Chocolate is one of the most popular flavors in the world; it’s certainly my favorite flavor. 🙂 It can be used as a drink, be eaten, used to create scents, and a host of other things. It can also be modified so that the same beginning product can take on many different tastes, textures, and flavors. There are literally hundreds of thousands of recipes that involve chocolate.

chocolate frosted cupcakes

This article isn’t a total love affair about my favorite treat. I decided to mix a bit of history and health into the mix, just to show that I’m not shallow about my love for the stuff. It’s obvious I’m not alone, but it’s also funny that it’s gone through many changes, wasn’t always liked, and in some variations even offer health benefits.

History of Chocolate

Chocolate got it’s name from a seed called the cacao, which comes from the Theobroma cacao tree. It’s estimated that it was been consumed as a drink going back as far as 1400 BC. The drink was nothing like what we drink today, being more like coffee than the sweet nectar we get to enjoy. It had an appealing aroma, with a kind of bittersweet taste that was very popular among the first people to drink it.

At one time it was considered so valuable that was actually traded like money. It was considered a sacred drink that only kings and tribal leaders were allowed to consume. The cacao bean would be roasted and then ground up, and the resulting powder would be mixed with things such as herbs, chilies, and wild honey; at least that’s how the Mayans liked it, and there are some candy bars in stores today that have started adding these things back into them… sweeter of course. The Aztecs are assumed to be the first culture that added sugar to it, along with cinnamon, vanilla beans, and many other flavorings; thanks Aztecs!

It wasn’t until early in the 16th century that Europeans first encountered chocolate, and it wasn’t until they became popular in Europe that it began being called by that name. A popular story goes that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was given a handful of the beans as a gift. When some beans fell, there was a scramble among some of the Aztecs to try to pick them up.

At that point Cortés knew this was supposed to be something special and he made sure to obtain more of them to take back to Spain. He actually promoted it as if it had magical properties, writing to King Carlos I: “The divine drink of chocolate build resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk all day without food.” I tried talking my wife into this; she wasn’t buying it either. lol

Initially chocolate wasn’t all that popular in Europe. There was never a mention by King Carlos I as to whether he liked it or not. Though the history is sketchy, it didn’t seem to grow in popularity until just after the beginning of the 17th century where, strangely enough, it was mostly popular among women. Once it began to catch on, shops and salons of all types started to pop up throughout Spain, France, and Italy, and supposedly it was the French who first figured out how to turn it into something more than just a drink.

chocolate cakes

Even though chocolate became popular, it was pretty much still relegated only to those people who had the money to pay for it. It wasn’t until around 1828 when a Dutch chemist named Coenraad Johannes Van Houten (yes, that’s spelled right…) figured out a way to make a less bitter chocolate and turn it into a powdered form, which he called cocoa. The process he developed made chocolate darker and milder, and also made it easier to produce more products. This meant the price of chocolate came down and made it affordable for everyone to be able to enjoy. Even today, most of the best tasting chocolate comes from that region of the world.

Types of Chocolate

Van Houten’s work led to the revolution and creation of all the different types of chocolate that we enjoy today. Discounting white chocolate, which doesn’t have any cacao-based products in it at all and therefore isn’t really chocolate (I hate it so lol), there are hundreds of diverse flavors of chocolate products. Each chocolatier comes up with their own derivation or how they wish to mix up the chocolate to produce the flavors they like and hope their customers enjoy. But there are a couple of general flavors on which every other flavor is based on.

Milk chocolate is the most common chocolate consumed throughout the world; it’s also my favorite. Most chocolate candies and candy products are based off it, which contains milk powder or condensed milk as its base. It’s usually the sweetest chocolate as well, which probably adds to its popularity and my enjoyment of it… as well as how smooth it feels in one’s mouth.

