Chocolate is not just a sweet glorious ray of edible
sunshine, Chocolate IS A PLANT! It’s
been a 3,000 year journey from the biological roots of chocolate, to today’s
wild chocolate innovations….
When Montezuma met the Spanish conquistadores in 1519, he intended to overwhelm them with a lavish display of royal hospitality. To impress, the emperor of six million people brought out fifty golden jugs of one of his most potent weapons – chocolate. However, what he served to the awed Spanish was not at all like the sweet chocolate we enjoy today. The cacao plant (Theobroma Cacao) is native to the Amazon region, and Montezuma was serving up an elite tradition of chocolate that had begun 3,000 years before the Spanish arrival. The Spanish experienced a drink made of the beans of the cacao pod, ground and mixed with water, vanilla, chile, and cornmeal, which had been poured back and forth at a height to create an enticing, bitter, melt-in-your-mouth froth. In an instant, the global obsession with chocolate was born.
Chocolate can now be found anywhere in the world, and it’s easy to forget that under the bright wrappers and diverse flavors, chocolate comes from a plant with a very powerful chemical profile. The cacao tree and its precious seedpods only grow in equatorial regions of the world, and produce a bean that is much more than just tasty. Cacao beans are psychoactive, with multiple compounds capable of stimulating the production of neurotransmitters in the brain. Through their bitter and frothy beverage, Mesoamericans were the first to enjoy the stimulating effects of Theobromine, a chemical in cacao that is very similar to caffeine. Theobromine increases blood flow, inducing a feeling of mental alertness, vigor, and overall well-being. On top of this dynamic duo, cacao also has Tryptophan and Phenylethylamine, among many other compounds. Tryptophan assists in the creation of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter Serotonin. Phenylethylamine assists with the creation of another happiness-inducing neurotransmitter, Dopamine. These delightful neurotransmitters, plus a surprising number of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, can help explain humankind’s passionate three-thousand-year love affair with chocolate.
The cacao beans that furnish this phytochemical feast are actually quite challenging to grow, and need just the right conditions and lots of care to fight the diseases and pests that typically attack them. There are three main varieties of cacao bean available today, and within each variety there are several, often genetically different, hybrid strains. Relatively hardy Forestera beans make up 85 percent of the world’s chocolate. Most prized, rare, and delicate are Criollo beans, which provide 3% of the world’s chocolate. The hybrid of Forestera and Criollo is known as Trinitario, which was created in the 18th century when a hurricane nearly caused the Criollo variety to go extinct. Although Criollo plants are not productive on a scale that can meet global demand, they produce flavors and aromas that are more complex and rich. Much like wine, Criollo can be described as having notes of fruit, tobacco, or caramel. Criollo was the preferred variety of the Aztec and Maya, and most likely the one that the Spanish enjoyed as part of Montezuma’s hospitality.
Go to the supermarket today, and in the candy aisle you will see an array of chocolate worthy of an Aztec Emperor. If you wish, you can pay a kingly fortune for the best of it — the Guinness World Record holder is about 650 dollars for ONE 80-gram bar made of some of the rarest beans on earth! The West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire produces 2/5ths of the worlds Forestera. By contrast, most Criollo beans today come from small farms in Venezuela or Madagascar. Since the very best beans are so rare and precious, the cost for the finest chocolate in the world can be incredibly high. The world record holder, “La Chuorsa,” is put out by Swiss Chocolatier Attimo, using beans from a small 400 year old family farm in Venezuela. To add to the flavor profile (and price) even further, it is enhanced with orange flavor and another expensive and rare ingredient, saffron. If 650 dollars for one bar is a bit rich for your blood, there are other adventures in chocolate flavors out there. For a mere 250 dollars you can purchase a chocolate truffle with a genuine fungus truffle inside! Compartes Chocolates in California gets high ratings for creativity with less expensive bars of flavors like “Avocado & Chips,” “Fruity Pebbles,” and “Donuts and Coffee.” An Aztec Emperor would surely recoil at the sweet, milky flavors of chocolate today, but that is the beauty in the biology of chocolate. Cacao’s pleasing array of phytochemicals and rich flavors practically guarantee an enjoyable experience. Whether taken bitter by an emperor or sweet by an excited trick-or-treater, on the molecular level, chocolate is sure to satisfy your brain and not just your sweet tooth.
An Introduction to the Science of Chocolate
A General history of Chocolate
The different types of Cacao
Africa and the Global Cocoa Trade
Farmer harvesting, fermenting and roasting Cacao beans
The Neurochemistry of Chocolate
Scientific Paper on the Health Benefits of Chocolate
Attimo Chocolate Company
Compartes Chocolate Company
Strange Chocolate Flavors from Around the World