Chocolate: a “Western” food gone global

Chocolate is an international food: the majority of cacao is grown in countries along the Equator, chocolate consumption is highest in “Western” countries in North America and Europe, and today, chocolate is gaining popularity in “Eastern” countries like India and China. However, despite these global origins and destinations, chocolate is still seen as a distinctly Western food with nationalistic attachments to specific countries like America, which creates power differences and censored narratives that emerge when we examine the history of chocolate as it spread from elite Europeans to broader audiences around the world.

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The global distribution of chocolate-growing countries (Class lecture slides).

When chocolate first arrived in Europe from the New World, it was a taste that had to be acquired. Europeans took chocolate and “re-branded” it from a drink that was “more a drink for pigs” (Coe & Coe, p. 110) into a luxurious, elite drink central to Western social life and status. By taking chocolate drink and hybridizing and reinventing it for European culture, through interventions like the molinillo technology or the addition of sugar and spices, chocolate was purposely distanced from its Mesoamerican origins and instead valued for its relevance in European religion, medicine, and social life.

The same tendency for Western consumer societies to distance the luxury of chocolate products from the international realities of its origins and production happened with the Transatlantic slave trade and sugar and cacao plantations in the Caribbean and South America. Between 1500-1900, around 10 to 15 million of enslaved Africans survived forced transport across the Atlantic; it was only because of this cheap, enslaved labor that the explosion of sugar consumption – and therefore chocolate consumption – was enabled. Mintz writes that in 1650, only the wealthy in England consumed sugar; by 1800 every English citizen craved sugar even if they couldn’t afford it regularly; by 1900, sugar was “one-fifth of the calories in the English diet” (Mintz, p. 6).

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The dramatic rise in sugar consumption over time (Class lecture slides).

However, Western consumers often tried to disassociate their immense demand for sugar and chocolate with the barbarities of slavery that their demand created and perpetuated. Slavery was seen as a “taint” to good taste and was kept out of the narrative of high culture. Thus, anything that came into European society with African origins, like ostrich feathers originally used in African headdresses that were incorporated into European aristocratic fashion, were appropriated by whites as if they were originally, culturally white, and its African roots were purposefully forgotten. Similarly, cacao was displaced from its African associations and the slavery that was used to cultivate it, and instead seen as a Western food. Chocolate’s increasingly availability to people of all classes was painted as a result of industrialization processes; the slave labor involved was rarely mentioned. Thus, the brutal realities of forced labor abroad are ignored, and instead chocolate and sugar are seen as an apolitical “Western” food enabled solely by innovative Western technological advances.

Of course, industrialization did play a part in bringing chocolate to a wider audience. Jack Goody details how the Industrial Revolution and its associated advances in mechanization and technology helped to bring about wholescale changes in how we prepare, package, and consume our food. Salting, canning, and freezing allowed foods to travel farther and last longer, efficiencies in agriculture and processing allowed for more abundance and availability to markets that previously could not afford luxuries like chocolate, and transportation extended global reach of food products. Goody describes how the industrialization of food is beginning to transform countries, like Ghana, that previously only experienced chocolate as a cacao suppliers; now, they are experiencing chocolate as consumers. Goody writes, “these industrial foods of the “West” have now become incorporated in the meals of the Third World” (p. 88). Big Western chocolate producers are fighting for China’s chocolate consumption, as detailed in Lawrence Allen’s book Chocolate Fortunes, as consumers in developing markets are gaining liquid assets to spend on luxury items like candy.

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Western chocolate brands, like Cadbury, are expanding their market to countries like China (

But even as chocolate is no longer confined to Western, elite consumers, it still retains a reputation that is nationally-specific and retains Western associations, even in international markets. Africa produces 75% of the world’s cocoa but consumes only 3% of the world’s chocolate; but, the chocolate consumed is not from local companies that utilize domestic production chains, but instead is imported, internationally-produced chocolate brands like Cadbury. The National Confectioners Association had a campaign in 1928 to make candy a thoroughly American food, successfully branding candy as being fundamentally American. America used chocolate as a form of diplomacy in the candy bombs of Hershey’s that they airlifted into Berlin from 1948-1949; chocolate became integral to American identity abroad and selling that identity as a positive one. Thus, when companies like Hershey’s, Mars and Cadbury sell their products to consumers in developing markets like China, the associations with chocolate are still with particular Western nations or “Western” food and culture in general.

This system, in privileging Western chocolate products and chocolate in general as being a fundamentally Western creation, creates an unbalanced power dynamic. Africa is forced to export raw materials – cacao – at prices mostly determined by international corporations, and then forced to buy back manufactured chocolate from abroad at massively inflated prices; thus, not only does the chocolate become a “Western” food product, chocolate becomes doubly exploitative considering the fact that consumers must buy from Western companies despite the local origins of the inputs into the product.

Ultimately, the entire history of chocolate and its spread is a narrative of forgotten origin stories, disassociated methods of production from patterns of consumption, and the branding of a product as distinctly Western, despite its Mesoamerican origins, internationally-grown ingredients, and increasingly global markets. Instead of thinking of chocolate as a Western food, it should be seen as a global food of multinational significance and origin.


Allen, Lawrence L. Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers. New York: American Management Association, 2010. Print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

Goody, Jack. Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine. Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Penny Van Esterik and Carole Counihan. New York: Routledge, 1997. 72-90. Print.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Group, 1985. Print.


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