Another year is zooming by with the next milestone being Easter. Be careful not to blink, next thing you know it will be Christmas again. Easter is always a festive time, especially around the Northern Rivers; you have the famous Blues Fest, scorching hot days turn into slightly less scorching days and April is always scattered with public holidays.

So, with Easter just around the corner, I thought it would be very apt to talk about an ancient food that needs no introduction. Dark chocolate.

Ancient chocolate, modern chocolate

Highly treasured by the Mayans in 2000 BC and by almost the entire population today. The Mayans from Central America were the first chocolate connoisseurs. They drank it as a bitter fermented beverage mixed with spices or wine. Does that remind anyone else of mulled wine?

Today, the rows upon rows of neatly packaged chocolate you see at the supermarket are the modern-day result of the ancient process. From humble beginnings as a cacao pod (larger than your head), seeds are extracted from the pod, they are then fermented, dried and toasted into what we recognise as cocoa beans. The shells of the beans are then separated from the cocoa nibs. The nibs are then ground into a liquid and separated from the fatty portion that we know as cocoa butter. The liquid is further refined to produce the cocoa solids and chocolate that you are munching on right now.

Healthy?

The cocoa plant is rich in plant chemicals called flavonols that research shows may help protect the heart. Flavanols support the production of nitric oxide inside our blood vessels which help relax the vessels thus improving blood flow, lowering blood pressure.

Harvard School of Public Health explored a study of these claims below.

Observational studies support the benefits of cocoa flavanols. The link between blood pressure and high cocoa intake was described in a study of the Kuna Indians, an isolated tribe who live on the Caribbean Coast of Panama. [5] Hypertension was extremely uncommon in this group, even among older ages, and even with a dietary salt intake that is greater than most Western populations. When the Kuna migrated to urban environments and changed their diets, their rates of high blood pressure increased. Notably, their traditional intake of cocoa as a beverage was very high, at more than five cups daily of either home-grown or Columbian cocoa powder rich in flavanols. The urinary levels of flavanols in the island-dwelling Kuna were significantly higher and their rates of death from heart disease, cancer, and diabetes significantly lower than their counterparts living in urban centres.

There you have it. Just make sure to let the Easter Bunny know that you want dark chocolate this year and all your guilt will fade away! (Just be careful because it is high in calories).