Where did chocolate come from?

Christopher Columbus is believed to be the first European to discover chocolate. When Columbus returned to Spain in 1502 from his fourth voyage to the New World, he introduced many treasures to the court of King Ferdinand. Among them were cocoa beans, almond-shaped seeds from the cacao tree that are the source of all the chocolate and cocoa products we enjoy today.

A few decades later, during his conquest of Mexico, the Spanish explorer, Hernando Cortez, found Aztec Indians using cocoa beans to prepare a drink called "chocolatl", meaning "warm liquid". The Aztec Emperor Montezuma, who reportedly drank 50 or more portions daily, served guests this royal drink in ceremonial golden goblets, treating it like a nectar for the gods.

In fact, the cacao tree's botanical name, Theobroma cacao, pays homage to its mythical origins. Translated from the Greek, "theobroma" means "food of the gods". The Aztecs held that prophets had brought cocoa beans to their lands. Thus, the beans were a valued commodity, not only for use as a kingly drink but also as a medium of exchange. Four cocoa beans was the price of a turkey, for example.

Cortez, who described chocolate as "the divine drink ... which builds up resistance and fights fatigue", and his countrymen, conceived the idea of sweetening the bitter drink with cane sugar. The recipe for the sweetened frothy beverage underwent several more changes in Spain, where newly discovered spices such as cinnamon and vanilla were added as flavorings.

Spain wisely began to plant cacao trees in its overseas possessions, but consigned the processing of cocoa beans to monasteries under a veil of secrecy. They kept the recipe to themselves for nearly 100 years, but the secret was finally leaked to the rest of Europe. As first, chocolate was restricted to the nobility. In fact, the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa presented cocoa beans as an engagement gift to Louis XIV, and soon chocolate was the rage of the fashionable Court of France. The famous historic figures Casanova and Madame DuBarry both believed that chocolate was conducive to romance. So popular did chocolate become that in 1657 the first of many English "chocolate houses" was established, to serve the drink to the general public.

Chocolate drinking arrived in the American colonies in 1765, when the first chocolate factory opened in New England. Even Thomas Jefferson extolled chocolate's virtues, describing "...the superiority of chocolate for both health and nourishment".

Mass production of chocolate began when the steam engine, invented by James Watt in 1770, mechanized the cocoa bean grinding process, thereby replacing the time-consuming hand method of manufacture. The invention of the cocoa press in 1828 by C.J. Van Houten did much to improve the quality of the beverage by squeezing out part of the cocoa butter, the fat that occurs naturally in cocoa beans.

In the middle of the 19th century, two significant developments revolutionized the chocolate industry. In 1847, an English company introduced solid "eating" chocolate. Now the public could enjoy chocolate eaten out of the hand as well as in the form of a drink. Three decades later, at Vevey, Switzerland, Daniel Peter found that milk could be added to chocolate to make a new product, appropriately named milk chocolate.

Since that time, chocolate has been manufactured in solid bar form and to enrobe confections, as well as an ingredient in baked goods, ice cream, and flavored milk.

What is Chocolate?

Cultivation of cacao trees can occur only in tropical climates, 20 degrees north or south of the equator. Principal growing areas include West Africa, Brazil, Ecuador and the Indies. Generally, it takes five years before trees begin bearing fruit in the form of pods. Each pod contains an average of 20 to 40 cream-colored cocoa beans. Nearly 400 beans are required to make a pound of chocolate liquor, the semi-liquid mass produced by grinding the beans. A non-alcoholic substance, chocolate liquor is the basis of all chocolate and cocoa products.

Once harvested, the beans undergo fermentation, during which they begin to develop their characteristic brown color. Then the beans are dried and shipped to the U.S. and other chocolate manufacturing countries, where chocolate manufacturers clean and roast the beans. After removal of their outer shells, the beans are broken into smaller pieces known as the meat, or "nibs". The nibs, which contain an average of 53% cocoa butter, are then ground, generating enough heat to liquefy the cocoa butter and produce chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor can be processed into cocoa powder by pressing most of the cocoa butter out of the chocolate liquor. Dutched cocoa powder is natural cocoa powder with the acidity neutralized. It has a darker color and different flavor.

Cocoa butter is the natural fat of the cocoa bean. It has a delicate chocolate aroma, but is very bitter tasting. It is used to give body, smoothness, and flavor to eating chocolate. Or the liquor can be poured into molds, cooled and hardened to become unsweetened, or baking, chocolate. The higher the cocoa butter content, the thinner the viscosity of the end chocolate product. The majority of chocolates made in Europe have a higher cocoa butter content than those made in the U.S.

Chocolate liquor plus cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla flavoring are processed to produce dark, flavorful chocolate. Different chocolate liquor ratios produce sweet, semisweet and bittersweet chocolate. To make milk chocolate, fresh whole milk is added to this mixture. White chocolate is a mixture of cocoa butter, sugar, milk and vanilla flavoring. Some chocolate manufacturers use pure artificial vanillin rather than pure vanilla as a flavoring and use milk solids rather than whole milk. Some dark chocolates also may contain milk products.

