“From your Valentine” was supposedly written by St. Valentine to a female friend while jailed in Rome and ultimately executed on February 14, near the year 270 A.D. According to some historians, St. Valentine performed secret marriages to young lovers during the reign of Claudius who banned marriage in order for men to engage in war to expand the Roman Empire. For centuries it was the heart, not the brain that was considered where all intelligence originated. Therefore, it is the heart shaped chocolate box that is given as a sign of love on Valentine’s Day, along with writing “Be My Valentine” and proposing marriage.
SO….HOW DOES CHOCOLATE ENTER INTO THE PICTURE OF LOVE?
Believed to be originated more than 4,000 years ago in the Amazon Basin, cacao pulp was used primarily for the ”sort of” sweet taste it contained. In addition to being the first pottery-using culture in Mesoamerica, The Barra people are believed to be the first to process chocolate into a drink. Fast forward to 600 B.C and the use of cacao evolved into a sweet drink consumed by both the Mayans and the Aztecs. There were several different drinks and gruels called ”Xocoatl” and made as a commonly used frothy beverage served at ceremonial rituals, to royal members, and newly married couples. The Aztecs drank their chocolate drink cool while the Mayans drank their chocolate drink warm.
While these ancient people offered up the chocolate drink to the gods, especially the fertility god, the drink was also used for medicinal purposes. Around 1200 A.D., the Aztecs began to rule Mexico. They improved upon the chocolate drink by adding a little more sweetness with flowers, vanilla, honey and spices.
INTRODUCTION TO THE EUROPEANS
In 1502, Christopher Columbus was given his first xocoatl (chocolate) drink on his 4th voyage to America. When the Spaniards conquered Mexico, they recognized the value of cacao beans and shipped continuously back to Spain. The formula for the chocolate elixir was kept a secret and only the very rich could afford to buy this unusual tasting drink. By the 1700′s, “Chocolate Houses” were as popular as coffee houses in Europe. Also thought of as an aphrodisiac, the chocolate love potion was soon associated with matters of the heart.
Chocolate became a favorite among the elite in the newly formed United States of America. In a letter to John Adams in 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain.”
CHOCOLATE USED AS MEDICINE
From the 16th century through the early 19th century, documented medical texts assumed specific medicinal value to chocolate.
- Pure cacao paste treated fever and the liver.
- Toasted, ground cacao beans, when mixed with resin, were effective against dysentery.
- Prescribed to thin patients to fatten them up by gaining flesh.
- To act as a powerful laxative, chili peppers were added and served hot.
- Aided in stomach disorders, chest ailments, cured tuberculosis, strengthened the heart and promoted digestion.
- Treated women’s menstrual disorders, incited love-making, led to conception in women and facilitaded delivery.
WHAT EXACTLY IS CHOCOLATE ?
Chocolate beans are harvested from pods grown on the cocoa tree. The chocolate beans are fermented, dried, and roasted. The chocolate is then ground into a cocoa mass or to produce cocoa liquor. The cocoa liquor is either pressed to make cocoa butter or cocoa cake which is then ground into cocoa powder. Cocoa liquor, when combined with cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla, produces chocolate. When milk or cream is added, MILK chocolate is the result.
DARK CHOCOLATE = DECADENT FOOD OF THE GODS
Since ancient Mayans sacrificed humans by cutting out their hearts, I doubt they fully understood the heart health benefits surrounding their chocolate drink. However, they did get it right by drinking cocoa without adding counteracting ingredients; especially sugar and milk/cream.
TODAY: Included in the Healing Foods Pyramid, dark chocolate is a part of a balanced, plant-based diet due to the nutritional benefits for healthy sustainability. Near the top of the pyramid, dark chocolate is recommended due to the antioxidant benefits equally found in tea, red wine and various fruits and vegetables. Dark chocolate, AKA “semi-sweet” or “bittersweet” contains a higher percentage (optimum is 60% or better) of cocoa solids with little or no added sugar. The three ingredients of REAL dark chocolate are cocoa powder (non-fat solids), cocoa butter from cacao beans and a small amount of real sugar added to cut the bitterness. Cocoa butter releases the flavor immediately in your mouth resulting in a more satisfying taste. FAKE chocolate replaces cocoa butter with a vegetable fat (such as palm oil), producing a waxy texture and overly sweet taste. Some sources will claim that dark chocolate can range from 40% cocoa solids and here is where “LET THE BUYER BEWARE” comes into play. Check the ingredient labels for the list of specific words: “cocoa liquor”, “cocoa powder”, “cocoa mass”, “cocoa solids” or “cocoa paste”. If sugar is listed as the first ingredient, it’s FAKE dark chocolate.
YOUR PLETHORA OF CHOCOLATE CHOICES
MILK CHOCOLATE’S HEALTH ISSUE
OK and yes….milk chocolate can taste wonderfully sweet and it might be your preferred choice. Good, quality, designer name brands can be lovely to look and eat. If you are a die-hard milk chocolate fan only, please indulge to your “Valentine’s Heart’s” content. After all, most people eat chocolate for pleasure and do not consider the health benefits.
Inherently, dark chocolate contains antioxidants (anti-aging) properties. When milk is added, the milk molecules bind to the antioxidants and neutralize them. This chemical reaction rules out the antioxidants, making them unavailable and not a good antioxidant source. Milk chocolate is not devoid of nutritional value. However, the health benefits are minimal. Also, milk chocolate contains more empty sugar calories than quality dark chocolate.
WHITE CHOCOLATE’S MAJOR HEALTH ISSUE
If you did not know this already…..white chocolate is NOT chocolate because it contains no cocoa solids. White chocolate ingredients contain some cocoa butter, vegetable fat, milk and plenty of sugar. There is no antioxidant benefit. And……the small amount of cocoa butter (a healthy saturated fat) might not be enough to aid in lowering the bad (LDL) cholesterol.
THE SEXINESS OF QUALITY DARK CHOCOLATE – for your HEART and brain
- 60% cocoa is a good choice since it is not too bitter and yet has the antioxidant benefit.
- Flavonoid benefits: These antioxidants are also in red wine, vegetables and fruit. Cell damage is reduced where HEART disease is often implicated. Flavonoids can help improve vascular function and assist in lowering blood pressure. They can also enhance Vitamin C and act as an anti-inflammatory. Most studies have been for short term health and more long term studies are needed.
- Beneficial effect on cholesterol levels due to the healthy fat – cocoa butter.
- Contains minerals: calcium, magnesium and potassium.
- Reduces risk of blood clots.
- May be mood improving by boosting the serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain – think sexy.
- Regular intake has been associated with better cognitive performance in the elderly.
NOTE: The information given here is not intended to take the place of medical treatment. Please consult your medical practitioner for medical advice.
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR CHOCOLATE LOVERS
- Calories are just about equal in all kinds of chocolate. As HEART healthy as dark chocolate is, consuming too much is going to add extra pounds to those love handles. Limit yourself to one ounce a day and no more than three ounces a day to maintain your weight.
- Read all labels: To ensure the good quality of dark chocolate you want to consume. Darker (more cocoa % content) the better: Phytochemicals contribute to pigment, which means more flavonoids and potentially greater health benefits.
- DO NOT drink milk with dark chocolate. It wipes out the health benefits of antioxidant ingredients. See above for the chemical reason.
- INSTEAD….pair your dark chocolate with some really good red wine and/or some dark chocolate covered strawberries for a triple whammy of antioxidants. YUM!!
- Choose organic where available and fairly traded cocoa beans. See here for CERTIFIED CHOCOLATE PRODUCERS
“The greatest treasures are those invisible to the eye but found by the HEART.”
HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY