The food of the Gods - A Popular Account of Cocoa/Its Nature

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WHEN one thinks of the marvellously nourishing and stimulating virtue of cocoa, and of the exquisite and irresistible dainties prepared from it, one cannot wonder that the great Linnæus should have named it theo broma, "the food of the gods." No other natural product, with the exception of milk, can be said to serve equally well as food or drink, or to possess nourishing and stimulating properties in such well-adjusted proportions. Few, however, realize that in its stimulating properties cocoa ranks ahead of coffee, though below tea. As a matter of fact, the active principles of all three are alkaloids, practically identical and equally effective.[1] Each derives its value from its influence on the nervous system, which it stimulates, while checking the waste of tissue, but the cocoa-bean provides in addition solid food to replace wasted tissue. It is, indeed, so closely allied in composition to pure dried milk, that in this respect there is little to choose between an absolutely pure cocoa essence and the natural fluid.[2] It

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Cacao Trees, Trinidad.


is this which makes it invaluable as an alternative food for invalids or infants.

An early English writer on this valuable product spoke truly when he remarked: "All the American travellers have written such panegyricks, that I should degrade this royal liquor if I should offer any; yet several of these curious travellers and physicians do agree in this, that the cocoa has a wonderful faculty of quenching thirst, allaying hectick heats, of nourishing and fattening the body."

A modern writer [3] affords the same testimony in a more practical form when he records that: "Cocoa is of domestic drinks the most alimentary; it is without any exception the cheapest food that we can conceive, as it may be literally termed meat and drink, and were our half-starved artisans and over-worked factory children induced to drink it, instead of the in-nutritious beverage called tea, its nutritive qualities would soon develop themselves in their improved looks and more robust condition." Such a drink well deserved the treatment it received at the hands of the Mexicans to whom we are indebted for it. At the royal banquets frothing chocolate was served in golden goblets with finely wrought golden or

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(British Museum.)

tortoise-shell spoons. The froth in this case was of the consistency of honey, so that when eaten cold it would gradually dissolve in the mouth. Here is a luscious suggestion for twentieth century housewives, handed to them from five hundred years ago!

In health or sickness, infancy or age, at home or on our travels, nothing is so generally useful, so sustaining and invigorating. Far better than the majority of vaunted substitutes for human milk as an infant's food, to supplement what other milk may be available; incomparable as a family drink for breakfast or supper, when both tea and coffee are really out of place unless the latter is nearly all milk; prepared as chocolate to eat on journeys, and in many other ways, cocoa is a constant stand-by. Travelling in Eastern

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deserts on mule-back, the present writer has never been without a tin of cocoa essence if he could help it, as, whatever straits he might be put to for provisions, so long as he had this and water, refreshment was possible, and whenever milk was available he had command in his lonely tent of a luxury unsurpassed in Paris or London. For the sustenance of invalids he has found nothing better in the home-land than a nightly cup of cocoa essence boiled with milk. Add to these experiences a love for the flavour which dates from childhood, and his admiration for this "food of the gods" will be appreciated, even if not sympathized in, by the few who have escaped its spell. Its value in the eyes of practical as well as scientific men is sufficiently demonstrated by its increasing use in naval and military commissariats, in hospitals, and in public institutions of all classes. In the British Navy, which down to 1830 consumed more cocoa than the rest of the nation together, it is served out daily, and in the army twice or thrice a week. Brillat Savarin, the author of the "Physiologie du Goût," remarks: "The persons who habitually take chocolate are those who enjoy the most equable and constant health, and are least liable to a multitude of illnesses which spoil the enjoyment of life."

It certainly behoves us, therefore, to learn something more of such a valuable article than may be gleaned from the perusal of an advertisement, or the instructions on a packet containing it. There is something more than

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A Cacao Harvest, Trinidad.


usually fascinating even in its history, in all the tales regarding this treasure-trove of the New World, and in the curious methods by which it has been treated. The story of its discovery takes us into the atmosphere of the Elizabethan period, and into the company of Cortes and Columbus; to learn of its cultivation and preparation we are transported to the glorious realms of the tropics, and to some of the most healthful centres of labour in the old country—in one case to the model village of the English Midlands. It is therefore an exceedingly pleasant round that lies before us in investigating this subject, as well as one which will afford much useful knowledge for every-day life.

Before proceeding to a closer acquaintance with the origin of cocoa, it may be well to clear the ground of possible misconceptions which occasionally cause confusion.

