I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Energy Food?

I’m doing some training these days for the upcoming Seattle half-marathon, and after every run, I’ve been eating a single square of Vosges Bacon Caramel Toffee. I formed this habit on a recent cool and cloudy morning; when I got home from running, chilly beneath a crystallized layer of salty sweat, I couldn’t wait to eat that piece of candy. My body craved the melty milk chocolate, the chewy, smoky bits of bacon, the caramel of the toffee - it seemed to me the perfect combination of foods to revive my tired muscles.

This new culinary custom got me to thinking about our cultural relationship with chocolate, and the power of an idea of what a food can do for us. For even though it is biological fact that protein, salt, and sugar would help counter my fatigue and assist muscle repair after a six-mile run, this particular snack is not one that springs readily to mind when we think of athletes-in-training.

Vosges is not, for example, marketing Bacon Caramel Toffee as a sports energy food, even though it has some elements that would make it so. Now, I am not suggesting that eating pounds of bacon-chocolate-toffee is an essential part of the healthy training diet; these are not things that I consume in abundance whether I am running a lot or not, and certainly we can make a strong argument for the negative effects of the cholesterol and refined sugar that also form part of this snack.

But I am interested in how our ideas about what chocolate does to the body vary across cultures and change across time, sometimes so drastically that we would hardly recognize it for the same food. Because there was a time and place where my particular craving would not have seemed so strange.

Recently, in the US and Europe, and in parts of Asia too, chocolate has been much-heralded as a health food, with nutritional and medical studies claiming the benefits of high antioxidant levels for heart health, skin, and even diabetes. Small amounts of dark chocolate are now thought to keep us looking and feeling youthful, and our hearts beating for longer. We have become comfortable with the fact that certain kinds and limited amounts of chocolate may have positive effects on our health.

That a chocolate bar might be good for the body is a not an entirely new concept in the US. But until the most recent surge of medical studies, it was rather the ingredients that were mixed with cocoa that got the health press, for good or ill. Hershey touted the inclusion of wholesome, fresh Pennsylvania dairy land milk in his bars, even as the lore of the sugar rotting children’s teeth out of their heads gained ground. Chocolate has, in its history in this country, been both body-damaging and healthy, source of decay and superfood, sometimes in the same era.

What we have never had in modern-day US society, however, is a cultural association of chocolate as a food of sustenance and energy, one that can maintain long periods of athletic endeavor; we rather think of dishes of pasta or Rocky Balboa drinking raw eggs. While we do have a powerful association with chocolate bars as energizing snacks - witness the recent Snickers campaign with words like “hungerectomy”, whatever that is - popular wisdom is that it is the sugar in these candies that gives us the energy boost, not the cocoa itself.

But the interesting thing for me is that other people, living in other times, have not only believed chocolate to be a source of long-term energy, but lived out this belief in a very corporeal way. The Maya believed their cocoa drink to be one of the recipes handed down by the gods to make men strong and fearless; and it was men, for the most part, who consumed it - women were forbidden from partaking in chocolate drinks, save for some few ceremonial celebration days. Aztec soldiers carried with them as their main source of sustenance cocoa cakes mixed with maize; a single ration was considered sufficient to march for a day. No sugar was added; it was not sucrose that sustained them. In this time, among these people, chocolate was the food of energy.

Among the Aztec, my craving for a chocolate-bacon-toffee bar after a long run might not have raised any eyebrows. I personally don’t spare much thought for whether chocolate is healthy or not; it is something I eat pretty much every day in one form or another, and will do no matter what the latest studies say. But if you are thinking for yourself what the health benefits of your piece of chocolate may be, just remember that what we think we know about the effects of chocolate on our bodies, even if it is based on scientific study, may exist just as much in our collective cultural mind as it does in our cells.

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