There’s no doubt that chocolate is one of the most well-known (and well-loved!) foods in the world. Whether it’s milk chocolate, dark chocolate, or even white chocolate, it seems like almost nobody can resist indulging in this “food of the gods” – we know we can’t! But have you ever really thought about how your favorite chocolate wound up on the shelf at your local supermarket or chocolate shop? Chocolate actually has a remarkable origin story that begins deep in the Amazon jungle of South America, and a lot of work has gone into transforming the beans of the ancient cacao fruit into the tasty bars of chocolate that we all know and love.
And what’s even more interesting? Chocolate is actually good for you! After all, they don’t call cacao “food of the gods” for nothing.
The true history of chocolate begins with Theobroma cacao, a tree indigenous to South and Central America that produces cacao fruit, the beans of which eventually became the chocolate that winds up on our store shelves and, ultimately, our desserts. But long before there was chocolate, there was xocolatl – the ancient Nahuatl word used to describe the “bitter water” that the Aztec and Maya used to make from the beans of the cacao fruit and drink during ritual occasions.
Cacao, the plant at the very origin of chocolate, dates back thousands of years. No one really knows when it was first discovered, but there is record of both the ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations using cacao beans to make a bitter chocolate drink called xocolatl. Following Spain’s colonial conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century, cacao then spread to the Caribbean, West Africa, and Southeast Asia. The Spaniards likewise brought cacao to Europe and began to add sweeteners and spices from the Caribbean to create more pleasant-tasting chocolate drinks enjoyed by the European elite. Chocolate was first enjoyed in solid form starting in 1674 at a London shop called The Coffee Mill and Tobacco Roll.
Of course we think all chocolate is great, but the health benefits of chocolate do vary according to the kind of chocolate it is. Generally, chocolate that is higher in cacao solids and lower in sugar is the option with the most health benefits – that makes dark chocolate the healthiest overall variety of chocolate. Milk chocolate does still have cacao solids, but generally high sugar content means you’re not getting as many physical benefits, but you may still enjoy some of the mental benefits that come with eating chocolate. Since white chocolate doesn’t have any cacao solids at all – only cocoa butter – it doesn’t have the same health benefits of dark chocolate, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a delicious treat!
Cacao is a known superfood. Since dark chocolate has a high concentration of cacao solids, that means you’re getting many of the superfood health benefits of cacao. Cacao is loaded with antioxidants that help fight the damage caused to our cells by free radicals. Free radicals are the byproduct of a modern lifestyle that includes exposure to pollution and processed foods, and are thought to be the root cause of diseases like cancer and heart disease. Cacao is also rich in the essential nutrients potassium and magnesium, which help support both the nervous, cardiovascular, and muscular systems. Finally, cacao is also a great source of theobromine, which is a natural energy-booster that is non-addictive and does not induce any negative side effects like jitters or energy crashes.
Though some people may think the percentage of cacao listed on the label of a bar of chocolate is an indicator of the quality of the chocolate, that’s not necessarily the case (though it can sometimes be). Those percentages indicate the percentage of cacao in that particular bar, versus other additives like milk or sweetener. The higher the percentage, the more cacao solids there are – that’s what makes dark chocolate a healthier alternative to milk chocolate, which contains way less cacao solids. To know you’re getting a bar with more health benefits, start with a chocolate that advertises at least 70% cacao on the label.