The first people to consume chocolate were the Mayans, way back in around 2000BC. They harvested the seeds from the cacao tree, fermented, roasted, shelled then ground them up. They combined them with water and spices into a rich but bitter liquid which they poured from one cup to another several times to make it froth. It was usually drunk at the end of a meal – the Mayan version of passing the port.
They loved it so much that they began to actually grow their own cacao trees, and the beans became popular in art, at weddings, and rituals that honoured their gods – they even had a god of cacao!
Today the process differs little. The beans are extracted, roasted, separated into shells and nibs in much the same way. The cocoa nibs are ground into a liquor and separated from the cocoa butter, ready for the chocolate making while the rest of the bean is ground into fine powder for baking.
So is dark chocolate better for you than milk chocolate? Cocoa is rich in flavanols, chemicals that may help to protect the heart and dark chocolate contains 2-3 times more of them than its milk counterpart. Flavanols also help to lower blood pressure. Some studies have shown that flavanols can increase insulin sensitivity so in the long run, this could reduce the risk of diabetes.
Dark chocolate is rich in iron, copper, magnesium, zinc and phosphorus, as well as flavanols. Studies have shown that 1-2 small square of dark chocolate daily may offer a reduced risk of heart disease too, but it is high in calories with around 160 calories per ounce, so eating modest amounts would bring the greatest benefits to health.