17 Crazy Facts about the History of Chocolate

One of the most beloved products in the modern world, chocolate is chock-full of interesting facts and stories!

Feb 1, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
history of chocolates facts

 

Chocolate is one of the most beloved products in the entire world. Its journey from a bitter, frothy beverage in Mesoamerica to the slabs of chocolate found in supermarkets everywhere is a story that spans thousands of years.

 

Those millennia have also taken chocolate through surprising twists and turns, sparking interest among historians, confectioners, and anybody else who loves chocolate!

 

The history of chocolate is indeed a fascinating one. Here are 17 facts about chocolate and its history.

 

1. Chocolate was Consumed Many Millennia Ago

mayan chocolate pot
An ancient Mayan pot. Source: Flickr user Anciano

 

The first instances of chocolate being consumed go back as far as 4,000 years. Some estimates put this date further back to 5,300 years ago. People native to Mesoamerica harvested chocolate pods from high up in cacao trees growing in the wild. It is thought that the pulp was eaten rather than the seeds. The pulp is sweet, whereas the seeds are incredibly bitter.

 

2. Chocolate was Drunk as a Frothy Brew

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The earliest record of chocolate being consumed was as a frothy brew. There is no record of the recipes that were used, but it is assumed it was alcoholic in nature. It was used by the Olmecs, who passed on their knowledge of chocolate to the Mayans who came after. The Mayans often drank their chocolate with honey and chili.

 

3. Chocolate was an Important Part of Mayan Culture

 

Chocolate was so important to the Mayans that they used the beans as currency, and chocolate served as an accompaniment to religious ceremonies, as well as for everyday use where it was consumed with daily meals. 

 

4. The Aztecs believed Chocolate Came From the Gods

 

The Latin name for the tree that gives us chocolate is Theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods.” This ties in with the fact that the Aztecs literally believed that chocolate was a gift from one of their gods, Quetzalcoatl, who, after giving chocolate to humans, was condemned by the other gods for this transgression.

 

5. Milk Chocolate Originates in Jamaica

chocolate pic header
Chocolate. Source: rawpixel/creative commons

 

The idea of adding milk to chocolate was first noticed by Europeans in the 17th century. Scottish-Irish physician Hans Sloane traveled to Jamaica in 1687 and reported that the locals added milk to their cocoa before drinking it.

 

According to prominent historian James Delbourgo, the Jamaicans had been brewing chocolate in this fashion since 1494.

 

6. The Meaning of “Chocolate” as a Color has Changed

 

In 1828, a Dutch chemist found a way to make powdered chocolate by removing half the natural fat, known as cacao butter, from the chocolate. The resultant product was a dark brown color. Before the invention of “Dutch chocolate,” however, the unrefined product was (and still is) a reddish color, and the term “chocolate” was used to describe a shade of red.

 

This is attested to in Abraham Werner’s 1821 Nomenclature of Colours, in which the author writes, “Chocolate Red ‘a veinous blood red mixed with a little brownish red.’”

 

7. The First Chocolate Bar was Made in 1847

chocolate powder image
Ground chocolate. Source: the food passionates/Corbis

 

J.S. Fry & Sons was responsible for turning chocolate into a solid treat instead of a drinkable one. In 1847, the company created a solid chocolate bar from sugar, chocolate liquor (cocoa paste), and cocoa butter. In 2010, J.S. Fry & Sons was bought out by Cadbury, which is owned by Mondelēz (formerly Kraft).

 

8. Chocolate Formed Part of the US Military Rations

 

In 1937, the US Military commissioned The Hershey Company to provide 4-ounce chocolate bars to accompany soldiers’ rations in the field. It was designed to be high in energy, tolerant to heat, and not too tasty in order to prevent the rations from being consumed too quickly. The D ration bar was born and served US soldiers throughout World War II, although it was slowly replaced by Hershey’s Tropical Bar from 1943 onwards.

 

The original D ration was so unappealing that it was often discarded when issued. Some soldiers claimed it had terrible effects on their bowels, and those with bad teeth had difficulty biting through the tough bar. US soldiers even referred to it as “Hitler’s Secret Weapon.” The hatred for the D ration bar was so universal that Hershey’s was asked to create something more appealing. The Tropical bar was created, which went over much better with US soldiers.

 

By the end of the Second World War, it’s estimated that over 3 billion D ration and Tropical bars had been produced.

