Chocolate and Society: A History in the Making

If you ask someone to write a list of different candies, chocolate is certain to be a part of that list. Chocolate is the most consumed confection in the world, and from it’s historical and botanical beginnings in the Amazon Basin to modern day society and consumerism, chocolate has undergone many different styles and forms of production as years have gone by, but ultimately, the cacao bean itself is usually seen as a second to the final form of a processed chocolate bar in modern society. Essentially, the overall values and flavor notes associated with chocolate have been crafted solely through societal conditioning and commercial gain, and ultimately prevents the average consumer from truly knowing not only the rich history behind it, but also and the complex, versatile, and vibrant flavor that comes from cacao nibs. Modern day chocolate consumption has been dominated by companies that have, in addition to having made the standard for chocolate as a confection, traditionally placed certain societal implications around the subject of consuming chocolate as a whole, intertwining intimacy and strong gender roles in many chocolate advertisements in recent years, the culture created around chocolate is like that of no other food. Just visiting any national convenience or grocery chain can provide evidence that the majority of if not all chocolate products are limited to heavily processed and mostly sweet candies.

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A photo of a dried cacao pod holding roasted cacao nibs. Although cacao nibs are what contain chocolate’s signature taste, they are almost never mentioned when speaking of modern chocolates and are rarely shown in advertising. 

Chocolate started off as any other plant on Earth, it grew, was discovered to edible, and was subsequently eaten and enjoyed. But as time went on, and as the taste of chocolate developed, it became known as a confection. Chocolate became known as a delicious flavor that was thought to bring energy and pleasure to those who enjoyed it, and as time went on, the taste of chocolate became more and more adulterated. Like with the consumption of any form of produce, wanting to understand and control the supply chain to ensure safe labor and fair wages are being dealt is a concern to many modern consumers, this idea of “fair trade” has become more and more popular as consumers are gravitating towards ethical decisions in knowing where their goods come from. While the idea of fair trade has permeated into other internationally produced goods, such as coffee, the same level of concern about fair trade in chocolate production has only recently begun to receive real traction, and still remains generally inaccessible at any average convenience or grocery store. At a local CVS here in Massachusetts, you can purchase Starbucks coffee, a business known for their active participation in ethical sourcing and global initiatives, but chocolate selection tends to refer to the same large chocolate companies, none of which feature or boast any sort of involvement in providing fair trade for their cacao, which requires very hands-on labor to harvest and initially produce. With the popularization and spread of organic grocers like Whole Foods, fair trade chocolate, as well as access to raw cacao nibs and mostly unprocessed chocolate goods, are becoming more accessible to the general public.

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A typical chocolate aisle at an average American grocer. The chocolates available are produced usually by the same 7-10 companies, and offer no fair trade options.

 

Aside from ethical concerns in the production chain of chocolate, of which there are many, another deeply permeating trend in modern chocolate is the heavy adulteration of true chocolate flavor. Chocolate is unique in its very nature, having few genetic relatives and being a biological anomaly in its botanical roots, as well as being the only food whose additive-heavy by-product represents the entire flavor profile of the food rather than its unprocessed version, a roasted cacao nib. When one thinks of chocolate, the image of a Hershey’s kiss or Snickers bar may appear in one’s thoughts, and although these products are technically considered chocolate, their flavor profiles consist of two main components, sugar and milk, both of which are not chocolate. A transcript of a recipe from 1873 Spain calls for “4 to 6 pounds of sugar for every 2 pounds of cacao,” (125, Presilla) further highlighting chocolate’s long-standing relation to sugar. With this clouded flavor profile, and along with years of heavy advertisements of these sweet confections, society now sees chocolate’s flavor as being synonymous to sweet and creamy. Even the darkest chocolate available at an average grocery store still contains sugar. Sugar traditionally was once for the elite, similar to chocolate, and as sugar became more available, it become used more and more to provide calories as it was cheap and easy to obtain. While fat and sugar may have once held importance in providing calories to those who had limited resources, now, “Sugar and fat are more than functional aids… They are equally associated with the richness of food, and, therefore, its acceptability” (208, Mintz)  Traditionally, chocolate was enjoyed in many savory recipes, as it’s naturally earthy and bold flavor can add layers of depth to a dish, but as time went on, and as chocolate became popularized in modern societies, it was placed into the category of a “sweet”, preventing many people from ever having enjoyed the full scope of flavor that a cacao nib, or even a full cacao pod, has to offer. This sort of transformation pertains to chocolate exclusively; no other fruit or vegetable has had the same profound rebranding of it’s existence as is seen historically with chocolate.

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An image showing the amount of sugar is an average Cadbury milk chocolate bar. 

