The History of Chocolate

Theobromo Cacao, "Food of Gods"

The "chocolate tree" originated in South America's Amazon basin. With its roots in the tropical rainforest, the cocoa tree has been part of human culture for 2000 years. The official name of the cocoa tree is Theobroma cacao ("Theobroma" is Latin for "food of the gods").

Cocoa Before Columbus

The Aztec and Mayans of Central America cultivated cocoa trees long before the arrival of European explorers. These Mesoamerican Indians were the first to create a drink from crushed cocoa beans mixed with water and flavorings such as chili peppers, vanilla, and other spices. It was a special beverage reserved for Mayan rulers and special ceremonies.

MONTEZUMA , the Aztec emperor, was said to drink up to 50 goblets of chocolate per day. CORTEZ VISITS MONTEZUMA. (Courtesy: Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Co.)

Cocoa Beans as Currency

The Mayans used cocoa beans as currency. According to a 16th century Spanish chronicle, a rabbit was worth 10 cocoa beans and a mule cost 50 beans.

The European Connection

The invading Spaniards learned about cocoa from the Aztec Indians in the 1500s and brought this fascinating "new" food back to Europe. In Spain, chocolate was a drink served only to royalty. They drank it hot, flavored with sugar and honey. Chocolate slowly spread across the royal courts of Europe, and by the 17th century it was an expensive luxury reserved for the upper class.

Note of caution to pet lovers:

Chocolate and other products made from cacao beans — e.g., cocoa mulch — contain substances toxic to certain animals, including both dogs and cats. And the main culprit is indeed theobromine , a caffeine-like chemical which acts as a mild diuretic and stimulant in human beings but is poisonous to animals less well equipped to metabolize it.

Cocoa mulch, which consists mainly of cacao bean shells, contains a much higher concentration of theobromine than chocolate processed for human consumption. Dogs are attracted to the scent and in documented cases have eaten the stuff, leading to vomiting, diarrhea, trembling, seizures and, in some instances, death (see symptom list ). While it's equally toxic to cats, veterinarians say they are less likely to ingest cocoa products and therefore less at risk.

If you suspect your dog may have eaten cocoa mulch, the ASPCA in the USA, recommends contacting your veterinarian immediately or calling the Animal Poison Control Center at 1-888-426-4435 for expert advice.