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Chocolate-ology

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It's not that I didn't know there was science behind chocolate; it's more that I didn't care.

I regard chocolate like the Aztec king Montezuma did: He couldn't tell his fatty acids from his flavanols, either, and he is said to have consumed 50 goblets of the stuff a day. Why is chocolate so wonderful? It's magic! Enough said. Pass the cupcakes, the truffles and the New York Super Fudge Chunk.

But coerced to a "Science of Chocolate" speech by a promise of samplings, I sat in a Duke lecture hall listening to the passionate Lisa Richardson and thinking it was kind of cool. Not only does chocolate have a dark history--along with sugar, coffee and tea, it propelled the Atlantic slave trade---but it travels a long, painstaking road to get from tree to mouth.

The theobroma (literally, "food of the gods") cacao tree only likes to grow in zones within 20 degrees or so of the equator. Most of the world's chocolate comes from West Africa, where it grows on 1.5 million small family farms. Removing the pods that contain the seeds that become chocolate is done today the same way it's been done for centuries: by machete, because they don't fall on their own. After you hack the pod from the tree--and you have to do it carefully so you won't damage the tree and prevent it from making more pods--you have to crack it open, separate the seeds from the pulp, then ferment, dry, roast, grind and conch the stuff.

That's right, "conching" is not something that Montezuma did after draining his goblet. It's the final stage of the manufacturing process, when chocolate is slowly heated and refined to become the yummy form we know and love.

Equally interesting, for those of us who indulge in near-Montezuma-esque proportions, is chocolate's journey in the minds of nutritionists (like Richardson, who is also a registered dietitian as well as a chocolate aficionado) from something considered to be bad for us to something that's revealing itself ever more as good.

Chocolate was always lumped into the bad pile, Richardson told the crowd at the June 22 lecture, mostly because of its saturated fat content. But scientists are finding out more about specific fats, and the predominant fat in chocolate doesn't seem to increase our cholesterol quite like they thought.

Moreover, dark chocolate contains five times as many antioxidants as black tea does, and about three times more than red wine. It has been shown to have an aspirin-like quality, which means it helps keep our platelets from clumping together and building up into plaque, and it keeps our blood pressure low. And, here is what Montezuma was no doubt grooving on: It contains one of the same feel-good neurotransmitters that we make in our own bodies. This is a relatively new area of nutritional research, Richardson said. The classic studies go back only to 2000, and there's much more to find out.

After hearing all that, I was feeling pretty good myself--and that was before the tasting.

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