First, there is the word "cocoa" itself, an unfortunate inversion of the name of the tree from which it is derived, the cacao. [4] A still more unfortunate corruption is that of "coco-nut" to "cocoa-nut," which is altogether inexcusable.

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In this case it is therefore quite correct to drop the concluding "a," as the coco-nut has nothing whatever to do with cocoa or the cacao, being the fruit of a palm [5] in every way distinct from it, as will be seen from the accompanying illustration.

The name "coco" is also applied to another

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quite distinct fruit, the coco-de-mer, or "sea-coco," somewhat resembling a coco-nut in its pod, but weighing about 28 lbs., and likewise growing on a lofty tree; its habitat is the Seychelles Islands. Sometimes also, confusion arises between the cacao and the coca or cuca, [6] a small shrub like a blackthorn, also widely cultivated in Central America, from the leaves of which the powerful narcotic cocaine is extracted.

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In the second place, the name "cocoa," which is strictly applicable only to the pure ground nib or its concentrated essence, is sometimes unjustifiably applied to preparations of cocoa with starch, alkali, sugar, etc., which it would be more correct to describe as "chocolate powder," chocolate being admittedly a confection of cocoa with other substances and flavourings.

"Chocolate" is, therefore, a much wider term

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Gathering Cacao: Santa Cruz, Trinidad.


than "cocoa," embracing both the food and the drink prepared from the cacao, and is the Mexican name, chocolatl, slightly modified, having nothing to do with the word cacao, in Mexican cacauatl. [7] In the New World it was compounded of cacao, maize, and flavourings to which the Spaniards, on discovering it, added sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and other ingredients, such as musk and ambergris, cloves and nutmegs, almonds and pistachios, anise, and even red peppers or chillies. "Sometimes," says a treatise on "The Natural History of Chocolate," "China [quinine] and assa [fœtida?]; and sometimes steel and rhubarb, may be added for young and green ladies."

In our own times it is unfortunately common to add potato-starch, arrowroot, etc., to the cocoa, and yet to sell it by the name of the pure article. Such preparations thicken in the cup, and are preferred by some under the mistaken impression that this is a sign of its containing more nutriment instead of less. Although not so wholesome, there could be no objection to these additions so long as the preparations were not labelled "cocoa," and were sold at a lower price.

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Such adulteration is rendered possible by the presence in the bean of a large proportion of fatty matter or cocoa-butter, which renders it too rich for most digestions. To overcome this difficulty one or other of two methods is available: (1) Lowering the percentage of fat by the addition of starch, sugar, etc.; or (2) removing a large proportion of the fat by some extrac- tive process; this latter method being in every respect preferable to that first mentioned.

In order to avoid the expense and trouble

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consequent on the latter process, some manufacturers add alkali, by which means the free fatty acids are saponified, and the fat is held in a state of emulsion, thus giving the cocoa a false appearance of solubility.

Another effect of the alkali is to impart to the beverage a much darker colour, from its action on the natural red colouring matter of the cocoa, this darkening being often taken, unfortunately, as indicative of increased strength. On this account the presence of added alkali should be regarded as an adulteration, unless notified on the package in which the cocoa is contained.

A more subtle treatment with alkali for the same purpose is the addition to the pulverized bean of carbonate of ammonia, or caustic ammonia. This is afterwards volatilized by the application of heat. Scents and flavourings are then added to disguise their smell and taste.

Besides these combinations of cocoa with starch, sugar, etc., and cocoa treated with alkali, there are now found on the market mixtures of cocoa with such substances as kola, malt, hops, etc., sold under strange-sounding names, reminding one of the many mixtures that are made up as medicines rather than food. While the substances thus incorporated are of value in their place, they possess no virtues which are absent from the pure cocoa, and cannot be in any way considered an improvement of cocoa as food. The sooner this practice of drug taking under cover of diet comes to an end the better it will be for the national health.

Formerly Venetian red, umber, peroxide of iron, and even brick-dust, were employed to produce a cheaper article, but modern science and legislation combined have rendered such practices almost impossible. As early as the reign of George III. an Act [8] was passed, providing that, "if any article made to resemble cocoa shall be found in the possession of any dealer, under the name of 'American cocoa' or 'English cocoa' or any other name of cocoa, it shall be forfeited, and the dealer shall forfeit £100." Yet this Act was allowed to become so much a dead letter that in 1851 the Lancet published the analysis of fifty-six preparations sold as "cocoa," of which only eight were free from adulteration. In some of the "soluble cocoas," the adulteration was as high as 65 per cent., potato starch in one case forming 50 per cent, of the sample. The majority of the samples were found to be coloured with mineral or earthy pigments, and specimens treated with red lead are on exhibition at South Kensington.

