Chocolate.  The food of passion, the food of love and the food of euphoria is not a modern-day obsession.  Chocolate has been treasured for thousands of years. Yes, you read that correctly, chocolate’s been coveted for millenniums. Even today, no one definitively knows how our ancestors figured out how to transform simple beans in a pod into a sinful and delicious indulgence.

Chocolate’s Origins

Chocolate is not found naturally in the wild; rather it is produced from the fruit of Central American cacao trees. The fruit grows on the trees in pods, containing as many as 40 beans.  But, the beans aren’t just popped out of the pod and eaten like Tic Tacs; they must be dried and roasted first to be edible.  It’s unclear what civilization stumbled upon this idea.  The best guess is that this delicacy was first discovered by the Olmec’s, an ancient Central America society, as far back as 1400 B.C – that’s almost 3,500 years ago! Because there is no written history, it’s unclear if these people ate the cocoa beans as a mashed-up pulp or as a thick drink.  Either way, they were genius.

The Mayans in Central America incorporated chocolate into their diet and rituals. Making the crushed pulp into a thick, bitter drink, the Mayans primarily drank it during religious ceremonies and believed chocolate had magical properties. Over time, more of the population consumed this chocolate drink, especially once chili pepper and honey were added to enhance the flavor.

The real glitz and glamor occurred with the Aztecs, who elevated chocolate to superstardom.  It’s assumed the word, chocolate, originated from the Aztec word, “xocoatl.” The Aztecs worshipped their chocolate beverage believing the cocoa was a divine fruit from the gods (isn’t it though!?!). Chocolate was so revered in the Aztec culture that the beans were used as a currency and were more valuable than gold.  Montezuma, an Aztec King, reportedly consumed gallons of chocolate drink a day for its caffeine kick and health properties.  By the early 1500’s, Aztec’s consumed vast amounts of chocolate.

Puddle Jumping: How a Drink of the Gods Jumped the Ocean to Europe

Historians don’t know for sure who brought chocolate to Europe. One fact is certain, Spaniards encountered chocolate on their explorations in Central America by the mid-1500’s, and

Spain was the first European country to consume it. By the late 1500’s, Spain was so enamored with the chocolate drink that cocoa beans became a main import.  Adding sugar cane or cinnamon to the chocolate mixture bumped up the taste and chocolate fever was officially born.

However, due to its expense, only the elite of Europe could afford this divine food until the late 1700’s. The affordability and access to chocolate dramatically changed in the late 18th Century with the invention of the steam engine, which allowed for mass production of the now infamous chocolate drink.

Geography couldn’t contain chocolate. Spanish explorers brought chocolate to the New World.  The first chocolate house opened in Boston in 1682. With the ability to mass produce chocolate, colonists in America lovingly and gladly enjoyed it.  Before the Revolution War in 1776, cocoa beans were a major import, and once the War broke out, chocolate was part of a soldier’s food rations and sometimes used as payment.

Technology and Chocolate: The Odd Couple

Fast forward a few years to 1828 and chemistry and food science were exploding with discoveries.  A Dutch chemist invented a process to make powdered chocolate, aka cocoa powder, and thus reduce the bitterness. Even today, when a person buys cocoa powder, the container states it is “Dutch Processed.”

In 1847 the chocolate bar as we know it came into existence. A British chocolatier discovered that adding melted cocoa butter to cocoa powder created a moldable chocolate paste.  Soon chocolate became big business.  Within the next 50 years, chocolate milk, milk chocolate and chocolate powerhouses’ Lindt and Nestle appeared on the scene.

Thoroughly Modern Chocolate

Today’s chocolate is mass produced and highly refined.  The over-refinement with additions of sugar and milk has made chocolate not very healthy.  The health benefits Montezuma once touted are now only found in dark chocolate.  However, one of the biggest issues associated with chocolate is not taste or health, but politics.

To sustain our enormous consumption of chocolate requires a tremendous amount of cocoa beans.  This demand creates and promotes a huge global cocoa industry supported by cocoa plantations.  Many experts claim these plantations use slave labor or trafficked children to grow and harvest the beans.  As the global awareness has grown, demand for fair trade beans, or beans grown using ethical and sustainable practices, has gained ground. Some consumers will only purchase fair trade chocolate.

Whether you like your chocolate in cakes, cookies, pies, plain or fair trade, it’s certain that chocolate’s legacy will continue.  Innovation to enhance the food of love, passion and euphoria is ongoing and will continue to shape and adapt to our chocolate preferences.