Chocolate has also been associated with certain themes, used mostly for the purpose of advertising, connotations of romance, love, and pleasure have long been associated with chocolate. The idea of buying your loved one a box of chocolates on Valentines day has been a societal norm for the better part of half a century, and buying someone a box of chocolates is seen as a romantic gesture in itself. Chocolate is also seen as some sort of aphrodisiac, aside from providing the normal pleasure that comes alongside eating something sweet and delicious, chocolate has long been thought to provide some sort of aphrodisiac quality, and although this notion has its roots in chocolate’s early history, with records in a medical journal dating back to 16th century classifying chocolate as a medicine, (126-127, Coe) it has pervaded until this day, and has been advertised mostly as an aphrodisiac to women. In a wide array of chocolate ads from the past 20 years, sensual camera work, soft lighting, and clever use of props have all been utilized to portray the consumption of chocolate by women as a “release”, or is seen as having the power to take a woman away from her senses because of the delicious flavor. Chocolate has also been seen as synonymous to sin, as if the decadence of such a food itself is sinful, this also has it’s roots in history, there is a manuscript dating back to 1636 that, “discusses whether chocolate breaks the ecclesiastical fast”,(150, Coe)  and whether or not it can be enjoyed on certain holy days of obligation. While none of these claims have their base in science or fact, these societal implications, that chocolate is produced mostly for and consumed mostly by woman, that it’s flavor has the power to relax and entice its consumer any more than any other tasty food, and that chocolate’s decadence is naughty or sinful, have permeated deep into how chocolate is viewed all over the world. Some of these ideas have survived through history, effecting chocolate’s societal perception even in modern society. Again, these sort of heavy implications, of love, pleasure, and gender, are exclusive to chocolate.

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A stock photo for “woman eating chocolate”. This typical over sexualization of a woman appearing to be topless wearing heavy eyeshadow in conjunction with chocolate consumption is typical of modern advertisements.

The Theobroma Cacao, the tree that bears the fruit which ultimately becomes chocolate, has had strong historical and religious significance, the first forms of what could now be called chocolate was very popular at the time of it’s creation, and has always been known as something that brings great joy and a feeling of vitality, and the same feeling towards chocolate exists today, it is thought to bring a feeling of happiness and joy during it’s consumption. The implications attached to chocolate has created a false representation of chocolate as a whole, the majority of people all around the world see chocolate as it has been presented in advertising and take it at face value. Chocolate is a romantic gesture, chocolate is a woman’s best friend, chocolate exists only in the context of sweet flavor profiles, these ideas are imbedded in chocolate’s very existence in modern society, and overall, these tactics used for advertising and the societal ideas developed around chocolate as a food has detracted from chocolate’s overall possible utility. Rather than viewing chocolate as an average fruit or vegetable, with which you can create as many different creations using all aspects of their flavor profiles as one can imagine, through it’s long and complex history, and especially within the last 100 years, chocolate has acquired certain labels with which its full potential has been narrowed down. The culture behind chocolate, it’s complex growing habits, harvesting and production methods, and it’s historical and culinary contexts have all been effectively erased in modern market places. Chocolate is seen as a woman’s weakness, as a tasty candy for Halloween, Easter, Christmas, and Valentines day, and has made way for countless sweet confections with a chocolate twist. Ethically conscious consumer practices, and the slow shift in popularity towards organic and fair trade products has begun to truly illuminate these age-old societal implications surrounding chocolate. More and more people are growing curious to try the worlds most popular candy in rawer, unprocessed forms. Although the standard for chocolate is still heavily defined by brands like Hershey’s, Cadbury, and Godiva who create ultra sweet chocolate and create heavily gender specific advertisements and dominate the American chocolate market and are sold at any grocer, ethically sourced chocolates, companies like Taza chocolate and Equal Exchange products present chocolate in a more wholesome light, as a beautiful creation from bean to bar, as a product that requires hard work and specific skills to grow and harvest, and as a food with a strong and bold flavor that was responsible for it’s initial popularity among Mayan societies long ago. The culture created around chocolate is like that of no other food, the evidence of chocolate’s transformation ever since being introduced to Europe is well documented and plentiful, and when one considers the extreme success of companies like Hershey’s, the true essence of chocolate, both in it’s pure, physical form, as well as it’s rich historical beginnings has been mostly erased because of modern societal advertising and representation.

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Presilla, Marciel E. The New Taste Of Chocolate, Revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

Mint, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Publishing, 1985. Print.

Images:

Theobroma Cacao, Cacao Nibs. Digital image. TAC Ethno – Ethnobotanical Society. N.p., 2012. Web. 11 May 2016. <http://www.tacethno.com/all-ethnobotanicals/cacao-nibs-theobroma-cacao.html&gt;.

Chocolate Witchery. Digital image. Square One Notes. N.p., 24 Apr. 2014. Web. 11 May 2016. <https://squareonenotes.com/2014/04/24/chocolate-witchery/&gt;.

*Other Photos from Media Library in WordPress

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