Ancient History and Origin of Chocolate to its Modern Day Industry as the World’s Greatest Treat


The word chocolate may conjure up images of sweet candy bars and luscious truffles, but the chocolate of today is little like the chocolate of the past. Throughout much of history, chocolate was a revered but bitter beverage, not a sweet, edible treat. But for about 90 percent of chocolate’s long history, it was strictly a beverage, and sugar didn’t have anything to do with it. How crazy is that? All our lives we assume this decadent treat has always been edible. Little did we know, it took a genius to wake up one day and say “Hey! What if chocolate was not a beverage but instead something we could eat?”. Did you know Western African countries like Ghana and the Ivory Coast provide more than 70% of the world’s Cocoa?

This is image shows us what a Cocoa bean looks like
Credit to Magnumicecream

History of Chocolate

The history of chocolate can be traced to ancient Mayans, times and even earlier to the ancient Olmecs of southern Mexico. Chocolate’s 4,000-year history began in ancient Mesoamerica, which we now know as Mexico. Cacao plants were first found here . The Olmec, one of the earliest civilizations in Latin America, were the first to turn the cacao plant into chocolate. They drank their chocolate during rituals and used it as medicine.

Centuries later, the Mayans praised chocolate as the drink of the gods. Made of roasted and ground cacao seeds mixed with chillies, water and cornmeal, Mayan chocolate was an admired brew. Mayans poured this mixture from one pot to another, creating a thick foamy beverage called “xocolatl”, meaning “bitter water.” By the 15th century, the Aztecs used cocoa beans as currency. They believed that chocolate was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl, and drank it as a refreshing beverage, an aphrodisiac, and even to prepare for war.

The terminology can be a little confusing, but most experts these days use the term “cacao” to refer to the plant or its beans before processing, while the term “chocolate” refers to anything made from the beans, she explained. “Cocoa” generally refers to chocolate in a powdered form, although it can also be a British form of “cacao.”

The Cocoa beans are crushed into Cocoa powder as seen in the picture, with a solid chocolate bar next to it

Chocolate Begins to Seduce the World

No one knows for sure when chocolate came to Spain. Legend has it that explorer Hernán Cortés brought chocolate to his homeland in 1528. Cortés was believed to have discovered chocolate during an expedition to America. In search of gold and riches, he instead found a cup of cocoa given to him by the Aztec emperor which he then brought home.

Once chocolate reached Spain, the Spanish kept it quiet for over a century before the rest of Europe was seduced by this mouth-watering drink that they could not get enough of, but unfortunately, this was a luxury only the rich would enjoy. Soon after, special “chocolate houses” appeared . As the movement spread through Europe, many nations set up their own cacao plantations in countries along the equator.

The history of this edible continues as the treat remained immensely popular among the European nobility. The royals and the upper classes consumed chocolate for its health benefits as well as its decadence. In 1828, the invention of the chocolate press revolutionized chocolate making.

This innovative device could squeeze cocoa butter from roasted cacao beans, leaving a fine cocoa powder behind. The powder was then mixed with liquids and poured into a mould, where it solidified into an edible bar of chocolate. And just like that, the modern era of chocolate was born.

The Aztecs making chocolate milk
Photocred: Wikimedia

A Brief Lesson on the Making of Chocolate

The chocolate pressed machine
The Chocolate Pressed machine (Credit: Shutterstock)

Chocolate is made from the fruit of cacao trees, which are native to Central and South America. The fruits are called pods and each pod contains around 40 cacao beans. The beans are dried and roasted to create cocoa beans. It is unclear when cacao came to the party or even who invented it. Click here to find out more about the process of chocolate making.

Cocoa Beans as Currency

Mayans used chocolate as currency
Credit: open source

Chocolate was used as currency, once upon a time. Can you believe such a world? I know I can’t. The Aztecs took their love for chocolate to a whole new level. They believed the beans were given to them by the gods, like the Mayans.

