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Chocolate

 

The returning crew of Columbus's fourth voyage in 1502 brought the first cocoa beans from the New World to Europe. The Spanish eventually combined them with vanilla, and other flavorings, sugar, and milk to arrive at a concoction that, as one writer noted at the time, people "would die for"; Aztec Emperor Montezuma described it as a "divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue."

 

For the first couple of centuries, chocolate was served only as a beverage. A solid form -- probably more like marzipan than the chocolate we know -- was touted as an instant breakfast in 18th-century France. The stimulant effects of chocolate are due to its caffeine content and were thought to make it a particularly useful food for soldiers standing watch during the night.

 

The chocolate bar, first marketed in about 1920, captured the public's imagination when it as issued to the US armed forces as a "fighting food" during World War II.

 

THE SOURCE OF CHOCOLATE

Chocolate is made from the beans found in the pods that grow on the cocoa tree, an evergreen that originated in the river valleys of South America. Native Central and South Americans valued coca so highly that they used coca beans as currency. Today about three-fourths of the world's chocolate is grown in West Africa and most of the rest in Brazil.

 

After cocoa beans are harvested, an initial phase of fermentation and drying is followed by low-temperature roasting to bring out the flavor. Various manufacturing processes follow, depending on whether the product is to be solid as chocolate or coca powder.

 

In 1828 the Van Houten family of Amsterdam, seeking to make a better drinking chocolate, invented a screw press to remove most of the cocoa butter from the beans. Not only did it make a better drink, but they also found that by mixing the extracted cocoa butter back into ground cocoa beans, they could make a smoother, fatter solid paste that would absorb sugar; this led to "eating chocolate."

 

COMPONENTS

Chocolate is not a great source of nutrients, but there is no harm in eating a limited amount of chocolate, especially the dark variety.

 

An ounce (30 g) of solid chocolate contains about 150 calories and 2 or 3 g of protein. The original bean has significant amounts of vitamin E and B vitamins. These nutrients, however, are so diluted as to be negligible in modern processed chocolate. Sweet or semisweet chocolate contains between 40 and 53 percent fat, or cocoa butter. Both chocolate and cocoa powder supply chromium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, but fat and calories make chocolate an inappropriate source of these minerals except when used in emergency rations.

 

A chemical composition that prevents it from quickly turning rancid made coca butter valuable as a long-lasting food and cosmetic oil.

 

Chocolate is a solid at room temperature, but since its melting point is just below the human body temperature, it begins to melt and release its flavor components as soon as it is placed in the mouth.

 

White chocolate, a mixture of cocoa butter, milk solids, and sugar, contains no coca solids. Unlike milk chocolate, white chocolate does not keep well, because it lacks the compounds that prevent milk solids from becoming rancid over time.

 

THE FEEL-GOOD FACTOR

Chocolate contains two related alkaloid stimulants, theobromine and caffeine, in a ratio of about 10 to 1. Theobromine, unlike caffeine, does not stimulate the central nervous system; its effects are mainly diuretic. Commercial chocolate products contain no more than about 0.1 percent caffeine and are much less stimulating, volume for volume, that a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Unsweetened baking chocolate for home use is a more concentrated source of caffeine. Chocolate is also rich in phenylethylamine (PEA), a naturally occurring compound that has effects similar to amphetamine. This compound can also trigger migraine headaches in susceptible people.

 

Some people (often women) have a tendency to binge on chocolate after emotional upsets. No scientific basis for this behavior is known. However, psychiatrists have theorized that "chocoholics" may be people who have a faulty mechanism for regulating their body levels of phenylethylamine; others attribute chocolate cravings to hormonal changes, such as those during puberty or during a woman's premenstrual phase.

 

After centuries of investigation, chocolate's once-vaunted aphrodisiac qualities can be discounted. But in its myriad modern forms, chocolate is an endless temptation and a culinary source of pleasure.

 

NEW STUDIES

A report in the February 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association sheds some positive light on chocolate. Researchers reviewed a number of studies on the possible health benefits of chocolate, particularly the dark variety, and cocoa. They found the flavonoids in chocolate to have some disease-fighting antioxidant properties -- also found in red wine, and some fruits and vegetables -- associated with a decreased risk of heart disease.

 

Chocolate is best tasted on an empty stomach. Never put chocolate in the refrigerator -- it will cause the cocoa butter to separate and form a white bloom. When tasting chocolate, let it sit in your mouth for a few seconds to release its primary flavors and aromas. then chew it a few times to release the secondary aromas. Let it rest against the roof of your mouth so you get the full flavor.

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