“Langouste au chocolate amer;” even those who speak no French can guess at the contents of this dish, and yet many Americans would find it unbelievable. Lobster and chocolate? Who would ever think to pair such ingredients? Certain chefs of haute cuisine, evidently, and they are not alone in this tendency (Terrio 58). Maricel Presilla gives a similar recipe, this time of Catalan origin – Langosta con Chocolate y Almendras – in her book The New Taste of Chocolate. She details chocolate’s inclusion in the picada, “an essential mixture of chopped nuts and herbs, added to saucy foods almost at the end of cooking for flavor and texture,” and explains that it has played an essential role in several Catalan dishes since the 1700s (Presilla 225). Cacao can add richness and flavor to savory dishes, but this is a foreign concept for most people today, largely because “chocolate” is now synonymous with “sweet.”
The marriage of cacao and sugar is so prevalent that many consumers cannot imagine anything different, but this was not always the case. The Mayans and the Aztecs drank a variety of cacao beverages, of which only a few were sweetened. The introduction of sugar to such drinks could not take place until after European conquest, as sugar cane is not native to Mesoamerica. It was in Europe that sugared chocolate took off, eventually growing to its ubiquitous current position. This confection holds a complex place in the modern American diet; on the one hand, most chocolates are loaded with sugar, making them a potential health risk. On the other, in recent years cacao has been touted as a health food thanks to some studies, notably that conducted on the Kuna people of Panama by Norman Hollenberg (Presilla 57). Although divorcing cacao from sugar would certainly make chocolate healthier, the actual benefits conferred by cacao are still debated, complicating the health food argument. Perhaps we should eschew that reasoning, then, and instead focus on cacao for its flavor rather than its antioxidants or phenylethylamine content. Outside of Mesoamerica, much of the world has lost the knowledge of cacao as a seasoning, as a flavorful component in its own right that adds not sweetness but depth to a dish. By separating cacao from sugar, consumers can gain a greater appreciation of the beans themselves, of their quality and unique tastes, thus opening up a whole new type of cuisine to be explored.
Modern chocolate – with very few exceptions – is sweetened; it can be consumed in a
number of forms, from cakes to mousses to bars, but all of these, even when flavored with more “creative” ingredients like spices or even bacon (as pictured right), contain sugar. It thus seems rather one-dimensional in comparison to ancient Mayan and Aztec recipes, for, as Coe and Coe report, “Pre-Conquest chocolate was not a single concoction to be drunk; it was a vast and complex array of drinks, gruels, porridges, powders, and probably solid substances, to all of which could be added a wide variety of flavorings” (Coe and Coe Ch.2, “Lords of the Forest”). There was no one standardized preparation, no single ingredient present in all cacao dishes. Hieroglyphs on Maya artifacts, particularly on vases and deep bowls believed to have held cacao drinks (as shown below left),
often include “recipe” glyphs detailing the specific contents of a particular vessel (Coe and Coe Ch.2, “Lords of the Forest). These recipes can differ tremendously, showcasing the diversity in Pre-Conquest cacao consumption. Elements of these early cacao drinks remain with some Maya descendants today, especially those recipes combining corn, water, and cacao into a type of gruel. The video below gives an example of one such modern preparation, complete with grinding the cacao beans on a metate as the ancient Maya would have done. The sweetness we now associate with chocolate, then, does not stem from its earliest consumers – Europeans were the ones to popularize sugar in chocolate.
Chocolate’s transformation from the drink of the Mayans and the Aztecs to the sweetened confection we now know happened largely in Europe after the 16th century. Marcy Norton argues that it was a slow evolution, that colonizers actually “unwittingly developed a taste for Indian chocolate” and that the move to sweet chocolate was the result of “a gradual process of change linked to the technological and economic challenges posed by long-distance trade” (Norton 660). Sugar and other Old World ingredients were more abundant and accessible to European consumers than the Mesoamerican ear-flower, for example, and so over time the former came to dominate chocolate recipes. There were a few experiments into savory chocolate dishes during the 1600s, most notably in Mexico – mole, the most well known savory chocolate sauce today, was supposedly invented during this time – and Italy, where there is recorded evidence of chocolate being added to liver, polenta, and veal (Coe and Coe Ch.7 “Chocolate in Cuisine”). These were rather unique occurrences, however; by and large, sugared chocolate swept across Europe such that by the 18th century it was the typical way to consume cacao. When the Fry firm created the first bar of eating chocolate in 1847, sugar was already an indispensible key ingredient, and it has continued to be so ever since (Coe and Coe Ch.8 “Quaker Capitalists”).
Modern consumers are so accustomed to sugar in their chocolate that – speaking from first-hand experience – the bitterness of cacao liquor can be a surprise. Sugar, not cacao, is the main ingredient in most “chocolate” candies, as demonstrated by this Snickers
nutrition label. The amount of sugar in modern American diets has become a major concern as obesity rates increase; articles like Robert Lustig’s “The Toxic Truth About Sugar” link added sugars to a number of diseases, arguing that “overconsumption of [added sugars] is driving worldwide epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes” (Taubes). Lots of chocolate products, particularly milk ones, are thus implicated for their high sugar content, creating a strange tension: do we love cacao, or just the sugar added to it? After all, most chocolate eaters cannot imagine enjoying unsweetened chocolate, and yet it is the sugar, not the cacao, that is the problem. In a rather ironic twist, cacao itself may have a number of health benefits.