They used cacao beans as currency to buy food and other goods. In Aztec culture, cacao beans were considered more valuable than gold. Mostly enjoyed by the upperclassmen on a daily basis and occasionally the lower class during weddings and other celebrations, the chocolate drink was adorned by all.

Perhaps the most notorious Aztec chocolate lover of all was the mighty Aztec ruler Montezuma II, who supposedly drank gallons of chocolate each day for energy and as an aphrodisiac. His military had reserved cacao beans, as some people say.

America Gets a Treat

An image of different chocolate, a dark but happy secret
Credit: Economic Times

In 1641, chocolate had arrived in Florida on a Spanish ship. In Boston in 1682, the first chocolate house opened to the American community. Enjoyed by all the classes. Coco beans became a huge import for the American colonies. Chocolate was given to the military as rations and sometimes as payment instead of money during the Revolutionary War. This also happened in World War II.

Cacao Powder

Cocoa powder
Source: HeritageDaily

In 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten found a way to treat cacao beans with alkaline salts to make a powdered chocolate that was easier to mix with water.The process became known as “Dutch processing” and the chocolate produced is called cacao powder or “Dutch cocoa.”Van Houten apparently also created the cocoa press, although some reports state his father invented the machine.

The cocoa press separated cocoa butter from roasted cocoa beans to inexpensively and easily make cocoa powder, which was used to create a wide variety of delicious chocolate products. Soon chocolate was mass produced. With the help of Dutch processing and the chocolate press, thus making chocolate more affordable for everyone. Whether you were rich or poor.

The Dark Side of Chocolate

Children in Western Africa working on the Cocoa farms
Credit: Reconteur

New fashioned chocolate manufacturing comes at a cost. The majority of the Cocoa farmers struggle to make ends meet. Thus, resulting in low wages or slave labor. Sometimes obtained by child trafficking to stay ahead of the other Cocoa farmers. As the chocolate industry has expanded over the years, so has the need for affordable chocolate. On average, these Cocoa farmers earn less than 2 dollars per day. This is a pay definitely below the poverty line. In turn,  resorting to child labour.

The children of West Africa begin working from the ages of 12 and 16 years old, but there have been sightings of children as young as 5 years old working on the Cocoa farms to help provide for their family or they are sold by their own relatives, unaware of the dangers ahead of them to the traffickers. Most children don’t see their families for years or at all. Till today, little progress has been made to reduce child laborers on Cocoa farms in Western Africa.

The Industry

Chocolate in its melted form
Source: The Irish Times

The chocolate industry is a slowly growing 50 billion dollars a year worldwide business. The industry is worth 100 billion dollars and counting. Europe accounts for 45% of the chocolate revenue. Here are some things you did not know about the chocolate industry. First, it takes 400 Cocoa beans to make one pound of chocolate.

Secondly, on average, the coco tree produces enough fruit to make 1 to 3 pounds of chocolate a year. Thirdly, each person in Switzerland eats over nineteen pounds of chocolate, thus making them the largest consumer of this delightful treat. Lastly, the high demand for chocolate has led to large amounts of deforestation in the Ivory Coast, which lost 80% of its forests.

A Healthy Point of View

An image of dark chocolate and Cocoa beans

Most of our parents tell us chocolate is not healthy, which I agree. Proven healthy. It is safe to say dark chocolate has earned its place. Here are 8 healthy reasons to eat dark chocolate:

  1. Dark chocolate could help prevent heart disease and a lower risk of a stroke.
  2. The delicious treat may prevent memory loss (I wish I knew this fact for my final exams) and boost your mood.
  3. It may improve blood sugar levels and lower the risk of getting diabetes.
  4. Chocolate is good for your gut and helps with weight loss. Yes you read that right folks.
  5. It fights free radicals and plays a role in cancer prevention.
  6. Chocolate is good for your skin in more than one way.
  7. This edible treat may send good cholesterol up and bad cholesterol down.
  8. Dark chocolate is nutritious and delicious.

