Chocolate. Just say the word and you can feel it melting in your mouth. It’s so delicious that most of us will put our diets on hold just for one small bite (or eight). For years we’ve thought of chocolate as something you pick up at the counter at the drugstore, or on special occasions, from the mall. But, chocolate, in all of its magnificent forms, is in the midst of a new heyday and its endless possibilities are becoming recognized.
“Chocolate is really an amazing substance,” says Beth Kimmerle, author of the book, “Chocolate: The Sweet History.” “I don’t think there’s anything else out there on the market that’s legal that you can consume and have the same effect.”
Chocolate has a long and sordid history that includes wars, royalty and wealth. According to Kimmerle’s book, human’s love affair with this sweet sensation began in 1500 b.c., when the Mexican Olmec tribe used the cacao bean to create a frothy drink that was said to give energy and boost morale. In 250 a.d. the Mayans continued this tradition, which they later passed on to Hernan Cortes, who planted cacao trees in the New World in the name of Spain. In the mid 1500’s Cortes sent a shipment of the plant to Spain and Europeans fall in love with the flavor, though it was still consumed only as a beverage.
“It slowly became the sweetened drink we know today,” Kimmerle says. “It was a luxury item meant only for special occasions.”
In the early 1700s a Frenchman developed a table mill for grinding cacao, making it easier and more affordable to produce. Later in that same decade Dr. James Baker began using chocolate for baking cakes, a huge step forward for the confection business. Throughout the 1800s chocolate began to be processed all over Europe and the United States in candy form—Cadbury, Ghirardelli, Nestle and Hershey all got their start in this century.
It wasn’t until 1900, that the Hershey candy bar we know today was made available to the public. From there, the rest of our drugstore snacks bloomed. They were loaded with fillers and preservatives to make production cheaper and keep the product more affordable.
The reason for this swell and research in chocolate in the early 1800s in the United States was because religious groups, like Quakers, thought the drink to contain positive health properties.
“A lot of temperance groups and religions that were against drinking (alcohol) thought that chocolate was a perfect replacement beverage,” Kimmerle says. “It was a promoted beverage because of its supposed health qualities. Milton Hershey believed chocolate was the flavor of the future.”
It is these “health qualities” that are helping chocolate become a superior palette pleaser once again. Recent research into the cacao plant has yielded a number of interesting finds, says Kimberly Gottesman, a Henry Ford registered dietician, who recently wrote a paper on chocolate.
“I found it very interesting,” she says. “Some studies are showing properties that are good for the heart.”
Chocolate contains trace minerals that are known to lower heart disease and high blood pressure. Also, the fat in chocolate does not raise cholesterol.
Chocolate also makes you feel good, Gottesman says. It contains phenylethylamine, a property that works as a mood elevator. The end result makes you feel happy or euphoric, like being in love.
“There’s more in cheddar cheese and salami,” she says. “But who would buy cheddar cheese and salami as a feel-good tool?”
Also, chocolate contains flavanoids, which are believed to prevent diarrhea, and antioxidants, which are anti-cancer causing agents.
But, all this pro-chocolate research doesn’t mean you have free license to go out and devour a pound of your favorite cordial.
In order to get any of these health benefits you have to consume dark chocolate—an item most people crinkle their nose at in disgust. But, done right, dark chocolate is a treat.
The smell of chocolate can also trigger memories—that’s why national beauty product manufactures and local spas are including chocolate-themed products in their business.
National company Origins started adding chocolate to their products when its laboratory noticed a growth in studies proclaiming the health benefits of the plant. This nature-friendly company started doing its own research and found a way to use most of the plant in their products.
The butter of the bean is a good skin protector, the white fleshy part is lubricating, the shell is perfect for exfoliation, the essential oil has psychological benefits and the cacao extract has mineral benefits.
“We use nature as our laboratory,” says Lynn Mazzella, vice president of product development. “There’s so much in this plant—we found it remarkable.”
Origins now boasts a line called Cocoa Therapy that has several products including a scrub, body wash, body butter, cream bath, total body treat and body bar. One of the most interesting products is the Instant Chocolate Fix, a cocoa elixir that you dab onto your pulse points. The company created this after doing research that showed people became happier and more energetic after smelling chocolate.
“We did an Oxford Happiness Inventory, which allowed subjects to smell an essential oil and rate how they feel,” Mazzella says. “There was a tremendous 74 percent increase in happiness.”