The inclusion of the husk or shell in some of the cheaper forms of chocolate is another reprehensible practice (strongly condemned), as they do not possess the qualities for which the kernel or nib is so highly prized. To prevent this practice it was enacted in 1770 that the shells or husks should be seized or destroyed, and the officer seizing them rewarded up to 20s. per hundredweight. From these a light, but not unpalatable, table decoction is still prepared in Ireland and elsewhere, under the designation of "miserables."

Among other beverages which have from time to time been produced from the cacao was a fermented drink much in vogue at the Mexican Court, to which it appears from the accounts of the conquest that Montezuma was addicted, as "after the hot dishes (300 in number) had been removed, every now and then was handed to him a golden pitcher filled with a kind of liquor made from cacao, which is very exciting." One variety, called zaca, drunk by the Itzas,
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How the Cacao Grows.

(Showing Leaf, Flower, and Fruit.)


consisted of cocoa mixed with a fermented liquor prepared from maize; but a more harmless invention was a drink composed of cocoa-butter and maize.

There remain three forms in which pure cocoa may be prepared as a beverage:

1. Cocoa-nibs.—The natural broken segments of the roasted cocoa-bean, after the shell has been removed, prepared for table as an infusion by prolonged simmering.

It is strange that this ridiculous and wasteful means is still in use at all, as next to none of the valuable portions of the nib are extracted. The quantity of matter removed by the hot water is so small, that close upon 90 per cent, of the nourishing and feeding constituents are left behind in the undissolved sediment, the substances extracted being principally salts and colouring matters. One can but suppose that the long habit of drinking an infusion from coffee-beans and tea-leaves has fixed in the mind the erroneous idea that the substance of the cocoa-bean is also valueless. The fact remains, however, that it is still customary at some hydropathic establishments, and perhaps in a few other instances, for doctors to order "nibs" for their patient, which may sometimes be accounted for by injury having resulted from drinking one of the many "faked" cocoas offered for sale; the order for "nibs" being a despairing effort to obtain the genuine article.

2. Consolidated Nibsi.e., cocoa-nibs ground between heated stones, whence it flows in a paste of the consistency of cream, which, when cool, hardens into a cake containing all the cocoa-butter. Cocoa in this form (mixed with sugar before cooling) is served in the British Navy—a somewhat wasteful and inconvenient practice, as when stirred, the excess of fat at once floats to the top of the cup, and is generally removed with a spoon, to make the drink more appetising.

3. Cocoa Essence.—This is the same article as No. 2, with about 60 per cent, of the natural butter removed; consequently the proportion of albuminous and stimulating elements is greatly increased. It is prepared instantly by pouring boiling water upon it, thus forming a light beverage with all the strength and flesh-forming constituents of the decorticated bean.[9]

Chemical analysis of cacao-nibs and cocoa essence shows them to contain on an average:

Cacao-nibs. Cocoa Essence.
Cocoa-butter 50 parts. 30 parts.
Albuminoid substances 16 " 22 "
Carbohydrates (sugar, starch, and digestible cellulose) 21 " 30 "
Theobromine 3 ·5 " 2 "
Salts 3 ·5 " 5 "
Other constituents 8 " 11 "
100 100

The cocoa-butter when clarified is of a pale yellow colour, and as it melts at about 90° F. it is of great value for pharmaceutical purposes, especially as it only becomes rancid when subjected to excessive heat and light, as to the direct rays of the sun.

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The albuminoid or nitrogenous constituents will be seen to form about a sixth of the whole

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Cacao Crop, Trinidad.


nib, or more than a fifth of the cocoa essence, and to their presence is due the fact that absolutely pure cocoa is such a remarkable flesh-former.

The carbohydrates, producing warmth and fat, are also important food substances, the proportion of which, while forming about a fifth of the whole bean, rises to close upon a third of the essence.

Cocoa also contains a volatile oil, from which it derives its peculiar and delicious aroma.

