Chocolate: Food of the Gods

Chocolate has been called the “food of the gods,” probably first by the Mayans and Aztecs in the 1300-1500’s A.D. What is it about chocolate that to this day inspires gastronomic delight in young and old alike?

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I recently attended a wonderful lecture given by Dr. Roberta Lee at the New York Botanical Garden on the historical and medicinal uses of chocolate. Dr. Lee is the Medical Director at Beth Israel’s Continuum Center for Health and Health; her talk was a great update of her paper, “Chocolate: Healing ‘Food of the Gods’?,” published in Alternative Therapies in 2001. The paper’s co-author, the NYBG’s Dr. Michael Balick, kicked off the morning with a moving presentation on his ethnobotanical preservation efforts in Belize.

The medicinal properties of chocolate seem to be predominantly a function of flavonoids (antioxidants) in dark chocolate. A June 2005 article in the American Journal of Hypertension documents a significant effect of dark chocolate on arterial dilation, thereby exerting a positive effect on cardiovascular function. I always preferred the dark stuff, a maternally inherited genetic tendency well chronicled in my family. Thank goodness no one’s allergic (yet) that we know of.

There was a tasting of several authentic Mayan chocolate drinks (spiced with chiles), and then we were led on a tour of the gardens by none other than Jim Duke, author of “The Green Pharmacy” and of the Agriculture Research Service’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. The highlight was, of course, the magical and mystical Theobroma cacao trees, complete with ripening cacao bean pods.

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We learned, too, of the importance of buying fair trade products, but that is a thought for another day.

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