With an increasing number of published studies highlighting its health benefits, could chocolate really be “the food of the gods”?
This moniker was probably first bestowed on chocolate by the Mayans and Aztecs at least 3500 years ago. Though imbibed mainly as a ceremonial drink at that time (mixed with chili and other spices which gave it quite a kick), it turns out that chocolate really does grow on trees. Chocolate historian and connoisseur Mark Sciscenti, who creates ambrosial chocolate brews based on traditional Mesoamerican and Mexican recipes at the Kakawa Chocolate House in Santa Fe, notes, “The chocolate tree was given the Latin name Theobroma Cacao, which means ‘Food of the Gods’, by the 18th century botanist C. Linnaeus in 1753.” If you want to learn more about the history of chocolate, check out Mark’s amazing web site. I will never forget a terrific “tasting” talk he gave on site at the Bronx Botanical Gardens in New York, which grows its very own Theobroma Cacao tree.
What is it about chocolate that inspires such devotion? One study found that certain bacteria in our intestines might in fact be responsible. While not the most romantic concept, it seems that some of us who crave chocolate have different colonies of intestinal bacteria than others. Interestingly, it took researchers over a year to find a control population—people who did NOT crave chocolate.
Of course, there are complex interplays of psychological and physiological factors implicated in chocolate craving. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to mood regulation and deeply connected to hormonal balance, is affected by chemical constituents in chocolate known as methylxanthines. My personal favorite, dark chocolate, is made by mixing cocoa butter with chocolate liquor and sugar and forgoing the added-milk step. Some products are listed by their percentage content of cacao; health aficionados consider greater than 60% to be ideal for maximum benefits. Chocolate contains numerous antioxidants called flavonoids that exert an anti-inflammatory effect. Numerous studies have demonstrated positive effects of moderate dark chocolate consumption on cardiovascular function (lowering blood pressure, for example) and cognitive abilities (like visual sensitivity).
Of course, we must be mindful that too much of any good thing is not good for our health, and too much chocolate may contribute to obesity and metabolic imbalances like diabetes. But in moderation, assuming you are not allergic or have migraine headaches triggered by chocolate, a little dark chocolate a day may keep the doctor away. Oh, and if you can, buy fair trade to support small-scale farmers around the world by directing a greater proportion of economic gains to those who actually do the work to gather and produce the product. For more information on fair trade—which extends to coffee, tea and artisan trades—check out the Massachusetts-based Equal Exchange Co-op website.