The dark little treat that changed the world

A week from today is Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day. So, in this week’s Daily Dispatches, I’ll be discussing important foods originally cultivated by the indigenous peoples of the Americas. These foods had a major impact on the world’s nutritional status, health, and economies.

Today, let’s focus on one of my favorite “New World discoveries…”


Prized beans used like currency

Christopher Columbus first encountered chocolate on July 10, 1502, during his fourth and final voyage, which took him to the north coast of South America.

Of course, chocolate comes from the “fruit” of the tropical cacao tree, which rarely grows north of the Tropic of Cancer, as it requires a hot and humid climate.

The tree’s fruits are oblong pods, each about six to eight inches long. And each pod contains 40 to 50 cacao beans, which were highly prized by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans.

The Aztecs would roast their cacao beans, pound them in hot water, and drink the mixture as a beverage. Sometimes, they sweetened and thickened the drink with honey and native corn. Or they spiced it with red, cayenne pepper—another native food. (A thick paste of chocolate with red pepper, called mole, is a traditional seasoning for meat like turkey.)

They called the beverage “chocolate,” a combination of the Aztec names choco for cacao and latl for water.

The Mayans and Aztecs also used cacao beans as a means of exchange—almost like currency.

For example, it’s noted that the city of Tabasco paid Emperor Montezuma an annual tax of one carga, which amounted to 24,000 cacao beans. This payment supported the Emperor’s daily ration of 30 cups of chocolate as well as 2,000 cups more for his court.

In 1519 and 1526, the explorer Hernán Cortéz sent reports to Emperor Charles V of Spain that chocolate was an excellent source of energy. He wrote, “A cup of this precious beverage would put a man in condition to make a whole day’s march without the need for other food.”

We now know that cacao contains theobromine, a stimulant similar to caffeine in coffee and theophylline in tea. So, it’s no wonder the Spanish considered chocolate a perfect “pep pill.” It increased endurance and improved capacity for hard work. Not to mention, the energy from chocolate was entirely natural and calorie-free, as it didn’t contain any added sugar. (Sugar is not native to the Americas.)

By 1528, Cortéz had begun to send regular shipments of cacao beans back to Spain. But the Catholic Church initially opposed the consumption of chocolate beverages, as they believed them to be frivolous and forbade drinking them during Lent and fast days.

However, Cardinal Brancatio eventually pronounced chocolate an essential beverage. And it quickly became the national drink of Spain, as it was already in Mexico.

Of course, in the ensuing decades, Spain united and expanded as an Empire. And this expansion happened largely because of discoveries in the America—including the discovery of chocolate.

Chocolate is for lovers

At the height of its power, Spain forbade the export of chocolate to other countries. And to circumvent this issue, the sovereigns of Europe wanted to marry Spanish royalty. Because, when Spanish princesses married, they insisted on bringing along chocolate for themselves and their large entourages.

In fact, we know Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella (who had dispatched Columbus to the Americas) brought chocolate with her to England and kept the court in ample supply after marrying Henry VIII. In fact, it may have been one reason why she managed to keep her head.

As demand increased, cacao became rare and costly. And it aroused the interests of Dutch and English smugglers and privateers. Finally, in 1728, Philip V ceded Spain’s monopoly on chocolate to an international company. As a result, chocolate became more widely available throughout Europe.

Before long, European powers took to cultivating the tree themselves in their tropical colonies. The French began cultivating it in Haiti, Trinidad, and Martinique. The British began its cultivation in Jamaica. And the Spanish began cultivating it in the Philippines. Cacao also became a leading commodity in the British and French colonies along the coast of West Africa. In Cote D’Ivoire, cacao even supplanted ivory as its prime export.

Then, in 1753, the Dutch began using a press to extract the fat component from cacao beans. This process produced a chocolate powder, which was perfect for making the beverage. The device also led to the production of cocoa butter (which should more accurately be known as cacao butter).

Soon after, solid chocolate was made by re-combining cocoa butter with powdered chocolate. And bakers began using chocolate in their cakes and icing, while others used it to make ice creams and candies.

Mr. Cadbury and Mr. Hershey make chocolate a hotter commodity

By the 20th century, the milk chocolate candy bar had become by far the most popular confection in Great Britain and the U.S. But the name is misleading, as a typical milk chocolate bar contains much more sugar than milk or chocolate. In fact, in a typical 1.5-ounce bar, you’ll find a whopping 24 grams of sugar—but very little milk or real chocolate.

So, you’re much better off skipping these sweet, commercial confections. Instead, opt for bars made with 70 to 85 percent dark chocolate. You can even find authentic dark chocolate bars made with hot peppers!

Extensive research shows that dark chocolate is “good for just about whatever ails you.” In fact, it’s “choc-full” of beneficial antioxidants—as well as other beneficial ingredients—that significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. The antioxidants in chocolate also support mental and cognitive activity.

So—for this Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day, enjoy all the fantastic foods that came to us from the Americas over the last few hundred years…especially dark chocolate. And at the end of the month, on All Hallows Eve, consider giving out some dark chocolate to the little ghosts and goblins. It’s better for them, too!

If you’d like to learn more about the difference between milk and dark chocolate, check out the current issue of my monthly newsletter, Insiders’ Cures (“The simple treat you can [and should] indulge in daily”). If you’re not yet a subscriber, consider signing up today!

P.S. Tune back in the rest of the week for more reporting on healthy, popular foods that came from the Americas.