Facts About Chocolate You Don’t Know About

Chocolate. The mere mention of the word conjures up a vast array of products and emotions. From a hot frothy beverage to mass-produced, individually wrapped bars to premium handcrafted truffles, chocolate is no longer just a “Food of the Gods” limited to consumption solely by the elite. Key innovations in the nineteenth century placed chocolate within reach of every strata of humanity—and humanity has responded, continuing our love affair with the seeds of a once-wild South American tree in more ways than its original suitors could ever have imagined.

Origins of Cacao

Modern chocolate is derived from a few key subspecies of a specific New World cacao tree now grown around the world (between 20°N and 20°S) to serve the global chocolate industry. Though its precise origins remain uncertain, the speciesTheobroma cacao is generally believed to have originally evolved in South America, after which it was variously distributed and domesticated north through the tropics into Mesoamerica, perhaps on the move as early as the first millennium B.C. (McNeil 2006).

But DNA studies have located the likely origin of the species in the Amazon River basin or near the Andean Lake Maracaibo in modern-day Venezuela. Additionally, the widest array of related genera and species can be found in South America. But aside from the periodic use of the less-desirable Theobroma bicolor (and the Brazilian fruitTheobroma grandiflora called Cupuaçu) in chocolate manufacturing, it is the speciescacao and its varieties that has been so highly sought-after by chocolate lovers for some three thousand years (Presilla 2001).

Pre-Columbian History

It is generally assumed that wild relatives of Theobroma cacao were gathered to use the fleshy pulp either fresh or fermented to produce an alcoholic beverage. It is also possible that early domestication of cacao was predicated upon the complex processing of the cacao seeds since the original cultivators may well have understood the multifold advantages of the crop (Henderson and Joyce 2006). But domestication appears to have first taken place further north, in Mesoamerica. Though linguists have reconstructed likely precedent for the presence of cacao among the early Olmec civilization, no decipherable written record survives. Even the name Olmec is a word of the Aztecs attributed to later people who inhabited the area.

But evidence of crop domestication, most importantly maize (and the associated process called “nixtamalization ” that renders corn digestible and nutritious enough to support burgeoning civilizations), suggests a degree of cultural sophistication that, along with common words in subsequent language groups, may place the original domestication of cacao sometime in the first millennium B.C. (Coe and Coe 2007). At the very least, traces of cacao residue in artifacts suggest the seed was in use in the era, but to what extent it is not certain (McNeil 2006).

The Olmec were in full decline by 400 B.C. and gave way to a culture called “Izapan” and, elsewhere, the ascending Maya. There is still ambiguity about early use of cacao among these cultures, but the Maya in particular seem to have attributed religious significance to cacao which, along with maize, plays a prominent role in their mythology. In addition, they developed a complex social ritual surrounding the preparation and consumption of cacao, most notably the kakaw beverage. By pouring the liquid from a height between two vessels, prepared cacao formed a foamy head that was highly prized among both Mayans and Aztecs (though perhaps not by all levels of society, as it may have been a symbol of status).

The beverage may be the most important use of cacao, as evidenced by funerary drinking vessels that have been analyzed and found to have once held something containing key cacao alkaloids. Still, at the twilight of their civilization before Spanish conquest, the late Mayan and Aztec civilizations must have had multiple uses for the seeds, important as currency and in mercantilism, but clearly in mixed culinary beverage applications and with many different complementary flavors.

Much about the pre-Columbian civilizations is taken from visiting Europeans’ accounts of their encounters with the indigenous peoples, whether the more carefully constructed narratives of Christian missionaries or the typically less sympathetic versions provided by the Conquistadors. But the basis for the processing of cacao has remained relatively unchanged for centuries, passed down through generations and to the European invaders (Coe and Coe 2007). It is the ultimate form that raw cacao takes that has varied with cultures and with time. At the chemical level, however, what has remained the same (aside from taste) are some key reasons for chocolate’s allure and its quasi-addictive quality.


