With a 4000-year history, beginning in Central America with the Mesoamericans, the tradition of drinking chocolate has evolved immensely over the years. Chocolate was mainly enjoyed as a drink for almost nine-tenths of its history, but today we mostly think of chocolate in its solid form. It’s transformation has taken place from a luxury, within the reach of only royalty and wealthy elites, to being mass-produced, sugary, sweet, containing little to no cacao at all. The spicy, bitter, foamy xocolatl once associated only with decadence and luxury has now been relegated to a sweetened, inferior product by the industry, severely diminishing its place in society.
From as early as 1000 BCE, chocolate was a sacred, invaluable, refreshing, exotic and even a magical beverage. For the Mesoamericans, the drink went far beyond the health benefits and the aphrodisiac qualities that many of us have come to associate with chocolate. The ceremonial, pleasurable, elite drink was used to show high hospitality; served only to lords, the wealthy and the revered merchants and considered to be “an ambrosia from the rich and exotic lands of Anahuac, not something to wash down one’s food [with]”(Coe & Coe, 95). This drink was a powerful elixir with its exotic flavorings and prized foam, famous amongst the rulers, warriors and explorers alike. It was considered sacred during marriages, nourishing for militaries, sacrificial in religious ceremonies and an after-dinner drink that was enjoyed with smoking tubes of tobacco (Coe & Coe, 95). Such high status and social stratum, evident throughout the history of the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs, earned the chocolate drink a special prestige in society and its ultimate spread into Europe. Curious and eager to adopt, the Spaniards carried the tradition of drinking chocolate into the Iberian Peninsula.
Assimilating to the New World culture and slowly developing a taste for the bitter chocolate drink, the Spaniards maintained the elevated status associated with the drink. Mesmerized by an elaborate process of fermenting, roasting, winnowing and finally crushing the cacao nibs to form chocolate liquor, the Spaniards adopted the entire routine to preserve the originality and prestige of the drink. The delicate preparation of the final beverage, which was dissolved in water, mixed with varieties of spices, and poured from one container to another to achieve highly prized foam made the drink suitable only for the Spanish elites. Marcy Norton clearly establishes the illustriousness and admiration for the drink:
“Drinking chocolate was a complex somatic experience for pre- Columbian and colonial Indians. The emphasis put on flower spices, the frothy foam, the special drinking vessels, and the requisite reddish hue shows that chocolate was valued not only for its effects on the taste buds, but also for the stimulation of the olfactory, tactile, visual, and affective senses. “ (Norton, 675)
The elaboration and meticulousness associated with the preparation of the drink allowed the Spaniards, among other factors, to overcome their revulsion for the bitter drink. The addition of spices and exotic flavorings further added to the appeal of drinking chocolate and encouraged the Spaniards to assimilate the drink into their culture.
Knowing no other way, the Spaniards adopted the entire paraphernalia associated with the Mesoamerican way of preparing and consuming the stimulant chocolate beverage. The use of achiote for sensory pleasures, j ́ıcara for sipping the chocolate and molinillo for frothing it, all came to be accepted and prized by the Spaniards as a way to enjoy drinking chocolate (Norton, 683). The Spaniards maintained the entire sensory experiences and embraced the various spices ranging from Tlixochitl, mecaxo ́chitl, achiote, chili peppers, and Xochinacaztli (Norton, 672). Each version of the drink prepared with these various spices elevated the complexity and prestige of the final drink. However, over the course of time, the New World spices were increasingly replaced by Old World and Oriental spices like cinnamon, black pepper, anise, rose and sesame (Norton, 684). The replacements of the New World spices and flavorings, to stimulate the European taste, took away what was essentially centuries old ways of consuming and enjoying chocolate. The new wave of seasonings and later, the replacement of honey with large amounts of sugar further deviated the drink from its sacred, exotic image to an inferior, affordable and heavily sugared beverage.
The desire to sweeten chocolate in many ways led to the massive imports of tropical commodities like sugar. Much like cacao, initially revered as a spice afforded only by the rich, sugar was a prized tropical commodity for several centuries. It wasn’t until the 19th century when the free trade movement led to a sharp decline in sugar prices leading to mass affordability. The English welcomed the sweetening of “coffee, chocolate, and tea [which] became customary […] because they were bitter as well as unfamiliar” (Mintz, 137). The Spaniards, similar to the English, began increasingly sweetening their beverages to suit their taste buds. This explosive consumption of sugar took hold among all sectors of the society and the chocolate drink slowly began its decline to eventually being reduced only to a heap of sugar.
Fueled by colonialism, this heavy intake of sugar in stimulant drinks changed the entire landscape for tropical commodities and paved the way to industrialization. As Sidney Mintz argues that tea, coffee, and chocolate beverages, along with sugar, helped to fuel industrialization (Mintz, 186) and as Norton says, “Atlantic commerce directly fueled the peculiar European dynamism that culminated in the Industrial Revolution” (Norton, 665). Out of this revolution, various machines and processes were invented that changed forever the way chocolate was consumed. Creations like the Melangur and Van Houten’s “Dutching” process gave rise to a new era of chocolate making. The 1828 invention essentially defatted the chocolate liquor to a point where the resulting product contained only 28 percent cacao (Coe, 234) and left behind a “mass or a cake that could easily dissolve in water to make a chocolate drink ” (“Cocoa Dolce”). This alkalized Dutch treatment of the cacao nibs although improved the chocolate powder’s miscibility in water, it took away the complex aromatic flavors associated with the cacao beans that produce good quality drinking chocolate. The era of industrialization ushered the invention of the easily prepared and digestible drink, which gradually dethroned the once revered thick, foamy, exotic beverage.
