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Chocolate ... The #1 food craved by women across North America. And it’s second only to pizza among men. Some people swear they're addicted to it. In fact, North Americans spend $8.9 billion (US) per year on chocolate and consume nearly 5.5 kg or 12 pounds per person each year. Is chocolate the "food of the gods", an indulgence, or a necessity of life? Read on to find out about the history of chocolate and, most importantly, the benefits of eating chocolate.
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The history of chocolate traces its roots back to the Aztecs. During Emperor Montezuma’s reign, cocoa beans were so valuable that they were used as currency. Cocoa, prepared as a chocolate drink, was believed to impart wisdom, provide great energy and have aphrodisiacal powers. Montezuma greeted explorer Hernando Cortez with gold, silver and cocoa, and Cortez brought Montezuma’s special drink recipe back to Spain. The Spaniards added hot water, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon, and the drink became all the rage among European nobles. It then became so popular in France that chocolate houses, much like today’s coffee houses, appeared. Later, the Swiss made the most refinements to cocoa, creating the processing system still used today. The Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus, christened the chocolate plant Theobroma cacao, Latin for "food of the gods".

The cocoa tree grows in tropical rainforests, particularly in the Ivory Coast of Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, and Ghana. The cocoa fruits (or pods) are found on the trunk and older branches, and each pod contains 20 to 50 seeds or beans. When the fruits are harvested, the beans are scooped out and fermented in wood crates for 3 to 9 days. The beans are then dried, roasted and ground to release the fat and aromatic substances, and the cocoa is refined. About 400 cocoa beans are needed to produce one pound of chocolate.

Bitter chocolate is made by mixing cocoa paste with small amounts of sugar.

Milk chocolate is a mixture of cocoa paste, cocoa butter, sugar, and substantial quantities of powdered milk.

White chocolate is is obtained by mixing cocoa butter, sugar and milk.

For more information about the origin and processing of chocolate, try these sites:

Benefits of Eating Chocolate

Chocolate has exceptional nutritional qualities, being a high energy food in a small volume. It not only contains carbohydrates, fats, and vegetable proteins, but also has large quantities of potassium and magnesium, some calcium and sodium, and vitamins A1, B1, B2, D, and E.

Chocolate contains a number of other substances in small, but effective, quantities:

Theobromine, which stimulates the central nervous system, facilitates muscular exertion, acts as a diuretic and appetite stimulant.

Caffeine, which increases resistance to fatigue, intellectual activity, and watchfulness. An average size chocolate bar contains approximately 6 mg of caffeine, compared to 100-150 mg in a cup of coffee.

Phenylethylamine, which is the chemical released in our bodies when we fall in love and is chemically similar to amphetamines, therefore acting as a psycho-stimulant.

Tryptophan, an essential amino acid that increases the production of serotonin, an anti-depressant and natural stress-reducer. In fact, a decrease in serotonin levels in the brain may trigger cravings for starches, sweet foods and chocolate.

Endorphins, natural opiates that are released by the brain in increased amounts when eating chocolate, thereby elevating one's mood and reducing pain.

Phenols,which are also found in red wine, tea, fruits and vegetables, and may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

Catechins, which are antioxidants that may help protect the body against cardiovascular disease and possibly cancer, are found in substantially higher quantities in chocolate than in black tea.

Anandamide, which mimics the effects of marijuana by acting on the same brain receptors, resulting in a very mild "high". Plus, chocolate has two ingredients that inhibit the natural breakdown of anandamide and hence may prolong the feeling of well-being.

Do these facts tempt you to learn more about chocolate? Then check out these websites:
Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association
International Cocoa Organization
10 Reasons Why Chocolate is Good for You
Chocolate Fever
Pastry Wiz

And other irresistible sites for the true chocoholic include: - An excellent site, with a newsletter, chocoholics club, and lots of recipes.

The Chocolate Scoop - The Ultimate Chocolate Newsletter.

The M&M's Factory - How many red ones are in a pack, really?

Edelweiss Chocolates of Beverly Hills

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