‘In my dreams I gorge on chocolates, I roll in chocolates, and their texture is not brittle but soft as flesh, like a thousand mouths on my body, devouring me in fluttering small bites.
To die beneath their tender gluttony seems the culmination of every temptation I have ever known.’ Joanne Harris, Chocolat
Lauded as the latest superfood, when did chocolate reinvent itself from a calorific indulgence to curative and healthy? Actually a fair few years ago. It was fermented, dried, roasted, ground and consumed as a bitter, medicinal drink as early as 1900 BCE by the Olmecs.
Cacao was also central to Aztec and Mayan civilisations. The Aztec believed that the Mesoamerican god Quetzacoatl descended from an afternoon star to earth to deliver the sacred and magical cacao tree, which created a bridge between earth and the heavens.
Cacao was worshipped, used in rituals and brought community together in its preparation. The beans were even used as currency. It was so treasured that legend has it the conquistador Cortes was shown cacao beans when he asked for gold.
Check out this 1545 list of Aztec exchange rates*:
1 good turkey hen = 100 cacao beans
1 turkey egg = 3 cacao beans
1 fully ripe avocado = 1 cacao bean
1 large tomato = 1 cacao bean
*Source: Cornell University Albert R. Mann Library
The Aztecs believed that the drink would boost energy and increase sex drive. One ritual required for the cacao drink to be mixed with sacrificial blood and according to conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the Aztecs claimed the cacao beverage was for ‘success with women’. This association between chocolate and romance has endured for millennia.
Here are five health-imbuing properties of cacao:
1 The love molecule: phenylethylamine
Phenylethylamine, also known as PEA, is a chemical naturally released by our brains when we fall in love. Present in dark chocolate, PEA can elevate our mood, promote feelings of attraction and generally make us feel euphoric. The combination of PEA and theobromine might have earned chocolate its reputation as an aphrodisiac.
2 The antioxidant compound: flavanoids
Cacao nibs and dark chocolate contain several flavonoids with cell-protecting, antioxidant benefits. They have been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve circulation and prevent blood clots. Flavonoids may also help protect the heart and have some anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory properties. A recent Italian *study also linked cacao flavanols with an improved thinking capacity.
3 Nutrient dense
Cacao is high in magnesium, manganese, copper and iron. Cacao contains 7.3mg of iron per 100g and is one of the highest plant-based sources of iron. It is also packed with magnesium, a mineral that most of us are deficient in. Magnesium is essential in assuring the health of our heart and brain. Cacao’s unique fat profile also helps our body absorb many nutrients.
4 Energy: theobromine
Theobromine is similar to caffeine in that it gives us energy and is a diuretic. It can increase alertness, endurance and is a performance enhancer. However, it can also reduce the appetite and diminish the need for sleep. It is a heart-stimulant and widens blood vessels. It opens the lungs and so can help with asthma and breathing difficulties and has been used to treat high blood pressure. Its stimulating effect may not be ideal if you are looking to feel restful.
5 Prevention of tooth decay
According to a *study conducted by Osaka University in Japan, the theobromine particularly prevalent in cacao husks has been found to kill streptococci mutans. This is one of the principal bacterias that causes tooth decay. Theobromine has also proven effective in hardening tooth enamel, therefore further protecting our teeth.
Additives such as sugar and milk, found in most mass-produced chocolate, greatly diminish any healthful properties, so source organic cacao or fine dark chocolate high in cocoa mass.
Inspired by the Aztec and Maya, I use organic Costa Rican cacao beans to teach chocolate-making workshops in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. So far, I have chosen to keep the sacrificial blood out of my recipes and cannot be held accountable for cacao’s apparent inability to make men successful with women!
To attend one of my workshops or for further information contact: [email protected]
Photographs: Kath Evans