Dark chocolate has less sugar, and adds fat into the mixture rather than milk. In the United States it requires a 15% concentration of chocolate liquor to be considered a true dark chocolate, but that number is much higher in other countries. Dark chocolate has been given credit for some health benefits because it contains the flavonoids epicatechin and gallic acid. These two flavonoids are said to promote heart healthy benefits and, in low qualities, possibly help reduce blood glucose levels.

Not all dark chocolate has sugar already in it, and dark chocolate is usually used as a baking product. Those dark chocolates that do have sugar include semi-sweet chocolate and bittersweet chocolate. Unfortunately I don’t like most of these, which means I’m not eating healthy chocolate; oh well…

Chocolate is given credit for other health benefits as well. Chocolate is one of the few products that can stimulate dopamine and raise seratonin levels in the brain, bringing on a sense of euphoria in people. It also has something called theobromine which can be toxic to animals, especially dogs, which is why you shouldn’t give it to them. In moderation, it’s said that chocolate can lower blood pressure, help fight off cancer, and help relieve diarrhea.

Psychology of Chocolate

chocolate cake slice

The best thing about chocolate is how it makes us feel. Smelling chocolate can make one’s mouth water. Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, used to literally faint whenever he smelled high concentrations of chocolate, saying the pleasurable aroma affected him so much that he just wanted to swoon. There are a few apocryphal stories of him passing out in the 1970’s when he used to visit SUNY Oswego and had to be driven by the chocolate plant in Fulton. I don’t know how true it was but it was a great story I could get behind because it was one of the high points of going back and forth from college.

Women crave chocolate during their periods, though studies can’t figure out why. True chocolate connoisseurs can taste a small piece and tell you whether it’s Belgian or Swiss chocolate. Those of us in American can tell the difference between Nestlé’s chocolate and Hershey’s chocolate. Everyone has their preferences; that’s another thing that makes chocolate wonderful.

I mentioned dopamine and serotonin levels, but didn’t define the terms. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, when stimulated, makes people feel mentally good, as if they’re on a mini high. It’s the same thing that stimulated when people smoke, which explains why people feel like can get addicted to chocolate as well as cigarettes. Luckily, studies have shown that people can’t get addicted to chocolate (something else my wife doesn’t believe), only the feeling that chocolate produces. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that, when levels are low, brings on depression. Chocolate helps people feel good after eating it.

There are few other things contained in chocolate that can affect people’s moods. It can affect the endorphins in the brain, which gives people energy and decreases stress. It stimulates phenylethylamine, which changes blood pressure and blood glucose levels, making people feel more alert. It contains a lipid called anandamide which helps the feeling of well-being last longer. Darn it, the stuff just makes me smile! 😀

Chocolate In Our World Today

Chocolate is a $50 billion a year industry, and new products and flavors are being created every day. Chocolate is so versatile that it can go in products such as coffee and peanut butter, on top of products such as cakes and donuts, or be the product on its own in such ways as with candy bars and truffles.

It’s the number one gift items on holidays such as Valentines Day, Easter and Mother’s Day. There are culinary contests held around the world where top chefs not only show up to create tasty desserts, but also show off their design and presentation skills.

Any chef worth his or her weight in gold understands just how important chocolate is to the palates of most consumers. Therefore, it is imperative that they spend more time learning how to both make and modify chocolate to put their own definitive stamp on their creations. It’s also important for them to know how the flavors differ based on where they’re processed. Every country has different standards for how much cacao or chocolate liquor has to be a product to be considered as chocolate. This helps to define the distinctive flavors from each country, and without knowing that no one could ever be considered a true master chef.

I’m glad I’m not so picky when it comes to chocolate. I just want to enjoy it in cakes, candy, cookies, ice cream, Harrison Bakery desserts… I’d better stop there, otherwise I might never finish this article.

This article isn’t close to being in depth, but it’s a pretty good start. If you’re interested in learning more, there are lots of articles online. If you’re more interested in consuming it then we have a chance to be good friends. 😉
 

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