Chocolate history starts out in Latin America, where cacao trees grow wild. The first people to use chocolate were probably the Olmec of what is today southeast Mexico. They lived in the area around 1000 BC, and their word, "kakawa," gave us our word "cacao."

the Maya,did use chocolate. A lot. And not just internally. It is with the Maya that chocolate history really begins.

The cacao beans were used as currency. 10 beans would buy you a rabbit or a prostitute. 100 beans would buy you a slave.

The Maya also used chocolate in religious rituals; it sometimes took the place of blood. Chocolate was used in marriage ceremonies, where it was exchanged by the bride and groom, and in baptisms. They even had a cacao god.

But the Maya prepared chocolate strictly for drinking. Chocolate history doesn't include solid chocolate until the 1850s. Except for that, the way the Maya prepared chocolate wasn't too much different from the way it's prepared today. First, the beans were harvested, fermented, and dried. The beans were then roasted and the shells removed, and the rest was ground into a paste. The paste was mixed with hot water and spices, such as chili, vanilla, annatto, allspice, honey, and flowers. Then the mixture was frothed by pouring it back and forth between two containers. The Maya thought the froth was one of the best parts. Chocolate was also mixed with corn and water to make a sort of gruel. It was probably similar to the chocolate and corn drink pinole, still enjoyed in Latin America today.

So it's no surprise that when the Aztecs conquered the Maya, they kept the chocolate tradition alive. From about 1200-1500, the Aztecs dominated the region and continued using cacao as currency. Because cacao could not grow in the capital city, Tenochitlan (where Mexico City is today), it had to be imported through trading

In 1502, Columbus and his son, Ferdinand, were in the area, when they came across a dugout canoe laden with supplies. They promptly captured it and ordered the natives to carry the loot on board their ship. In the process, somebody spilled some cacao, and the natives ran for the beans "as if an eye had fallen from their heads," according to Ferdinand. Columbus could have been known as the first white guy to "discover" chocolate, but he blew his chance to make chocolate history by forgetting all about the incident.

After Cortez and pals conquered the Aztecs, they kept right on using cacao as currency. By this time a rabbit cost 30 cacao beans. But chocolate history would soon change forever, because Cortez also kept right on conquering other people. Conveniently, the Spanish had taken over lots of Caribbean islands. And on those islands was sugar. Next thing you know, somebody put sugar in chocolate and everybody was clamoring for the stuff.

For a while, the Spaniards kept the chocolate secret to themselves. And when chocolate first made it to Spain, it was considered a health food and a medicine. Doctors prescribed it for curing fevers, cooling the body, aiding in digestion, and alleviating pain. The church also approved it as a nutritional supplement to take while fasting.

None of that lasted long. Chocolate was too good to be reserved for medicine only. Plus, it was the first caffeine to reach Europe, beating out coffee and tea by a few years. Chocolate doesn't have much caffeine, but when you've never had the stuff, less is more. Other than adding sugar, little had changed in the preparation of chocolate

As chocolate spread through Europe, the demand took off. To keep up with the demand, plantations sprung up, and thousands of people were enslaved to produce cacao. Rather than rely on the Spanish, the British, the Dutch, and the French started their own plantations, taking cacao out of Central America and planting it in their own territories - Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Java, Sumatra, the West Indies, and Africa. Up until this point, most chocolate was made from a variety of cacao called criollo. But because forastero beans are easier to grow. They were the ones that got shipped 'round the globe, marking another turning point in chocolate history.

As the supply increased, prices went down, and chocolate became increasingly available to the little guy. And when the little guy got a hold of it, chocolate history really took off. Like in the early 1800s when Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutchman, created the cocoa press, which smushed the beans and expelled the cocoa butter (fat), leaving just the cocoa behind. He also came up with a way to wash the cocoa in an alkali solution (hence "Dutch" cocoa) to make it easier to mix with water.

In the 1850s, Englishman Joseph Fry by adding more cocoa butter, rather than hot water, to cocoa powder and sugar. The world's first solid chocolate was born.

In 1875, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle added condensed milk to solid chocolate, creating a milk chocolate bar.

In 1879, Swiss chap Rudolphe Lindt invented the conch, a machine that rotated and mixed chocolate to a perfectly smooth consistency.

By 1907, Milton Hershey's factory was spitting out 33 million kisses per day.

Advertising and World Wars (where soldiers got chocolate as part of their rations) just kept increasing the popularity of the stuff. Today, over 3 billion tons of cacao supplies a 35 billion dollar chocolate industry.


Is chocolate good for you? Yes! The health benefits of chocolate are many... assuming we're talking about the same thing, that is. I'm talking about chocolate in its purest form - as close to the bean as you can get.

That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't any chocolate bars that are good for you. The key is to find a bar with high cocoa content. The higher the cocoa content, the less room there is for cocoa butter, sugar, lecithin, vanilla, milk, and other stuff that makes chocolate less of a vegetable and more of a candy.

So just what are the amazing health benefits of chocolate? Most notably, chocolate is a champion antioxidant. Antioxidants help rid the body of free radicals, nasty little molecules running amok in your body which cause aging and disease. Antioxidants bond to free radicals and whisk them from your body via digestion and other means.

Antioxidant-rich diets have been linked to a lowered risk of heart attacks, stroke, cardiovascular disease, cancer, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, arthritis, asthma, Alzheimer's and more. So it stands to reason that if chocolate is chock full of antioxidants, it's actually good for you.

Naysayers will point out that chocolate is loaded with fat, sugar, and caffeine. It's true that cocoa butter, the main source of fat (besides milk) in chocolate, is composed of both saturated and unsaturated fats, but most of this, about 75%, is in the form of oleic and stearic acids. Diets rich in these acids have been shown to lower cholesterol levels. While 25% of the fat in chocolate is "the bad kind," the amount of good fat in chocolate seems to counteract the bad fat. And, as with all chocolates, the darker they are the less room there is for things like cocoa butter, and the more room for that healthy antioxidant-packed cocoa.

What about the sugar? Well, that is bad. Nothing good about it, really. But keep in mind that a strong dark chocolate bar might have ten to fifteen grams of sugar, which is still less than the 22 grams in your glass of orange juice, the 29 grams in your cup of yogurt, and the 34 grams in your glass of cran-grape juice, all of which are considered "good" for you. Keep your eye on the labels, too. Some of the specialty chocolate manufacturers are choosing healthier alternatives to refined white sugar, such as evaporated cane juice and molasses.

And the caffeine in chocolate? An average bar contains about 27 mg, about half what you'd find in a cola and a third what you'd find in a cup of coffee. Besides which, studies have shown that having some, but less than 200 mg of caffeine a day, might actually be good for you.

The bottom line is that indulging in a small amount of dark chocolate might be the perfect dessert - satisfying your sweet tooth while treating your body to the many health benefits of chocolate. So next time you're craving dessert, reach for the dark chocolate, and hold the guilt

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