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Rediscovering the Health and History of Chocolate this Easter


chocolate easter bunny and easter eggs

The Easter Egg Dilemma

Recent research conducted by the Irish Heart Foundation found that children across the country will eat an average of four eggs over the Easter holidays, with about one in five getting six eggs or more.  Just one average-sized Easter egg has about 23 teaspoons of sugar (almost four times a child’s daily recommendation) yet the trend to target children by associating major holidays with junk food, not only distorts the significance of the season, but keeps junk food firmly on the table at every occasion. The Easter Bunny (who is hopping mad) also added “that it is a shame that chocolate has fallen foul of a greedy food industry because there was a time when real chocolate was synonymous with great celebrations, health and happiness”.  There is no other food on the planet that has the capacity to nourish the mind, body and spirit quite like real, honest-to-goodness chocolate. 

 

Rediscovering Chocolate's Origins

Native of the tropical rainforests of equatorial South America, Theobroma Cacao, literally means “food of the gods” and has history going back to 1000BC.  The Olmec people of what is now Southeast Mexico were the first to hail its virtues but it was the Mayans, over 1200 years later that really put chocolate on the map.  Cacao beans from which chocolate is made, were used to make luxurious beverage while also used as currency, such was the value of the beans.  Only the very wealthy could afford to consume chocolate in Mayan times and the regular folk would only use cacao beans to trade for goods and services. The average industrial wage of the time was 100 beans per day.  Ten beans would get you a rabbit or a tryst with a “lady of the night”, an avocado would set you back three beans and a turkey or feathered cape was a day’s wages.  The trade of cacao beans was fierce – bean banks were established, and beans replaced gold as currency during the reign of the last Aztec emperor, Montezuma ll (1502-1520AD).  Early on counterfeit beans made from clay were a problem and phrases such as “not worth a bean” and “bean counters” dates back to these times.


cacao beans growing on a tree

The traditional method of preparing cacao beans for drinking was a long, labour-intensive process.  It involved harvesting the beans from cacao pods, allowing them to ferment and dry out. They were then roasted and ground to a paste called cacao liquor -which was added to hot water and spices to make the chocolate drink. The cacao liquor can be also separated into cacao butter and cacao powder.  Cacao and cocoa powder differ slightly in that the latter is roasted before being ground to a powder whereas cacao powder is ground from raw, dried beans. The roasting of the beans brings out the chocolatey aroma we are more familiar with today.  Both powders in their purest forms are highly nutritious – rich in B vitamins, antioxidants, fibre, magnesium and other minerals.  

 

The original chocolate drink was used in marriage ceremonies, linking it to romance and used as a remedy for strength and virility, gaining reputation as an aphrodisiac.  Amazingly, its ceremonial and medicinal use can now be justified through scientific research, with much of its nutrients truly beneficial to heart and circulatory health.  Raw, unprocessed cacao is among the highest rated antioxidant foods known. Multiple antioxidants- polyphenols, catechins, flavanols among others, rank it higher than blueberries and acai berries in the antioxidant charts.  The nutrient profile of cocoa powder is similar to cacao, once it is pure and minimally processed. Studies examining its effect on blood pressure showed an increase in nitric oxide production in the cells lining blood vessels, prompting them to dilate and reduce pressure while increasing blood flow. Other studies have demonstrated that it lowers the susceptibility of LDL (bad cholesterol) to oxidative damage while increasing HDL (good cholesterol) thus further protecting cardiovascular health.  Rich in fibre and minerals, it can also improve insulin sensitivity, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.  The combination of antioxidants and improved blood flow also aids memory, attention span and problem solving in brain health.  Cocoa also contains stimulant substances like caffeine and theobromine, which may be a key reason cocoa can improve brain function in the short term.


Evolution of Chocolate in Europe

Following the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in the 1600s, chocolate made its debut in Europe.  The Industrial Revolution paved the way for the chocolate we eat today.  Steam engines reduced the time and labour needed for grinding cacao beans and also new machinery enabled more cacao butter to be extracted from the liquor, which was later replaced with cheaper oils such as palm oil and vegetable oils.  The cheap version of modern chocolate is far removed from where it all began in terms of taste, health and ceremony.  The addition of refined sugar, hydrogenated oils, milk solids, emulsifiers and chemical flavourings now offset any health benefit of the original ingredient. 


cacao beans broken down to cocoa powder, cacao nibs and chocolate

 

Most of the 18 million chocolate Easter eggs sold in Ireland this year will hardly be fit for the gods, not to mind what they will do to our youngsters. We, the grown-ups can support the Easter bunny by choosing quality over quantity this year.  This is an opportunity to support the wonderful artisan chocolatiers, the smaller businesses that promote a more sustainable, ethical way to celebrate the holiday.  Seek out the quality dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids – the more non-fat cocoa solids, the better for our health. Without being the killjoy, we all can rediscover the real joy of chocolate by experiencing the real thing and ultimately making the Easter bunny a very happy bunny indeed!



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