CANTON, N.Y. — It’s impossible for a parent to choose a favorite child—or at least that’s what I tell my kids—and it’s almost as tough for an arborist to pick a single best-liked tree. For different reasons, I have many pet species. One of the, um, apples of my eye is a tree I have never laid eyes on, but it’s one I’ve appreciated since early childhood.
Native to Central America, the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao to arborist-nerds) grows almost exclusively within twenty degrees latitude either side of the equator (in other words, where most of us wish we were about now). The cacao is related to the common mallow, as well as to cotton and okra—apparently everyone in is family prefers it warm. A small (about 10-25 feet tall when mature) broadleaf evergreen, the cacao annually bears two to three dozen 6- to 12-inch-long seed pods. The pods, which contain 30 to 40 cacao beans enveloped in a sweet slimy pulp, resemble slender acorn squash, sort of, if acorn squash were yellow.
The cacao tree’s claim to fame of course are those oil-rich seeds, which have been ground up and made into a drink known by its Native American (probably Nahuatl) name, chocolate, possibly for as long as 4,000 years. After they’re harvested, cacao beans go through a fermentation process and are then dried and milled into powder in a method that removes most of the oil, or cocoa butter.
In pre-contact times, chocolate was a frothy, bitter drink often mixed with chilies and cornmeal. Mayans and Aztecs drank it mainly for its medicinal properties (more on that later). In the late 1500s, a Spanish Jesuit who had been to Mexico described chocolate as being “Loathsome to such as [sic] are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant to taste.” It’s understandable, then, that it was initially slow to take off in Europe.
Chocolate became wildly popular, though, after brilliant innovations such as more sugar and less cornmeal and scorching-hot pepper. Another reason for its meteoric rise in demand is that it seemed to have pleasant effects. One of these was similar to that of tea or coffee. There isn’t much caffeine in chocolate, but it has nearly 400 known constituents, and a number of these compounds are uppers.
Chief among them is theobromine, which has no bromine—go figure. It’s a chemical sibling to caffeine, and its name supposedly derives from the Greek for “food of the gods.” Even if people knew it more closely translates to “stink of the gods,” it’s unlikely it would put a damper on chocolate sales.
These days chocolate is recognized as a potent antioxidant, but throughout the ages it has had a reputation for being an aphrodisiac. I assume this explains the tradition of giving chocolate to one’s lover on Valentine’s Day. Does chocolate live up to its rumored powers? Another stimulant it contains, phenylethylamine (PEA), may account for its repute.
Closely related to amphetamine, PEA facilitates the release of dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical in the brain’s reward center. Turns out that when you fall in love, your brain is practically dripping with dopamine. Furthermore, at least three compounds in chocolate mimic the effects of marijuana. They bind to the same receptors in our brains as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in pot, releasing more dopamine and also serotonin, another brain chemical associated with happiness.
Don’t be alarmed at this news; these things are quite minimal compared to what refined drugs can do. Consuming chocolate has never impaired my ability to operate heavy machinery (lack of training and experience have, though). Most people would agree that chocolate is no substitute for love, but the influences of these natural chemicals may be why romance and chocolate are so intertwined. Well, that and marketing, I suppose.
Dogs can’t metabolize theobromine very well, and even a modest amount of chocolate, especially dark, can be toxic to them. This is why you shouldn’t get your dog a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day, no matter how much you love them. And assuming it’s spayed or neutered, your pooch won’t be able to appreciate any of chocolate’s other potential benefits anyway.
Cornell Cooperative Extension
For more articles out of New York, click here.