Sugar, Milk, and the Rise of Mass Chocolate Consumption

Walk into any convenience or grocery store in the U.S. and you will likely be greeted by a display of brightly wrapped candies. Many of these contain chocolate; a 2012 Bloomberg study found M&Ms to be the top-selling American candy, followed by Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate, and Snickers Bars (Arndt). All four of these products are marketed as chocolate-based sweets, but it is sweetness, not chocolate, that seems to be the main focus. The nutrition label for a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar, for example034000290055NF (pictured right), lists sugar as the primary ingredient, and then milk. Only after these two does chocolate appear. The addition of sugar and milk to eating chocolate goes back to the 1800s, largely motivated by that fact that, in a trend that continues to this day, cacao was more expensive than sugar or milk. It was the relative cheapness of the latter two ingredients that allowed for mass production – and thus true mass consumption – of eating chocolate from the late 1800s onwards. As the list of candies above attests, this combination still shapes modern chocolate preferences.

Europeans have been adding sugar to drinking chocolate since the early 1500s, when cacao was first introduced to the West. It comes as no surprise, then, that the first chocolate bar made expressly for eating, invented by Joseph Fry in 1847, was molded from a combination of cocoa powder, melted cacao butter, and sugar (Coe and Coe Ch.8, “Quaker Capitalists”). Soon after, in 1867, Henri Nestlé found a way to manufacture

Peter’s Milk Chocolate was the first of its kind to be created. This advertisement draws on words like “smooth” and “creamy” to draw customers in, adjectives that are still associated with milk chocolate. The relatively lower price on this and subsequent milk chocolate bars meant they could be marketed to customers other than the very wealthy.

powdered milk, and the first milk chocolate bar – an advertisement for which is shown on the left – a joint creation of Nestlé and Daniel Peter, was born in 1879 (Coe and Coe Ch.8, “Switzerland”). From 1903 onwards, Milton Hershey built his company around milk chocolate and cocoa powder, though he developed his chocolate using liquid condensed milk rather than the powdered variety. Liquid milk was easier and faster – and therefore cheaper – to transport from one end of a factory to another, allowing Hershey to make and sell his products domestically for a lower price (D’Antonio 107).


Milk chocolate was to become the foundation of popular chocolate consumption,

Cacao prices from 2006-2012, recorded in USD/metric ton

originally for price but later because of a developed taste for the added sweetness. To make it, one adds milk in with the other ingredients before refining and conching the mixture. Milk and sugar both add flavor and volume, allowing manufacturers to use less chocolate liquor – made from cacao beans – than would otherwise be needed (Coe and Coe Ch.8, “Quality vs. Quantity”). This makes the chocolate cheaper to produce, and men like Hershey would have recognized this when building companies. Over the past century, cacao has generally been more expensive than sugar or milk. The trend

Sugar prices from 2002-2009, recorded in US cents/lb. Comparatively, a ton of sugar is much less expensive than a ton of cacao

continues on in today’s market, as shown by the provided graphs (cacao above right, sugar on the left). At its lowest price between 2006 and 2012, a ton of cacao cost over 15,000 USD; by contrast, at its highest price over the similar time period 2002-2009, a ton of sugar (after conversion from cents/lb) could be bought for less than 500 USD.



Milk and sugar were thus cheaper to obtain for companies looking to mass produce chocolate after the late 1800s. This made sweet milk chocolate less expensive to make than dark chocolate, which required more chocolate liquor. By the same token, it also meant milk chocolate could be sold at lower prices, making it attractive and accessible to consumers. Where before chocolate had been largely consumed by the wealthy, Hershey’s bars could be bought for only a nickel in the 1920s, a very affordable fee for the average person (Brenner 55). Cost was thus an important consideration on both sides, as the success of Mars’ Milky Way further demonstrates. Created in 1924, the Milky Way “tasted just as chocolatey” as a bar but was much less expensive to manufacture (Brenner 55). It’s main ingredient was nougat, “a whipped filling made of egg whites and corn syrup,” with only a thin chocolate casing (Brenner 54). Nougat was cheaper to produce than chocolate, and so Mars could make Milky Ways much bigger than traditional chocolate bars for the same expense. Consumers loved the candy for its price, size, and sweet taste; another Mars creation, the Snickers bar, enjoyed similar success, and continues to be the fourth best-selling candy in the U.S. (Arndt).

Today, milk chocolate candies remain vastly more popular than their dark chocolate counterparts. Although price remains a factor, a major reason for this is the acquired tastes of consumers for sweeter chocolate. It is expected that candy and chocolate will be packed with sugar, and this assumption stems from over a century of eating the sweetened milk chocolate of Hershey’s, Mars, Cadbury, and other such companies. The practice of adding milk and sugar stemmed from the cost of these ingredients relative to cacao, and what began as a method for cheaply producing chocolate has grown to shape the Western world’s perception of chocolate. Although dark chocolate has a strong following, milk chocolate still reigns supreme.


Arndt, Michael. “America’s 25 Favorite Candies: Top-Selling Sweets.” Bloomberg. Web. 07 Mar. 2016. <;.

Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. E-book.

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print.

Multimedia Sources:

Hershey Bar Nutrition Facts: “Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars, Six 1.55-Ounce Bars – MyQuickMart.” MyQuickMart. Web. 08 Mar. 2016. <;.

Peter Milk Chocolate Advertisement: “Milk Chocolate – History of Milk Chocolate.” What’s Cooking America. Web. 08 Mar. 2016. <;.

Cocoa price graph: “Cocoa Growing Region.” Web. 08 Mar. 2016. <;.

Sugar price graph: “Imbalance between Supply and Demand Drives Sugar Prices to 28 Year High | Economics.” Web. 08 Mar. 2016. <;.


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