After reading about all these facts, no wonder the Aztecs thought chocolate was a gift sent by the gods.

Dark chocolate blocks
Credit: Everydayhealth

Unknown Facts About Chocolate.

Nothing beats the smooth and rich taste of a piece of chocolate. Just about everyone around the globe is a fan of chocolate. But, there are tons of hidden facts about chocolate that just make it oh-so sweeter. The largest chocolate bar in the world weighed 5792.50 kg.

Ruth Graves Wakefield invented the cookie by accident during the 1930’s while preparing food for guests at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. She was trying to make a batch of Butter Drop Do cookies, but instead the chocolate chips in the batter stayed intact and the iconic cookie was born. Ruth, a.k.a. “the mother of chocolate chip cookies,” sold her now-famous recipe to Nestle, but she didn’t receive any money for it. Instead, all she wanted was a lifetime supply of chocolate, which is a deal I’m sure we’d all take.

A Chocolate cookie
Credit: Joyfoodsunshine

Chocolate contains over 600 flavour compounds, which give off its distinct aroma, according to the American Chemical Society. Red wine has over 200 flavour compounds, in comparison to chocolate.

According to the BBC, research found that chocolate can actually stimulate your brain and release more endorphins in the brain than kissing does. Showing that kissing increases your heart rate as well.

America’s favourite chocolate brand produces millions of those bite-sized chocolates that people enjoy daily. They are all made by machine at Hershey’s factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania. If you always wondered where the name of these tiny chocolate treats came from, it has nothing to do with actual kissing. It actually got its name from the sound that the chocolate makes when coming out of a machine during the manufacturing process.

A Hershey bar
Source is Food business news

More Unknown Facts

Most people think that there are only three main types of chocolate, but that’s not necessarily true. Blond chocolate, named after its striking colour, was actually made by accident by pastry chef Frédéric Bau, according to the chocolate’s founding company, Valrhona.

White chocolate contains cocoa butter, but doesn’t contain any cocoa powder or cocoa solids that give regular milk and dark chocolate its colour and flavour. Since cocoa butter doesn’t actually taste good on its own, it’s mixed with milk fat, vanilla, and sugar for a sweeter flavour.

A pile of chocolate in different forms
Credit to Mentalfloss

The Most Valuable Chocolate Bar in the World Sold for $687. This Cadbury chocolate bar had a much pricier tag than usual, and for good reason. At the time of being sold in 2001, this bar of chocolate was 100 years old and went on Captain Robert Scott’s first Discovery expedition to the Antarctic, according to Guinness World Records.

According to Coca-Cola’s Caffeine Calculator, the average chocolate bar actually has quite a bit of caffeine in it. It estimates that as much as 50 mg of caffeine is in one bar of chocolate, which is more than one shot of espresso.

It Takes About One Week to Make a Single-Serving Chocolate Bar. According to the artisan chocolatiers at Amano, the process of making chocolate from cocoa beans takes about a week. Larger companies like Hershey’s can make a chocolate bar in two to four days due to their larger chocolate-producing machines.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Life is like a box of chocolate, a famous quote
Credit to Suze

Most modern chocolate is highly-refined and mass-produced, although some chocolatiers still make their chocolate creations by hand and keep the ingredients as pure as possible. Chocolate is available to drink, but is more often enjoyed as an edible confection or in desserts and baked goods. While your average chocolate bar isn’t considered healthy, dark chocolate has earned its place as a heart-healthy, antioxidant-rich treat. Now, next time you take a bite out of your chocolate, savour it and remember all the hard work it took to make such a scrumptious edible. To think for 90% of its history, chocolate was a liquid and some brilliant minds made it a solid. And do not ever forget that chocolate makes the world go round.

Life is like a box of chocolate, you never know what you are going to get.

-Forest Gump.

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