Picture: AP

Chocolate provokes passion. Most people seem to either love it or hate it, with just a few falling somewhere in between.

To learn about the evolution of chocolate from a bitter drink to the luxuriously decadent sweet it is today, we visited Louis Grivetti, a professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of California in Davis.

Grivetti has researched the history of chocolate, helped by funding from the Mars company.

Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage, a collection of essays edited by Grivetti, is being released this month.

Q: WHAT IS THE EARLIEST FORM OF CHOCOLATE?

A: It was probably the use of the sweet white pulp that surrounds the beans inside the pod of the cacao tree. People would just hack off a pod, dig out the pulp and eat it.

Q: WHAT WERE THE CACAO BEANS USED FOR?

A: The very, very bitter beans were used medicinally. Then it became a beverage that was used only by adult males and then by enemies of the Aztecs who were about to be sacrificed. It was prohibited to women and children until at least after 1519 because it was considered to be too stimulating - it was like having three to four espressos.

Q: HOW DID CACAO GO FROM A BEVERAGE TO A BAR?

A: Common thinking is that in about 1833 or so, inventions allowed people to extract cocoa butter from the beans. And that led to the development of confections.

Q: WHERE DID THE WORD "CACAO" COME FROM?

A: We think it comes from the Olmec peoples of Mexico and Central America. One line of current thinking is that it was transferred from the Olmec to the Mayan-speaking people. But there's also a controversial view that it rose independently with the Aztecs.

Q: HOW DID CACAO BECOME THE CHOCOLATE WE KNOW TODAY?

A: In Switzerland, there are a lot of cows. And then there were people grinding chocolate. And ergo, someone mixes milk with chocolate and you get milk chocolate! The evolution as a confection begins there.

Q: WHEN DID CHOCOLATE BECOME A FOOD FOR THE MASSES?

A: It was a luxury for a number of reasons: It had to cross the Atlantic to Europe, and the long supply line was interrupted by pirates and wars. So it was only enjoyed by the royal courts and the very wealthy. Poor people drank beer. It wasn't until early in the 20th century that chocolate became cheaper.

Q: CHOCOLATE WAS ONCE BELIEVED TO HAVE MEDICINAL PROPERTIES. DO YOU STILL BELIEVE THAT?

A: The answer to most of the claims is, "No". We're never going to recommend that people eat chocolate as a healthy diet. But a small piece of dark chocolate can have the same helpful effect as a baby aspirin or a glass of red wine, so it's part of an overall diet.

Q: BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THIS TALK ABOUT DARK CHOCOLATE BEING GOOD FOR YOU?

A: We call chocolate a functional food. It has a function beyond the nutrients involved - the antioxidants repair cell damage, reduce clotting and improve overall circulation. But as a nutritionist, I believe you eat everything in moderation.

Q: HOW MUCH CHOCOLATE DO YOU EAT?

A: I eat probably a bar, two bars a week. My favourite chocolate is Galaxy, which is made in the UK.

The West Australian

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