Bulgarian Scientist: Chocolate is Sweet Salvation

Views on BG | March 8, 2012, Thursday // 14:58
Bulgaria: Bulgarian Scientist: Chocolate is Sweet Salvation Anna Bonavita. Photo by Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

Need another reason to eat chocolate? A Bulgarian scientist who reinvented her life in Minnesota says that eating fine, responsibly raised cacao can save the world.

By Kim Ode

Star Tribune

Slow down. Sit on your hands, if you must. First, just look at the piece of chocolate before you. Consider its particular shade. An earthy umber? A glossier Hershey?

Now bring it to your nose. Rub the chocolate and ponder. Is that vanilla? Raisins? Hay? You may wonder how in the world your brain is saying "hay." Patience.

Next, snap the morsel in half. Did the sound surprise you? Has anything filched from the kids' Halloween bags ever cracked like that?

OK, now put a bit on your tongue. Slow down. Let it melt. Close your eyes and think of nothing but chocolate melting in your mouth. Only that.

This is the flavor of revolution.

That's what Anna Bonavita says, at least, and why not believe her? She may have more chocolate.

Bonavita is the champion of what she calls a chocolate revolution that's happening in our midst and, indeed, must happen if we are to preserve the Earth, our health and our peace of mind.

If that sounds a little over the top, so is the story of how Bonavita moved from a career in microelectronics behind the Berlin Wall to leading yoga students in Minneapolis through the finer points of a Trinitario chocolate with 75 percent cacao content.

"We are here to experience pleasure, not just to suffer," Bonavita said in a Bulgarian accent more musical than you might expect. Yet for most of her life, pleasure was an afterthought. Pursuing a career in science, she moved to Russia at 19 to get a doctorate in microelectronics. Ten years later, she returned to work in Bulgaria, only to discover, with the toppling of the Berlin Wall, the superiority of science being done in the West.

"We were in open waters," she said of the mixed feelings of freedom and futility. She came to Minnesota to work at Seagate Technology but felt a growing restlessness. "I wanted a purpose bigger than me," she said. So eventually she and her Italian husband, Massimo, helped to found the Italian Cultural Center in Minneapolis in 2006, a nonprofit whose language classes enable the center to stage an annual Italian film festival (this year's is March 30-April 1.)

Then in 2009, she was laid off from Seagate, a casualty of restructuring. Again at sea, she decided to visit Italy, ending up in Romagna, in the north region, where on a damp, cold-to-your-bones evening, she decided, on a whim, to attend a chocolate tasting.

Questioning her sanity

"The chocolates I tasted were nothing I had experienced before," Bonavita said. In short order, she learned about chocolate's role in the world economy, its role in the fight to preserve and restore rain forests, its role in medical discoveries on the beneficial role of antioxidants. She began educating herself about some of the 600 flavor notes in chocolate -- wine, by comparison, has 200 -- by starting each morning with a chocolate-tasting, before her palate had been compromised by coffee, or even toothpaste.

Eventually, she met Gianluca Franzoni, an Italian who makes Domori chocolates -- a level of chocolate that inspires critiques such as having "extraordinary roundness and great persistence." He's also a rock star in the sustainability movement, in which cacao growers in Central and South America are allies in the fight to maintain biodiversity in the face of lumber, mining and oil interests. Bonavita's path seemed clear, albeit ill-advised.

"Sometimes I asked myself, 'Are you insane?' At a time when people are watching their budgets, I'm pushing expensive chocolate," she said. "But I have to do it if we are going to change into a better world."

She, Massimo and a friend, Ella Chamba, started Chocolate Bonavita in 2010, offering tastings and classes at the Italian Cultural Center, 528 Hennepin Av. S., and even a tasting in tandem with a yoga class, believing that a calm mind is most receptive to the nuances of fine chocolate.

Chocolates are for sale on the center's website, www. chocolatebonavita.com, where a 1.75-ounce bar of the award-winning Porcelana goes for . Goals include a retail store and development of a curriculum for chocolate sommeliers, in the vein of those for wine or olive oil.

Heart health, brain health

People love chocolate. And while U.S. citizens ate more than 3.6 billion pounds of it in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, we are mere amateurs when compared with Europe, which has 16 of the top 20 chocolate-eating countries.

All predictions point to rising consumption, partly thanks to studies about chocolate's health benefits. The Harvard School of Public Health, in a survey of 65-year-old men, found that eating moderate amounts of chocolate was a factor in prolonging their lives.

Cacao is rich in dietary copper, magnesium and iron, and dark chocolate has been found to lower blood pressure, along with being a source of antioxidants, which help reduce the risk of developing cancer or heart disease, according to Boston University's School of Medicine and the German Heart Journal.

The most recent, and perhaps more controversial, study was published last month in the journal Nature, in which obesity researchers at the University of California argued that sugar is so perilous to public health that it should be regulated as a controlled substance in order to reduce overall consumption. Far from hearing that as bad news, cheerleaders for fine chocolate heralded the findings as another ally. Chocolate with high cacao content actually contains very little sugar, Bonavita said.

Yet it's clear that Bonavita's passion is less about health and more about a belief that chocolate is good for our brains and for the planet. (Ten percent of Bonavita's profits go to the Rainforest Rescue program.)

"The major problem in our culture is that we're constantly hurrying, so stressed out, even when we are in the presence of something exceptional," she said. "This is where I believe we women can be a force in the food revolution," whether in sustainable agriculture or in teaching children how to make wise choices. "Chocolate is just a great example of the need for change."

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