The massive advances in technology, industrialization and cacao farming led to a dramatic fall in price of cocoa and cocoa powder. Giant industries like Fry’s, Cadbury and Rowntree “made possible the large-scale manufacture of cheap chocolate for the masses” (Coe, 235). Industrialization and the availability of cheap, bulk cacao made chocolate affordable and popular; however the chocolate produced this way lacked complexity and depth of flavor. And so, it was made palatable only with the addition of “sugar and other spices like cinnamon and perfumes” (Sciscenti). As sugar started flooding the European market “more sugar was added and the spices were stripped away until it arrived at its classic American incarnation: sugary sweet, thin and without much actual cocoa” (Sciscenti). As a result, the chocolate drink, saturated with sugar and removed of all exotic New World spices, was now a far-fetched cry from the original drink of the Mesoamericans or even the Spaniards adaptation.
Recent years have seen an even greater increase in sugar consumption. Statistics show that “200 years ago, the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar a year. In 1970, Americans ate 123 pounds of sugar per year. Today, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar in one year” (Martin). Mass affordability of sugar has exasperated the problem. Labels on nearly every food item show sugar as a main ingredient and chocolate drinks have not escaped this trend. In fact, the tremendous amount of sugar added helps the manufactures mask the flavor off-notes of poor quality cacao. In comparison, as cacao is naturally bitter and acidic, the typical sugar content in a chocolate bar can range from 0-40%. While this is normal to please our palates, an unwholesome amount of sugar with little to no cocoa content in chocolate drinks has become the norm. For example, Nestlé’s Nesquik chocolate powder contains 78.5% or 11g of sugar per serving with only 2% of cacao processed with alkali (“Nesquik Powder Chocolate 9.3 Oz”). Nestle is a global brand leader in chocolate drinks and its popularity only demonstrates a trend towards lowering the chocolate drink to a heap of sugar. The sugar combined with the alkali process further demotes the product by severely mellowing the chocolate taste. The alkali process saps the flavonoids off of the chocolate drink, forcing the manufacturers to enhance the taste by introducing more sugar. This vicious cycle has not only offered a substandard taste to the drink but has also become the culprit to various health problems.
In recent years, despite heavy criticism, Nesquik and its competitors have only seen a boost in their sales and will continue to see so. According to the Euromonitor’s International data, Nestlé alone is “predicted to generate around US$340 million sales in 2015-2019” (Lee, 2015). While many reasons provide explanation for this trend, the most frequently used is the addition of sugar helps children drink more milk and “build strong bones, one glass at a time” (Hein). Although the added sugar in Nesquik chocolate milk drink inches towards the daily recommendation by the WHO, a few organizations have said flavored milk increases milk consumption in children (Hein). However, this is not a solution to encourage milk consumption; instead it is an exploitation of children’s natural affinities to sugar, whose increased consumption has only led to a widespread obesity endemic and early onset of diabetes. Nestlé and other companies have hence played a huge role in degrading the chocolate drink by promoting it as a healthy milk product and as a result have encouraged consumption of excess sugar, unhealthy eating habits, and poor nutrition.
To further understand this trend, we must look towards the role of advertising in reducing the chocolate drink to what it has become. In the 1930s and 40s, children featured prominently in ads “all growing stronger through drinking cocoa” (Robertson, 39). Characters like Honeybunch and Coco, although representing a wider context of racial discrimination, were invented to greatly influence children and heed upon the philosophies of cradle to grave loyalty. In Rowntree cocoa’s case, such ads, campaigns and invention of lovable characters were used to “add a psychological value inseparable from Rowntree’s brand of cocoa, to an extent that they will exert pressure on the mother [to buy the product]” (Robertson, 41). These ‘special mascots’ in advertisements create brand loyalty amongst children and places an immense pressure over parents to buy these drinks under the pretense of boosting milk consumption.
Nesquik’s popularity is largely in part to the ‘Quicky’ bunny character that has enchanted so many young children and has helped Nestle build a brand loyalty. Similar to Rowntree’s Honeybunch and Coco, Quicky personifies the Nestle brand and helps in portraying the product as nutritious and healthy. The “physically active [and] energetic” (Daneshkhu) Quicky has been able to capture children’s imaginations as an animated character promoting health benefits and good nutritional habits. However, despite Quicky’s endorsements, chocolate remains a drink laden with sugar, and only a few traces of cocoa. It promotes no nutritional value, offers dull taste and flavor and is a far cry from what once used to be a healthy, wholesome nutritious drink of the Mesoamerican elites.
