Cacao. Cocoa. Chocolate. Its scientific name, Theobroma Cacao, as dubbed by Carolus Linnaeus, means 'food of the gods' in Latin. Whatever you want to call one of the world's favorite foods, it is indisputably delicious. However, depending on the form in which you consume it, it may or may not be nutritious. Most of the planet's chocolate consumption is comprised of roasted, heavily processed beans brewed into artificial confections mixed with preservatives, sugar and milk, severely limiting its nutritional value. Many of the beneficial vitamins and minerals are destroyed during this process. On the other hand, cacao, when consumed raw, is one of the healthiest foods you can put in your body. The common misconception that raw cacao is too bitter to be tasty is founded on nothing but ignorance. After trying a properly concocted raw cacao dish, your mindset on chocolate will be indelibly altered.
A Brief History
Cacao has a storied history that few foods can compete with. Cultivated as early as 1800 BC, the cacao bean has its roots deep in the jungles of South America. The Olmecs were the first to consume it and domesticate the tree. They also considered it to hold divine properties, using it in sacrificial rituals. The Mayans were so fond of it that they used it as currency. It was most commonly consumed in beverage form, mixed with water, herbs and spices. The most famous ancient usage of cacao was by the Aztecs, particularly by emperor Monteczuma II, who supposedly drank 50 cups of it daily out of a golden goblet. He also apparently always downed a goblet before attending to his harem. He is quoted as having these high praises for it,
"The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food."
Once the Spaniards arrived, they brought it back to Europe, shared it only with Portugal, and drank it like the Aztecs did for the better part of a hundred years in the 15th and 16th centuries. It took the rest of Europe a considerable time to realize the value of the mysterious bean, with one English pirate ship reportedly mistaking a shipload of them for sheep droppings and burning the whole lot.
When Cacao finally caught on in the rest of Europe, it embarked on a long journey of transformation and bastardization. It spread through France, Italy and England in the 1600s, eventually making its way to America in the 1700s. in 1828, A Dutchman by the name of Coenraad Van Houten invented a machine that extracted the powder, allowing it to be made into a confection, and in the process, changing the face of chocolate forever. The English made the first chocolate bar in 1847, and then in 1879, two Swiss men, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle collaborated to invent milk chocolate, marking the unceremonious abandonment of the traditional, healthy, liquid preparation method used in South America for two thousand years. A hundred and thirty years later, your average chocolate bar bares very little resemblance to the cacao brews of Mesoamerica and has a fraction of the nutritional value.
The World Market
Over 3,500,000 tons of cacao is produced annually. Approximately 70% of that comes from West Africa, with the Ivory Coast and Ghana ranking first and third in global production. Our beloved Indonesia places 2nd on that list, accounting for just under 20% as recently as 2010! Unfortunately, it is estimated that less than 1% of global production is organic. Hopefully we can change help change that from our organic friendly island of the gods, Bali. It would only be fitting that the revitalization of the organic production of the food of the gods began on the island of the gods. Cacao only grows in the tropics, within 10 degrees of the equator, and is traded as a commodity on two global exchanges, one in London and one in NYC. Arguably the most endearing aspect of cacao production is that a huge amount of it takes place on small family farms, making it conducive to a more balanced income distribution that is so desperately needed by many of the poor countries that produce it.
Cacao is ripe with vitamins, minerals and many other beneficial phytonutrients. Chock-full of anti-oxidants such as flavanoids, which have been found to field anti-allergic and anti-cancer properties, cacao has the potential to help cure a plethora of health issues. It is high in sulfur and magnesium, two of the most essential minerals for good health. It improves blood vessel function and blood flow, which some doctors believe might lead to improved cognitive function. This quality has lead many to speculate that it could play a role in limiting the negative symptoms displayed by sufferers of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.
While it does contain trace amounts of caffeine, its more prevalent stimulant is theobromine, an alkaloid similar to caffeine yet lacking the physically addictive properties. Theobromine has been shown to reduce asthmatic symptoms, relax and smooth out muscles and lower blood pressure. Cacao also contains enzyme inhibitors that may facilitate youthening & rejuvenation.
Asides from the positive physical health affects cacao has, it can also aid in the improvement of mental and emotional health. Phenylethylamine, a chemical created by the brain and released when we are attracted, excited, or in love, is present in healthy amounts. Anandamide, a chemical released when we feel good, is another constituent of cacao. There are also more enzyme inhibitors that decrease the body's ability to break down anandamide, which means that positive feelings will last longer when you eat cacao. Lastly, it is loaded with tryptophan, a chemical that is required to synthesize serotonin, a chemical that makes us feel happy. Basically, cacao makes you feel great. A healthy dose of cacao in your diet has been shown to have incredible long term benefits on both physical and mental health. Be careful though, raw cacao is very powerful and has an intense effect on the central nervous system, so consuming too much at one time can lead to similar reactions produced by caffeine; hyperactivity followed by drowsiness.