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    Home / Science lessons / All About Chocolate
    • All About Chocolate

      The history of chocolate extends back over a thousand years to the ancient Mayan culture. The Maya, and later the Aztecs, took the seeds from the pod-like fruit of the cacao tree and ground them to make a bitter, frothy chocolate drink flavored with various spices like vanilla or chili pepper. This drink was highly prized; at one time cacao beans were even used as money in the Aztec economy! In the 1500s, Spanish explorers brought cacao back home and introduced it to Europe where, when sweetened with sugar, it became a very popular drink for the next several hundred years.

      In 1828 a Dutch chocolate maker named Conrad van Houten paved the way for the modern chocolate bar when he invented a hydraulic press that squeezed cocoa butter out of ground cocoa beans. This produced powdered "cocoa" that was easier to mix up into drinks. But that wasn't all — shortly afterward it was discovered that the extra cocoa butter derived from the press could be added to unpressed chocolate (along with ingredients like milk and sugar) to create a creamy, solid form of chocolate.

      The fruit of the cacao tree contains cocoa beans insideMaking chocolate is a complex process. It starts in the equatorial rainforest, where the cacao tree grows up to 30 feet high, shaded by 150-foot-tall rainforest trees. The trees produce pods filled with a white pulp and seeds, which we know as cocoa beans. These pods are harvested by hand and opened with machetes to extract the beans, which are then fermented under a blanket of banana leaves. Fermentation removes the rest of the pulp from the beans and alters the flavor. The beans are then spread in the sun to dry for several days.

      When the dried beans arrive at a chocolate factory they are roasted to just the right flavor. During roasting, the inside of the bean shrinks away from the hull; during the next step, winnowing, the hull is cracked and blown away leaving just the inner part, called the nib.   Now the nibs are ground into a chocolate paste which will either have the cocoa butter pressed out of it to make cocoa powder, or will have cocoa butter and other ingredients added to it to make chocolate. The chocolate mixture is passed through many different refining machines to knead it into a smooth texture, then put into molds. As it solidifies, it contracts slightly, pulling away from the sides of the mold, making it easy to remove, wrap, ship, and sell!

      There are many different kinds of chocolate. Dark chocolate has the most cocoa in it and little to no milk, whereas milk chocolate, as its name implies, includes milk and less cocoa. White chocolate isn't really chocolate at all! It contains cocoa butter, but no cocoa. Unsweetened, bittersweet, and semi-sweet chocolate are all forms of dark chocolate with different amounts of sugar added. Unsweetened has no sugar added and is usually used in baking where the recipe also calls for sugar.

      Many people claim that chocolate is addictive or that it has chemicals that make them feel happier when they eat it. Some even say that eating dark chocolate can be good for you because of the antioxidants it contains. Chocolate is a very complex food with hundreds of different chemicals in it — scientists are still studying it to see what effects it has on the body. They suspect that it is not truly chemically addictive, but that it does contain traces of mood-altering substances.  Addictive or not, it sure tastes good!

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