National Chocolate Week – Bring on the tasting!

Casanova drank chocolate as an aphrodisiac before seducing a woman, Napoleon reportedly carried chocolate on all his military campaigns and King Louis XIV of France established the position of ‘Royal Chocolate Maker of the King in his court’. John Tullius, the author, once said: “nine out of ten people love chocolate, the tenth lies”. Who loves chocolate?And he wasn’t far off. As one of the world’s most popular foods, the chocolate market shows no signs of slowing down – a new chocolate product was launched almost every hour of the day last year. After all, what’s not to like about chocolate? It’s silky, sweet with a creamy consistency and incredibly gratifying.

Despite being so far from cacao-producing countries, we Brits are a nation of chocoholics. Forget religion, in Britain, the gallant Yorkie bar and the humble Kit-Kat are ostensibly “the opium of the masses”.

Our long and colourful love affair with chocolate began in 1657, when the first chocolate house appeared. The first solid chocolate was introduced to Britain in 1674 and since then the chocolate we know today was slowly established.

Westerners first try cocoa drink from the Aztecs in 1517

From cocoa beans being used as currency in the sixteenth century, to the tax on them being reduced in nineteenth century, chocolate has come a long way and is now one of the highest consumed foods in Britain. In fact, Britain is the seventh highest consumer of chocolate in the world, with our consumption estimated at 661 tonnes a year and £4 billion, with the average Briton gobbling 11kgs of the stuff per year- or put simply, three chocolate bars a week per person. Yes, we guzzle a quarter of Europe’s entire annual consumption.

But before accusing us of gluttony or feeling racked with guilt for reaching for a square, here are some of the best scientific discoveries about chocolate. Ladies: get out a box set of Friends, don your roomiest pyjamas and get cracking on the Galaxy. Gentlemen: if all this talk of chocolate is giving you cravings then head out to your local newsagents and succumb to some chocolate nostalgia – find the wickedest, most additive bar you can find because…

1. Chocolate contains dopamine which is a natural painkiller, improves your overall mental function and improves your ability to remember and recall people and events.

2. Chocolate contains a chemical called phenylethylamine which is released naturally in the body when you fall in love and can raise the level of endorphins, the pleasure-giving substances, in the brain. Scientists have found that chocolate is better than a passionate kiss, causing a more intense and long lasting body and brain “buzz” and almost doubling volunteers heart rates. The Aztecs were the first to claim that cocoa had aphrodisiac properties and on this account all food with cocoa were forbidden to women. Uh oh.

3. Chocolate contains powerful antioxidants called flavonols (the darker the chocolate, the more it contains), which protect against oxidative stress, a chemical reaction that can damage cells neurons. In other words, it helps repair damaged cells and fight against ageing and skin discoloration. Research suggests that antioxidant rich chocolate may be good for your heart, blood pressure and blood lipid levels.

4. Even the smell of chocolate causes relaxation: it significantly reduces theta activity in the brain which is associated with relaxation.

5. Chocolate contains serotonin. We know chocolate makes us feel good (whilst eating), and here’s why. Serotonin, which is the most concentrated of all the neurotransmitters contained in chocolate, is responsible for feelings of well-being and contentment, as well as curbing anxiety and depression.

6. According to the British Medical Journal, eating high levels of chocolate could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by up to a third. While there are better ways to reduce your heart disease risk than to journey to the bottom of a box of Quality Street, these finding are promising.

7. Cocoa contains a chemical called epicatechin. In a study of 25 mice for 15 consecutive days, those mice with epicatechin doses performed better on a treadmill test of endurance compared with mice that didn’t, which proves that epicatechin can lead to increased muscular performance-similar to those obtained by regular exercise. Scientists (and the lazy ones among us) hope that the same effect may apply to humans and that the ingredients in dark chocolate could be used as a basis for treatments for age-related muscle wastage.

And…I’m done.

What are your favourite chocolate treats? Any great chocolate recipes to share?

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