Today, July 7, is World Chocolate Day. And the date is not accidental, but was chosen in reference to that fateful July 7, 1550, conventionally referred to as “the day of the discovery of chocolate in Europe”. It was the beginning of a real craze for this delicious food.
In those times, in fact, the Spanish galleons returning from the New World carried, in addition to gold and silver, also a new “treasure” that would soon conquer the whole of the Old Continent. They were the seeds of the cocoa plant, cultivated by natives of Central and South America – according to archaeologists – as early as 1250 BC
The food of the Gods: from the Americas to Europe
But in the country of origin, the drink that was obtained did not have that sweet and velvety flavor that we love so much today. It was composed of roasted cocoa beans and water and was mostly used in religious ceremonies, as was the case with the Maya. The Aztecs called it Xocoatl (bitter water) and flavored it with vanilla, pepper and chilli.
Cocoa was so precious to this civilization that it was used as a bargaining chip. And soon the Spanish soldiers discovered its invigorating virtues. Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico, called it “a divine drink that helps fight fatigue” and stated that one cup was enough to walk a day without eating.
A triumph of flavors
The chocolate, landed in European ports, thus reached the tables of kings and the circles of nobles and bourgeois, eventually spreading rapidly in the centuries to come. Today chocolate is not only drunk, but also bites, in the form of bars with the most varied tastes: from chilli to rum. From Himalayan salt to lemon peel. Then there is vegan chocolate (which does not use ingredients containing animal principles) and gluten-free. In short, there really is something for everyone. But is chocolate also for all ages?
In fact, what world would it be if the young English chocolatier Joseph Fry hadn’t invented chocolate bars on that distant 7th July 1847 ? It can be said that the 19-year-old, by combining cocoa and cocoa butter, had the intuition of life . What until then could only be tasted in liquid form, from that moment on became a sweet temptation to be enjoyed at any time and wherever you were.
However, behind each a bite of these tablets there are often enormous injustices, child exploitation and deforestation above all.
The origin of chocolate
But let’s take a step back. Chocolate has its roots in Central America in 1900 BC, when the Maya used to mix the powder obtained from cocoa beans with chilli and corn, thus creating a drink with a lot of foam, called Xocoatl, which they believed to give strength. to those who drank it. Considered “gift of the gods”, the Mayan tradition has it that the chocolate was brought by the divine serpent Kukulkan and that he offered it as a gift to men of faith. For the Aztecs, however, it was a real bargaining chip, to be drunk during special celebrations and to be given to soldiers as a reward for their military exploits.
The Chocolate Factory, a classic dessert for World Chocolate Day
It was then with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus that chocolate began to see its spread also in the Old Continent. It can be said that he also “discovered” cocoa , after on 30 July 1502 he managed to obtain some cocoa beans hitherto unknown in Europe from the indigenous peoples of America. In 1519, then, it was the turn of the conquistador Hernán Cortés , who, on the occasion of his visit to the Aztec court of King Montezuma II, was offered their precious drink based on cocoa, chilli and salt. He brought it back to his homeland, causing it to spread quickly among the members of the Spanish court. Considered an energizing and aphrodisiac food, this liquid chocolate soon became an unmissable food on the tables of the aristocratic families of Europe.
Its true affirmation, however, came only from 1828, when the Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten devised a machine capable of obtaining cocoa butter from beans, creating a cocoa powder to be drunk mixed in a liquid solution. . Then, a few years later, the young Joseph Fry thought about making chocolate in the form of a tablet, as we know it today.
The bitter side of chocolate
With the advent of chocolate bars, the demand for cocoa has also increased, and consequently the number of plantations around the world.
Today, Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two largest cocoa producing countries, which together produce over half of the world’s cocoa. There, 90% of the cocoa is grown in small family-owned plots, while only a very small percentage comes from large industrial plantations. This also explains how cocoa production in those countries has become one of the main sources of income for many families .
However, serious concerns have long been expressed about the numerous contradictions of a supply chain in the hands of the big names in international trade and the confectionery industry .
If on the one hand, in fact, the production of cocoa allows many families to have a source of income, on the other hand the very low remuneration for primary producers means that situations of child exploitation are still very, too widespread . Children torn from education and childhood and forced to take grueling shifts under the sun to collect endless quantities of cocoa beans. The same beans with which the many bars, eggs and bunnies that we find on the tables at Easter are produced .
Take advantage of Zero, the tomato sauce against illegal hiring, made with hands of all the colors of the world
A second problem is a deforestation. Several surveys in recent years have tried to shed light on the reality of supply chains that are very little attentive to environmental issues, which to increase production volumes have made space by cutting down trees and reducing forests. The latest available data tells us that the equivalent of 14 million hectares of forest were lost between 2012 and 2016. And even if the data for the following years have not yet been made available, everything suggests that the situation has not gotten worse.