Thus nearly nine-tenths of the cacao-bean may be assimilated by the digestive organs, while three-fourths of tea and coffee are thrown away as waste. For the same bulk, therefore, cocoa is said to yield thirteen times the nutriment of tea, and four and a half times that of coffee. Its value as a substitute for mother's milk has already been alluded to, but may well be emphasized by a quotation from a paper read before the Surgical Society of Ireland in 1877 by one of its Fellows, Mr. Faussett:

"Without presuming to pass any judgment on the many artificial substitutes which, on alleged chemical and scientific principles, have from time to time been pressed forward under the notice of the profession and the public to take the place of mother's milk, I beg to call attention to a very cheap and simple article which is easily procurable—viz., cocoa, and which, when pure and deprived of an excess of fatty matter, may safely be relied on, as cocoa in the natural state abounds in a number of valuable nutritious principles, in fact, in every material necessary for the growth, development, and sustenance of the body."

After giving some remarkable cases of children being restored from "the last stage of exhaustion" by its use, and "continued through the whole period of infancy," with the effect of their becoming fine, healthy children, he concluded by saying:

"I beg therefore respectfully to commend cocoa, as an article of infant's food, to the notice of my professional brethren, especially those who, holding office under the Poor Laws, have such large and extensive opportunities of testing its value."

As a beverage for mothers or nurses cocoa is recommended by Dr. Milner Fothergill, in his work on "The Food we Eat," in preference to porter, stout or ale, an opinion now becoming generally adopted. It may, therefore, be regarded as the indispensable, all-round nursery food, if not the constant stand-by of the family.

That it is as nutritious for old as well as young we have an interesting proof in the fact that the first Englishman born in Jamaica, Colonel Montague James, who lived to the age of 104, took scarcely any food but cocoa and chocolate for the last thirty years of his life. For athletes and all who desire the development of the muscular tissues, its use is most beneficial. Professor Cavill, in his celebrated swim from Southampton to Portsmouth, and his nearly successful attempt to swim across the English Channel, considered it to be the most concentrated and sustaining food he could use for that trying test of endurance.

In his a "Treatise on Food and Dietetics," Dr. Pavy remarks that:

"Containing, as pure cocoa does, twice as, much nitrogenous matter, and twenty-five times as much fatty matter as wheaten flour, with a notable
quantity of starch, and an agreeable aroma to tempt the palate, it cannot be otherwise than a valuable alimentary material. It has been compared in this respect to milk. It conveniently furnishes a large amount of agreeable nourishment in a small bulk, and, taken with bread, will suffice, in the absence of any other food, to furnish a good repast."

Indeed, the value of cocoa as food for ordinary mortals as well as for mythical beings cannot be better summed up than in the words of Professor Lankester, Superintendent of the Food Collections at South Kensington, who declares:

"It can hardly be regarded as a substitute for tea and coffee; it is, in fact, a substitute for all other kinds of food, and when taken with some form of bread, little or nothing else need be added at a meal. The same may be said of chocolate."
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Cacao Pods

  1. According to Drs. Playfair and Lankester:

    Tea contains 3 per cent, theine.
    Coffee " "caffeine.
    Cocoa " 2 "theobromine.

    Probably the proportion of caffeine in coffee would be more correctly stated as 1¼ per cent. Theine and caffeine are identical, but theobromine (C7H8N4O2) differs from both in the greater proportion of nitrogen which it contains.

  2. Dr. Johnson's analysis:
    Dried milk 35 Flesh formers in each hundred parts.
    Cocoa essence 34¾
    Cocoa-nibs 23
    Best French chocolates 11
  3. Mr. O. L. Symonds, "Commercial Products of the Vegetable Kingdom."
  4. The Cacao theobroma. There are several other varieties of cacao, but none of them produce the famous food.
  5. The Cocos nucifera, or "nut-bearing coco."
  6. Erythroxylon coca
  7. Or, as otherwise written, cacava quahuitl.
  8. 10 George III., c. 10.
  9. To make cocoa in perfection, for three breakfast-cups: in a quart jug (with rounded bottom and narrower neck by preference) mix 1½ dessert spoonfuls (¾ oz.) of Cocoa Essence with equal bulk of powdered white sugar, and stir to a thin paste with a little boiling water. Mix in an enamelled saucepan one breakfast-cup of milk with two cups of water (cups to be about ¾ full), and boil with care. When on the boil, pour this over the contents of the jug, and whisk vigorously for a few seconds (see illustration, p. 1). Serve to table without delay. To make a richer drink, use equal parts of milk and water. To ensure the beverage being served as hot as possible, it is desirable to warm the jug before the cocoa is put into it. The effect of this method of preparation is to impart to the cocoa a more mellow taste, and to produce a deep froth on the surface, giving it a most appetizing appearance. The thorough mixing to which the cocoa is subjected also materially lessens the amount of sediment in the bottom of the cup.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).