Cacao is likely a loan word from the Maya from a family of languages called Mixe-Zoquean that has its origins in Mesoamerica and has descendants that are officially recognized spoken languages in present-day Mexico (Coe and Coe 2007). Another language family, within which the Aztec (or Mexica) dialect Nahuatl is housed, may have lent its own relative of the word cacao to the Spaniards (Kaufman and Justeson 2006). But the word seems to have been originally pronounced kakawa in about 1000 B.C., perhaps most prominently by the Olmec, one of the largest ancient American cultures. Mayan hieroglyphs in the few surviving codices, vessels, and relics have been deciphered to include ubiquitously the pictorial syllables for the compound ka-ka-w, or cacao, a likely adoption from the Zoquean (also Sokean) family (Coe and Coe 2007; Kaufman and Justeson 2006).

Cacao was used by the Maya as currency and in religious functions in addition to its culinary applications. It was also the Maya who taught Europeans their custom for drinking chocolate, though it is sometimes mistakenly attributed to the Aztecs. Incidentally, it is also the Nahautl (from Nahua/Nawa) language family that provided the word chikol (or chokol) =a:-tl that was the basis for various European adaptations of the English word, chocolate (though the word may have come into being only in the sixteenth century) (Kaufman and Justeson 2006). The compound word for “cacao water,” cacahuatl, appears a close Nahautl relative, especially when combined withpochotl, a different seed similarly ground and frothed into a beverage.

But it was the importance of cacao to the New World that led Carl Linnaeus to use it for the specific name in his binomial classification alongside his Old World word,Theobroma, from the Greek for “food of the gods.” Thus, the scientific nameTheobroma cacao illustrates the meeting of cultures and “the face-off between the two worlds” that occurred when Europeans first stepped ashore in the New World. After processing, cacao products become chocolate or, variously, “cocoa” (to refer to cacao or chocolate in British English or as the Dutch process powder in American English) (Coe and Coe 2007).

Composition and the Physiological Effect of Cacao

The Spanish invaders were quick to recognize the cultural importance of cacao in the New World, but growing gradually accustomed to its taste, they also came to know its allure. The protective casing of the cacao pods is not itself terribly appealing, but the processed cacao seeds (or “beans”) when broken down into nibs and milled into cacao liquor are ultimately composed of two products called cacao butter and cacao solids.

Cacao butter is the complex fat of the seed that, aside from adding smoothness and richness to chocolate products, is now used in both cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, further adding to its value—and price. The solids are proteins and starches that can be further processed into cocoa powder. Even the sticky white pulp of the fruit within the pod has a sweetness and chemical composition that had made it desirable in its earliest usage, prior to the development of the process that converts the bitter seeds to a palatable product (Presilla 2001).

In addition to hundreds of individual organic compounds that impart distinct regional flavor characteristics, chocolate contains potentially mood-altering compounds such as serotonin and phenylethylamine and, more importantly, the alkaloids caffeine and theobromine. The latter—which derived its name from the genus Theobroma and is also found in tea, coffee, and yerba mate—is a mild stimulant to the central nervous system and may, in part, be the cause for chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac (though it is certainly a chemical that is toxic to some animals, including dogs, cats, and, horses). Caffeine is considerably more active than theobromine, acts upon the cardiovascular system, and is widely used to stimulate the body both physically and intellectually (Coe and Coe 2007). But the caffeine content of cacao is only about ten percent that of theobromine (Hurst 2006).

So it seems likely that the complex flavor compounds, enhanced through fermentation, drying, and roasting, are just as much the reason for chocolate’s appeal as is the presence of varyingly stimulating alkaloids. And this is even before cacao is combined with an infinite number of possible ingredients into a multitude of forms. Such is the importance, then, of the culinary and cultural history of the Old World coming into contact with the history of the New World, and the resulting wonderfully unique commodity (Coe and Coe 2007).

