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Just in time for Valentine’s Day we present, chocolate! In fact, we’d like to start earlier with the origins of this delightful and addictive food, cacao. The name cacao is actually a Spanish adaptation of the Mayan name, kakawatl. This fruit-producing tree, known by the scientific name Theobroma Cacao (which translates to “food of the Gods”) is believed to have its origins in the Upper Amazon region which now incorporates Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia before spreading northward across the Andes into Central America. Indeed, the first evidence of the cacao dates back over 5,000 years to the Mayo-Chinchipe civilization in Ecuador. The fruit, shaped like a football, is composed of a pod or protective outer shell that contains anywhere from 35 to 80 fruit-covered seeds. As Monica Rogan explains, the unprocessed, gel-like fruit cloaks the seeds.

When the Spanish colonizer Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico in the 1500s, he discovered that the plant was already steeped in regional culture and mythology and consumed as a beverage by the elite like royalty, merchants, and warriors. Indeed, the plant had attained both religious and economic value. It is Cortes, many believe, who was the first to add sugar to the drink. But to make the cacao edible, it is first processed through fermenting and roasting. It is the roasting, Rogan reveals, that develops the flavour profile which is as unique and varied as coffee or wine. While cacao is the name assigned to the raw fruit, cocoa is the name assigned to the powdered form.

In the eighteenth century, it was colonial merchants and planters like Sir Hans Sloane who imported the plant to Britain at a time when coffee house culture included the consumption of cocoa-based beverages. With the spread of cacao across Europe, the English became the first to add milk to the beverage.

In the the 1800s, the crop was being exported to Africa to increase production to meet growing European demand. The nineteenth century also saw the production and marketing of chocolate in convenient bars and the rest, as they say, is history. Although today, most people get their chocolate in this solid form as a bar, many people, especially in the Caribbean and South America, still consume it as a drink or tea.

Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, is full of flavonoids and antioxidants which are associated with health benefits like reducing inflammation, increasing blood circulation, preventing blood clots, and lowering blood pressure. Cocoa also has several compounds – flavonoids, caffeine, serotonin, and tryptophan – that are known to improve mood. Besides iron, calcium and magnesium, the mood and energy booster, theobromine, is also found in cocoa.

But not all chocolates are created equal. To maximize the health benefits of cacao, it is best to consume the purest forms with low sugar content, ones that are free from fillers and preservatives. That means, sorry folks, that the milk chocolate that is low on cocoa and loaded with sugar is the least healthy type. Luckily, today it is not hard to get your hands on healthier varieties of chocolate with many brands offering products with 70% cocoa content or more.

So, for Valentine’s Day (or any day) try adding the healthier dark chocolate to your diet in innovative ways like in your breakfast cereal, pre-workout smoothie, cakes, muffins, pancakes, cupcakes, cookies, breads, and puddings, mixed with dried fruit and nuts, or as a dip for strawberries or other fruit.

By the way, melted chocolate, when cooled to the right temperature, is also a delectable topping to drizzle on your beloved’s body during sexy time. You’re welcome!