The history of chocolate can be traced to the ancient Mayans, and even earlier to the ancient Olmecs of southern Mexico. The word chocolate may conjure up images of sweet candy bars and luscious truffles, but the chocolate of today is little like the chocolate of the past. Throughout much of history, chocolate was a revered but bitter beverage, not a sweet, edible treat.
Cacao has captivated the world for thousands of years and is a big part of modern cuisine in the form of chocolate. Health benefits of cocoa include decreased inflammation, improved heart and brain health, blood sugar and weight control and healthy teeth and skin.
It’s nutritious and easy to add to your diet in creative ways. However, make sure to use non-alkalized cacao powder or dark chocolate containing more than 70% cacao if you want to maximize health benefits. Remember that chocolate still contains significant quantities of sugar and fats, so if you’re going to use it, stick to reasonable portion sizes and combine it with a healthy balanced diet.
How Chocolate Is Made
Chocolate is made from the fruit of Cacao trees, which are native to Central and South America. The fruits are called pods and each pod contains around 40 Cacao beans. The beans are dried and roasted to create Cocoa beans.
It’s unclear exactly when Cacao came on the scene or who invented it. According to Hayes Lavis, cultural arts curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, ancient Olmec pots and vessels from around 1500 B.C. were discovered with traces of theobromine, a stimulant compound found in chocolate and tea.
It’s thought the Olmecs used Cacao to create a ceremonial drink. However, since they kept no written history, opinions differ on if they used cacao beans in their concoctions or just the pulp of the cacao pod.
Cacao Beans as Currency
The Aztecs took chocolate admiration to another level. They believed cacao was given to them by their gods. Like the Mayans, they enjoyed the caffeinated kick of hot or cold, spiced chocolate beverages in ornate containers, but they also used cacao beans as currency to buy food and other goods. In Aztec culture, cacao beans were considered more valuable than gold.
Aztec chocolate was mostly an upper-class extravagance, although the lower classes enjoyed it occasionally at weddings or other celebrations.
Perhaps the most notorious Aztec chocolate lover of all was the mighty Aztec ruler Montezuma II who supposedly drank gallons of chocolate each day for energy and as an aphrodisiac. It’s also said he reserved some of his cacao beans for his military.
When chocolate first came on the scene in Europe, it was a luxury only the rich could enjoy. But in 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten discovered a way to treat cacao beans with alkaline salts to make a powdered chocolate that was easier to mix with water.
The process became known as “Dutch processing” and the chocolate produced called cacao powder or “Dutch cocoa.”
Van Houten supposedly also invented the cocoa press, although some reports state his father invented the machine. The cocoa press separated cocoa butter from roasted cocoa beans to inexpensively and easily make cocoa powder, which was used to create a wide variety of delicious chocolate products.
Both Dutch processing and the chocolate press helped make chocolate affordable for everyone. It also opened the door for chocolate to be mass-produced.
Most modern chocolate is highly-refined and mass-produced, although some chocolatiers still make their chocolate creations by hand and keep the ingredients as pure as possible. Chocolate is available to drink, but is more often enjoyed as an edible confection or in desserts and baked goods.
While your average chocolate bar isn’t considered healthy, dark chocolate has earned its place as a heart-healthy, antioxidant-rich treat.