In its various forms, down the centuries, it has been used as currency, drunk as a sacred brew at religious rituals, and fortified soldiers on the march and astronauts in space. It has even been taken as an aphrodisiac. uncovers the dark secrets of chocolate.

The Aztec warriors of Mexico refused to allow their womenfolk to drink it, believing that its magical properties were too potent to be wasted on the female gender. Or perhaps they were just worried that they would become redundant. For in an oft-quoted survey on the topic of chocolate, 52 per cent of women rated the effects of consuming it as ‘better than sex’.

A box of chocolates is still the favourite love token given by men to women. And although the ‘love chemical’ argument has never really been proven, it is a scientific fact that chocolate contains phenethylamine and seratonin, both mood-lifting agents found naturally in the human brain.

They are released into the nervous system when we are happy or experiencing feelings of euphoria, passion or lust. This causes rapid mood changes, a rise in blood pressure and heart rate, and a feel-good factor that mimics the sensation of being in love.

Research shows that women are more susceptible to the effects of these two chemicals than men. Or perhaps it is simply that there are few sweet-toothed females who could resist a box of chocolates brought by a handsome man in black who has leapt over the backs of crocodiles and abseiled down skyscrapers to deliver it – ‘and all because the lady loves Milk Tray!’

Casanova was said to have plied his ‘victims’ with chocolate and Champagne before seducing them; the courtesan Madame de Pompadour drank a frothy cup of chocolate mixed with ambergris in an attempt to spice up her sexual encounters with Louis XV of France; the Marquis de Sade famously gave it to guests at his orgies in the form of chocolate pastilles laced with ‘Spanish fly’. They couldn’t all have been wrong.

Bitter Sweet

The Swiss lead the world in chocolate consumption per capita, each munching their way through more than 10 kilos per year. The Americans eat half that amount, but spend the most on it, with the US being the biggest chocolate manufacturing nation, and Africa has overtaken South America as the largest producer of cocoa beans.

Cocoa is thought to have originated in the Amazon some 4,000 years ago, although it wasn’t until 6 AD that the Mayan civilisation began using the seeds from the pod to make a drink called xocolatl, meaning ‘bitter water’, from which the word chocolate comes.

Seven hundred years later, the Aztecs were convinced that theobroma cacao (food of the gods) was brought to them by their god of agriculture, Quetzalcoatl. According to legend, he descended from heaven on the beam of a morning star carrying a cocoa tree seedling stolen from paradise…

Words Belinda Beckett
Read the rest of this article