A Love Affair with Chocolate

Mayan Painting

Maya lord forbids an individual from touching a container of chocolate. (Wikipedia, Public Domain)

[February 2020 | San Juan Silver Stage | By Kathryn R. Burke]

Few foods evoke as much passion as chocolate. Folklore and history from many cultures claim that consuming chocolate instills faith, improves health, builds strength, and fuels sexual passion. Once an indulgence of royalty, chocolate is now a treasured and accessible—and, yes, even healthy—treat.

It’s been scientifically proven that eating dark chocolate (with high cacao or cocoa and low sugar content) reduces LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, helps prevent cancer, lowers blood pressure, improves brain function, stabilizes blood sugar, increases blood flow to the brain and, thanks to its perceived aphrodisiac qualities, to other places.

The Greeks called it theobroma, or “food of the Gods,” naming it after the seeds from the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. The Maya, who have used it for more than 3,000 years, called it xocolati, or “bitter water,” a name that suggests they made a drink of it. (Sugar was unknown in the Meso-American cultures.) The Aztecs believed their god, Quetzalcoatl, descended from heaven carrying a cocoa tree! Both Amazon cultures believed chocolate to be a source of wisdom and vitality, reserving its use for noblemen, priests, and warriors. Records dating to A.D. 1200 (and before) show cocoa beans were used also as a form of currency. Making use of its many qualities, the emperor, Montezuma, purportedly drank 50 (golden) goblets of chocolate a day, which would have made him wealthy and wise and a very busy boy, especially when it came to the ladies.

Chocolate has long been valued for its aphrodisiac qualities. This effect was later enjoyed by many, including the famous philanderer Casanova as well as multitudes of aspiring lovers today who celebrate Valentine’s Day (the day of lovers) with gifts of chocolate.

Christopher Columbus and, to a greater extent, the Spanish priests brought the heady stuff to Europe, the first major shipment of it arriving in Spain in 1585. As it was in the New World, chocolate soon became a substance reserved for nobility. The kings and their kinsmen (and ladies) knew a good thing when they tasted it, and saw no need to share it with the common folk. Several humorous anecdotes of chocolate’s arrival in Spain, including mistaking it for sheep dung and Catholic condemnation of the drink.

Casanova

Alleged portrait of Giacomo Casanova, circa 1760. Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–1779).

Cacao Tree

Cacao tree with fruit pods in various stages of ripening. (Wikipedia, Public Domain)

Where the Colombian cultures consumed it with vanilla, chile pepper, and achiote, the Europeans preferred milk and sugar and made sweet drinks out of it. Both groups enjoyed the somewhat psychotic benefits of fermenting it, however. Perhaps the term chocoholic (defined by Webster as “a chocolate addict”) dates back to the Mayans? Although Montezuma and his buddies knew it to be an aphrodisiac, chocolate’s rep really grew when the French got ahold of it. Madame de Pompadour gave it a go but became discouraged when it failed to stimulate the amorous interest of Louis XV; her contemporary, Madame du Barry—a nymphomaniac—found it quite handy. Chocolate is, after all, reputed to increase sexual vitality. You might call it a 16th century Viagra.

And those who consumed chocolate could also have been called fat, for chocolate addicts were well on their way to that dubious destination. By the 1800s, chocolate was an expensive European confection and import, a sign of wealth and distinction as it evolved into desserts and candies, which had less cocoa and more sugar. And fat. The scales started to tip, and in the wrong direction.

The Swiss, and later the Belgians, took the lead in chocolate production. The English soon got into the game, with Joseph Fry developing the first modern chocolate bar in 1847 followed by the Cadbury Brothers two years later. In 1874, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé added condensed milk and made a popular, creamy milk chocolate drink, one still marketed today. In 1879 another Swiss, Rodolphe Lindt, figured out how to make soft chocolate by adding triglycerides in the form of cocoa butter. In the early 1900s, Frank Mars and his family invented the Snickers, Milky Way, Three Musketeers, and Mar’s bars. In 1913, Jules Séchaud of Montreux, Switzerland, introduced filled chocolates.

Chocolate also has proven heart-healthy properties. Yes, it’s an aphrodisiac, its consumption releases endorphins, a substance produced by the pituitary gland during orgasm and exercise. No wonder chocolate is the food for lovers. Chocolate has many other healthful qualities. Eating dark chocolate (with high cacao percentage and low sugar content) reduces LDL, helps prevent cancer, lowers blood pressure, improves brain function, stabilizes blood sugar, increases blood flow to the brain…and, thanks to its perceived aphrodisiac qualities, to other places.

Consuming it gives you a lift, “instant” energy—the cacao bean, chocolate’s source, is rich in stimulants like caffeine and theobromine (remember the Greek word for chocolate?). Both of these substances help combat fatigue, which is why soldiers use it in battle, hikers like in their trail mix, and skiers drink it after a couple of good runs. But it can do so much more than make you feel good. It’s a flavonoid and a natural antioxidant. Chocolate is just plain good for you!

Bottom line? Enjoy a long, healthy, happy life! Eat and drink more dark chocolate. It’s good and it’s good for you!