Chocolate – what else?

I can’t believe I haven’t written anything about chocolate yet – my drug of choice, my favourite indulgence since time immemorial, something worth living for. Its earliest documented use is around 1100 BC and it was rather not so sweet – the seeds of the cacao tree have an intense bitter taste, and must be fermented to develop the flavor. The majority of the Mesoamerican people made chocolate beverages, including the Aztecs, who made it into a beverage known as xocolātl, a Nahuatl word meaning “bitter water”. I think I would still love it.

After fermentation, the beans are dried, then cleaned, and then roasted, and the shell is removed to produce cacao nibs. The nibs are then ground to cocoa mass, pure chocolate in rough form. Because this cocoa mass usually is liquefied then molded with or without other ingredients, it is called chocolate liquor. The liquor also may be processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Unsweetened baking chocolate (bitter chocolate) contains primarily cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions. Much of the chocolate consumed today is in the form of sweet chocolate, combining cocoa solids, cocoa butter or other fat, and sugar. Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate that additionally contains milk powder or condensed milk. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, and milk but no cocoa solids.

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The Latin name for the cacao tree – the tropical plant source of all things chocolate – consists of two words packed with candy-loving meaning. Theobroma cacao. It derives from the Greek words for god (theo) and food (brosi), roughly translating to “food of the gods”. Small wonder people love it so much. Chocolate played a special role in both Maya and Aztec royal and religious events. Priests presented cacao seeds as offerings to the gods and served chocolate drinks during sacred ceremonies. All of the areas that were conquered by the Aztecs that grew cacao beans were ordered to pay them as a tax, or as the Aztecs called it, a “tribute”. However, chocolate can be bad for you and for your pets. All because of a substance called… theobromine exactly.

Theobromine is an alkaloid, meaning it’s part of the everyday chemistry of the plant world. Plant alkaloids are nitrogen-based, typically with with flourishes of carbon, hydrogen and occasionally other atoms such as oxygen. The formula for theobromine is seven carbon atoms, eight of hydrogen, four of nitrogen and two of oxygen.

And while this may sound like a recipe for the routine, alkaloids are anything but. The first plant alkaloid isolated (in 1804) was morphine from the flowering poppy. Other notable examples include cocaine (1860), nicotine (1828), caffeine (1820), strychnine (1818) and a host of pharmaceuticals including the anticancer drug Vincristine; the blood pressure medication, reserpine; and the antimalarial compound, quinine.

Theobromine, 3-D model

Theobromine is mostly known as a mild stimulant in humans; it contributes (along with caffeine and a few other compounds) to that famed lift that people get from eating chocolate.

There is some evidence that if people get carried away with chocolate consumption, of course, theobromine will make them a little twitchy. According to theNational Hazardous Substances Database: “It has been stated that “in large doses” theobromine may cause nausea and anorexia and that daily intake of 50-100 g cocoa (0.8-1.5 g theobromine) by humans has been associated with sweating, trembling and severe headache.” Occasionally, people (mostly the elderly) have needed hospital treatment for a theobromine reaction.

But if one looks at LD50 values, it’s obvious that the alkaloid is far more threatening to other species. LD50 is an oral toxicity measurement; it refers to the dose that will kill 50 percent of a given population and is usually calculated in milligrams of poison per kilograms of body weight. Thetheobromine LD50 is about 1000 mg/kg in humans. But for cats it’s 200 mg/kg and for dogs it’s 300 mg/kg – in other words, dangerous at a far lower dose.

The different toxicities have to do with the way different species metabolize the alkaloid; humans process it much more efficiently than canines. And in small amounts, theobromine’s effects can make it medically useful. But even here, it shows complexity. It increases heart rate and at the same time it dilates blood vessels, acting to bring down blood pressure. It can also open up airways and is under study as a cough medication. It stimulates urine production and is considered a diuretic. It interacts with the central nervous system, although not as effectively as caffeine.This varies, of course, by animal size and shape and breed. Mind you theobromine is more concentrated in dark chocolates making them more dangerous than milk or “white” chocolate. The dark chocolate effects are so acute for canines, that the alkaloid has been tested with some success as a means of controlling coyote populations. Interestingly, rats and mice are much less affected; their theobromine LD50 is much more like that found in humans.

