Most historians believe that the first people to cultivate and use cocoa were the Olmecs who lived in what is now Mexico between 1500 and 400 BC. They are believed to have discovered its usefulness by observing rats eating the fruit of the cocoa tree. Both the Mayans and Aztecs would follow suit and come up with their own methods for cocoa cultivation.
When Europeans arrived in the New World in the 16th century, cocoa was being used as by the Mayans as a ritual drink. Their word for cocoa was chocolatl, from which we get chocolate. Cocoa would be eventually be adopted by the Spanish explorers visiting the New World though some did not like the taste at first. The Mayans would keep the methods of making cocoa secret for almost a century after introducing it to the Spaniards.
By the mid 17th century, chocolate would be a popular drink in France and then throughout Europe in the 18th century. The addition of sugar from the West Indies made it much more palatable to Europeans. The use of steam-powered machinery was introduced as a way to keep the cost of processing chocolate down. This made cocoa affordable enough for the masses and spurred its popularity. Cocoa powder was invented in 1828 by the Dutch. The method was developed by chocolate maker Coenraad Johannes van Houten. It involved removing fat from cacao beans using a hydraulic press. The cocoa would be alkalized to make it taste milder. The result was a way to use cocoa that was not limited to beverages. It formed the basis of chocolate being used in baking as well as in ice cream. it is also what we now know as hot cocoa.
Note most cocoa powder presently available in American grocery stores is natural cocoa powder, which means that it has not been alkalized.
Today, people around the world consume more than 4.5 million tons of cocoa annually.
Flavor profile of cocoa powder
Natural cocoa powder is stronger and more acidic when compared to alkalized cocoa. This type of cocoa powder has a fruitier and stronger flavor.
Alkalized cocoa powder is also known as Dutch Process cocoa powder and it has a mellower flavor with woody notes.
Health benefits of cocoa powder
Cocoa powder contains several compounds that can be beneficial for health; those compounds include:
- Minerals: A 1-tablespoon serving of unsweetened cocoa powder delivers 3 percent of your daily iron requirement along with 6 percent of your magnesium and 10 percent each of your daily copper and manganese requirements. Iron is an essential nutrient due to its function of transporting oxygen in the blood. Copper is important for increasing the body’s iron absorption while manganese helps with vitamin B and E absorption among other benefits.
- Flavonoids: Cocoa is a good source of two flavonoids in epicatechin and catechin. Both are powerful antioxidants that fight free radicals.
- Fiber: Cocoa powder is a good source of fiber with 7 percent of your daily fiber requirement in each 1-tablespoon serving. Along with helping to make bowel movements more regular, fiber can slow the rate at which your body absorbs sugar and thus the rate at which your blood sugar spikes.
Taking in a lot of unsweetened cocoa powder can help with the prevention and treatment of health conditions like:
- Diabetes: By preventing spikes in blood sugar, the fiber in cocoa powder can help to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Obesity: Fiber helps to increase the feeling of being satisfied, which means that you will feel full on a smaller amount food and thus eat less overall.
- Depression: Cocoa powder contains phenethylamine, which is a neurotransmitter. Phenethylamine can act as an antidepressant. In addition, cocoa powder may boost endorphins and serotonin.
Common uses of cocoa powder
Cocoa powder is still the basis for popular beverages, but it is also used in baking. Common baked goods flavored by cocoa powder include chocolate cakes, brownies and cookies. It is used in a variety of sweets ranging from candy bars to fudge.