocolate can’t do?  It tastes great, has several key nutrients and possible health benefits.  If you needed a reason to indulge a little on Valentine’s Day, you now have several.  And don’t be afraid to try using xocoatl in the original way.  Tonight I’m adding a tablespoon or two of cocoa powder to the chili for a deep flavor variation.

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