Originally published July 13 2013
History of cacao
by Willow Tohi
(NaturalNews) Rich. Sinfully delicious. Cacao, or Theobroma cacao, is the source of original, natural chocolate. It comes from seeds of the fruit of the cacao tree. What most Americans think of as chocolate contains no cacao at all, and therefore contains none of its healthful phytochemicals.
Native to the tropical regions of Mesoamerica, the evergreen cacao tree grows small, white flowers throughout the year, which are pollinated by tiny flies. The fruit, called a cacao pod, then grows. It is an oval shape, and changes from a yellowish color to more of an orange when ripe, and weighs about a pound. Each pod contains a white fruit with around 40-50 seeds, usually called beans. The white flesh is eaten or made into juice in some countries. The beans are the main ingredient for chocolate and cocoa powder. The fat from the seeds is the source of cocoa butter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobroma_cacao). The tree grows in river basins because it requires a humid climate with regular rainfall. It is an understory tree, doing best with overhead shade.
Organic, raw cacao is a superfood containing a variety of unique phytonutrients, including high amounts of sulfur, magnesium, and phenylethylamine. It increases focus and alertness while also keeping you happy. (http://www.rawcacao.com/)
Cacao has an ancient historyThe indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica have enjoyed cacao since before the time of Christ. Used as a food, a medicine, and a currency, cacao has been cultivated throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America since the Early Formative Period (1900-900 BC). Cacao was so highly valued that the ancient native peoples celebrated it, immortalizing its place in their society through oral history, stonework, pottery, etc., chronicling its use in rituals and everyday life. Archaeological sites have found ceramic vessels with cacao residues from the pre-Olmec peoples, from several sites in Mexico and throughout Central America, dating from 1750-1900 BC.
Cacao has been around so long that historians are not sure about the domestication and distribution of cacao. Hypotheses conflict as to whether it originated in the Amazon River Basin and was carried north, or if it originated in southern Mexico and was carried south. The first to grow the beans as a crop is believed to be the Olmec Indians, from 1500-400 BC. By 600 AD, Mayans had migrated to the northern regions of South America, and took cacao with them, establishing plantations. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobroma_cacao)
Cacao is part of the Mayan Creation Myth, and is believed to be of divine origin. Theobroma means Food of the Gods. The Mayans believe the Plumed Serpent gave cacao to them after humans were created from maize by the divine grandmother goddess, Xmucane. They still celebrate cacao and honor it with an annual festival in April. In a similar way, the Aztecs believe their god Quetzalcoatl discovered cacao. The consumption of cacao was restricted to the society's elite. (http://www.naturalnews.com/030603_cacao_medicine.html)
In the 1500s, explorers started encountering cacao as they made contact with indigenous peoples. Columbus was the first European to learn of cacao, when they captured a canoe in Guanaja that was carrying it as cargo. They sent samples back to King Ferdinand but cacao did not become popular in Europe at this time because Columbus was only aware of the currency use of cacao, not the food or medicinal use (http://www.phytochemicals.info/research/cacao-history.php). 20 years later, Cortez recorded its use in the court of Emperor Montezuma. A few decades later, Dominican friars took Mayan nobles to visit Prince Philip of Spain, and brought gifts of cocoa, mixed and ready to drink. Spain and Portugal did not export it to the rest of Europe for almost a century. It gained popularity as a medicine and aphrodisiac before regular shipments to Europe started. The first shop opened in London in 1657 with a price that made it a beverage for the elite. It was 25 years before it was prepared as a food. (http://inventors.about.com/od/foodrelatedinventions/a/chocolate.htm)
In the 1750s, a Swedish naturalist decided the word "cocoa" did not represent the substance well enough and renamed it "theobroma" - Greek for "food of the gods."
Chocolate was introduced to the United States by an Irish chocolate maker. He imported beans from the West Indies to Dorchester, Massachusetts with his partner, Dr. James Baker. Soon, America's first chocolate mill was making the famous Baker's chocolate. As demand grew, technology such as the cocoa press was invented to help keep up, slowly bringing the price down. (http://inventors.about.com/od/foodrelatedinventions/a/chocolate.htm)
The more refined chocolate has been made into various edibles to increase shelf life, to reduce cost, and to improve taste; less of the original cacao, and its more than 300 phytonutrients, is retained. Today, most Americans eat milk chocolate, which is refined cocoa with milk solids and sugar added; few have ever tasted the original, raw cacao of legend.
The health benefits of chocolate are numerousPublications started appearing about the medicinal use of cacao around the 16th century. The Badianus Codex and the Florentine Codex, both from the 1500s, mention cacao uses ranging from reducing fatigue and fever to improving heart strength and breathlessness. Other historical manuscripts list additional uses such as treatment of kidney and bladder disease, dysentery, and liver weakness, and to increase appetite. It was thought to be nourishing, digestion improving, life lengthening, and health preserving. Leaves from the flower were used to treat skin problems such as burns, and stomach complaints. (http://www.phytochemicals.info/research/cacao-history.php)
There are many species of Theobroma, with the most commonly cultivated species being Theobroma cacao, with two subspecies. It has protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, iron, zinc, copper, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Additional chemical constituents include antioxidants and the chemicals phenylethylamine and anandamide, all of which play a role in why chocolate makes us feel good. From quickening the pulse to effects on blood pressure and blood sugar that translate to excitement, consuming chocolate often creates feelings of elation.
The theobromine in chocolate affects our nervous system in a similar way to caffeine; dilating blood vessels and making some people feel hyper then lethargic. Dogs should not eat chocolate as they lack the enzymes to digest it. The small caffeine content and the oxalic acid also give some people pause. The caffeine amount is very low in dark chocolate; not really enough to worry about. The oxalic acid inhibits absorption of calcium, especially when combined with sugars. Small amounts of organic, raw cacao are a good source of antioxidants. The more processed the chocolate; the fewer antioxidant properties it retains. Additionally, chemicals are used in the processing of cacao unless it is certified organic. (http://www.naturalnews.com/022610_cacao_chocolate_raw.html)
For those new to cacao, there are many wonderful ideas and recipes online, some ancient, for making a nice morning beverage to replace your coffee. Most will probably be a bit surprised by the bitter taste, but try it again as you'll probably get used to it. Because of the richness of the phytochemicals, don't overdo it. Just a small handful of nibs or a few teaspoons of raw cacao powder is okay but too much more may cause a surprising effect on your nervous system.
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