New World Invasion and Chocolate’s European Conquest

Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing the first cacao seeds back to Europe following his forth voyage of 1502. But Columbus never knew the value of the almond-looking seeds and seems to have never tried chocolate in any form. Hernán Cortés discovered the native value of the product. One story suggests his first taste was a beverage presented to him by Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (Montezuma II), the Aztec ruler who, as some stories attest, may have believed Cortés to be a reincarnation of their sacred god Quetzalcóatl. The drink may have been a thick, milled mixture of cacao, chili, achiote, and nixtamalized corn that was blended with boiling water (Flammarion 2007). But other evidence suggests the Aztecs took their chocolate beverage cooled off, and chocolate adulterated with maize was an inferior product.

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Whether or not all royalty or different strata of society were allowed regular access to cacao for culinary uses, Motecuhzoma was a dedicated drinker of chocolate and made extensive provisions for his guards as well. Stories of the emperor’s cacao warehouse suggest tens of thousands of loads of cacao numbering nearly one billion beans, much of which was plundered by indigenous Aztecs and Spaniards alike during the conquest and surely disappeared with the fall of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire. Early on, however, the Europeans did not appreciate the native beverage (or much else, for that matter—the Spaniards began importing many Old World commodities as soon as possible, which initiated the hybridization of the two cultures).

Ultimately, it is uncertain that Cortés was responsible for introducing chocolate to Spain. Shipments home early in his conquest of Mexico, circa 1519, may have included cacao but it is not certain. The next possible occasion may have come in 1528 when Cortés returned to Spain to present himself before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. But the first documented occurrence of cacao in the Old World is from peaceful Dominican friars. Having befriended Kekchi Maya in Guatemala, the friars presented a delegation of Maya nobles to Prince Philip. Among other gifts, the Maya presented their whipped hot chocolate beverage, though it is unknown whether Philip tried it.

Nevertheless, as the hot Maya beverage was becoming popular among Spaniards in Mexico, it was also spreading across the Iberian peninsula by the middle of the seventeenth century. Certain solid chocolate delicacies may have been innovated along with a whisked version of the Mayan beverage using Old World tools, and with the addition of Old World spices such as cinnamon and anise as well as with cane sugar. For a while, the Spanish guarded their cacao under the protection of Charles V, but soon the secret got out and chocolate spread into European courts and ecclesiastical establishments in the latter half of that century (Coe and Coe 2007).

A valued commodity made more expensive by pan-Atlantic transport and processing, chocolate was long available only to the privileged European. In fact, it first transferred into France via the marriage of the Spanish Infanta Maria Theresa to King Louis XIV. The first cacao processing plants opened in France in the early seventeenth century, with the first genuine chocolate shop opening its doors in 1659. About the same time, chocolate found its way into England, where the aristocracy soon satisfied their cravings at chocolate houses. However, a 1673 bill highly taxed exotic imports to protect domestic crops, so chocolate largely disappeared from the streets of London until the middle of the nineteenth century, by which time the French had pioneered a vast world of filled-chocolate delicacies.

As the chocolate trade expanded, so did its nonculinary applications, particularly as a drug. Chocolate and cacao were touted frequently for their various medicinal and physiological properties, and throughout the eighteenth century cacao was variously employed in pharmaceutical applications. Meanwhile, as a beverage, chocolate was already being prepared with milk (though not the first true “milk chocolate”) by the middle of the nineteenth century. But with the industrial revolution, the face of cacao began to change radically (Flammarion 2007).

The Democratization of Chocolate

The modern era of chocolate production was ushered in by a number of factors in the changing political and social climates of Europe and America. The era of modern medicine released chocolate from its medicinal function, and the development of new confectionery and dessert applications coincided the per-capita rise in the consumption of sugar to further solidify chocolate’s destiny for much of the late nineteenth and twentieth century.

The 28-century-old frothy chocolate beverage tradition largely came to end in 1828 when Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented the “Dutch” process for cacao production. Using a hydraulic press, Van Houten defatted cacao of its cacao butter to produce a cake of the proteins and starches that could be very finely ground into cocoa powder. By adding alkaline salts, the cocoa powder could mix well into liquids for an easier-to-mix and -digest product. His process “made possible the large-scale manufacture of cheap chocolate for the masses, in both powdered and solid form” (Coe and Coe 2007).