To promote the “healthy” cocoa drink and to increase profits, chocolate manufacturers, in the mid to late twentieth century decided to cover a broader range of the population and extend the advertisements to target women. Companies like Rowntree and Cadbury used advertisements to help women express cultural identity and gain social meaning (Robertson, 19). A woman was considered savvy, thoughtful, caring and clever if she unfailingly fed her family cocoa, thereby fulfilling her social role in the society. In fact, the big chocolate manufacturers successfully used cocoa to portray women as “both the devoted mother (a demonstration of maternal love), and the savvy housewife (economical, efficient, nutritious)” (Robertson, 21). The focus around efficiency grew and chocolate soon became an instant hot cocoa mix, which a mother can easily prepare for her child without supposedly losing its nutritional value. The specific targeting of the cocoa drink to women thus allowed companies to falsely advertise a much inferior ‘fast food’ chocolate as a wholesome invention.
The cocoa manufacturers continued to capitalize on the ever-changing conditions of the twentieth century and altered strategies in order to appeal to a higher social class of consumers. They revived the luxury associated with chocolate by advertising in social magazines and newspapers, which were read presumably by socially aspiring classes. Robertson clearly highlights this:
To lend even greater sophistication to the product, the advertising copy then emphasized that [the] cocoa was on a par with that tasted on the Continent: ‘Once it was a fixed belief that to drink chocolate at its best you had to drink it in Paris. Now…you can make at home a pot of chocolate worthy of a cordon bleu.’ (Robertson, 26).
This luxury appeal and ‘aspirational’ consumption of a pleasurable commodity, over time, came to be associated more with chocolate assortments in various different connotations. Despite the advertising efforts of promoting a domesticated, wholesome, nutritious, healthy product, the chocolate drink, in reality, underwent no such transformation and instead continued to be targeted to kids and be cheaply manufactured.
To understand the sugar epidemic in chocolate drinks, it is important to look at the sourcing practices. From the beginnings in São Tomé and Príncipe, big chocolate companies have had questionable cacao sourcing practices. They have ignored the problem of child slavery and exploitation of farmers for many decades and still continue to do so. A recent lawsuit against the big chocolate companies revealed how the practice of sourcing cacao from West Africa still uses child slave labor. Despite the establishment of the Harkin-Engel protocol, the big chocolate companies have shown little to no improvement in their practices. Nestle for its part, founded the Nestlé’s Cocoa Plan in 2013 which is now the primary source for its products and chocolate drinks but it falls short in “involving the communities affected, supporting women and children by paying living wages, and helping consumers to clearly understand the food supply chain” (Hoffman). Millions of farmers and laborers who are providing us with a precious raw commodity are still living in poverty and the lack of capital has not only led to poor standards of living but also stagnant farming practices. With no invention, technology, education of sustainable farming or familiarization with the taste of the cacao produced, the chocolate used in these chocolate drinks will continue to be of low quality.
However, there is hope for the revered drink to make a comeback. In the past decade or so, a few artisanal bean-to-bar chocolate makers are changing the tide in favor of ethically sourced, good quality beans to make superior cocoa for drinking chocolate. One of those companies leading the trend is Escazu. Their micro batch bars made entirely on a small scale with ancient equipment provides a strong contrast to the richer, sweeter American-style cocoa produced on an industrial scale by the big chocolate companies. Escazu has even gone as far as reinventing a recipe from 1631, which they believe to be one of the first chocolate drinking recipes to be published. They have modernized this drink by using “whole spices to steep the drinking chocolates, which are made with hot water, like a strong tea, as opposed to milk-based American cocoas. The beverages are strained and frothed with the steam spigot of an espresso machine just before serving” (Lucas). Escazu is demonstrating to consumers and its peers that chocolate drinks can be complex and innovative. For such small companies, this is a very expensive endeavor and to take drinking chocolate to this level shows the commitment and dedication to revive the chocolate drinking culture.
Another artisanal chocolate maker at the forefront of drinking chocolates is Taza. Far from the imagery of Oompa-Loompa’s and chocolate rivers, this 100 percent bean-to-bar company has aimed for a more grown up image and taste (Thornell). It achieves this by adding low amounts of sugar, and by grinding “its cacao beans in traditional Mexican molinos, hand-carved stone mills”(Thornell). This anciently adapted process makes Taza different. The distinct gritty mouth feel of the chocolate requires a more mature palate and an acquired taste. Much like Escazu, due to their better sourcing and innovative use of ancient techniques, they are able to keep the sugar content low, raise the complexity of flavors and therefore elevate this drink. This experience encourages consumers to familiarize and immerse themselves in a new chocolate world.
These companies show that there can be a bright future for the art of crafting drinking chocolate. The industry can evolve to bring back flavor and respect that chocolate, as a drink deserves. It is not necessary to be forced onto the technologies of the industrialization era but instead tools should be developed on bringing flavor, complexity and richness to the masses. Sugar is a great ingredient that is still needed but the industry must realize the impact of sugar on our society. Innovative solutions to reduce sugar consumptions while providing a great product must be thought of collectively. The effort the industry needs to make must involve out of the box solutions that address taste, affordability and sustainability.
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