Although January felt like a decade in its own right, we’re over half-way through February in the blink of an eye and I really can’t handle it. 2020’s practically over already!
You may have noticed that I’m no longer doing a weekly blog post. Fortunately, I’m doing more client work so I have less time to dedicate to this little labor of love. I’ll be dropping back for the time being to one captivating, well-written, exquisitely researched blog post per month. 😉 Good problems!
So for the month of February, I want to tell y’all about the preferred beverage of our forefathers, the founders of this country. No, it wasn’t tea, and – shockingly, I know – it wasn’t even booze!
In a 1785 letter penned to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
Chocolate. this article when ready made, and also the Cacao becomes so soon rancid, and the difficulties of getting it fresh have been so great in America that it’s use has spread but little. the way to increase it’s consumption would be to permit it to be brought to us immediately from the country of it’s growth. by getting it good in quality, and cheap in price, the superiority of the article both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea & coffee in America which it has in Spain where they can get it by a single voiage, & of course while it is sweet. the use of the sugars, coffee, & cotton of Brazil would also be much extended by a similar indulgence.Source
Our former president Thomas Jefferson had high hopes for chocolate, predicting that it would soon overtake coffee and tea as America’s hot beverage of choice if we could only find a cheaper and faster way to import it. He makes this claim not only based on the purported health benefits of the chocolate, but also for its taste when sweetened.
And let’s be real here, the man was NOT wrong. America loves chocolate, to the tune of $27.5 million in chocolate candy sales in 2019 and an estimated 13 pounds of it consumed per year, per person.
Yet, although it’s ubiquitous, it’s not popular in quite the way our former president Thomas Jefferson predicted.
In this post I’m going to walk y’all through our colonial ancestors’ love affair with chocolate, how chocolate transformed into the sweet and smooth candy we know today, some of the health benefits of chocolate, and how to experience these benefits without all of the added sugar.
Chocolate in Colonial America (the 1700s)
In the 1700s, hot chocolate was the breakfast drink of choice for the rich. It had to be imported from the Caribbean or South America, so it was quite expensive. Very few people who lived at this time even got to taste chocolate.
However, for those who could afford it, it was a whole big to-do. They had specially-designed chocolate pots, which looked similar to tea and coffee pots, but had a hole in the top so that the beverage could be easily stirred to keep the chocolate from settling at the bottom.
This problem of hot chocolate settling has been an enduring one, that we still struggle with today every time we finish a mug of Swiss Miss only to realize all the good stuff is stuck to the bottom of the cup. Doesn’t it make you feel connected to the past??
George and Martha Washington, our first president and the very first first lady, were both big fans of chocolate. While George preferred a heartier breakfast drink called a “chocolate cream,” which is pretty close to the hot chocolate we know today, Martha liked cacao tea.
Cacao tea was made simply by brewing cacao shells in hot water, like tea. Others really enjoyed the tea as well, like the Washingtons’ niece Frances Ball. In a letter to George, her husband Burges Ball wrote “it agrees with her more than any other Breakfast.”
Want to try our closest approximation to authentic, Colonial-era chocolate? Check out the offerings from American Heritage Chocolate, which takes the recipes and flavor combinations popular in the 1700s and combines them with modern chocolate-making techniques.
A Booming Chocolate Industry (the 1800s and beyond)
So… how did chocolate go from expensive breakfast drink for the wealthy and well-connected, to a cheap sugary treat that anyone could afford?
Well, the 1800s were a BIG century for chocolate production.
It started in the early 1800s with the invention of cocoa powder, which was shelf stable – making it much easier to transport. With this invention, the price of chocolate began to decrease.
The first chocolate bar was invented in the mid-1800s, although it was probably nothing like the chocolate bars we’re used to today. It was made with sugar, chocolate liqueur, and cocoa butter.
However, we truly have the Swiss to thank for today’s smooth, creamy chocolate.
In the 1870s, Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter created milk chocolate (with the help of Henri Nestle, whose name you may be familiar with) by adding powdered milk to his chocolate.
Around the same time, Swiss chocolatier Rodolphe Lindt developed a new process known as conching, which transformed the texture of chocolate from hard and crumbly to smooth and meltable, and helped remove some of the bitter taste.
Now that chocolate was both cheap and delicious, its popularity boomed – especially in the early 1900s. As an inexpensive, calorie-dense food, chocolate candy bars were included in rations for American soldiers in World War II.
By the mid-1900s, chocolate was firmly cemented in American food culture. And based on sales numbers (which are in the billions and steadily growing year-over-year), it’s not going anywhere any time soon.
Thomas Jefferson was (mostly) right. Chocolate, beloved worldwide, is an American institution.
Health Benefits of Chocolate
Unfortunately, President Jefferson probably never would have guessed that chocolate – a drink he considered healthier than coffee and tea – would be junk food today.
In his day, chocolate was a health food, and as late as the late 1800s was still being used as medicine.
Unprocessed chocolate – without all the extras we’re used to, particularly sugar – is actually pretty good for you. And you can even argue that modern chocolate, as a rare treat, is good for the soul. To this, I would agree.
In fact, one recent study found that mindfully eating chocolate was a mood booster.
Here are just a handful of the other health benefits of chocolate:
Rich in antioxidants
Antioxidants are powerful compounds that can prevent and reverse damage to your cells caused by unstable free radicals.
They may benefit your health in a variety of ways, from giving you glowing skin to improving your immune health to decreasing your risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Chocolate contains several different antioxidants, but is particularly high in resveratrol – the same anti-inflammatory, potentially anti-aging antioxidant that’s found in red wine.
High in healthy fats
Cocoa is an excellent source of healthy fats, particularly oleic acid, stearic acid, and palmitic acid.
Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid, the same type that is predominant in olive oil. It’s highly anti-inflammatory and heart healthy.
Stearic acid and palmitic acid, on the other hand, are saturated fats. Nothing to fear, though! They don’t deserve their bad reputation.
Unprocessed cocoa is also a great way to boost your fiber intake. About a third of the carbs in cocoa powder come from fiber.
Eating enough fiber can help improve your digestive health by serving as a food source for your healthy gut bacteria and keeping you nice and regular.
In addition to these benefits, cocoa also contains a wide variety of minerals, like iron, magnesium, and potassium.
This dietitian’s conclusion? Cocoa’s totally a health food. 😉
Making Chocolate a Healthy Part of Your Diet
I’m gonna say it just in case this essay isn’t proof enough: I love chocolate.
Unfortunately, most of it is just too high in sugar for me to make it a part of my diet regularly.
Over the years, I’ve developed a taste for super-dark chocolate (like 85% cocoa or more), which is low in sugar and naturally contains fiber and healthy fat. One or two squares always satisfies a chocolate craving for me.
However, when I’ve really got a taste for the sweet stuff, I reach for Lily’s baking chips. They are sweetened with stevia and erythritol, and their milk chocolate flavored ones taste just like a Hershey’s bar.
To use chocolate in something other than a dessert, try making Mexican mole sauce for enchiladas, or use unsweetened cocoa powder in chili.
And finally: there’s nothing wrong with having the full sugar stuff as a treat. I’ve got my sugar-free and low-sugar alternatives that I love, but if you want a slice of chocolate cake at a birthday party, some of your grandma’s chocolate chip cookies at Christmas, or “Death by Chocolate” at a nice restaurant for a special occasion, GO FOR IT.
Happy Valentine’s Day and (early) President’s Day, friends! Enjoy some chocolate on both days… it’s downright patriotic!