Cacao Defined

So where does chocolate come from? It's a good question, and one that many people would have a hard time answering. Well, the first part of that answer is "a tree."

That's right. Chocolate begins its journey as seeds from the cacao tree. Early in its history, virtually all cacao beans were harvested from the criollo variety of the tree. The criollo is the type found in Mesoamerica and which was used by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs (and Spaniards - at least early on).

But with time, the Spaniards faced a decrease in supply caused by increased demand and the decline in local population by disease (which resulted in a shrunken slave force). So they began searching for another source, and they found it in the forastero variety of cacao tree growing in South American rain forests.

The forastero variety came with pros and cons. The bad news was that its flavor was inferior to that of criollo - it was more bitter and less aromatic. But, the tree produced more pods, was hardier and less susceptible to disease.

Because of the huge demand facing them, chocolate merchants and manufacturers did what was necessary to bring the desired product to market. They sacrificed quality for quantity. The Spanish quickly looked to develop the South American cacao industry, forming large cocoa groves and using African slaves as its labor force.

Did Europe's chocolate lovers notice that their fine chocolate was being replaced with a coarser variety? Maybe, but it didn't seem to matter. Chocolate concoctions by this point had largely become sweetened beverages, so a couple extra spoonfuls of sugar and/or other flavorings (vanilla, etc.) could simply hide its deficiencies. Simply put, the flooding of forastero cocoa through the European market made it the dominant chocolate taste.

And it was the introduction of the forastero variety that was one of the major factors that made chocolate available to everyone, not just the aristocracy. The endless supply of forastero trees, combined with an increased use of cheap sugar, cut prices substantially.

Other factors contributed as well, of course. The industrial revolution played a big part, with Dutchman Conrad Van Houten inventing the process for making cocoa powder. Later Van Houten began treating his cocoa powder with alkaline to neutralize some of the bitterness and make it more easily mixable with water.

This "cheap" version of cocoa swept Europe and was in the house-holds of even the lowest socio-economic classes.

Chocolate is Food; Chocolate is Medicine

Evidence for the use of cacao/chocolate as a medicine can be traced back to Aztec sources. A priest named de Shagun said, "When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one. Thus it is said 'I take cacao, I wet my lips, I refresh myself.'"

Chocolate drinks were used alone by the ancient Mexicans to treat stomach and intestinal complaints, and were also used in combination with the bark from the silk cotton tree to treat infections. Other sources indicate that chocolate was popular as a treatment for diarrhea, fevers, faintness, and coughs. It's interesting to note that it was also used to improve the flavor of other medications at the time.

In an article by Dillinger, a summary of positive claims and uses of cacao/chocolate is presented. They list the symptom/ illness and the references from history how chocolate was used. The list is extensive but some of the illnesses include the following: agitation, anemia, angina, aphrodisiac, appetite, asthma, belching, invigorates the body, breast milk production, bad breath, cancer, mucous production, colds, colic, cough, diarrhea, improves digestion, dyspepsia, improved energy, nourishes the body after exercise, female complaints, fever, gout, strengthens gums, delay growth of white hair, hangovers, hemorrhoids, strengthens the heart, infections, inflammation, irritation, itch, jaundice, kidney stones, moral nature, menstrual flow, obesity, pain, pregnancy, rheumatism, seizures, sleep, cleans teeth, ulcers, improvedurine flow, reduces vomiting, and generally improves overall health.

Santiago de Valverde Turices stated that chocolate should be called a medicine because it changed the patient's constitution. He felt that it was beneficial for the ailments of the chest, good for the stomach and generally "balanced" one's nature. Henry Stubbe also spoke extensively on the benefits of chocolate as a medicine, calling it "a great remedy against inflammations."

In addition, Stubbe quoted a prominent Spanish physician: “[Chocolate] is one of the most wholesome and pretious drinks, that have been discovered to this day; because in the whole drink there is not one ingredient put in, which is either harmful in itself, or by commixition; but all are cordial, and very beneficial to our bodies, whether we be old or young, great with child, or others accustomed to a sedentary life.”

Another physician argued that chocolate was all that was necessary for breakfast because after eating chocolate, one needed no further meat, bread or drink. Dr. de Cardenas pointed out that the chocolate beverage “yields good nourishment to the body, it helps to digest ill humors.”

Seville compared wine to chocolate, declaring that “none hath been known to live above seven days by drinking wine alone, [however] one may live months and years using nothing but chocolate.”

William Hughes was quoted as saying, “Chocolate is most excellent, is nourishing and preserving health entire, purging by expectoration, and especially the sweat vents of the body, preventing unnatural fumes ascending to the head, yet causing a pleasant and natural sleep and rest …eaten twice a day, a man may very well subsist therewith, not taking anything else at all.” He also felt that chocolate was needed for “speedy refreshment after travel, hard labor, or violent exercise” as well as “exhilarating and corroborating [to] all parts and faculties of the body.”

The popular thought in Europe was that chocolate could be a "sole" food. Quelas told the following story: "There died at Martinico a councilor about 100 years old, who, for 30 years past, lived on nothing but chocolate and biscuit. He sometimes, had a little soup at dinner, but never any fish, flesh, or other victuals; he was, nevertheless, so vigorous and nimble" that, at 85, he could get on horseback without stirrups."

The great author Laverdan declared that chocolate "alone could keep a man robust and healthy for many years, if he takes it three times a day, that is, morning, noon and night ... chocolate can prolong life through the great nutrients that it supplies to the body and it restores strength ... it is an universal medicine not only for preserving health, but to undo many ills."

There are numerous quotes from many journals and writings regarding the health benefits of chocolate. In 1912 several un-named professors proclaimed that chocolate as a beverage is a "complete food" but not considered healthful when eaten in either candy or cake form.

Cocoa and chocolate have a long history as a medicine and as a cure to many conditions and diseases. We now need to examine current chronic illnesses and review the recent scientific research that confirms much of what the ancients knew for centuries - that unprocessed, dark chocolate is beneficial to our health and well-being.

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