Few foods generate as much passion as chocolate. Perhaps it was inevitable with a plant given the scientific name of Theobroma (Greek for “food of the gods”) cacao.
These days we may still consider chocolate to be a heavenly substance, but we consume far more of it, in vastly different ways, than the ancient Mesoamericans who first harvested and prepared it. And this, of course, has health consequences.
Is chocolate bad for you? Should you limit your consumption, or try to get it out of your diet altogether? Or is it actually a health food?
And what about reports of child labor, slavery, extreme poverty, and environmental degradation related to the chocolate trade? Is it possible to obtain “guilt-free” chocolate? If so, how can you tell which chocolate products contribute to the welfare of chocolate farmers and their communities?
A Brief History of Chocolate
The Theobroma cacao tree is native to Central and South America. The Azteks believed that the seeds were gifts from Quetzalcoatl, god of wisdom. For several centuries in premodern Latin America, cacao beans were considered valuable enough to be used as currency. Both the Mayans and the Aztecs believed the cacao bean had magical properties, suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage, and death.
For much of its history, chocolate was served as a bitter drink, either heated or fermented into alcohol. When Columbus introduced cacao beans to European high society following his return from the Americas, it started a cacao craze that led to European colonization and enslavement of large areas of Mesoamerica and West Africa in the rush to grow and control cacao plantations.
The industrial revolution in 19th century Europe applied new methods to chocolate production. Alkalizing salts reduced bitterness. The “Dutch cocoa” process separated cocoa butter from the liquor and made it easier and cheaper to produce in large quantities. In the US, early 20th century inventors and entrepreneurs Milton Hershey and Franklin Mars turned chocolate from a local, artisanal product into a mass-produced industrial foodstuff. Hershey’s milk chocolate in particular, combined with epic amounts of sugar, was sweet enough to convert an entire nation into chocoholics.
These days, Americans consume about $18 billion worth of chocolate each year, for an average of just under 10 pounds per person. And keep in mind that’s just an average: some people abstain, so there are folks who eat way more than that!
There’s no question that chocolate can be delicious – but what about its effects on your health?