The Power of Raw Chocolate

by TeaLady on May 18, 2012

Cocoa fruit on the tree.

Chocolate as “Health Food”

People sometimes forget that chocolate, like wine and tea, starts out as a natural product. Chocolate comes from the cacao bean (the seed of the fruit of the cacao tree) which is a particularly potent source of antioxidants. The antioxidants are part of a large class of compounds called polyphenols. Dark chocolate and cocoa are particularly high in a sub-class of these compounds called flavanols, which are also found in red wine and tea. These flavanols are key to heart health, and their promotion of heart health has really grabbed researchers’ attention. If you eat raw cacao, you are also getting a concentrated source of anti-oxidants, magnesium, chromium and vitamin C.

“Chocolate nourishes and preserves health entire, yet causes a pleasant and natural sleep and rest,” wrote Dr. William Hughes, an English physician in 1672. “Drunk twice a day, a man may very well subsist therewith, not taking anything else at all.”

Chocolate contains very little caffeine. A 1.5 ounce milk chocolate bar has 11 mg of caffeine, while a similar-sized dark chocolate bar has 27 mg of caffeine. In contrast, a 12-ounce mug of coffee has 200 mg. It does however contain a caffeine-like chemical called “theobromine”. Theobromine may be responsible for some of the pleasurable feelings you get after eating chocolate because it releases natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins in your brain. The same chemicals which are released by the brain when people are falling in love. Perhaps this explains why chocolate and Valentines Day are so closely linked. Chocolate is one of nature’s most concentrated sources of theobromine, a mild, natural stimulant and molecular “cousin” of caffeine. However, unlike its cousin, theobromine does not strongly stimulate the central nervous system, nor does it have the same “eye-opening” power. While safe for humans, other species, such as dogs, lack the specific enzyme that metabolizes theobromine so eating chocolate can cause them to become overstimulated. It is strongly recommended that pet owners prevent dogs from eating chocolate.

Theobroma Cacao, was so named in 1753 by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Theobroma is Greek for “food of the gods,” and cacao is the Spanish adaptation of the Mayan name for the tree: kakaw.

Kakaw Trees around the world

Cocoa pods from Ambanja, Madagascar

Most of today’s chocolate producers are in Africa but there are growers in South America, Central America, the Caribbean and even Asia. Like wine, chocolate from different regions have subtle flavour differences and identifiable characteristics. There are three main strains of cocoa beans being produced these days, and like everything else, the majority of what goes into the world production stream, is the hardiest most abundant variety. These are not always the most flavourful, however. Forastero is known for it’s low acidity, consistent growth and disease resistance. These are the beans grown in the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Madagascar. Criollo is a flavor bean known for it’s complex, fruity flavour and grown mainly in Latin America; but has low productivity and is susceptible to disease. Trinitario, is a fusion of the two strains designed to capture the flavour of the criollo with the hardiness of forastero. It’s flavour notes range from spicy to earthy to fruity to highly acidic, and it gets it’s name from the island of Trinidad where it was first grown.

Raw cocoa bean pod from South America

Cocoa Trees are native to Central and South america but the Europeans introduced the crops to West Africa at the end of the 19th century. According to the Global Exchange, a study found that almost 300,000 of workers on cocoa farms in West Africa are children. Today, 67% of cocoa production comes from West Africa, with 43% from the Ivory Coast alone. When there was a crop failure about five or six years ago on the ivory coast, it took a year or two but the world supply of cacao was affected, and so was our supply. We couldn’t get our cacao nibs and did not have our chocolate tea blends available for several months. This is the disadvantage of having crops from one area be the monopolizing world supplier. The advantage of this crop failure is that the cocoa producers from other places became more accessable and experienced a rise in success and forged important lasting business connections. We only use cocoa from Fair Trade suppliers who ensure that the growers are adequately compensated for their work and the families enjoy the benefits of their labour. Check your labels, find out where your favourite chocolate originates. Buy fairly traded chocolate. It may cost a little more but think of your extra pennies contributing to the healthy diet and schooling of the children on the cacao plantations.

Cacao beans are “steeped” in rich history and culinary uses.

Cacao powder with cinnamon

Hard chemical evidence that the Mayans were imbibing chocolate in 500 B.C. was found by archeologists about fifteen years ago as residue inside a teapot. The traditional use of cacao by the Mayans was with water, not milk. The beans were ground into a coarse paste and mixed with spices, water and chilies to create a variety of hot and cold frothy, bitter drinks. The Mayans used cacao as an integral part of their society. They revered it’s restorative, mood-enhancing curative abilities. It was used in ceremonies, given as gifts and represented an important aspect of Mayan Mythology. The ancient earth goddess “Ixcacao” was a fertility goddess in this matriarchal society. It was the sacred responsibility of Ixcacao to ensure the success of the crops and keep her people safe and free from hunger.

By 900 A.D., The Toltecs moved in and took control of the Yucatan Peninsula and the Cacao rich lands. The Toltecs also revered cacao, believing “Quetzalcoat” the god of air, had stolen cacao from paradise and travelled from heaven on a star beam to give the bean to men and teach them how to cultivate it. Quetzalcoatl was banished by the other gods for offering this divinely delicious food to mortals, but he swore to return. This legend continued centuries later into the age of the Aztecs, and when Cortes, the Spanish conquistador, showed up in the 16th century, the great Aztec King Montezuma believed it was Quetzalcoatl returning. Montezuma himself is rumoured to drink over 50 cups a day.

“Chocolate, well known, is an invention so noble, that it should be the nourishment of the gods, rather than nectar or ambrosia.” – Joseph Bachot

It was during this time period that the beans became the natives’ “coins.” A list of Aztec trading prices may have had such values as:
1 small rabbit = 30 cacao beans
1 turkey egg = 3 cacao beans
1 large tomato = 1 cacao bean

Carved wooden Mexican cocoa stirring stick (molinillo)

The Aztecs consumed chocolate in liquid form, as did the Mayans. It was served cold and frothy. The foam was believed to hold chocolate’s fundamental essence, and the ritual of creating the foam is seen in Aztec artwork. They’d pour the chocolate mixture vertically from one vessel to another, back and forth to make it froth. Today, many Mexican communities still value the foam so much they let their cacao beans calcify and turn white before grinding to ensure a heady mug of chocolate.

It would appear that the earliest culinary use of chocolate can be attributed to the food loving Italians. An 18th century cookbook includes dishes such as fried liver that had first been dipped in chocolate; a polenta made with almonds, butter and chocolate breadcrumbs; and a chocolate “soup” composed of milk, sugar, chocolate, cinnamon and egg yolk, served warm and poured over toast.

Chocolate is Sinful and Sexy

In 1690, An austere group of Protestant Pilgrims were so offended by the joy and merry making of a chocolate house in Amsterdam where they had taken up residence that they dubbed chocolate as the “Devil’s Food”. When they later immigrated to North america, they outlawed it completely from their colony. It was some years later in Amsterdam that “Devil’s Food Cake” was named in honor of the stern Pilgrims.

Chocolate tea can warm more than just your heart.

Have you ever heard it said that chocolate is just as good as, or maybe is even better than sex? 163 women were questioned by urologists from Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital about their consumption of chocolate and their sexual fulfilment. “Women who have a daily intake of chocolate showed higher levels of desire than women who did not have this habit,” the study found. “Chocolate can have a positive physiological impact on a woman’s sexuality.” The author of the study, Dr. Andrea Salonia got her funding from a university, not by the confectionery industry. “Chocolate is not like a food, it’s like a drug,” Dr Salonia said. “Women who suffer mood swings as a result of their menstrual cycle may also suffer a dip in their sexual function. I strongly believe eating chocolate may improve their sexual function.”

“Life is too short for bad chocolate!”
Roxanne Browning -chocolate sommalier

With all this information we may go away feeling an incredible urge to indulge in a generous serving of fudge or grab our favorite bar at the grocery check out. It is important to remember that what we discuss is the Cacao bean, not the derivatives or terribly mutated and ingredient compromised descendant of this sacred bean. Most fudge is three quarters butter and sugar; and most chocolate bars in the grocery store have less than 2 grams of actual cacao. If you don’t believe me, READ YOUR LABELS (this is my mantra). They use a lot of wax, sugar and chocolate “flavouring” which could really mean anything. Unless the bar says 70% or 90% cocoa you are not getting pure chocolate. You are getting a sugar rush, a carbohydrate boost and/or the comfort of some fat….not to mention lecithin and whatever else they decide to add and label in the category of “flavourings and colourings” without telling us. The most highly recommended and nutritionally beneficial way to enjoy the richness of Chocolate and the health benefits is, as anything, to consume it as close to the way it originated in nature as possible. On the market we find the most pure chocolate in the form of raw Cocoa nibs. That is the beans which have been shelled and broken up into small pieces which could then be eaten as a snack, added to trail mix, smoothies, granola or other recipes. They are not roasted because this compromises their wonderful nutrition, kills the enzymes and changes the molecular structure of the natural oils. The flavour is milder and less sweet but when you get used to it, you can appreciate and develop a taste for the true unadulterated bean treat, and it’s positive effects on the body. Like anything, once you have had “the best” you start to really understand and recognize the inferiority of the cheap variations and substitutions. Try raw chocolate, as a snack, a sprinkle, or in tea.

“Chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea and universal medicine.” -
— Geronimo Piperni, quoted by Antonio Lavedán, Spanish army surgeon,1796

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