Chocolate is as close to a universally beloved food as you can get. Kids demand it, pregnant women will put it on pickles—people love chocolate so much that we regularly commission studies to prove it is a health food. But aside from all of the great ways to consume it, how much do we know about chocolate?
Mark Miodownik has a PhD in turbine jet engine alloys. So he may not necessarily be someone you might expect to go deep into the history and science of chocolate. But in his book on material science, Stuff Matters, Miodownik gets down and dirty with diamonds, paper and yes, one our favorite foods. We don’t usually think about the science behind chocolate, so here are seven little-known facts from Stuff Matters.
1. There is a scientific basis for the saying, “Chocolate is better than sex.”
A 2007 study took pairs of lovers and monitored their brain activity and heart rate while kissing and then while eating chocolate. Surprise, surprise, eating chocolate produced a longer-lasting and more intense reaction than kissing.
2. Chocolate first turned up in ceremonial drinks.
The Olmecs and the Mayans who first cultivated chocolate made a drink called chocolatl out of roasted and fermented cocoa nuts. “It was revered as a ceremonial drink and an aphrodisiac for hundreds of years.”
3. Ancient Central and South Americans used cocoa nuts as currency.
No word on the inflation rate back then.
4. Chocolate was not popular when it first showed up in Europe.
Explorers tried sending chocolatl back home, but it was apparently too bitter for the European palate. “When European explorers got hold of the [chocolate] drink in the 17th century, they exported it to coffeehouses, where it competed with tea and coffee to be the beverage of choice of Europeans—and lost.” It took hundreds of years before they began to like it.
5. But now Euros eat almost all of it.
Of the 20 countries that eat the most chocolate, 80 percent of them are in northern Europe.
6. We have the Dutch to thank for creating the chocolate we know and love today.
In 1828, a company called Van Houten invented the screw press, which ground cocoa beans fine enough that the powder would dissolve into the smooth mixture we now know as hot chocolate. The press was also the first step toward processing chocolate for use in creamy bars and candies.
7. The chocolate we eat is actually a product of rotting cocoa beans.
“Over two weeks the heaps of beans start to decompose and ferment, and in the process they heat up. This serves the purpose of ‘killing’ the cocoa seeds, inasmuch as it stops them from germinating into cocoa plants.”