The History of Chocolate: A Treat with a Dark Side?

Chocolate has become the world’s most valuable addition to the world of confection around the entire globe, but it has a gritty and, at times, unhappy history.

Feb 4, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
history of chololate

 

From the highest quality chocolate produced by the world’s top chocolatiers to the lowest quality baking chocolate, in hot beverages and in milkshakes, in cakes, candy, and much more, chocolate has changed the world we live in. It has brought immense joy to many and spurned multi-billion dollar industries to feed the world’s addiction.

 

The Spanish certainly could not have predicted this when they first discovered chocolate in the New World, being drunk as a bitter beverage by the local population. The history of chocolate is long and full of interesting tales.

 

First, What’s the Difference between Cacao and Cocoa?

cacao pod fruit
Cacao pod showing the pulpy flesh and bitter seeds. Source: wallpaperflare.com

 

Cacao refers to the pods, pulp, and beans as a raw foodstuff before being refined for consumption. In its state, ready to be made into food or drink, cacao is referred to as cocoa. This process starts with harvesting the beans of the cacao plant. They are ground into a paste, from which point the cocoa mass can be further processed into different forms of chocolate. Originally, chocolate appeared only as a drinkable form, but methods for processing enabled chocolatiers to turn chocolate into a solid form.

 

History of Chocolate: Its Start in the Americas

cacao pods colorful
Cacao pods grow in a wide variety of colors and textures. Unlike other fruits, the skin color can not be used to determine the ripeness of the fruit inside. Source: wallpaperflare.com

 

Chocolate began its history with human beings in Mesoamerica almost 4,000 years ago. Cultivating cacao was a difficult activity, as the fruits – the pods and their seeds – appear in the upper reaches of mature trees in the wild that are 60 feet high. In the early centuries of their cultivation, cacao would have been a highly prized commodity for anyone brave enough to climb the trees.

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Once the trees were domesticated, however, their height was not too much of an issue, as fruit-bearing trees were much lower to the ground at around 20 feet.

 

Cacao pods provide two important things considered for consumption: the bitter seeds and the pulpy fruit. It is assumed that the pulpy fruit was originally eaten or made into a beverage, as it is much sweeter and more palatable than the seeds.

 

As the centuries passed, culture in Mesoamerica changed, and so did their tastes. Cocoa began being consumed as a bitter beverage and spread throughout Central America and the southern parts of what is now the United States, near the border with Mexico. Evidence suggests that it was fermented and served as an alcoholic drink.

 

The Olmecs, who were among the first people to harvest cacao for consumption, passed their knowledge on to the Mayans, who integrated cocoa deeply into their culture. It had religious significance and was used in ceremonies and celebrations as well as in the everyday life of ordinary people and nobles who drank cocoa beverages with almost every meal. The Mayans often mixed their chocolate with honey and chili.

 

codex nuttall marriage ceremony
An image from the Codex Nuttal depicting a marriage ceremony involving a frothy chocolate beverage. Source: UC Davis Library

 

They used cacao beans as currency, and they played an important part in wedding ceremonies and funerary rites. Such was the value of cacao products that vessels used in the preparation of cacao and other instruments associated with cacao were also highly revered and given as gifts.

 

From around 900 CE, the Pueblo people of (what is now) the Southwestern United States discovered chocolate as it made its way north, and it became a very popular beverage.

 

Around 1400 CE, the Aztec expansion in Mesoamerica saw a great surge of cacao into Aztec culture as their empire conquered people who had had a long history with cacao. Cacao beans were demanded by the Aztec Empire over its dominion as tax. In Aztec culture, chocolate (or xocolatl) was associated with the god Quetzalcoatl who was believed to have been reprimanded and condemned by the other gods for the crime of sharing the secrets of chocolate with humans.

 

Unlike the Maya, the Aztecs drank their chocolate cold. According to legend, King Moctezuma II drank gallons of chocolate every day for energy and as an aphrodisiac. Legends also claim that sacrificial victims who refused to partake in ritual dancing before being sacrificed were given a cup of chocolate to lift their spirits.

 

The Aztec Empire did not last long. In 1521, the Spanish conquistadors arrived and put an end to this period in history, conquering a nation of 16 million people and putting their colonial stamp on the New World. With the introduction of a new religion and new colonizers, the people of Mesoamerica found their lives drastically changed as a new culture was forced upon them. Chocolate, however, would endure.

 

The Spanish Arrive

hot chocolate fudge cake
Hot chocolate fudge cake. Source: Recipe Tin Eats

 

In the early 16th century, the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica and came into contact with chocolate. How chocolate made its way back to Spain is a subject of debate. One story claims that Columbus brought it back with him in 1502. Another story is that it was introduced to Spain via Hernán Cortés, the conquistador who conquered the Aztecs. A third story claims that in 1544, friars returned to Spain after journeying to the New World and presented King Philip II with cacao beans.

