Wilderness Underfoot: Nov. 20 Rockford City Council briefs

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116421678016321.jpg’, ”, ‘A cacao tree, an open pod, and roasted beans – Theobroma cacao is native to Central and South America, but today it is grown in equatorial regions throughout the world. Three main varieties of cacao tree are cultivated: the most common is Forastero, used for much of the chocolate produced worldwide; the rarest is Criollo, with a rich aroma and flavor sought by manufacturers of the finest chocolates; and the third is Trinitario, a cross between the other two varieties.’);

People have been savoring chocolate for thousands of years.

One of our favorite modern indulgences was first used by ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Aztecs and Mayans, who crushed cacao beans and mixed them with spices to create bitter chocolate drinks and sauces. In ancient cultures, cacao was highly prized and often reserved for those with wealth and power. And cacao beans were so highly regarded that they were included in engravings and artwork featuring gods.

The earliest evidence of chocolate consumption comes from Mayan ceramic jugs that were found in the Central American country of Belize. Experts at Hershey Foods in Pennsylvania were called upon to analyze the 2,600-year-old jugs and found traces of cocoa. Chocolate’s use is believed to be much older, probably dating back to early Olmec civilizations.

The first European explorer to see a cacao bean was Christopher Columbus on his fourth voyage to the Americas. In a move that bode poorly for how explorers would deal with natives in the New World, Columbus seized a large canoe filled with trade goods, including cacao beans. The beans were largely ignored upon his return to Spain in 1502, but when Spanish explorer Cortez revisited the New World 20 years later, cacao beans were among the treasures he stole from the Aztecs.

As cacao spread around the world, it quickly became popular. It was mixed with sugar, vanilla and other flavorings to produce drinks, and by the early 1800s it was being molded into bars. The Dutch improved the process by extracting cocoa butter from the nib of the bean, finely crushing the remaining cocoa into powder, and then reintroducing the butter back into the mix to create a smoother chocolate “liquor.” The Swiss, thanks to Nestlé’s invention of condensed milk, began to produce milk chocolate in 1875.

Since the earliest times, people have known that eating chocolate produces a feeling of confidence and contentment. This can be attributed to chocolate’s natural stimulants, and to its added sweeteners. As many as 300 chemicals are found in the cacao bean, including the stimulants caffeine and theobromine. And although they are present in very tiny amounts, other chemicals such as tryptophan (which stimulates the brain’s production of serotonin) and anandamide (a neurotransmitter that affects the same brain receptors as the THC found in cannabis) may also have a mild effect.

Finer dark chocolates often contain beneficial antioxidants, and, if used in moderation as part of a healthy diet, may help lower blood pressure.

From the Nov. 22-28, 2006, issue

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