Easter Hazards

Tiny noses are pressed against the screen in great anticipation of the hunt. Dressed in their Sunday best, they clutch their baskets with a death grip, waiting for the signal that the race has begun. Marshmallow bunnies, cream-filled eggs, robins’ eggs, chocolate eggs and traditional dyed eggs fill the yard, but everyone’s favorite are the giant chocolate bunnies carefully hidden in the shadiest area of the yard. Mom and dad have spent all morning keeping Fido out of the yard, hoping that the hidden treasures are still intact. The giant bunnies are the ones that moms find hidden under the bed months later, missing the ears, feet and head. America’s love affair with chocolate began more than 200 years ago, when chocolate was first introduced in New England.

The history of chocolate is really quite interesting. A Spanish explorer named Cortes first learned about chocolate when he visited Mexico in 1519. Many Aztec Indians there drank enormous amounts of a drink they called chocolatl. They made the watery, bitter drink from the crushed beans of the kakahuatl tree. The beans were crushed and mixed with chili peppers, ground corn and vanilla to make a paste. When water was added to the paste, it made a choco, choco, choco sound. The Aztecs called water latl, and when added to the paste, chocolatl was thus made.

Cortes noted that the drink was consumed in large quantities by Aztec royalty, and figured that Spanish royalty would also enjoy the concoction. The Spaniards sweetened the drink with sugar or honey, added cinnamon and called it chocolate. For many years, the famous beans were kept a secret by the Spanish, and they were not discovered by other countries until the late 1600s, when they became quite popular in England. It was not until 1765 that chocolate was introduced to North America. The first chocolate factory opened in New England that year, and many Americans were hooked for life. It was also the belief of many that chocolate was good for their health.

Kakahuatl trees became known over the years as cacao trees. The cacao tree Theobroma cacao is native to Mexico, but is now widely cultivated in the tropics. Cocoa powder, cocoa butter and cocoa extracts are the three main commercial products processed from cacao seeds. Cacao (the crude material) has been used in folk medicine to treat dry lips, eyes, fever, burns, cough, hair loss, malaria, kidney disease, snake bites, pregnancy and rheumatism. Cocoa butter has been used to relieve irritation from burns and cracked lips, and in attempts to reduce wrinkles, but is more commonly used as a base for rectal suppositories. To produce cocoa powder, fermented cacao seeds are roasted, cracked and ground, then the fat is removed.

Of the many chemical compounds found in cocoa, caffeine and theobromine are the focus of this article. Caffeine has many effects on the body, with brain, heart and stomach effects being the most common in overdose. A toxic dose of caffeine has not been determined, but confusion, tremors, rapid heart rate, fever, vomiting and diarrhea have been reported with therapeutic doses. The action of theobromine is similar, but it is considered a stronger diuretic and heart stimulant, and better dilates blood vessels and arteries of the heart, than caffeine. It has less activity in the brain than caffeine, but can cause seizures in larger doses.

"Death by chocolate" has not been reported in humans, but numerous cases of animal toxicities are recorded in the literature. Most of these cases involve large ingestions of chocolate by a small animal. Although caffeine is present in small amounts, it is theobromine which is primarily responsible for toxicity. Some of the effects of animal poisonings include thirst, weight loss, vomiting, liver effects, excitement, seizures, muscle spasms and coma. Death has been reported and may occur 12 to 24 hours after ingestion.

Theobromine is also found in the shell of the cacao seed (which is used in landscaping), and represents another source of theobromine toxicity. Although it is apparent that chocolate is not to be feared by humans, it can be quite deadly for animals, especially dogs. Most people do not purposely give chocolate to their animals, but animals are very curious, and as you know, chocolate smells delicious. This Easter, when your kids are hiding their chocolate stash, make sure they know to put it up out of Fido’s reach. Not only will they save Fido from harm, they will also ensure that there will be more chocolate for them!

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