Cacao is a complex substance, and several of the compounds it contains – including iron and magnesium – are beneficial to humans. “Every few months,” Williams and Eber write, somewhat indulgently, “another study appears touting cardiovascular, antiaging, mood-enhancing, and other healthful benefits from eating chocolate” (Williams 184). The antioxidants in cacao, specifically flavanols, have recently also come into special focus following Hollenberg’s study of cardiovascular health in the Kuna people, which “point[ed] to a link between cacao consumption and low blood pressure” (Presilla 58). This possible connection is far from conclusive evidence, and yet studies like Hollenberg’s have prompted the new “health food” status of chocolates with high cacao content. Cacao may confer some health benefits, but as James Howe reveals in “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered,” some of these claims – and the studies behind them – should be taken with a grain of salt. Howe looks cautiously upon modern notions that “chocolate reduces hypertension, minimizes cardiovascular disease, and even fights diabetes and cancer,” drawing from his own experiences living among the Kuna people to push back against Hollenberg’s study (Howe 43). He notes that while the Kuna do consume a large amount of cacao, it is not nearly at the level that Hollenberg claims. Instead, Howe points to their overall diet, which is relatively low in fat; he admits that “it may well be that chocolate consumption…makes a positive contribution” to cardiovascular fitness, but puts far more emphasis on the Kuna lifestyle as a cause. Other traditional indigenous populations share in this trend of low blood pressure, despite consuming no cacao, lending weight to Howe’s argument (Howe 49). Cacao thus may afford some health benefits, but the exact nature and strength of these benefits is still unclear.
Regardless of chocolate’s precise impact on health, learning to separate cacao from sugar is still desirable. Lessening sugar content would certainly make chocolate healthier, even without taking into account the possible effects of higher cacao percentages. Stepping back from purely nutritional reasons, however, opens up even more possibilities. Cacao offers a distinct flavor that could be harnessed in cuisine outside of desserts, and perhaps doing so would allow consumers to truly appreciate the cacao bean itself instead of added sugars. Using cacao as a seasoning could potentially boost the endangered fine cacao market: just as different varieties of herbs and spices have unique tastes, so too do the different types of cacao. A Criollo bean (pictured below left), for example, will not taste the same as an Amelonado one (pictured below right), and the two would impact dishes differently. Chefs could experiment with various beans in seasoning food, thus hopefully increasing demand for the flavorful Criollo and Trinitario varieties, which currently make up only 5-7% of global production (Martin). This in turn would preserve genetic diversity in cacao, an essential factor in combating diseases and allowing this beloved crop to flourish in future generations.
Chocolate and sugar have gone hand-in-hand in recent centuries, but consumers stand to gain by learning to separate the two. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs showed that there are ways to enjoy cacao unsweetened, and cooking and seasoning with cacao would allow people today to rediscover those lost dimensions and tastes. As added motivation, sugarless chocolate is healthier and may help combat cardiovascular diseases. If we allow an appreciation of cacao’s flavor to drive these culinary experiments, it might even help bolster the market for fine cacao, thus preserving the genetic diversity and flavorful variations of the crop. In order to better appreciate cacao as a whole, we must allow it to divorce from sugar and break out of its constraints as only a sweet confection.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. E-book.
Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12 (1) (May 1): 43–52. 2012
Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 7: Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. CGIS South, Tsai Auditorium S010, Cambridge. Lecture.
Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111 (3): 660-691. 2006.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.
Taubes, Gary and Christin Kearns Couzens. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” <http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign>
Terrio, Susan J. Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Print.
Williams, Pam, and Jim Eber. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Wilmor Pub., 2012. Print.
Bacon bar image: “20091226 – Christmas Presents.” Flickr. Yahoo! Web. 30 Apr. 2016.
Rio Azul vessel image: Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. CGIS South, Tsai Auditorium S010, Cambridge. Lecture.
Chocolate drink video: Teabelize. “Toledo Ecotourism Association – Making a Chocolate Drink.” YouTube. YouTube, 2008. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC4dq69rqE>.
Snickers nutrition: “Ingredients – Snickers Production.” Snickers Production. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <https://sites.google.com/site/snickersproduction3/1-1>.
“The Toxic Truth about Sugar” link: Lustig, Robert H., Laura A. Schmidt, and Claire D. Brindis. “Public Health: The Toxic Truth about Sugar.” Nature 482.7383 (2012): 27-29. Web.
Criollo cacao image: “Cacao Varietals.” Cocoa Kiss. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <http://cocoaskiss.blogspot.com/2011/06/cacao-varietals.html>.
Amelonado cacao image: “Beniano.” C-Spot. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <https://www.c-spot.com/atlas/chocolate-strains/primary-strains/beniano/>.