It was the Aztecs who introduced Westerners to the joys of chocolate. They made a spicy drink from it, believe it or not. Other South American people (the Olmecs and the Mayans) also drank chocolate, so when you have a cup of cocoa before bed, you are enjoying a drink which has ancient origins.
The cacao tree was given a name which means ‘the gods’ drink’ by the botanist Linnaeus when he gave plants scientific names in the 18th century. He named the cacao tree in 1753. The ancient South American peoples believed that the cacao tree was a gift that came from their gods. Our word, ‘chocolate’ comes from the Aztec word for it.
The person who first introduced Cacao beans to Europeans was Christopher Columbus, the famous 15th-century explorer. Unfortunately, people didn’t like the new drink. It wasn’t until Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conquistador visited Montezuma in the 16th century that chocolate became popular in Europe.
The original chocolate drink of the Aztecs was spicy and bitter, containing, among other ingredients, red chili peppers. It also had several other spices in it, such as cinnamon, vanilla, and anise seeds. Other ingredients included almonds, hazelnuts, annatto (to give it colour). These days, of course, you can buy dark chocolate with chili flakes in it. How did it become a popular drink? Easy! White sugar was added and the sweet-toothed Europeans adored it.
You have to admit that chocolate and a chocolate drink are mood enhancers. On cold winter days, a mug of steaming hot cocoa definitely makes you feel better and warmer.
So what is it about chocolate that gives it that ‘feel good’ factor? Researchers have shown that it is the flavanols in cocoa that are mood enhancers. Chocolate stimulates the production of serotonin, a monoamine neurotransmitter. This is responsible for putting us in a good mood. Not only does chocolate help our mood, but it also improves our concentration. It’s no wonder that our ancestors believed that it was an aphrodisiac!
Interestingly, the Aztecs gave their warriors the chocolate drink before a battle in the belief that it made them more courageous and stronger. In the Aztec community and later in Spain, chocolate drinks were reserved for the higher castes. There was a tax on the cacao beans so the ordinary people couldn’t afford them.
Now, in the Western world at least, chocolate is affordable and most people eat and drink it. However, we no longer think that it is an aphrodisiac.