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First published: October 2000

Chocolate

by Michael Sones

Chocolate is one of the most sensuous of foods with profound associations with both romance and the comforting of broken hearts. It comes from the cacao beans of the cacao tree. The scientific name for this tree is "theobroma cacao" with theobroma meaning "food of the gods." Chocolate was introduced to the Western world by Hernan Cortes, the famous Spanish Conquistador, who conquered the Aztecs in 1519-21. You can read about the conquest in the gripping book, The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz-another conquistador who participated in it.

Drinking chocolate was a favorite of the Mayans and Aztecs. Ceremonial bowls with which to drink chocolate have been found in western Honduras dating back to 1600 BC. The cacao beans were a commodity which were also used as a kind of money (along with red spiny oyster shell, obsidian, jade, salt and cloth) by many Indians of MesoAmerica-particularly the Mayans. The use of cacao beans as a kind of money did not end with the Spanish conquest of MesoAmerica. They were considered such a valuable commodity that in the 1540s Nicaraguan prostitutes charged 10 cacao beans for their services.

According to Cortes, chocolate was called xocoatl by the Aztecs (the 'x' is pronounced 'sh'). Another possible derivation of the word is that it is a combination of the Mayan 'chocol' and the Aztec/Nahuatl word 'atl'-meaning water. It was a favorite drink of the Aztec nobility and made by drying cacao beans, roasting them over a fire, pounding them to a paste and mixing them with water. Other spices including chili, pimento and vanilla were often added to it. It was thought to have both medicinal properties and to be an aphrodisiac. There was a famous gathering of Aztec wise men and poets about 1490 when they met to discuss the true meaning of poetry. It took place at the house of lord Tecayehuatzin, prince of Huexotzinco. The poets and wise men lay on mats and were served tobacco and foaming mugs of chocolate by servants while they discussed the true meaning of flowers-and-song which is what the Aztecs called poetry.

There was subsequently a considerable trade in chocolate paste to Italy and Flanders by the early 1600s. It became much more popular in Europe with the introduction of sugar. In 1650 drinking chocolate was popular in England and the first chocolate house opened in London in 1657. Drinking chocolate became popular in Europe over the next three hundred years but it did not become a favorite in a solid form until the nineteenth century. It is a commodity, like many, with unpleasant associations to the history of its production. When it became popular in Europe many European nations began growing the cacao beans in their own tropical colonies and many Indian and African slaves were used on cacao plantations.

The addition of milk, butter and cream to chocolate paste is an European contribution which is what makes Belgian and Swiss chocolates so lusciously, mouthwateringly, meltingly delicious. Why is there such an association between chocolate and romance? No one knows for sure but, apparently, Aztec women were forbidden chocolate. A study by a Chicago neurologist revealed that men found the smell of chocolate arousing.

The following jokes typify the association between chocolate, romance and sex:

"Men are like.....Chocolate. Smooth, sweet, and they usually go straight for your hips."

"A male tourist is walking through a Arabic market. He buys an old bottle from an ancient Arab who tells him there is a genie in it. Back in his hotel room he forces off the cork, rubs the bottle, and out pops a genie. The genie says, "You have freed me from the bottle, Great Master. In thanks I will grant you three wishes." Well, he really can't believe his luck and says "Great! This is my dream come true. First wish, I want ten million dollars in a Cayman Islands bank account." He receives a phone call immediately confirming this. For his next wish he says "Next, I want a brand new luxury yacht in the harbour here." The genie tells him to look out his hotel window there is a flash of light and luxury yacht appears in the harbour. The man thinks this is great. He says to the genie, "My last wish is that I want to be irresistible to women." The genie is puzzled by this, "Are you sure, oh Great Master." The man replies, "Yes, absolutely." Whoosh! There is a flash of light and he turns into a box of chocolates."

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There are reputed health benefits to eating chocolate. It has flavinoids, which are an antioxidant, in it.  These have a beneficial effect on the heart. In fact, 40 grams of  dark chocolate has twice the amount of flavinoids as a glass of wine.  Chocolate's flavinoids may be very effective at reducing cholesterol and blood clotting and reducing the risk of high blood pressure and associated diseases.  It also contains the amino acids phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan. It has natural stimulants such as theobromine (Greek for "food of the gods") and caffeine which give energy. Laboratory rats who like alcohol will replace some of their alcohol intake with chocolate when given the choice. The combination of chocolate's various ingredients stimulates the production of dopamine which generates in the brain a chemical called DARPP-32 that in turn activates hormones that make females (rats, anyway) interested in sex. In America neuroscience researchers have also concluded that the constituents in chocolate and cocoa powder are chemically related to anandamide, which binds to the same brain receptor sites as marijuana. This means that chocolate chemicals may activate receptors for marijuana and copy its psychoactive effects of heightened sensations and euphoria.

However, a lot of this research has so far been funded by the chocolate industry so before running out and eating pounds of chocolate a certain caution is advised. The American Dietetic Association says that the toxicological effects of theobromine are not well-researched and it warns against children eating too much chocolate covered cereal.

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