The rainforest tree from which cocoa originates is Theobroma cacao, which owes its name to the 18th century Swedish scientist Carl von Linne’. The Latin binomial Theobroma cacao means food of the gods. There is dispute among experts regarding the origin of cacao. Some say the Orinoco Valley of Venezuela, some say the Brazilian Amazon, and some contend that it is native to Central America. New genetic testing shows that the original cacao beans which migrated to Mexico likely came from Venezuela’s Maracaibo basin. According to genetic research, the criollo type beans were carried by indians from the Maracaibo region all the way to Mexico. At a later point in time, Spanish priests ostensibly brought that bean back to the eastern northern coast of Venezuela, to plant plantations. The intriguing DNA findings support the notion that Venezuela’s Maracaibo basin marks the spot where the food of the gods first sprang forth in nature.
Sometime around 1000 B.C. the Maya, whose civilization flourished from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Pacific coast of Guatemala, are believed to have cultivated the cacao tree for the very first time. The Maya so highly valued cacao, they used cocoa beans as currency, and to pay taxes. From the very onset of its use, cocoa was assigned high status.
When Hernan Cortez returned to Spain from the New World in 1528, he told of a widely consumed food made from the fruit seeds of a tree. Cortez and his conquistadors described great plantations of Theobroma cacao throughout Mexico. He reported “On the lands of one farm two thousand trees have been planted; the fruits are similar to almonds and are sold in a powdered state.” His account of chocolate, its popularity and value, greatly piqued the interest of the Spanish. Cortez was chocolate’s first and most important trans-continental messenger.
While Theobroma cacao may grow appreciably taller in the wild, the cultivated tree ranges between 4 – 8 metres in height. The cinnamon brown trunk usually does not exceed 2 metres in length. The branches of the cacao tree are covered with shiny, dark green leaves about ten inches long and three inches wide. Though the tree bears fruit and flowers all year around, usually there are two harvest seasons for gathering the fruit. The actual months of harvest will vary somewhat depending upon the location of the plantation.
Cacao trees bear clusters of pale, button-sized, five-petaled flowers growing off the trunk and larger branches. The large, distinctive fruit pods of the tree jut out directly from the trunk and the lower branches.
Cacao trees bear clusters of pale, button-sized, five-petaled flowers growing off the trunk and larger branches, which possess only a faint aroma. The large, distinctive fruit pods of the tree jut out directly from the trunk and the lower branches. Young fruit pods tend to be greenish in color, but as they mature over the course of 5 – 6 months they become elliptical in shape and bright red or yellow in color. The fruit pods average about nine inches in length, and typically contain 30 – 40 almond-sized seeds (what we know as cocoa beans) nestled in a pale white flesh.
Cacao is now cultivated in virtually every tropical area in the world. Cacao is grown commercially throughout Central and South America, Africa, the Caribbean, Indonesia, Malayasia, and the Pacific islands. This widespread distribution is testimony to the popularity of the tree and the heavenly fruit from which chocolate is made.
Compounds and Activities
Of the multitudinous compounds in cocoa, one is PEA, or phenethylamine. This chemical, which occurs in chocolate in small quantities, stimulates the nervous system and triggers the release of pleasurable opium-like compounds known as endorphins. It also potentiates the activity of dopamine, a neurochemical directly associated with sexual arousal and pleasure. Phenethylamine increases in the brain when we fall in love, and during orgasm.
Cocoa additionally boosts a sense of well being by increasing brain levels of serotonin, the so-called feel-good brain chemical. For this reason cocoa and chocolate provide a highly desirable mood boost to women during PMS and menstruation, when serotonin levels are often down. In fact, women are consistently more sensistive to chocolate than men. Women typically experience stronger chocolate cravings than men.
“Cocoa and chocolate have emerged as health superstars. This odd turn of events is of course thrilling to cocoa and chocolate lovers.” - Chris Kilham, Fox News Health
Yet another constituent in cocoa alters mental state in pleasurable ways. Anandamide (whose name derives from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss), is a cannabinoid, a member of the same psychoactive substances found in cannabis. Anandamide binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as THC.Anandamide produces a global feeling of euphoria. This compound may account for why some people become euphoric or blissed-out when they eat chocolate.
Cocoa contains a wealth of naturally-occuring compounds. Of these, the most comprehensively studied are the methylxanthines. The two methylxanthines in chocolate are caffeine and theobromine. According to the Chocolate Information Center, a 50 gram piece of dark chocolate will yield between 10 – 60 milligrams of caffeine, as compared with a 5 ounce cup of coffee, which can yield up to 180 milligrams.
Theobromine, the second methylxanthine, occurs at a concentration of about 250 milligrams in a 50 gram bar of dark chocolate. Like caffeine, theobromine is a central nervous system stimulant, though it is appreciably weaker. But theobromine is a stronger cardiac stimulant, and a more potent diuretic. Theobromine is not as well studied as caffeine.
Substantive science now shows that cocoa is very good for us indeed. Cocoa, which is the primary ingredient in finished chocolate, is rich in antioxidant polyphenols, a group of protective chemicals found in many plant foods such as red wine and tea, which have been the objects of scientific investigation for their beneficial influence on cardiovascular health.
Polyphenols are reportedly cardioprotective in two ways. First, they help to reduce the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or so-called ‘bad cholesterol.” Oxidation of LDL is considered a major factor in the promotion of coronary disease, most notably heart attack and stroke. Additionally, polyphenols inhibit blood platelets from clumping together. This clumping process, called aggregation, leads to atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries. By inhibiting aggregation, polyphenols reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. Since stehrosclerosis is a major killer of American adults, the protection provided by the polyphenols in cocoa is of real value.
“While there are a great many agents in nature which boost libido and enhance sexual function, chocolate alone actually promotes the brain chemistry of being in love.” – Chris Kilham, Fox News
Cocoa not only inhibits platelet aggregation, but it thins the blood, thus slowing coagulation. In a study of healthy subjects given a strong cocoa beverage, platelet aggregation was reduced and fewer microparticles had formed than normal. Additionally, blood from the subjects took longer to form a clot than blood from control subjects. This study showed that cocoa performs the same beneficial anti-clotting activity as aspirin. 5,6,7,8
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2. West, John A Brief History and Botany Of Cacao, in Chilies to Chocolate, ed Foster, Nelson and Cordell Linda U. Of arizona Press 1992.
3. Bailleux et al The Book Of Chocolate., Flammarion Paris 1995
4. Kilham, C., Psyche Delicacies, Rodale Press 2001.
5. Chocolate and Polyphenols (2000), Chocolate Information Centre. Mars, Incorporated.
6. Arts, I.C.W., Hollman, P.C.H. & Kromhout, D. (1999), 'Chocolate as a source of tea flavonoid' in The Lancet, August 7, 1999, vol. 354, pp. 488. The Lancet Publishing Group, London.
7. Chocolate and flavonoids, Chocolate Information Centre, Mars, Incorporated, USA.
8. Chocolate and health. A scientific overview for the health professional. Chocolate Manufacturers Association of the USA, 1997
9. Kondo K, Hirano R, Matsumoto A, et al. Inhibition of LDL oxidation by cocoa. Lancet. 1996;348:1514.