The mixture of cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and other ingredients is finely ground into a smooth paste. Then it is "conched", or kneaded, often for days, to develop its flavor and to produce its smooth texture. Following a tempering period, the mixture is poured into molds, cooled, wrapped, and packaged for shipment to the consumer or for use as an ingredient in other products.

Many large chocolate manufacturers make a wide variety of chocolates with varying tastes and degrees of smoothness. Many factors affect the flavor, texture and final cost of chocolate, including the types and mix of cocoa beans used; the amount of added cocoa butter, sweeteners and flavoring; and "conching" time.

Confectionery coating (also known as "summer" coating) is a product made by substituting vegetable fats (such as palm kernel, corn, or soy bean oils) for cocoa butter. Products made with vegetable fats may be flavored to taste like chocolate. They are, however, not legally allowed to be labeled as "chocolate"; they must be labeled "chocolate flavored".

Is chocolate bad for me?

Many of the old myths about chocolate and health are crumbling under the weight of scientific fact. The once-prevalent believe that something that tastes so good just can't be good for you has given way to a more balanced picture of chocolate and cocoa products and their relation to health and nutrition. Here are brief reviews of recent findings that correct common misperceptions of the effects of chocolate on health.

Myth: Confectionery is a major cause of tooth decay.
Truth: Tooth decay is primarily the result of poor oral hygiene. Dental caries (another word for cavities) are caused by any foods containing fermentable carbohydrates that are left on the teeth for too long. In fact, there are ingredients found in chocolate products that may retard the tooth decaying process.

Myth: Chocolate is high in caffeine.
Truth: The amount of caffeine in a piece of chocolate candy is significantly lower than that in coffee, tea or cola drinks. For instance, a 5 oz cup of instant coffee has between 40 and 108 mg of caffeine, while a one oz milk chocolate bar contains only 6 mg and many confectionery items have no caffeine at all.

Myth: Confectionery has a high fat content and will lead to weight gain.
Truth: Health professionals and nutritionists suggest that calories from fat should account for no more than 30% of your daily caloric intake. A 1.5oz. milk chocolate bar contains 13 grams of fat; a dark chocolate bar of the same weight contains 12.

"Candy, in moderation, can be part of low-fat eating. In fact, an occasional sweet treat helps you stick to a healthy eating plan." - Annette B. Natow, Ph.D., R.D., author of The Fat Counter and The Fat Attack Plan.

Myth: Chocolate is bad for your cholesterol.
Truth: The American Heart Association recommends that daily cholesterol intake not exceed 300mg. A chocolate bar is actually low in cholesterol. A 1.65oz bar contains only 12mg! A 1oz piece of cheddar cheese contains 30mg of cholesterol - more than double the amount found in a chocolate bar.

Myth: Chocolate is high in sodium.
Truth: According to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, the maximum Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for sodium is 1,100 to 3,300mg daily. A 1.5oz milk chocolate bar contains 41mg, while the same size dark chocolate bar contains only 5mg. On the other hand, a 1.5oz serving of iced devil's food cake has a whopping 241mg - many times more than chocolate bars.

Myth: Chocolate gives me acne.
Truth: Over the past two decades, clinical studies have exonerated chocolate as a cause or exacerbating factor in the development or persistence of acne. In fact, many dermatologists doubt that diet plays any significant role in acne.

At the University of Missouri, student volunteers with mild to moderate acne each consumed nearly 20 ounces of chocolate over a 48 hour period. Examination of lesions on the fifth day of the test and again on the seventh day showed no new lesions other than those that might be expected based upon the usual variations the subjects had exhibited during several weeks of observation prior to the test.

In a research study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, a group of 65 subjects were fed chocolate bars containing nearly ten times the amount of chocolate liquor as a normal 1.5 oz commercially available chocolate bar. A control group ate a bar that tasted like chocolate, but actually contained no chocolate liquor. At the conclusion of the test, the average acne condition of those eating the chocolate was virtually identical to that of the controls, who had eaten the imitation bars.

Myth: Alot of people are allergic to chocolate.
Truth: It is possible for a person to be allergic to any food, including chocolate. But recent evidence suggests that allergy to chocolate may be relatively rare.

The actual incidence of allergic sensitivity to chocolate is far less common than positive reactions to skin scratch tests would seem to indicate. In at least one double-blind study to determine the correlation positive skin tests for chocolate allergy and the manifestation of clinically observable symptoms, researchers could find only one patient out of a possible 500 who showed both a positive response to the skin test and an objective clinical reaction after eating chocolate.

To confirm food allergy or food sensitivity, a "challenge" of the food in question is administered. To yield accurate results, the challenge should be conducted under double-blind conditions; that is, neither the investigator nor the patient knows in advance whether the food administered is the suspected substance or a placebo. This allows for objective evaluation of clinical symptoms.

According to S. Allan Bock, M.D., a researcher in food allergy at the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine, evaluation of hundreds of patients at that institution has shown no confirmed allergic reaction to chocolate during double-blind challenges.