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Sweet discovery for 'chocoholics'

Ceramic vessels provide insight into history of chocolate

Scientists found cocoa residue in this Mayan jug found in Belize, which dates between 600 B.C. and 250 A.D.  

Marsha Walton
CNN Sci-Tech

(CNN) -- The term "chocoholic" may be fairly new, but scientists now know that the people it describes -- chocolate lovers -- have been around for more than 2,600 years.

At the Hershey Foods headquarters in Pennsylvania, biochemist Jeff Hurst tested small amounts of residue found in 14 ceramic vessels excavated from Colha, in northern Belize. Three of those containers showed the presence of theobromine, a major compound found in chocolate.

"Science is an adventure, and every time you do things in science you are sort of pleasantly surprised by things such as this," said Hurst, whose findings are described in the British journal Nature.

Hurst worked with archeologists from the University of Texas at Austin in identifying remnants of an ancient chocolate beverage. Those scientists sent him a few grams of powder carefully scraped from the inside of the vessels, which dated between 600 B.C. and 250 A.D.

His analysis separated the various compounds within the sample by molecular weight. The results revealed the theobromine. The tests were done with a high-performance, liquid chromatograph mass spectrometer.

The British journal Nature says humanity's love affair with chocolate goes back further than thought. CNN's Anne Kellan reports (July 17)

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Ancient forms of chocolate were not just used for eating and drinking; cacao beans were so revered in some civilizations that they were sometimes used as a form of currency.

"The Mayans did not have currency per se, so the rulers would tax the people by making them pay in whatever was needed in their court, whether it was cacao beans, corn, beans, or bird feathers," said Paul Gepts, professor of agronomy at the University of California at Davis.

"And we know that Montezuma, the emperor of the Aztec empire, asked his people to pay him with cacao beans, in part, that was because he liked chocolate very much," said Gepts.

Some historians report tales of Montezuma taking a swig of a liquid chocolate drink before visiting his harem, which may account for some of the legends of its aphrodisiac qualities.

Beverage lingo

While cravings for chocolate can now be traced back nearly 3,000 years, many cultures have added their own imprint to the natural ingredient.

The fruit of the cacao tree, which grows directly off the trunk or branches, is about the size and shape of a U.S. football.  

And those tastes have changed dramatically over the years, since humans mastered the somewhat complicated process of turning cacao beans into chocolate.

Today a customer at a trendy coffee bar might ask for a "non-fat, no-whip, mint hot chocolate." Translation: hot chocolate made with non-fat milk, no-whipped cream, with a hint of mint.

Hundreds of years ago, a member of the nobility in Central America might have demanded from a servant a "chile and vanilla cacao water, with a touch of hallucinogenic mushrooms." Translation: cocoa beans blended in cold water, flavored with hot chiles, vanilla and potent mushrooms.

Mayans and Aztecs added water to the processed cacao beans, and drank what was known as "bitter water" combined with chiles, spices, even corn or mushrooms. And they were especially fond of the froth that was created by quickly pouring the liquid from one container to another.

European sweeteners

Europeans tempered the raw bitter chocolate taste with sweeteners.

Most contemporary chocolate lovers prefer a sweeter version of the product than the Aztecs and Mayans consumed.  

"The Spanish liked cacao very much and they added water to it, also, plus other condiments, including cinnamon, cane sugar and cloves," said Gepts, who teaches a class on crops that have shaped civilizations.

"The Swiss added milk powder, so we got chocolate milk. They also invented a process called conching, which makes the chocolate very smooth and not gritty," he said.

The Belgians are credited with putting one kind of chocolate, or nuts, or fruit, inside another layer of chocolate, creating the praline. And, says Gepts, we have the British company Cadbury's to thank for devising a marketing tool, which is to associate chocolate with romantic events -- a tradition that continues around the world today.

While Central and South America used to dominate growing cacao trees, other tropical regions are now working to satisfy the world's growing chocolate cravings. Cacao trees are now harvested in the Caribbean, central Africa, including Cameroon and Ivory Coast, and, more recently, in southeast Asia.


• Hershey Foods
• Cadbury's
• Nature

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