 

9. A Real River of Chocolate

willy wonka 46
Gene Wilder as the eponymous Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Source: Everett Collection

 

In the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the river of chocolate that was featured was made from real chocolate with cream and water added. It started to smell after a few days and certainly wouldn’t have passed health inspections by today’s standards!

 

10. Ruth Wakefield is Credited With Inventing the Chocolate Chip Cookie

 

In 1930, American chef Ruth Wakefield created the chocolate chip cookie by chance. She sold her recipe to Nestlé in return for a lifetime supply of chocolate!

 

11. Millions of Chocolate Easter Bunnies and Easter Eggs Sold Each Year

laduree easter eggs
Easter is a profitable time for chocolate companies. Source: Ladurée

 

In the United Kingdom alone, 80 million Easter eggs are sold every Easter. In the United States, 60 million Easter bunnies are sold, while another 30 million are sold in the rest of the world. A fitting fact, given the reproductive rate of rabbits!

 

12. The Scent of Chocolate is Relaxing

 

A study conducted by psychologist Neil Martin at Middlesex University in Enfield, England concluded that the aroma of chocolate reduced attentiveness. The scent was measured against several other scents in the experiment, and only chocolate was found to promote a feeling of relaxation.

 

13. The Biggest Producer of Cacao Beans is the Ivory Coast

chocolate pie chart
Pie charts showing the origin of cacao/cocoa. Source: International Cocoa Organization

 

The region of West Africa is where most of the world’s cacao is grown today, with the Ivory Coast being the biggest producer. This country accounts for 38% of the world’s yearly cacao harvest! In the 2022/2023 year, the Ivory Coast produced 2.2 million metric tons of cocoa beans.

 

14. It Takes 400 Cocoa Beans to Produce one Pound of Chocolate

 

There are different varieties of cacao trees, and depending on the variety, a cacao pod can contain between 20 and 50 beans. Four hundred of those beans will yield enough cocoa to create a single pound of chocolate.

 

15. Switzerland is the Biggest Consumer of Chocolate Per Capita

 

The average Swiss person indulges in 22 pounds or 8.8 kilograms of chocolate per year, which is unsurprising given the country’s history with chocolate. With so many local chocolate companies producing such a high quality of tasty goodness, it’s easy to see why the Swiss eat so much of the stuff.

In close second spot for chocolate consumption per capita is Austria, whose people eat an average of 20 pounds or 8.1 kilograms of chocolate per year. Germany, Ireland, and the UK are hot on their heels. Studies suggest that Central and Northern Europe represent the largest consumption rate per capita of chocolate throughout the world.

 

The United States, by comparison, has an average chocolate consumption of 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) per person.

 

16. The Chocolate Industry is Marred by Evidence of Child & Slave Labor

child labor chocolate
Child labor is rife in the chocolate industry. Source: Daniel Rosenthal/laif/Redux

 

In West Africa, where most of the world’s cacao is harvested, the industry is rife with illegal business practices that are almost impossible to control. Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Guinea, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone are all countries where these unsavory business practices have been reported. In Ghana and the Ivory Coast alone, it is estimated that over two million children are used for labor. Those who do get paid earn less than the equivalent of one dollar a day.

 

Child and slave labor have also been documented on cacao farms in Brazil, and it’s possible the situation is just as bad in other parts of South America as well.

 

Several big chocolate companies have been accused of having child and slave labor in their production chain. As a result, many smaller companies have arisen, providing an ethical alternative for the consumer. Their products may be more expensive, but they don’t leave the wrong kind of bitter taste in the mouth.

 

17. The Biggest Chocolate Bar

lindt chocolate image
Lindt Chocolate. Source: Lindt

 

On October 7, 2011, British chocolate company Thorntons created the largest chocolate bar in the world, according to Guinness. It was square-shaped and clocked in at 12,770 pounds 4.48 ounces (5,792.50 kilograms), and measured 13 feet 1.48 inches (4.0 meters) by 13 feet 1.48 inches (4.0 meters) by 1 foot 1.78 inches (0.35 meters). The ingredients used to make it were cocoa butter, cocoa mass, sugar, dried whole milk powder, butter oil, and emulsifier.

 

With such a huge industry and a long history, it’s unsurprising that there are so many stories and facts about the world’s most loved sweet treat. There is certainly no sign that humanity is losing its affection for this confection, and so there are sure to be many more stories and facts in chocolate’s future.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.