 

Chocolate is Brought to Europe

louis xiii and anne of austria
King Louis XIII of France and Anne of Austria by Cornelis van Dalen I, circa 1629. Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

 

Originally, chocolate became sought after in Europe for its medicinal properties. It was believed to ease abdominal pains. Still used as a beverage, once sugar or honey was added, the bitterness disappeared, and Europeans discovered the delectable taste of the product. It became an instant hit in the royal courts and noble houses of Europe.

 

In 1615, at the wedding of French King Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, the latter brought chocolate samples to the French court, where it generated much interest. Merchants saw the possibilities, and chocolate began to spread throughout the cities of Europe, generating significant interest among the nobility and then gradually towards the middle classes. Soon, everyone in Europe knew about chocolate.

 

For poor people, however, chocolate was not affordable, and they would have to wait until the Industrial Revolution to make the delicacy cheaper and more widely available. In the burgeoning European colonial empires, cacao plantations were created along the equator, where cacao plants thrive.

 

Special shops called “chocolate houses” appeared in Britain and then in the rest of Europe to procure and sell this new and delectable but opulent treat. These “houses” were like small restaurants, and chocolate houses gained a reputation for gambling and other vices.

 

In the Spanish colonies, however, diseases brought by Europeans wiped out much of the native population. Waves of diseases such as smallpox killed millions over the decades after the Spanish arrived and continued to plague Mexico for over a century. As a result, much of the chocolate production moved to Africa, where there was a sizable pool of slave labor, an issue still with us today.

 

Industrial Revolution Brings Chocolate to the Masses

chocolate and hazelnut meringue
Chocolate and hazelnut meringue. Source: Lindt

 

An expensive product, chocolate was difficult for commoners to procure, and they had to satisfy themselves by drinking coffee. Once the steam engine was invented, however, Europe was changed forever. Mass production made things much cheaper and available to all walks of life. Among these products was chocolate.

 

This was facilitated by the invention of the chocolate press in 1828, which was able to extract cocoa butter from cacao beans, leaving behind the finest cocoa powder. This powder could be mixed with milk or other liquid, then poured into a mold and left to solidify.

 

Produced in vast quantities and no longer confined to being solely used as a beverage, chocolate also became more convenient. Chefs experimented with different ways to use chocolate, and some chefs became dedicated chocolatiers.

 

Throughout the 19th century, improvements in chocolate-making made the product more versatile and even tastier. Many of the world’s famous chocolatiers had their start during this era. The British company Fry & Sons developed a method for mixing cocoa powder with sugar and butter to create a smooth paste that could be poured into molds.

 

Henri Nestlé developed powdered milk, which became a vital ingredient in the chocolate-making process. In 1879, Rudolph Lindt invented the conching machine, which refines and evenly distributes chocolate particles, improving texture and flavor. Both these men were Swiss (although Henri Nestlé was born in Germany), and they helped Switzerland become known for its excellence in the chocolate industry.

 

Cadbury started selling boxed chocolate in England in 1868, and in the United States in 1893, Milton S. Hershey purchased chocolate-making equipment and started his business. The first successful product created by Hershey was his chocolate-coated caramel.

 

Chocolate in Religion

hanukkah gelt chocolate coins
Hanukkah Gelt. Source: courtneyssweets.com

 

Chocolate is not just a sweet treat enjoyed the world over. It has been added to religious practices as well.

 

Like the Maya over a thousand years ago, chocolate today has found its way into tradition and ceremony. It is associated with Valentine’s Day; chocolate is often molded into heart shapes.

 

In Jewish communities, chocolate coins known as Hanukkah Gelt are associated with the holiday. This tradition started centuries ago when a monetary tip of a coin or two was given to itinerant workers at the time. The tradition evolved into giving gifts to children instead, and now, instead of actual coins, chocolate coins covered in foil have become the standard practice in Jewish communities.

 

In Christian homes, Advent calendars often hide chocolate candy! Of note in the Christian religion is the widespread tradition of chocolate Easter eggs consumed over the Easter period. Although this tradition hearkens to an earlier pagan period, the practice of hunting for eggs, now made of chocolate and consumed with wild abandon, was adopted into the Christian faith.

 

A Dark Side to Chocolate

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

 

Sadly, the popularity of chocolate has brought with it many disturbing realities in the production of such a demanded product. Child labor is common, and many of the poorly paid workers who toil on the cacao plantations have never even tasted the final product that they help create. Two-thirds of the world’s cacao is harvested in West Africa, and it is here that the main issues of unfair and illegal labor are apparent. The market is also extremely volatile and unstable, creating dangerous conditions for the entire industry.

 

From hot chocolate to milkshakes, chocolate bars, and delectable confectionery, chocolate has become a favorite the world over. Despite the questionable practices of cacao cultivation, there seems to be nothing that can stop the world’s love for this sweet product discovered by the native Mesoamericans all those millennia ago.

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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.