Early mass producers of chocolate products in England included J.S. Fry & Sons and John Cadbury. The Fry firm innovated a process to produce solid chocolate bars and displayed their product by 1849. Cadbury became the purveyor of chocolate to Queen Victoria and, using a machine modeled on Van Houten, released his “Cocoa Extract” by 1866. His first “chocolate box” appeared two years later, “a forerunner of the famous Perugina Baci (’kisses’),” which celebrated romantic love—and is considered the first Valentine’s Day box of candy (Coe and Coe 2007).

François Louis Cailler opened the first Swiss chocolate factory in 1819 and Philippe Suchard followed suit in 1826. But it would be five decades before Henri Nestlé and Daniel Peter truly elevated Switzerland to its legendary status for chocolate making (and eventually making it number one with consumers per capita in the present day). Nestlé created powdered milk through evaporation in 1867 and Peter cleverly used it in chocolate to produce the first bar of milk chocolate in 1879.

That same year, Rudolphe Lindt invented a process called “conching,” which not only sped up the cacao processing, but the introduction of friction and heat caused a high degree of smoothness, replacing the grittier, coarser chocolate. The process became extremely popular in both Europe and America and remains the standard for solid chocolate production today. The process of “tempering” to eliminate cacao butter crystallization and Jean Tobler’s Toblerone bar also emerged out the nineteenth century Swiss chocolate scene (Coe and Coe 2007).

“The Henry Ford of Chocolate Makers” is none other than Milton Snavely Hershey. Getting his start in caramel confectionery, Hershey purchased Van Houten-style machinery near the end of the twentieth century and officially entered into the chocolate business. Using money made from selling his first candy business, Hershey set up his “chocolate town” on a farm in Pennsylvania where, in 1926, mechanized processes combined cocoa with 60,000 gallons of Hershey-owned farm-fresh milk with sugar from his mills and refineries in Central Hershey, Cuba (near Santa Cruz). By the 1920s, in addition to tens of thousands of pounds of Hershey’s Cocoa powder, Hershey Kisses were being wrapped mechanically, going on to produce upwards of 25 million daily pieces by the 1980s.

Modern Artisan Movement and Purist Revival

The modern chocolate “purist” revival has not so much to do with recapturing the time-honored practice of pouring or whisking stone-ground cacao into a frothy beverage as it does with an emphasis on the cacao itself. The connoisseur chocolatier uses a focus on high-quality, often single-country-of-origin or even single-variety cacao solids (such as criollo, likely originating in Mesoamerica; forastero, from the Amazon river basin; and trinitario, a hybrid of the two) and, sometimes, high levels of cacao butter to produce unrivaled and relatively expensive chocolate.

For some, the debate over milk versus dark chocolate is moot because purists tend to believe milk is an unfortunate modern-era corruption of chocolate, and mass-produced milk chocolate in particular is to blame for chocolate’s negative reputation for causing everything from acne to obesity. Some of those causes may be attributed to the over-consumption of related mixed-in products, including cream, corn syrup, sugar, and many other ingredients that should be consumed in moderation.

Free from the constraints of mass production and adulteration (though even the European Chocolate Directive allows a small percentage of natural vegetable fats to stand in for cocoa butter content), chocolate artisans have begun to pursue taste quality with great enthusiasm. Beginning in France and Belgium, then moving into Britain and the United States, the movement is exemplified by a focus on cacao solids (at the very least greater than 50 percent but usually much more) and an array of high-quality, perfectly complementary flavors (Flammarion 2007).

Meanwhile, the western hemisphere has long not been the sole contributor to a chocolate-craving market. Like coffee, the commodity of cacao has spread throughout the world, (within that range of 20 degrees north and south of the equator). Though Venezuela and countries throughout Mesoamerica are the originators of cacao and domesticated cacao, it is now grown to a much greater extent in the African countries of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. In addition, high-quality, single-origin cacao is sourced from Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, and numerous other countries throughout the tropics. Chocolate is a global commodity that is truly appreciated globally, whether in the form of a milk chocolate kiss or a 93-percent-cacao, single-origin Venezuela cacao chocolate bar.


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