A Global Commodity

Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests, for my seventh speech in the Competent Commmunicator manual, I wanted to talk with you all about a particular substance. This substance is comprised of over 800 chemical compounds and for thousands of years has been traded globally, in some cases used as currency, in some countries it was once only accessible to the wealthy and powerful and today helps to provide income for developing countries. By a show of hands, how many of you think I might be talking about gold? Silver? Rubies?

Would it surprise you to know that I am talking about CHOCOLATE? Now, research states that approximately 65% of you are probably right now thinking “Mmmmm… milk chocolate”, while 33% of you are thinking “Mmmmmm… dark chocolate” and 48% of you are thinking “Ew! Chocolate?” That doesn’t account for approximately 2% you who are, right now, thinking “Ack! Allergies!”

photo by The U.S. National Archives via PhotoRee

No matter how you feel about this smooth, velvety, versatile, melt-in-your-mouth confection (and, yes, I am a chocolate fan), you have to admit that the very word “chocolate’ instantly brings up connotations both epicuran and societal for nearly everyone. You’ve heard of waiting for Godot? Most of us are waiting for Godiva!

Chocolate is a $17 billion industry in the United States. The average American eats 10-12 POUNDS of the stuff per year, and if you think that’s a lot, consider that the Swiss consume 21 pounds of chocolate on an annual basis.

When I was doing my research for this speech, I noticed that chocolate was listed in several sources a drug, yet it is low in caffeine, non addictive, and has no negative side effects when taken in moderation. In fact, medical studies show that eating dark chocolate daily may promote cardiovascular health. It’s been known to have emotional and psychological benefits as well – consuming an ounce of chocolate increased the production of serotonins, a natural anti-depressant. What other drug can make those claims?

Chocolate is ubiquitous in our society, particularly on holidays such as Christmas, Mothers Day and, oh yeah, Easter. But how did it come to be so beloved?

Cacao was discovered 2,000 years ago in ancient Mesoamerica. The first known users of it were the Classic Period Maya (about 250-900 AD), who crushed the cacao bean and drank it mixed with various spices. Sugar was unavailable, so this was a bitter concoction that was particularly popular during royal and religious events. Additionally, priests during this era would present cacao seeds to the gods as a sacred offering. The Aztecs used it as a form of currency.

Around 1521, Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico and discovered chocolate. The Conquistadors forced the Aztecs to hand over their chocolate and brought the mysterious bean back to Spain. Simply put, it was a hit. Between 1759 and 1788 almost 12 million pounds of chocolate were consumed each year in Madrid alone. The demand for chocolate in Spain was so great once introduced that, from the early 1600s to the late 1800s, Mesoamerican slaves tended, harvested and processed cacao.

Now, while chocolate had been a drink for the people in the Americas, in Spain it was only available to the wealthy and to church officials. The Spanish Catholic Church recognized chocolate’s energizing properties. Hernan Cortes was known to have said: “A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.” Priests were permitted by the 16th century to use liquid chocolate as a meal replacement during fasting periods.

By 1750, the chocolate craze had spread throughout the rest of Europe. As in Spain, only the wealthy could afford to eat and/or drink it. In France, you had to be a member of the Aristocracy. Chocolate continued to be grown and harvested by slaves overseas and it was pricey to produce.

Eventually, however, chocolate became more affordable, thanks in huge part to the Industrial Revolution, which made it possible to mass-produce chocolate. It is now a truly global commodity, available to all, and is produced in 33 countries. Today, thanks to organizations such as Oxfam, farmers in developing countries are able to make a better living growing chocolate which is sold on the fair trade market.

Today, chocolate is a food for all, and hundreds of manufacturers produce hundreds of brands of candy bars and other foods containing cacao. It’s frequently named as a favorite flavor in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The health benefits of cocoa are still being researched, but new evidence is found frequently that dark chocolate, with its high concentration of flavanoids, can help to fend off cardiovascular disease and other age-related illnesses.

By now, you guys probably know that I like to think a little outside the box, so in that vein [pulls cake out of box], I have to let you know that one of my personal favorite uses of chocolate is in chocolate birthday cake. [candles are on cake in reverse] Apparently, I’m 73 today… Do I look good for my age? Maybe it’s the flavanoids!

Madam Toastmaster…



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