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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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chocolate
A worker holds dried cacao seeds at a plantation in Cano Rico, Venezuela. VOA

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)

Next Story

The Role Carbs Play in Our Diet

To help people lose weight, Li examines her patients' eating and physical activity routines to identify improvements people will be able to live with.

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Diet
A dish of steak and cheese pasta is ready to eat in Concord, N.H., June 9, 2014. Two major studies in 2018 provided more fuel for the debate around carbs and fats, yet failed to offer a resolution to the polarizing matter of the best way to lose weight. VOA

Bacon and black coffee for breakfast, or oatmeal and bananas?

If you’re planning to try to lose weight in 2019, you’re sure to find a fierce debate online and among friends and family about how best to do it. It seems like everyone has an opinion, and new fads emerge every year.

Two major studies last year provided more fuel for a particularly polarizing topic — the role carbs play in making us fat. The studies gave scientists some clues, but, like other nutrition studies, they can’t say which diet — if any — is best for everyone.

That’s not going to satisfy people who want black-and-white answers, but nutrition research is extremely difficult and even the most respected studies come with big caveats. People are so different that it’s all but impossible to conduct studies that show what really works over long periods of time.

Before embarking on a weight loss plan for the new year, here’s a look at some of what was learned last year.

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There’s no better time to start diet than during the dark, gloomy days of winter. Flickr

Fewer carbs, fewer pounds?

It’s no longer called the Atkins Diet, but the low-carb school of dieting has been enjoying a comeback. The idea is that the refined carbohydrates in foods like white bread are quickly converted into sugar in our bodies, leading to energy swings and hunger.

By cutting carbs, the claim is that weight loss will be easier because your body will instead burn fat for fuel while feeling less hungry. A recent study seems to offer more support for low-carb proponents. But, like many studies, it tried to understand just one sliver of how the body works.

The study, co-led by an author of books promoting low-carb diets, looked at whether varying carb levels might affect how the body uses energy. Among 164 participants, it found those on low-carb diets burned more total calories than those on high-carb diets.

The study did not say people lost more weight on a low-carb diet — and didn’t try to measure that. Meals and snacks were tightly controlled and continually adjusted so everyone’s weights stayed stable.

David Ludwig, a lead author of the paper and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, said it suggests limiting carbs could make it easier for people to keep weight off once they’ve lost it. He said the approach might work best for those with diabetes or pre-diabetes.

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Foods rich in fibre was found to reduce this adverse effects of stress in mice. Pixabay

Ludwig noted the study wasn’t intended to test long-term health effects or real-world scenarios where people make their own food. The findings also need to be replicated to be validated, he said.

Caroline Apovian of Boston University’s School of Medicine said the findings are interesting fodder for the scientific community, but that they shouldn’t be taken as advice for the average person looking to lose weight.

Do I avoid fat to be skinny?

For years people were advised to curb fats, which are found in foods including meat, nuts, eggs, butter and oil. Cutting fat was seen as a way to control weight, since a gram of fat has twice as many calories than the same amount of carbs or protein.

Many say the advice had the opposite effect by inadvertently giving us license to gobble up fat-free cookies, cakes and other foods that were instead full of the refined carbs and sugars now blamed for our wider waistlines.

Nutrition experts gradually moved away from blanket recommendations to limit fats for weight loss. Fats are necessary for absorbing important nutrients and can help us feel full. That doesn’t mean you have to subsist on steak drizzled in butter to be healthy.

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Eat more fruit and vegetables to lower blood pressure. Pixabay

Bruce Y. Lee, a professor of international health at Johns Hopkins, said the lessons learned from the anti-fat fad should be applied to the anti-carb fad: Don’t oversimplify advice.

“There’s a constant look for an easy way out,” Lee said.

Which is better?

Another big study this past year found low-carb diets and low-fat diets were about equally as effective for weight loss. Results varied by individual, but after a year, people in both groups shed an average of 12 to 13 pounds.

The author noted the findings don’t contradict Ludwig’s low-carb study. Instead, they suggest there may be some flexibility in the ways we can lose weight. Participants in both groups were encouraged to focus on minimally processed foods like produce and meat prepared at home. Everyone was advised to limit added sugar and refined flour.

“If you got that foundation right, for many, that would be an enormous change,” said Christopher Gardner of Stanford University and one of the study’s authors.

Limiting processed foods could improve most diets by cutting down overall calories, while still leaving wiggle room for people’s preferences. That’s important, because for a diet to be effective, a person has to be able to stick to it. A breakfast of fruit and oatmeal may be filling for one person, but leave another hungry soon after.

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Junk Food is highly rich in Cholesterol, pixabay

Gardner notes the study had its limitations, too. Participants’ diets weren’t controlled. People were instead instructed on how to achieve eating a low-carb or low-fat in regular meetings with dietitians, which may have provided a support network most dieters don’t have.

What works?

In the short term you can probably lose weight by eating only raw foods, or going vegan, or cutting out gluten, or following another diet plan that catches your eye. But what will work for you over the long term is a different question.

Also Read: Improve Your Food Delivery Service this Crazy Winter Season

Zhaoping Li, director of clinical nutrition division at the University of California, Los Angeles, says there is no single set of guidelines that help everyone lose weight and keep it off. It’s why diets often fail — they don’t account for the many factors that drive us to eat what we do.

To help people lose weight, Li examines her patients’ eating and physical activity routines to identify improvements people will be able to live with.

“What sticks is what matters,” Li said. (VOA)