Why do I like chocolate so much?

Why do I like chocolate so much? Nick Kilzer, World Book Encyclopedia Senior Science Editor, discusses the rich history of chocolate and the science behind why it tastes so good.


Chocolate is a food made from the seeds of a tropical tree called the cacao. Botanists believe the cacao tree originated between southern Mexico and the Amazon River Basin in South America. The word chocolate comes from chocolatl, a word Spanish conquerors may have created by combining the Maya word chocol, which meanshot, with the Aztec word atl, which means water.

The cacao tree

produces the seeds, or cacao beans, from which all chocolate is made. The scientific name of the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao. The trees flourish in tropical climates within 20 degrees latitude north and south of the equator. Most of the world's cacao beans come from the west coast of Africa. Cote d'Ivoire is, by far, the world's leading cacao bean producer. Other major producers include Ghana, Indonesia, and Brazil.


The cultivated cacao tree grows about 25 feet (7.6 meters) high. It produces leaves, flowers, and fruit in all seasons of the year. The flowers are small. They grow singly and in clusters on the main stem of the branches and on the trunk. The ripe fruit, or pod, may be red, yellow, golden, pale green, or a combination of these colors. The melonlike pod contains 20 to 40 almond-shaped seeds. When these seeds are fermented and dried, they become the commercial cacao bean. Because of a mistake in spelling, probably made by English importers many years ago, these beans became known as cocoa beans in English-speaking countries.


Harvesting the cacao beans. Workers cut the pods from the trees with knives attached to long poles, or with machetes. They gather the pods into heaps, cut them open, and scoop out the beans. The beans are placed in piles, covered with banana leaves, and allowed to ferment for 2 to 9 days. Some large operations ferment the beans in boxes instead of piles. Next, the beans are dried in the sun or with warm air to prevent mold. Workers then place the beans in bags or bulk containers for shipment.


Manufacturing chocolate. Chocolate manufacturers receive many types of beans. They blend them to yield the flavor and color desired in the final product. The first steps in processing the beans include cleaning, roasting, hulling, blending, and grinding. Cacao seeds with the shells removed are callednibs. The nibs are quite dry, even though they contain about 54 percentcocoa butter, the natural fat of the cacao bean. The grinding process releases the cocoa butter from within the nibs. The mixture of cocoa butter and finely ground nibs forms a free-flowing substance known as chocolate liquor.


Chocolate products are all manufactured from chocolate liquor. They include baking chocolate, cocoa, milk chocolate, and sweet and semisweet chocolate.


Baking chocolate is the commercial form of chocolate liquor. Manufacturers cool and solidify the chocolate liquor into cakes. This bitter, unsweetened form of chocolate is used in many baked goods.


Cocoa. In making cocoa powder, workers use huge hydraulic presses to force some of the cocoa butter out of the heated chocolate liquor. The mass remaining in the presses forms large, hard cakes called press cakes.Manufacturers grind press cakes into fine, reddish-brown cocoa powder. People can prepare a hot beverage from the cocoa powder by adding sugar, hot milk, and sometimes vanilla. Confectioners, bakers, ice cream manufacturers, and other food producers use cocoa in many of their products.


Milk chocolate ranks as the most popular of all chocolate products. Chocolate liquor, additional cocoa butter, whole milk solids, and sugar are the basic ingredients in this form of chocolate. Manufacturers may also add small amounts of flavoring, such as vanilla and salt. The ingredients are mixed well. The mixture then passes through a series of large, steel roll refiners that crush the sugar and milk powder to produce a fine paste. Machines called conches then process the chocolate for up to 72 hours. The mixing action of the conch helps develop the smooth texture and desired flavor as it blends the chocolate. Milk chocolate is sold in the form of bars and as the coating on some candies.


Sweet chocolate and semisweet chocolate are processed in the same way as milk chocolate. But manufacturers do not add milk solids to the mixture. Manufacturers sell large amounts of both sweet and semisweet chocolate to confectioners for making chocolate-covered candies. These types of chocolate, often called dark chocolate, are commonly used in baking.


Food value of chocolate. Chocolate ranks high in calories but also high in food value. It contains carbohydrates, fats, protein, and several vitamins and minerals. Many people whose work requires physical endurance, including soldiers, explorers, and athletes, rely on chocolate as a source of quick energy.


History. The Olmec Indians, who flourished in southern Mexico between about 1200 and 400 B.C., may have been the first to cultivate cacao. The Maya Indians of Central America may have begun using cacao beans as early as 600 B.C. The Aztec Indians of Mexico cultivated cacao by A.D. 1500. The cacao bean played an important role in Aztec traditions and religion. Members of the Aztec elite and warrior classes drank a beverage made of ground cacao mixed with ground corn and other seeds. They may have added honey to sweeten the drink, or mixed in vanilla or chili powder to add flavor. The Aztec also used cacao beans as a currency and in religious rituals.


Spanish explorers and conquistadors in Mexico first tasted cacao during the early 1500's, but it is not known whether they brought the beans back to Spain. However, chocolate had arrived in Spain by the mid-1500's. The first commercial shipment of cacao beans to Europe arrived in Spain in 1585. Chocolate became a popular drink of European nobility soon afterward. In London, the first establishment to sell cocoa opened in 1657. Europeans added sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and milk to the beverage to reduce the bitter taste.


The British chocolate company J. S. Fry and Sons is credited with developing solid eating chocolate. The company first made the confection in 1847. In 1876, the Swiss chocolate manufacturer Daniel Peter invented a method to produce milk chocolate. Today, chocolate is popular around the world. Countries in which large amounts of chocolate are eaten include Belgium, France, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.



Hans-Dieter Sues, Ph.D., Associate Director for Research and Collections, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.


This article is from The World Book Encyclopedia.

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