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.
Hernan Cortes, 1528
The winter season is a time for hot cocoa and with Valentine’s Day around the corner, there is more to chocolate than just a sweet treat. Chocolate has many medicinal uses for the body and the mind, as a cardiac stimulant, an appetite suppressant, neurotransmitter enhancer, antioxidant and an aphrodisiac.
However, the experience that one gets from eating a Hershey’s mlik chocolate bar versus drinking a brew of raw cacao is truly different.
Raw cacao is the dried seeds of the tree Theobroma cacao. The seeds or “beans” are found in the cacao pod that falls from the tree when ripe. The beans are surrounded by a clear/white sweet pulp. This pulp can be eaten as a delicacy but that is a story for another time. The beans are scooped from the pod, and left to ferment and dry in the sun for a several weeks. This process changes the beans from a purple to brown color and the dried beans store better for trade and transport. Each pod contains about 20-50 beans, enough for 3-4 dark chocolate bars.
A Sweet History
The Swedish scientist, Carl von Linnaeus named the tree Theobroma cacao from the Greek words, “theo”, for god and “broma”, for food. The use of cacao dates back at least to 2,000 BCE and scholars have found drinking vessels from the pre-Mayan civilization, the Olmec, inscribed with “ka-ka-wa”.
The word “chocolate” was most likely a word coined by the Spanish during the early conquests so it became known as “xocolatl”, a combination of the Mayan word, xococ (sour, bitter) and the Aztec word, atl (water). To the indigenous communities of Central and Latin America, the chocolate tree provided a cash crop that was used as currency, a tradition documented by Columbus and his crew.
One cacao bean could be used to purchase a large tomato or a freshly picked avocado, 100 beans could get you a turkey and 30 would by you a small rabbit.
Powdered cacao beans are still used as a drink in modern Central America but the taste is different from the Dutch cocoa that you are used to buying at most grocery stores. The Dutch cocoa is processed using a method patented in 1828 by the chemist Coenaraad Johannes Van Houten in his search to make a new low fat powder. The powder is the pulverized form of a pressed cake that Van Houten made by squeezing the oils (fat) from the dried cacao beans. In order for his powder to mix well with water, Van Houten treated the powder with alkaline salts like potassium or sodium carbonates, a process known as “Dutching”. Most hot cocoa mix is often a combination of the bitter cacao bean powder mixed with refined sugar.
The first chocolate bar was produced in 1879 by a Swiss chemist, Henri Nestle and Swiss candle-maker turned chocolatier, Daniel Peters. Nestle figured out the process for removing the water from milk to create a powdered form and Peters then added it to his chocolate. The bar was first marketed under the Peter’s/Cailler brand and later merged with Nestle in 1929.
Chocolate in your Body
Cacao bean powder contains over 50 chemical compounds, including epicatechins, histamine, magnesium, polyphenols, theobromine, and vitamin C. Of the all the phytochemicals in cacao, the antioxidants, theobromine and caffeine are the most abundant, about 1-3% by dried weight.
A diet high in antioxidants is important for cleaning up free radical oxygen molecules that have been shown to damage DNA, promote premature aging, and contribute to an increase risk for heart disease and cancer. Dark chocolate contains more antioxidants, per gram, than fresh blueberries, blackberries and raspberries combined. The additions of sugar and dairy products lower the absorption of the antioxidants in the cacao bean so mix your cacao powder with water or a plant-based milk, like coconut, almond or hemp.
Theobromine is a chemical found in about 19 species worldwide including plants like coffee, tea, yerba mate and kola nut. Theobromine stimulates the central nervous system, relaxes smooth muscles, dilates blood vessels and is a mild diuretic. The amount of caffeine in chocolate is small compared to coffee or tea. A 50 gram chocolate bar contains about 10-60 milligrams of caffeine whereas a cup of coffee has about 175 milligrams and a cup of tea varies from 25-100 milligrams. Themobromine and caffeine are more active when the cacao beans have been cooked or roasted and not in the raw nibs form.
Chocolate on the Brain
Cacao contains three psychoactive chemicals; anandamide, phenylethylamine, and tryptophan. Anandamide is known as the “bliss chemical”. It reacts on the same receptor as the THC molecule found in the cannabis plant but the effect is less powerful. High levels of anadamide can also be experienced as the great feelings of happiness that one gets after vigorous exercise, known as the “runner’s high”. Cacao also contains two anadamine inhibitors. These molecules slow the metabolism of anadamide and allow the feeling of well-being to stick around with us a little longer.
Phenylethylamine (PEA) has been marketed as the “love chemical”. Chocolate can contain up to 2.2%. While scientific research has yet to confirm a direct “love” connection, PEA levels are higher in the brain when we fall in love, become sexually aroused and peak during an orgasm. PEA levels are lower in those suffering from depression. PEA increases the levels of dopamine and norepinepherine and affects mental concentration, positive attitude and joy.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that aids in the production of seretonin. Cacao powder contains about 0.2%-0.5%. Tryptophan reacts in combination with vitamin B3, vitamin B6 and magnesium (also found in cacao) to form seretonin. Trytophan helps produce other neurotransmitters, like melatonin that promote sleep. Trytophan is heat sensitive, however, so eating raw cacao beans is best way to increase these animo acid levels.
Cacao drinks are a major component of Central American shamanism and often in combination with ayahuasa, psilocybe mushrooms, cannabis and some species from the Leguminosae family.
Recipes (adapted from Naked Chocolate by David Wolfe):
In searching for cacao at the supermarket, there are few things to keep in mind:
- While whole cacao beans are the best, they can be expensive and hard to find.
- You are more likely going to find them in the form of raw cacao nibs or as a chocolate bar.
- A chocolate bar should be at least 70% cacao, dairy free, and certified Fair Trade organic.
- Packaging that is labeled “Single Origin”, “Single Estate” or “Single Variety” will allow you to compare the different variations in texture, flavor, and color that the chocolate tree has to offer.
(makes about 4 cups)
2 cups of almonds, soaked overnight
1/2 liter of water
4 tablespoons of raw cacao powder (nibs or beans)
2 tablespoon of raw agave nectar
Blend half the water with the almonds. Pulverize and strain out liquids into another container. Put pulverized almonds back into blender and add remaining water. Blend and strain again. Combine about 1 pint strained almond milk with raw cacao powder and agave syrup. Add hot water for desired temperature, whisk and serve.
Dark Chocolate Sauce
4 tablespoons of raw cacao powder (nibs or beans)
3 tablespoon of raw agave nectar
½ tablespoon coconut oil
Mix all ingredients until blended. Add more agave for a syrup or coconut oil for a creamier texture.
(about 30-40 pieces)
1 cup of pitted dates, soaked in 1.5 cups of water for 1-2 hours
1 vanilla bean
2.5 cups of almonds
2 tablespoons of raw cacao powder (nibs or beans)
½ cup of dried shredded coconut
Process all ingredients, including soak water in a food processor until smooth. Press into square pan lined with waxed paper. Freeze for two hours. Remove from freezer and slice into 1-2 inch pieces and place in freezer for at least another hour before serving.