June 16, 2010

Chocolate has been an appetizing, popular and useful commodity for more than 2,000 years.

Chocolate has been an appetizing, popular and useful commodity for more than 2,000 years. From candy bars to milkshakes, coffee to mole, its uses truly span the gamut. Some consider the tasty treat to be an aphrodisiac; others point to its medicinal qualities. A recent study from the University of South Australia, found that chocolate consumption might help decrease the risk of heart disease.

Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao tree which originated in the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. Maya and Aztec people first utilized the seeds by pressing them into a spicy, frothy, bitter drink. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers brought the seeds back to Spain where chocolate drinks became a favorite of the rich and royal. About 100 years later, this delectable delicacy – which was expensive and labor intensive to produce – was introduced to the wealthy in other European nations.

But it was the industrial revolution – and the invention of the cocoa press in 1828 – that helped bring chocolate to the general public. Cheaper production methods enabled chocolate to be mass-produced in a more affordable, solid form. Popularity soared even further when, in 1875, Nestlé introduced condensed milk to the mix, creating creamy, smooth “milk chocolate.” By the early 1900’s chocolate was widely available to everyone. Today, it is a solid part of the global market economy.

Cacao trees are smaller, “understory” trees that grow beneath the upper canopy of the rainforest where they receive the right balance of shade, humidity and nutrients. Tiny flies, called midges, live in the debris of decaying rainforest plants and pollinate the cacao tree’s flowers, which eventually produce pods filled with up to 50 cacao seeds each. Flowers appear on the cacao tree after about five years of growth.

Despite technological innovations, cacao seeds are still harvested, fermented (under banana leaves) and dried by hand. Most cacao is grown by farmers in rainforests near the equator and sold to chocolate processing companies throughout the world.

Once in the factory assembly line, seeds are roasted, and then broken open to release the “nibs,” which are ground to make chocolate liquor (a non-alcoholic mixture of chocolate liquid and solids). Next, the liquor is mixed with milk and sugar and additional cocoa butter, and then refined in a conching process.

Combinations of different varieties of cacao are mixed to form new and delicious flavors, like bittersweet chocolate, which contains at least 35% chocolate liquor, dark chocolate, which contains 15% to 35% liquor, and milk chocolate, which contains less than 15% liquor. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, but no chocolate liquor.

Most chocolate comes from three different types of cacao – forastero (which accounts for 90% of the world’s chocolate), criollo (harder to grow but contains a more delicate aroma than forastero) and trinitario (a combination of forastero and criollo).

Unfortunately, a large percentage of cacao is still grown on “sun plantations,” cleared, unshaded fields that maximize growth and produce large quantities of cacao for short periods of time. The removal of rainforest not only disrupts the growing cycle of the cacao tree, but it also disturbs the healthy balance of the rainforest. In addition, cacao trees grown on sun plantations are more prone to pests and require the use of pesticides and fertilizer.

Sustainable cacao farming, on the other hand, takes place in a more varied rainforest ecosystem. Benefits include extra income from crop diversification, lower maintenance costs and improved tree longevity. Many farmers, who once migrated to sun fields and monocropping for quick returns on their investment are going back to their roots and growing cacao in the way nature intended.

There are over 300 chemicals in chocolate, and scientists are always discovering new information about them and how they work in the human body. Mayo clinic studies, for example, have found that chocolate contains stearic acid, which is a neutral fat that does not increase bad cholesterol (LDL). Other research has pointed to the antioxidant effects of dark chocolate as well as its mood-elevating properties. Nutritionally, a 1.5-ounce serving of milk chocolate contains approximately 3 grams of protein, and a small percentage of the Daily Value for riboflavin, calcium and iron.