A Spicy History

Chocolate and spice were married long before Lindt began producing its iconic chili-flavored chocolate bars.  In fact, spices were found in chocolate when the Spaniards invaded the Aztec Empire, meaning that they have been integrated in chocolate for over 500 years.  Over the course of chocolate’s lifetime, the amounts and kinds of spices used have varied widely and consumer’s attitudes towards them have changed drastically.

Figure 2.3

Though there is no concrete evidence of the first use of spice in chocolate, it is relatively safe to assume that chocolate was first consumed without spices.  I assume this because most mixed products are originally consumed as separate ingredients simply because they must be tasted first in order to discern where they fall on the flavor spectrum.  Only then can tasters determine which ingredients should be combined to maximize flavor sensation.  When the Spaniards arrived, spices and flowers like chili peppers and “ear flowers” were used universally in chocolate (Coe and Coe 2013). As chocolate is thought to have first been consumed by the Olmecs (1500-400 BCE), spices must have been added sometime between 1500 BCE and 500 CE, approximately when Cortés invaded. As spice was so firmly intertwined with chocolate when Cortés arrived, it was probably introduced and perfected earlier on in that time period.  In addition to ear flower and chili peppers, Mesoamericans also used vanilla, achiote, and mecaxóchitl (Mexican pepperleaf) to flavor their chocolate (Norton 2004).  The spices and flowers used had a wide variety of heat and appearance (see pictures below), but they were used either to complement each other or as individual flavorings.  The main use of these original spices was for flavor and not appearance as the chocolate was so dark that it would take a large amount of spice to alter the entire appearance of the chocolate.  Chocolate’s consumption as a liquid also enhanced the use of spice for taste rather than flavor because liquid chocolate is well mixed, so spices cannot easily be placed at the top for a dramatic visual effect.


Some of the invading Spaniards took kindly to the spices in chocolate, but others did not.  The flavors were so foreign to the Spaniards that they were not immediately appreciated.  When chocolate made its way over to Europe, not all the spices came along for the journey.  There are two leading theories for this lack of migration.  First, Spaniards returning from Mesoamerica believed that their mainland counterparts would not enjoy the additional spice in the chocolate.  Second, importing spices along with cacao beans would have increased the number of imports (Norton 2006).  As silver and gold were so valuable and chocolate was so desired, spices for chocolate flavoring kind of fell by the wayside.  Personally, I believe that both of these theories have some merit.  Lack of space and lack of desire for spices by Spaniards made not including them in the Spanish diet very easy.

Though spices were consumed in moderation by some Spaniards, as Norton explains in her article Conquests of Chocolate, by “the end of the eighteenth century [in Spain], all that remained of the spice complex was cinnamon and sugar” (Norton 2004). Essentially, Spaniards substituted more familiar spices (like cinnamon) for use in chocolate and largely ignored the traditional Mesoamerican spices.  Sugar use in chocolate continued to increase as sugar consumption in Europe increased, leading to sugar’s emergence as the primary supplement to cacao beans. Cinnamon was also frequently used, though mainly in chocolate drinks instead of in chocolate bars (sugar was used both in bars and drinks).

Though 18th century chocolate was largely spice-less, modern chocolate often includes chili peppers, sea salt, vanilla, or cinnamon.  So how did spices become popular again? Today, spiced chocolate is viewed almost as a delicacy and as a food for those with refined tastes.  This is a complete turnaround from a few hundred years earlier, when those spices were a mark of the Mesoamerican roots of chocolate.  I believe this turnaround occurred for two primary reasons.  Following the industrial revolution and in tandem with increased ease of travel, people began to venture further from their homes.  The ability to travel was a marker of class (because travel could be expensive), and thus a taste for “exotic” ingredients became an indicator or how well-traveled, and therefore financially well-off, a person was.  Spicy ingredients like chili peppers fell into this “exotic” category and thus experienced an upswing in popularity.  Second, the ease of travel also meant a greater ease of transportation of goods.  Transportation is now much quicker and more efficient than in 18th century Spain, meaning that more goods can be imported and exported.  Thus the cost of importing spices is reduced, and more spices can be imported to chocolate-consuming countries.

In the modern era, neither of the original factors that prevented spices from becoming popular in Spain apply — there is a desire for the spices and there is a means to acquire those spices.  Spices have become incredibly popular in western chocolate, with bakeries developing that specialize in chocolate and spice (like this one in Las Vegas).  Because of the additional cost, spices are seen as somewhat of fancier ingredient for use in chocolate, but it is nevertheless available to most of the masses because of its use by companies like Lindt. Spice use in chocolate seems to have come full circle. Originally, Mesoamerican spices were mixed in, then abandoned for more European-friendly spices like cinnamon, and now both Mesoamerican and non-Mesoamerican spices are included in chocolate bars and drinks. I predict that the level of spice use in chocolate will only increase. Western consumers (largely the drivers of the chocolate market) now have a taste for both Mesoamerican and other spices, and that taste and the ability to satisfy it fairly economically indicate that spices will continue to enhance chocolate for the foreseeable future.



Works Cited

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

Norton, Marcy. “Conquests of Chocolate.” OAH Magazine of History 18.3 (2004): 14-17. Web.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111.3 (2006): 660-91. Web.


Multimedia Sources

Figure 1 – Sandberg, Anders. Lindt Chocolate. Digital image. Flickr, n.d. Web.

Figure 2A) – Dry Chili Pepper. Digital image. Wikimedia, n.d. Web.

Figure 2B) – Fou, Augustine. Vanilla-beans-bundles-2x. Digital image. Flickr, n.d. Web.

Figure 2C) – Open fruit of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana), showing the seeds from which annatto is extracted; photographed in Campinas, Brazil (January 2009). Digital image. Annato. Wikipedia, n.d. Web.

Figure 2D) – Piper Friedrichsthalii. Digital image. Piper (genus). Wikipedia, n.d. Web.

Hyperlink – “Chocolate and Spice Bakery.” Las Vegas Cake Bakery. Cubic IT Consulting, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.


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