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The History Of Chocolate: The Bittersweet Tale Of A Global Treat

From ancient Latin America to Europe to the world, here’s a taste of the rich history of chocolate and where it stands today.
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The History Of Chocolate: The Bittersweet Tale Of A Global Treat

The world loves chocolate. A lot. In 2016, global chocolate sales hit 98.2 billion dollars. Americans alone spent 22.4 billion on the sweet stuff. We might munch on a Kit Kat bar in the afternoon or sip a mug of hot cocoa in the evening. But often, we take this delicious luxury for granted. Do we know anything about the history of chocolate or where it originated?

Before you take another bite of that Cadbury Creme Egg, let’s explore our favorite confection’s ancient roots and how it rose to this current level of prominence.

The Beginning: Drinking With The Mayans And Aztecs

The history of chocolate goes back to at least 2,000 years ago in modern-day Latin America, but it likely was eaten even earlier. The Olmec people of Mesoamerica are thought to have made cacao-based drinks as early as 1500 BCE. (Note: cacao is the plant from which cocoa powder and chocolate are derived.)

But it was really the Mayans who are known for first making chocolate a regular part of their lives. The Mayans used cacao pods for xocolatl, a drink made by roasting the cacao seeds and grinding them into a paste, and then adding water, chili peppers and cornmeal. The word xocolatl combines the Aztec words xoco, meaning “bitter,” and atl, meaning “water.” The drink was consumed during religious ceremonies and held in high regard, but Mayan families would also consume it with most meals, as it was readily available to all social classes.

The Aztecs treated chocolate with even more esteem than the Mayans did. They believed cacao beans were extremely valuable, and they even used them as currency for goods and services. In Aztec society, you could trade four cacao beans for a pumpkin and 10 for a “lady of the night.” Unlike in Mayan culture, only the rich drank xocolatl regularly among the Aztecs.

When the Aztecs conquered the Mayans, they forced them to pay taxes with cacao beans because the Aztecs couldn’t grow their own (their capital was too far from the rainforest). Legend has it that Aztec Emperor Montezuma II would drink gallon after gallon of xocolatl every day out of golden goblets, using it both for energy and, apparently, as an aphrodisiac. The king was said to have thrown away each goblet after just one use.

history of chocolate mayans

The Middle: Europe Takes Chocolate, Adds Sugar

How did the innovation of the ancient Mesoamericans make its way up to Europe? Colonialism, of course. The most popular theory is that Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés arrived in Aztec territory in the early 1500s and was welcomed by Montezuma II, who mistook him for a reincarnated Aztec god. A feast was held and xocolatl was served. As the story goes, Cortés wrote that it was “a bitter drink for pigs,” but still brought some back to Spain. Once there, it was sweetened with cinnamon, nutmeg and cane sugar, and the chili peppers were removed from the recipe.

By the second half of the 16th century, Spanish aristocrats loved chocolate and wanted more. Spain began importing it, while other European explorers visited Central America and discovered it for themselves. Soon, all of Europe was smitten. The sweetened drink was served at the royal wedding of King Louis XIII of France, and at chocolate houses that opened a few years later in Great Britain.

Chocolate became popular in the “New World” shortly after. During the American Revolutionary War, soldiers were often paid chocolate in lieu of wages. And in Colonial American households, chocolate was a very common drink, along with coffee and tea.

During its first few hundred years in Europe, chocolate was mostly consumed by the rich. But thanks to Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten, it soon became affordable for everyone. In 1828, using a method that came to be known as “Dutch processing,” Van Houten created a cocoa powder (“Dutch cocoa”) by adding alkaline salts to cacao beans, which made it much easier to mix them with water. Van Houten is also credited with inventing the chocolate press, which further streamlined the chocolate-making process by separating cocoa powder and cocoa butter and paved the way for the mass production of chocolate.

The End: Bars, Kisses And Spa Treatments

history of chocolate first bar

Chocolate’s lasting power was (literally) solidified in 1847, when Joseph Fry added melted cocoa butter to Dutch cocoa, creating a paste that could be molded into a chocolate bar. Chocolate had finally gone beyond liquid form. In 1876, Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter added dried milk powder to the mix, thus inventing milk chocolate.

Further technological innovations continued to make the process easier. In 1879, the “conching” machine was invented, which helped created smoother chocolate. And in 1900, the “enrobing” machine automated the dipping of chocolate candies.

By the early 20th century, mass production was being carried out by major chocolate companies like Nestle, Cadbury, Mars and Hershey, which was churning out 33 million Hershey kisses per day by 1907.

The two World Wars continued to spread chocolate around the globe. In fact, it’s still included in MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) given out by the U.S. Army to energize troops.

Today, the chocolate trend is still going strong, but in distinctly different ways. Recent research citing the health benefits of dark chocolate (namely, a lot of antioxidants) has created increased demand for the candy in the bittersweet form, which contains more cocoa and little or no dairy. Chocolate is also increasingly being used in skin care products. There are even chocolate spa treatments, like the chocolate fondue wrap at Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

A wave of consumer interest in social responsibility has also led to a rise in the Fair Trade movement, which works to ensure cacao growers and producers are making a living wage and being treated humanely. There’s an environmentally conscious aspect to the production and distribution of Fair Trade goods, too.

With constant product innovations, better growing methods and tens of billions of dollars being spent annually, it’s hard to imagine the chocolate craze slowing anytime soon. And that’s something we can all be thankful for.

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