Larrie Stone

Larrie Stone

Broccoli and carrots may be good for you, but chocolate is undoubtedly the favorite food of most Americans.

Chocolate is made from the seeds found in the fruit of a tropical evergreen tree called the cocoa tree. This tree originally came from the Andes mountains in South America, but is now grown on farms mainly in West Africa and the Caribbean. Some 70 percent of the world's cocoa hails from trees grown on small farms — 7 to 10 acres — in West Africa. Some of these trees are more than 200 years old, but most give marketable cocoa beans for only the first 25 years of their growth.

Today, chocolate is made from cocoa seeds, or beans, that are first fermented for extra flavor. The fermentation involves diverse microbes that produce acids and other waste products, mostly in the gooey pulp that surrounds the cocoa beans in the pod. This produces changes in the beans or seeds that affect their taste. The beans are then dried and roasted. The beans are further processed to extract their fat. This material is known as cocoa butter. The left over solids are further ground into what is eventually sold as cocoa powder.

For some time, it has been thought that chocolate originated in Mexico or Central America about 4,000 years ago. However, archeologists have recently found organic residue on artifacts indicating that the Mayo-Chinchipe culture was making chocolate nearly 5,500 years ago in what is now Ecuador.

But, it was not like our chocolate of today. It was a paste of ground cocoa beans mixed with combinations of water, corn, fruit, chili peppers or honey, creating a porridge or beverage.

Chocolate arrived in Europe in the 16th century as a warm drink made from "chocolate liquor." The term refers to ground cocoa paste, about half of which is cocoa solids with the rest being cocoa butter.

Today, chocolate liquor is better known as baking chocolate. The eating of chocolate started in the mid-19th century when Europeans added sugar and extra cocoa butter to chocolate liquor, creating what we now call dark chocolate. In the 1870s, the Swiss added milk powder and invented milk chocolate. In the 20th-century white chocolate was invented. It is produced by combining cocoa butter, sugar and an emulsifier. It is not technically chocolate since it doesn't contain cocoa solids.

Larrie Stone is a retired Dana College science professor.

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