Written by Beatrice Bachleda
2000 years ago, the Aztecs created xocoatl, “bitter waters,” a hot unsweetened beverage made from cacao beans. This hot drink was consumed every day and as part of rituals such as birth, nuptials, and sacrifices. They believed it was an aphrodisiac and that it gave energy and spiritual wisdom.
Later, in the 17th century, the notorious explorer Cortéz tasted the Aztecs’ xocoatl but disliked its bitterness. He brought it back to Spain where the addition of sugar or honey made the beverage a delicious drink. From there the cacao bean’s popularity spread across Europe. However, it wasn’t until after the 1850’s that chocolate was made in the form it is today.
The Aztecs were right. Studies have shown that cacao beans contain flavonoids, antioxidants, and an endorphin called phenylethylamine linked with falling in love. It can increase happiness and decrease stress. With the addition of sugar, it became a commonly given item: “A sweet for my sweet.” It’s no wonder that chocolate is now a popular gift for Valentine’s Day.
Since chocolate contains antioxidants, the health benefits are plentiful. By eating a moderate serving of chocolate a few times a week, it cuts the risk of cardiovascular diseases by a third. It can even help with weight loss. A square of dark chocolate is more filling than other sweets and eases cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods more effectively.
However, not all chocolates are created equal. The three most common types are dark, milk, and white chocolate. They can be found as raw, organic, or fair-trade, and by their country of origin.
Dark chocolate is made of cacao liquor–a liquid extracted from the cacao beans, cacao butter–fat that has been separated from the liquor, a little if any milk, and sugar. A high percentage of liquor with little to no sugar and cacao butter will create bittersweet and baking/unsweetened chocolate. These chocolates are best in baking.
Once some sugar is added, it can be eaten as is. Usually the percentage of liquor is listed on the package. Since this chocolate is highest in pure cacao, it will have more health benefits.
Milk chocolate is made similarly but with milk solids added. It will typically be 10% cacao liquor and 12% milk solids. It can be eaten as is. Baking with it is not recommended due to the large amount of sugar. While this type retains health benefits, the extra sugar and milk may cancel it out depending on portion size.
White chocolate surprisingly does not have much cacao in it. It has no cacao liquor, which contains the rich chocolate taste and health benefits, but includes cacao butter, milk solids, and sugar. It can be used in baking or eating.
Raw chocolate is the least processed and has the most amount of flavonoids and antioxidants. These are usually already organic. Organic chocolate uses natural ingredients with no chemicals in the growing, picking, and manufacturing processes.
Fair-trade ensures that the chocolate was grown and made under fair market conditions since many cacao plantations force workers to work in brutal environments and may use child labor. Chocolate can be found as raw, organic, and fair-trade all at once, also varied by dark, milk, and white categories.
As the origin of chocolate, Mexicans still consume it like the ancient Aztecs, although a little sweeter and spiced with chilies and cinnamon. They also make raw, organic discs labeled Taza Chocolate Mexicano. Spainards, being first in Europe to distribute chocolate, enjoy theirs as a rich, creamy, and thick drink.
France was second in Europe to distribute it. They are now the source of high quality dark chocolates, producing Valrhona among others. Belgium came soon after, inventing pralines–chocolates filled with nougat, cream, fruits, nuts, or more chocolate. They are considered the gourmet standard and manufactures the brand Godiva.
Switzerland, home of Lindt and Nestle, has turned chocolate into a way of life. They were spurred by England where Cadbury Schweppes was one of the first to make chocolate as the familiar candy eaten today. Italy, however, invented the chocolate bar–the unparalleled Ferrero Rocher.
When choosing chocolates, look for a smooth shine. Cloudy, grey, or blemished surfaces mean that it is old or improperly made. A clean snap when breaking denotes freshness while crumbling chocolate means it is old or low quality. Taste depends on the person, but it should feel smooth and velvety in the mouth instead of sandy, dense, or waxy.
If buying chocolate for that special someone, there is no “right” chocolate to choose. Pay attention to his or her preferences. She may prefer a sweeter, lighter chocolate while he prefers a raw dark one. Perhaps she is socially conscious and would appreciate fair-trade. Simply taking the time to listen and remember what they like is the highest gift that can be given. Chocolate is a popular medium by which love, affection, and respect is expressed.
– Beatrice Bachleda