It was the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus who, in a fit of decidedly unscientific brilliance, gave chocolate its taxonomic description, theobroma, which translates to "food of the gods." Turns out his fanciful name carries some weight, since it has been proven that eating chocolate is actually good for you. Medical studies have shown that popping a bonbon now and then can help you lose weight, relieve stress, and even live a longer life. Add to that the long-held folkloric notion that attributes aphrodisiac powers to the humble cocoa bean (both Casanova and the Marquis de Sade were avowed chocolate lovers), and it's no wonder the average American eats 12 pounds of the stuff every year.
Though I'd like to claim that I learned all this by reading the fine print on a candy bar wrapper, it was only after a visit to the California Academy of Sciences' new show, "Chocolate," which traces the cacao bean from its ecological origins to the elaborately decorated truffles that fill candy shops, that I began following in Linnaeus' scholarly footsteps. The interactive exhibition kicks off with a re-creation of a tropical rain forest, replete with a life-size replica of a cocoa tree and a colony of 80,000 live leaf cutter ants. Then it's off to Mexico to learn about the Mayan king's favorite hot drink, a forerunner to hot chocolate, and a whirl around an ersatz Aztec marketplace with a handful of cocoa beans, which the ancient kingdom used as currency. In addition to these historical installations, "Chocolate" spotlights such controversial issues as mass production, deceptive advertising, and sustainable cacao-growing. And if you need a sugar rush, don't worry, the museum's gift shop sells plenty of exotic treats.
But don't feel guilty while eating, seeing, and touching all things cacao. As the more enthusiastic among chocoholics are sure to tell you, the study of chocolate has been a serious pursuit since the days of Linnaeus. And if that line doesn't work, just tell them "Chocolate" was partially funded by the National Science Foundation.