Chocolate and sugar were relatively unheard in Europe of before the 16th century. Yet, just 100 years later, both would begin their rise to prominence in European diets – a position they hold to this day. While the cacao tree and the sugarcane plant have wildly different areas of origin, the Americas and Southeast Asia respectively, there paths converged and were forever joined in Europe. Chocolate’s rise to prominence in European diets mirrors and is in many ways linked with the history of sugar. As such, it is essential to examine sugar when seeking to understand how chocolate became a staple of diets around the world.
Once chocolate was introduced into European diets, it was almost immediately combined with sugar. The Spanish were the first to mix the two, and adding sugar quickly became not just an option for the drink, but a requirement (Presilla, 2001, p25). For, when the Spanish first drank chocolate, they did not like it and claimed it was “a bitter drink for pigs” (Fiegl, 2008; Smithsonian). With this fact in mind, it is easy to understand the importance of sugar in the rise of chocolate – sugar made chocolate palatable to the Europeans. Thus, as chocolate consumption spread to other European countries, the practice of adding sugar did as well.
This is not to say that it would not have been possible for the Europeans to enjoy chocolate without sugar, but it certainly made it easier. Bitterness is a flavor that humans can grow to like and even love, but sweetness is much more easily accepted and liked (Mintz, 1985; 108-109). Likely, chocolate would not have ever reach such a level of prominence in European diets had it not been for its connection with sugar. This is not a unique phenomenon – sugar is also directly responsible for the European adoption of similar/related drinks like tea and coffee (Mintz, 1985; 114). Examining the consumption of sugar and those drinks like tea reveals close correlation and rises over time.
This is not all chocolate and sugar share, however. Both owe a large portion of their rise to dominance to their associations with wealth and nobility. Even as consumption spread across Europe, use was confined to the wealthy and upper-class (Coe & Coe, 1996; 177). Chocolate was originally considered a food of royalty and high social standing in Spain, and as it spread involved several pains and unique serving instruments that also served a secondary purpose of indicating one’s wealth (Presilla, 2001, 25). This association with wealth mirrors that of sugar. Uses imply meanings (Mintz, 1985, 6); and a large part of the consumption of sugar and chocolate was fundamentally social in nature. The rich in Britain favoring chocolate over tea in the 1600/1700s is an illustrative example of this – chocolate was harder to produce than tea and therefore more expensive: it indicated a higher social standing.
This recipe is an illustrative example of the elite nature of chocolate and sugar – the very nature of a recipe is that one must be able to read it. Thus, one who enjoyed the beverage was not only wealthy but likely literate. This book also indicates another shared aspect of sugar and chocolate – both were considered to have medicinal properties (view the top of the page, “Health is preserved”). Chocolate was a more varied substance, being both dry and moist – considered important medical qualities in that era, while chocolate was more neutral (Presilla, 2001; 27). One man of the time noted at least 24 medicinal properties of sugar (Mintz, 1985, 101). The purported medical benefits of the two foodstuffs likely helped increase their popularity and bind their rises to prominence ever closer.
Ultimately, these foods expanded to the masses. The desire to emulate the higher classes and increased production of the items eventually lead to mass consumption (Mint, 1985; 118). By 1800, they were staples of almost every British diet and their place of prominence in future had been sealed. Today, the two still go hand in hand: when one thinks of chocolate, likely they do not think of its actual bitter taste, but its sweet sugar flavor. The Spanish forever linked chocolate to sugar and it is likely that we wouldn’t have it otherwise. Yet, there is imprudence in attributing too much to the power of sugar – chocolate also also increased the popularity and necessity of sugar too (Mintz, 1985; 137).
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Mintz, Sidney. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.
Fiegl, A. (2008, March 1). A Brief History of Chocolate. Retrieved February 19, 2016, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/?no-ist
Images (in order of appearance):
Rise of Sugar Consumption – Class Lecture Slides
Rise of Tea Consumption – Hersh, & Voth. (2009, September 3). VOX CEPR’s Policy Portal. Retrieved February 19, 2016, from http://www.voxeu.org/article/new-goods-malthusian-world-welfare-gains-coffee-tea-and-sugar
Painting – Jean-Etienne Liotard – A Lady Pouring Chocolate (La Chocolatiere) [c.1744] Retrieved February 19, 2016, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/gandalfsgallery/5872391846/
Book – Ledesma, A. C., & Wadsworth, J. (1652). Chocolate, or, An Indian drinke by the wise and moderate use whereof, health is preserved, sicknesse diverted and cured, especially the plague of the guts, vulgarly called the new disease … London: Printed by J.G. for Iohn Dakins. image: Chocolate. Retrieved February 19, 2016, from http://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/chocolate