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Chocolate Ingredient Cacao Dates Back To 5,400 yrs Ago

A growing interest in cacao flavors, indicates a return to a time when chocolate wasn't just an ingredient buried in a candy bar.

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A worker holds dried cacao seeds at a plantation in Cano Rico, Venezuela. VOA
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New research strengthens the case that people used the chocolate ingredient cacao in South America 5,400 years ago, underscoring the seed’s radical transformation into today’s Twix bars and M&M candies.

Tests indicate traces of cacao on artifacts from an archaeological site in Ecuador, according to a study published Monday. That’s about 1,500 years older than cacao’s known domestication in Central America.

“It’s the earliest site now with domesticated cacao,” said Cameron McNeil of Lehman College in New York, who was not involved in the research.

The ancient South American civilization likely didn’t use cacao to make chocolate since there’s no established history of indigenous populations in the region using it that way, researchers led by the University of British Columbia in Canada said.

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-A cacao pod hangs from a tree at the Agropampatar chocolate farm co-op in El Clavo, Venezuela. VOA

But the tests indicate the civilization used the cacao seed, not just the fruity pulp. The seeds are the part of the cacao pod used to make chocolate.

Indigenous populations in the upper Amazon region today use cacao for fermented drinks and juices, and it’s probably how it was used thousands of years ago as well, researchers said.

Scientists mostly agree that cacao was first domesticated in South America instead of Central America as previously believed. The study in Nature Ecology & Evolution provides fresh evidence.

Three types of tests were conducted using artifacts from the Santa Ana-La Florida site in Ecuador. One tested for the presence of theobromine, a key compound in cacao; another tested for preserved particles that help archeologists identify ancient plant use; a third used DNA testing to identify cacao.

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A light almond cream candy carries the initials for Russell Stover Candies in Kansas City, Kansas. VOA

Residue from one ceramic artifact estimated to be 5,310 to 5,440 years old tested positive for cacao by all three methods. Others tested positive for cacao traces as well, but were not as old.

How cacao’s use spread between South America and Central America is not clear. But by the time Spanish explorers arrived in Central America in the late 1400s, they found people were using it to make hot and cold chocolate drinks with spices, often with a foamy top.

“For most of the modern period, it was a beverage,” said Marcy Norton, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World.”

The chocolate drinks in Central America often contained maize and differ from the hot chocolate sold in the U.S. They did not contain milk, Norton said, and when they were sweetened, it was with honey.

 

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A worker holds cocoa beans at SAF CACAO, a export firm in San-Pedro, Ivory Coast, Jan. 29, 2016. VOA

By the 1580s, cacao was being regularly imported into Spain and spread to other European countries with milk being added along the way. It wasn’t until the 1800s that manufacturing advances in the Netherlands transformed chocolate into a solid product, Norton said.

Michael Laiskonis, who teaches chocolate classes the Institute of Culinary Education, said he’s seeing a growing interest in cacao flavors, indicating a return to a time when chocolate wasn’t just an ingredient buried in a candy bar.

Also Read: Consuming Cacao May Improve Vitamin D Intake, Says Study

He said he tries to incorporate chocolate’s past into his classes, including a 1644 recipe that combines Mayan and Aztec versions of drinks with European influences.

“It’s something that’s always been transforming,” he said. (VOA)

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Parts Of Asia-Pacific Region Suffer From Acute Malnutrition And Hunger: UN

The report notes climate-related disasters are rising in the region, having a detrimental impact on agriculture.

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A Papuan child suffering from malnutrition lies in a hospital bed for treatment in Agats, the capital of Asmat district in Indonesia's easternmost Papua province. VOA

Four U.N. specialized agencies warn that many parts of Asia and the Pacific suffer from alarmingly high levels of malnutrition and hunger. This is the first time the Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N. Children’s Fund, the World Food Program and the World Health Organization have issued a joint report, which calls for urgent action to reverse the situation.

The report finds efforts to reduce malnutrition and hunger have come to a virtual standstill in Asia and the Pacific. Unless greater effort is made to tackle this situation, it warns prospects for economic and social development in the region will be at serious risk.

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Malnourished and displaced Somali children sit in a tent in their camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia. VOA

As of now, the U.N. agencies say many parts of Asia and the Pacific will not reach the U.N. sustainable goal of ending all forms of malnutrition and achieving zero hunger by 2030.

The United Nations reports 821 million people globally suffer from hunger. World Food Program spokesman Herve Verhoosel said 62 percent of that number, or 509 million people, are in the Asia-Pacific region, with children, in particular, bearing the biggest burden.

Verhoosel said 79 million children, or one in every four under age five, suffer from stunting, and 34 million children are wasting. He says 12 million children suffer from severe acute malnutrition, which increases their risk of death.

Hunger
Faduma Hussein Yagoub, a polio sufferer, came with her family to Dadaab from Somalia. Her husband and two of her five young children died of hunger on the way. Despite the dangers thousands of refugees every week are making the journey, walking for weeks across the desert and braving attacks by armed robbers and wild animals:

The report notes climate-related disasters are rising in the region, having a detrimental impact on agriculture. Loss of crops, it says, results in more hunger, more loss of nutrition and loss of livelihood.

Also Read: Loss of Teeth In Elder People Linked to Malnutrition

According to the report, climate-related losses in Asia between 2005 and 2015 amounted to a staggering $48 billion. Authors of the report say countries in the region must adapt agriculture so it’s more resilient to extreme climate events, and to mitigate the damage from climate change. (VOA)