How did we end up with chocolate?
Before the sixteenth century, chocolate did not exist in the minds of Europeans (who later became Americans). The use of the fermented cacao bean seems to have originated in Mexico as early as 1900 B.C.. The Mayans left some historical record of their use of roasted cacao seed paste with water combined with chili peppers and cornmeal as a drink to the gods.
By 1400 B.C., the Aztecs had taken over a sizeable part of Mesoamerica and began to import it, and collected cacao from the peoples they conquered as a tax, similar to what we might consider property tax. Cacao became a form of trade currency for the Aztec people, both within their society as well as with travelers.
Columbus first encountered the cacao bean in 1502 and observed its value to the local people, so he took it home to Spain where it largely sat unnoticed. It was only after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs that chocolate was brought to Europe where it was still served as a beverage and
sweetener was added. Initially it was available only to royalty, but within a century it became available to all.
During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the English, Dutch and French colonized and started cacao plantations, mostly operated by slave labor and animal drawn machines. The industrial revolution brought the beginnings of what we now know as chocolate, with the advent of adding alkaline salts to chocolate to reduce the bitterness, and removing cacao butter to make the chocolate cheaper and of a more consistent texture.
A short time later, it was discovered that by adding back some of melted cacao butter, chocolate became moldable into bars and other shapes. Milk chocolate was invented in 1875 by Daniel Peter when he added Henri Nestle powdered milk.
Through much more trial and error we have many varieties of chocolate that line our shelves today!
The Politics of Cacao Today
A large majority of cacao used today comes from West Africa, where small farmers are often financially abused because they are at the mercy of large companies. Farmers are too often forced to sell their harvests to middle-men who do not look out for their best interest so they are financially short-changed and can do nothing about it. This often forces them to resort to child labor to reduce costs.
Buying fair trade certified chocolate ensures that the farmers that produced the cacao that made your chocolate have received a fair price for their product and gives the farmers the opportunity to continue and better their business. With so much turmoil in the country of Africa, please take the time to help even in this small way!
How will chocolate benefit you?
The health benefits of cocoa are amazing and applicable to everyone. Cocoa in any form provides fiber, protein, fat and carbohydrate; all four categories of nutrients. It also provides riboflavin, niacin, folate and B6, as well as manganese, copper, magnesium and iron.
Folate is important for the developing fetus during pregnancy, so don’t be shy about adding some cocoa to your diet if you are expecting!
Manganese and magnesium contribute to the formation of healthy bones and teeth, and manganese supports the healthy functioning of the pituitary gland for hormonal support.
Copper helps maintain healthy blood, nerves and collagen formation, which contributes again to healthy bones as well as ligaments, tendons and even skin.
Iron is the portion of your blood that forms hemoglobin to carry oxygen to your body…just a little important! Lack of iron can cause anemia, so be sure that if you are excessively tired you have your iron levels checked.
And, contrary to what seems to remain as popular belief, consuming fats is very important for your overall health. Cocoa butter contains fats consisting of palmitic acid, stearic acid and oleic acid. Palmitic and stearic acid are both saturated fats and contribute to the richness of chocolate. I am going to insert a plug here that saturated fats are not the face of evil in your food. Quite to the contrary, the body needs and metabolizes saturated fats quite well, both for repair and energy. Here are a few reasons:
- Saturated fats are excellent carries of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. These vitamins are responsible for healthy bones and teeth, healthy blood and immune system function and healthy eyes, just to name a few.
- The brain is composed primarily of fats and cholesterol (yes, you’re a literal fat-head). Saturated fat is a wonderful precursor to the fats and cholesterol that are necessary to maintain the health of the brain.
- Saturated fats are the preferred energy source for your heart and are easily used for energy during times of physical exertion.
- Saturated fats do NOT build up in your blood vessels randomely. There are many processes that contribute to plaque formation in the arteries, but all of them begin with the base of inflammation in the body. Cholesterol and saturated fats are simply a mechanism for the body to attempt to heal damage that is done by inflammation, which then leads to artery blockages.
For more information on fats, grab a copy of Mary Enig’s book called Know Your Fats.
And finally, oleic acid is an omega-9, mono-unsaturated fatty acid. Omega 9 fatty acids are largely unmentioned because they make up a small percentage of fats in foods, but they are beneficial for decreasing inflammation, supporting the health of the brain and therefore improving memory and brain function.
All of these nutrients combine to help the following conditions:
- High LDL Cholesterol
- Circulatory complaints
- High blood pressure
- Stiffness of arteries and veins
- Nervous system disorders
- Lung disorders
- Immune deficiency
Keep in mind that eating chocolate alone will not correct all of the above imbalances. Make sure that the rest of your diet is healthy and free of GMOs, preservatives, unhealthy fats and high amounts of sugar.
Why you want to Choose Non-GMO Chocolate
While cacao, according to my research, has not yet become a genetically modified food, there are other ingredients to be careful of when purchasing chocolate products. Many chocolate products contain soy lecithin that is derived from soy, and over 90% of soy crops are GM. Another ingredient that may be GM in your chocolate products is sugar. Sugar beets are one of the main sources of sweeteners and most crops are largely GM. Lastly, if you are a consumer of milk chocolate, the milk products used to make chocolate may be sourced from animals that are fed GM feed, resulting in tainted milk.
How to add it to your diet
Lest I miss the obvious, eat a chocolate bar! However, that comes with the caveat that when we talk about the benefits of chocolate we are referring to high cacao content–namely, dark chocolate or cacao powder. Milk chocolate, while it tastes wonderful, has less cacao content and more sugar making it a less than ideal choice.
If you are not one that enjoys dark chocolate, try adding cacao powder to other types of food like smoothies or even breakfast cereals or yogurt.
Using cacao as a baking ingredient is also a great way to integrate it into your diet. The process of heating harm only the B-vitamins as they tend to be sensitive to heat, but the other nutrients will be preserved.
Looking for where to find Non-GMO chocolate? Visit my blogs for each category to find what your taste buds are looking for!