Science Explains Why Chocolate Should be Savored, Not Scarfed

And other molecular secrets to digest while you’re digesting

Mmm, science. (TheCrimsonMonkey / iStock)

In October of 1671, French aristocrat Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné, penned a note to her daughter: “I have reconciled myself to chocolate,” she wrote. “I took it the day before yesterday to digest my dinner … and I took it yesterday to nourish me so that I could fast until evening: it gave me all the effects I wanted. That’s what I like about it: it acts according to my intention.”

Most of us can relate with Madame de Sévigné’s assessment that chocolate sates many hungers. Cocoa and chocolate come from a fruit categorized by Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who founded taxonomy, as Theobroma cacao: food of the gods. Colorful and typically oblong, this precursor to chocolate starts off as a bitter seed surrounded by juicy pulp within the pod. That pulp, known as baba, or “slime,” in Spanish, dissipates during fermentation. The seeds are dried and become what we refer to as cocoa beans. From there, they are roasted, cracked and shelled. The smaller pieces of beans, or nibs, are then processed into cocoa and chocolate.  

But long before cacao seeds were transformed into chocolate bars, they were consumed in liquid form and used as currency and in indigenous rituals. In Mayan culture, cacao was a sign of power and considered critical sustenance for the journey to the afterworld. In the pre-Colombian period, explains anthropologist Cameron McNeil in her book Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao,  “cacao was associated with blood and sacrifice.” Chocolate could even serve as ersatz blood: Achiote, a natural red colorant from the tree Bixa orellana, was added to some cacao beverages, giving them a blood-like appearance.

Cacao, revered around the globe, has played an important role in spiritual traditions, global trade, medicine, culinary traditions and many a broken heart. Before you indulge in Halloween treats, join us as we explore how this bitter seed—and the chocolate it becomes—came to captivate our hearts. 

It’s not just the beans that give chocolate its flavor

Terroir, most associated with wine, is typically defined as the combination of environmental factors that impart flavor and other characteristics to certain crops. This includes climate, geography and soil quality, as well as farming and processing methods. But terroir also impacts the flavor of cacao, which is grown in a thin belt 10 degrees north and south of the equator.

Senior research fellow Darin Sukha and his colleagues at the Cocoa Research Centre at the University of West Indies assessed how processing location and growing environment impact cocoa flavor in a 2014 study. “When the influence of different processing locations and growing environments on the flavor and other quality attributes of cacao were systematically investigated,” Sukha explained, “there were significant effects on sensory attributes.”

Floral flavors in cocoa, they discovered, were largely a reflection of the genetics of the plant, while fruity flavors varied from location to location and seemed to be influenced by where the cocoa was processed—quite possibly due to the microorganisms found in the soil, on equipment, in fermentation boxes and on the hands of those handling the crop.

So the next time you tuck into a square of chocolate, remember that the factors that make it so delicious start long before it reaches the hands of makers, with cacao genetics, plus the yeast and bacteria that help draw out the taste of place.  

About Simran Sethi

Simran is a journalist and educator focused on food and sustainability. She is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, a book about changes in food and agriculture told through bread, wine, chocolate, coffee and beer.

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