Now some sweet quotes:

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” – Charles M. Schulz

“It’s not that chocolates are a substitute for love. Love is a substitute for chocolate. Chocolate is, let’s face it, far more reliable than a man.” – Miranda Ingram

“Strength is the ability to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands – and then eat just one of those pieces.” – Judith Viorst

“Chocolate makes everyone smile-even bankers.” – Benneville Strohecker, chocolatier

“Chocolate: the poor mans’ champagne.” – Daniel Worona

“There are four basic food groups: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate, and chocolate truffles.” – Anonymous

“Chocolate is nature’s way of making up for Mondays.” – Anonymous

“Biochemically, love is just like eating large amounts of chocolate.” John Milton, The Devil’s Advocate

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10 Responses to Chocolate – what else?

  1. Aurian says:

    I love it! Especially those quotes! Last year I have been to Gent, Belgium, and visited a chocoloate museum. How the chocolate is made, and drank, and everything. And ofcourse, a demonstration and a taste of it. And then you ended the tour in the shop. Which is not so bad, as Belgium as a Chocolate Standard, set by law. Which means it tastes better than Dutch chocolate, as there is more cacao in it. When I finished all the lovely bonbons I bought a week or so later, I immediately wanted to return and buy some more real Belgian chocolates, not the ones in the supermarket claiming to be Belgian.Unfortunately, I have developed some kind of allergy to chocolate, and can only have a little piece a day. Two bonbons at the most. And let me tell you, that is a real battle of willpower.Thanks Ana, I enjoyed this very much.

  2. Blodeuedd says:

    MMMmmmmmm *drools a bit* I am a choco-holic. I love it. Though not the dark kind, I want milk chocolate, or the most awesome thing ever, white chocolate 😀 Sweet and yummy. Or chocolate with nuts.And now I need choco

  3. Tasha B. says:

    Weirdly, there's a chocolate commercial on while I'm reading this! :)Here's a Maya drawing of a man reborn as a cacao tree:

  4. Anachronist says:

    Aurian, I had an opportunity to taste real Belgian chocolate so I understand your feelings, concerning those – highly addictive because so incredibly yummy! My favourite (and available where I live) brand is Lindt – I must have one spare bar always in my fridge or I am dying.Blodeuedd – sorry to make you crave again! 😉 White chocolate is interesting but it lacks the bubbles.Tasha – thanks for a very interesting drawing; my post is basically one big choco advert as well!

  5. Aurian says:

    Lindt is available here in Holland as well, in the old part of town there is a whole shop devoted to Lindt. But, well, too expensive, I don't want to spend that much on it.

  6. Anachronist says:

    Well, it is rather expensive, I admit it, but if you could buy just one bar of chocolate a month (my limit) you can indulge yourself…My commiserations because of your allergy though.

  7. "It’s not that chocolates are a substitute for love. Love is a substitute for chocolate. Chocolate is, let’s face it, far more reliable than a man.”Here here!! So true. When the holidays roll around I always end up with loads of chocolate. I just stockpile it and use it for those moments when I want to beat someone upside the head with a baseball hat. Usually Hubs. I LOVE Lindt, but it is expensive and I actually prefer the little balls filled with almost melted chocolate of sorts. Europeans have way better chocolate than we do, but I usually prefer mine with nuts. Hazelnuts to be exact. YUM! Now I'm hungry for chocolate.

  8. Anachronist says:

    Chocolate with hazelnuts is the favourite of my mum. I actually prefer the little balls filled with almost melted chocolate of sorts.Lindt also produces these. ;)They are insanely good. I am always hungry for chocolate.

  9. Oddly, I sat down with a cup of hot cocoa to read this. Interesting about the alkaloids but cocoa contains anti-oxidants too. As Plato and Aristotle said, moderation in all things.

  10. Anachronist says:

    The Red Witch, nice to see you again! I didn't want to focus on the full chemical composition of cocoa/chocolate in order not to bore my readers to death. 😉 Overall these Greeks had it right – moderate consumption of chocolate/cocoa is highly advisable.

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