Hot chocolate

Come this Sunday, some 50,000 people will be sitting in the stands at Taylor Field for the Grey Cup, their minds focused on one thing–how much they’d love a cup of hot cocoa.

They needn’t worry about indulging, in light of new research that shows that cocoa has an even higher concentration of antioxidants than red wine and tea.

A team of researchers at Cornell University, led by Chang Yong Lee, a professor of food chemistry, tested a cup of hot water containing two tablespoons of pure cocoa powder, roughly equivalent to the amount of cocoa in a normal-size packet of instant hot chocolate; a cup of water containing a standard size bag of green tea; a cup of black tea; and one glass of red wine (a California Merlot).

The antioxidant concentration in the cocoa was twice that of red wine, two to three times that of green tea, and four to five times that of black tea. Antioxidants are thought to play an important role in heart health, cancer prevention and slowing the effects of aging.

Of course, hot chocolate tends to have lots of calories, but that can be reduced by using skim or soy milk and an artificial sweetener. (Cold chocolate milk, by the way, doesn’t have the same antioxidant content: heat apparently triggers the release of antioxidants from the cocoa.)

Several recent studies have discovered healthy side effects to chocolate consumption. Research at the University of California, Davis, showed that chocolate contains antioxidants called phenolics, which probably help protect cacao plants against insects and disease, but in our bodies may prevent fat-like substances in the blood from oxidizing and clogging our arteries. Recent research at Harvard University found that people who eat chocolate three times a month have a life expectancy almost a year greater than those that don’t. (However, that same research showed that people who overdo chocolate eating have a lower life expectancy than non-chocolate eaters, probably due to the risks posed by obesity.)

Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, Theobroma cacao, which the Mayans started cultivating by at least the fourth century. Their sorcerers prescribed it as both a stimulant (as an energy-boosting drink for warriors) and as a soothing balm (cacao butter was used to dress wounds).

When Hernan Cortes arrived at the court of the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II in 1519, he discovered Montezuma reportedly drank 50 golden goblets a day of a cold, bitter drink called chocolatl, made from the ground beans of the cacao plant, mixed with water, a variety of spices (including hot chilies) and sometimes maize (to thicken it and soak up the greasy cacao butter). The Aztecs thought chocolatl was a gift from the great god Quetzalcoatl, and saw it as a source of spiritual wisdom, tremendous energy and enhanced sexual powers.

The Spaniards also took to the new drink, even though it was bitter, greasy and cold–hardly the sweet, hot confection we know today. They sent it back to Spain. It took a hundred years–and the addition of sugar, cinnamon and other spices–but eventually it became popular across Europe, spreading across the continent ahead of either coffee or tea.

The cacao butter in pure ground chocolate tended to float on top of the drink in unappetizing greasy pools. But in 1828 C. J. van Houten of Holland developed a new hydraulic press that could squeeze about half of the cacao butter out of the paste left behind after the cacao beans were ground. The resulting brittle, cake-like residue could be pulverized to a fine powder, then treated with alkaline salts so that it would dissolve more easily in water. This process became known as dutching and the resulting powder as Dutch cocoa.

An alternative solution was discovered in the 1860s, when worker with the Ghirardelli Chocolate company in the U.S. left some ground cacao beans hanging from a hook in a cloth bag overnight. By morning, the floor underneath the bag was covered in cacao butter, and the ground chocolate left behind was almost fat free and could combine with liquids much more smoothly.

Today, a wetting agent, usually lecithin, is often added to cocoa if it is intended for use as a cold drink; lecithin makes the powder mix more easily with cold milk or water.

Most hot chocolate drunk today is probably the instant variety that already includes milk powder and sugar, so all you have to do is add water.

However it’s made, it’s bound to be a popular choice Sunday at Taylor Field–especially once the sun goes down.

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