Chocolate has ruled the world’s taste buds for centuries, but giving it subversive powers is a step too far


Over five hundred years ago, Mesoamericans considered chocolate valuable enough to use as a bargaining chip. The goods were exchanged for a hot chocolate drink, and the dried cocoa beans could be used to pay tributes (taxes). In 21st century Hong Kong prisons, however, chocolate is seen as a way to buy something far more powerful: support for pro-democracy activists. According to security officials, dissidents who were arrested after a controversial security law was imposed in 2020 by Beijing will not be entitled to chocolates, lest they be used to “solicit supporters.” And undermine the government of the special administrative zone.

Does chocolate really have such power over people? In the 16th century, Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes described it as “a bitter drink for pigs”, but once sweetened, chocolate quickly won over European taste buds. With the creation of solid bars in the 19th century, it became the world’s favorite indulgence. There have been reviews, of course, including nutritionists and parents worried about childhood obesity and poor dental health, but those concerns have more to do with the sugar content of modern chocolate products. Recent studies have indeed indicated that dark chocolate, especially when unsweetened, can have great physical and mental health benefits.

While chocolate has its dark side – including the use of child labor and slavery in industry – influencing people’s minds is not among its qualities. Because if it were so easy to exercise mind control, governments around the world wouldn’t scramble to blame the discontent on the strangest things, from skinny jeans (North Korea) to the critical theory of race (some US states) and representation of time travel in movies (China). Hong Kong’s attempt to make chocolate the scapegoat only underscores the absurdity of its own action.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 17, 2021 under the title “Bring on the cacao”.

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