This is clearly a complex problem, strongly connected to that of child labor , and which certainly cannot be solved with a snap of the fingers. However, one cannot deny the great responsibility of the large chocolate companies, which contribute to this colonial model .
Hence an alternative way is emerging, that of fair trade chocolate . Chocolate produced with cocoa that comes from plantations where workers are paid adequately and continuously.
This model also has higher environmental sustainability standards and is often chocolate that is certified organic .
To date, there are several certifications that guarantee that the chocolate has been produced according to certain social and environmental sustainability criteria , including the Fairtrade ethical mark , which ensures better trading conditions for primary producers in the countries of the South of the world and very strict environmental standards, thus contributing to the development of a fairer and more sustainable supply chain.
So pay attention when you are in front of the supermarket shelf during the next shopping. Chocolate yes, but watch out for the labels.
Cocoa and chocolate: nutritional properties
The characteristics of cocoa and chocolate vary according to origin and preparation methods. Chocolate is a food very rich in calories: about 500 kcal per 100g of dark chocolate, almost 600 kcal per 100g of milk chocolate. Always referring to 100g of product, the fat content varies from 24g of cocoa powder to 31g of milk chocolate. The most represented fatty acids are 37% stearic, 32% oleic, 25% palmitic and 2% linoleic. In general, there is an appreciable, although not high, a fraction of plant sterols, especially campesterol, sitosterol and stigmasterol, while cholesterol is present only in trace amounts.
The protein content is 19g for cocoa powder, 5g for dark chocolate and 9 / 10g for milk chocolate. In seeds, proteins are the most abundant component after the lipid component. These are mainly albumins and globulins, of which a considerable fraction is represented by enzymes which during fermentation and drying participate in a great variety of reactions and processes that are essential for the development of the aroma and taste of cocoa.
The carbohydrates amounted to around 10g in cocoa powder, while in chocolate vary greatly depending on the production techniques, ranging from 10 to 40g of dark chocolate up to 55g than to milk. In cocoa beans, there is a rich assortment of sugars: fructose and sucrose, followed by glucose and stachyose. Glucose and fructose are almost completely used in the Maillard reaction during roasting, while sucrose and starch are not affected. Cellulose, lignin and pectin make up the fiber present. In dark or milk chocolate there are obviously high percentages of sucrose and lactose which significantly increase the caloric content.
The mineral content is interesting, in particular magnesium and iron, particularly abundant in cocoa powder, alongside copper, potassium and manganese. Vitamins of group B, vitamin C, vitamin E and vitamin A are well represented.
The presence of polyphenols is very rich, divided into three groups: catechins, anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins. These substances are accumulated in the pigmented cells of the cocoa beans, in different quantities for the different varieties, and are released and transformed during the fermentation and transformation phases. The polyphenol content is very high in dark chocolate, where it reaches 8000 μg per gram, much lower in milk chocolate. The polyphenols give the chocolate its bitter and astringent taste. Another substance with a strong antioxidant action present in cocoa is clovamide, whose activity is absolutely relevant, even comparable to that of ascorbic acid.
Cocoa and chocolate also contain numerous bioactive substances, which according to some studies could explain the antidepressant and euphoric effect that has always been attributed to this food. Among the main ones, some alkaloids such as caffeine, in small quantities, and theobromine, very abundant. These substances would have a stimulating action on the central nervous system, to stimulate wakefulness, to carry out a mild diuretic action. The effect of theobromine is however less marked than that of caffeine while remaining appreciable. There are also biogenic amines, which are formed in the fermentation processes from nitrogenous precursors: the most important is 2-phenylethylamine, an amphetamine analog that keeps you alert and awake by masking fatigue. The content is small, but it is sufficient to trigger annoying migraines in sensitive subjects.
Still discussed is the presence of Anandamide, a lipid able to bind to cannabinoid receptors, the same to which the active ingredients of some drugs bind, inducing a feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction ( anandain Sanskrit it means bliss, then you say that scientists are not witty). According to some authors, this substance could be responsible for the “addiction to chocolate” described by some subjects; the average content is however so low that it is estimated that to have a real addiction one should consume about ten kg of chocolate per day.
Other substances with antidepressant action, implicated in this supposed addiction, are Salsolinol and salsolin , present in small but significant quantities.
Some antinutrient or toxic substances are also present in cocoa. L ‘ phytic acid restricts the intake of calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc, but fortunately is largely eliminated during processing. There is also oxalic acid, able to limit the absorption of calcium, and safrole, a hepatocarcinogen, fortunately in quantities not such as to cause concern.