Chocolate: A devolution or evolution?

It can be hard to look back on the thousands of years that chocolate has evolved from a simple Mesoamerican beverage into what it is today, and say that chocolate has devolved in a downward spiral. Today in some forms it is simultaneously a rare and expensive delicacy, and a ubiquitous cheap candy that is readily available at a degraded quality available to even in the most poverty-stricken economies around the world. When chocolate was confined to the Mesoamerica region, it was considered to be food of the gods and was regarded so highly that is was ceremoniously attributed to good health and well-being.

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Figure 1: $250 Each. Stuffed with a French Perigord truffle and crafted from 71-percent single-bean Ecuadorean dark-chocolate. Follow link for additional expensive chocolates. Fox News

Has chocolate evolved over time from simple watery cacao drink enjoyed by the historical Olmec culture, into sought after delicacies such as the $250 Knipschildt Chocolatier’s Madeline truffle? (figure 1) Or, has chocolate devolved from a glorious beverage with positive health properties, to an adulterated cacao bi-product lacking purity, and is ever distant from its original roots such as the Hershey’s White Chocolate (figure 2) that contains 0% cacao (Bratskeir)?  While the recipes have changed over time, it has remained true that chocolate has been sought after as a comfort food, a medicine, a gift, an offering, or consumed with a greater purpose that to satisfy hunger.

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Figure 2: White chocolate: often used as an ingredient for baking in cookies, shown here as Hershey’s Cookies & Crème white chocolate bar.  Hershey’s Chocolate bars

Glorified chocolate

Originating in Mesoamerica, the Olmec culture cultivated the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) and declared it “a gift of the gods” (Bruinsma and Taren). Appropriately, the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus (1707-78) gave the scientific name Theobroma cacao. Cacao is Greek and means food of the gods (Coe and Coe, 18). This godly association isn’t too difficult to understand when studying their perceptions of the effects that cacao had on them. This gift from the gods was considered an aphrodisiac and was often associated with medicinal values (Bruinsma and Taren). This belief has more recently been verified by means of Mayan archeology that has proved they were in better health and lived longer than their chocolate deprived subjects (Coe and Coe, 32).  There is more recent science published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that shows chocolate can even satisfy magnesium deficiencies (Bruinsma and Taren). The cacao plant from which chocolate is derived has foliage that is also valuable to many for other products. The leaves of the cacao plant can be used to create a tea used in the treatment of altitude sickness. The leaves are even used in the production of cocaine (Coe and Coe, 19).

A plant with such medicinal value was naturally monetarily valuable as well in the 16th century and therefore associated with social and economic classes, and elite rulers. It was prepared for and consumed at banquets, weddings, and other ceremonies (Coe and Coe, 97). As a valuable commodity, it was often exchanged as currency (figure 3) (Coe and Coe, 99). Despite being a currency that did in fact grow on trees, the beans were even counterfeit by the Aztecs. Such careful attention was given by the Mayan people to this highly regarded commodity that Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus noted when “the [cacao] fell, they all stopped to pick up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe and Coe, 109). Was Columbus’s fascination with cacao the beginning the degradation of a high regard for chocolate?

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Figure 3: A visual depiction of the exchange values cacao beans had in 1541. Photo from Cornell University.

Adulterated chocolate

It was with Christopher Columbus’s voyages that chocolate was introduced to European culture.  It was at this point, chocolate took a drastic European turn and became more like the chocolate we know today. Would the Olmec people and others from the Mesoamerican era consider our modern chocolate blaspheme as a disgrace to their original food of the gods? (figure 4) Chocolate was originally drunk as a beverage by the Mesoamerican cultures (Coe and Coe, 33). We actually have learned that the transformation began before Columbus.  Sophie and Michael Coe demonstrate in the True History of Chocolate that the Spaniards had stripped chocolate of the spiritual meaning and “imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya. It was nothing more than a drug, a medicine in humoral system” (Coe and Coe, 126).

Figure 4: Maya cacao god- Cornell University

The transformations of the former cacao beverage into what we know today as chocolate continued over the course of the centuries after Columbus introduced cacao to Europe. One of the most historical was the first chocolate bar invented in 1847 by the Fry Brothers in Bristol, England (Coe and Coe, 241). Milk chocolate was first made successfully in 1879, after Daniel Peter, a Swiss chocolate manufacturer, thought to try making it with the powdered milk invented by his neighbor, Henri Nestlé, 30 years earlier (Coe and Coe 247). In his book, The New Taste of Chocolate, Presilla explains that “the practice of adding dried milk to the chocolate mass to make milk chocolate put another layer of distance between the consumer and the direct flavor of good and bad cacao” (Hansen; Presilla, 43). Now under the cheap guise of milk flavor, it was from this point we began to see the adulteration of chocolate, many of which have not improved much.

One such adulteration starts at the source of the cacao. Lead contamination in chocolate was brought to attention when the Food and Drug Administration identified unacceptable levels of lead (Coe and Coe, 32). Although the lead contamination was thought to be related to negligence or accidental contamination, other adulterations have been intentional. The Cadbury company became known in the 19th century for being the reason the government had to implement the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872. At the time, they mixed flour and starch into their product, red ocher (crushed red brick), red lead, and vermilion (Coe and Coe, 244). With the exception of the ocher, and toxic lead and vermilion, the flour and other adulterations have become an acceptable and common pairing with chocolate today. Chocolate is often times paired with nuts, fruits, caramel, and other less expensive fillers to aid in the reduction of cacao necessary to provide a sizable chocolate bar. These cheapened products are consumed in mass quantities by even the most struggling economies. A far progression from the exclusive food of the gods enjoyed by the most elite.

Reflections

Even with the addition of ingredients, as the quality and recipes have changed over time, one constant about chocolate has remained true throughout the course of history. Chocolate isn’t consumed for nourishment or in admiration of the gift from the gods. It is consumed to alter a spiritual, emotional, or mental state of being. It has been sought after as a comfort food, medicine, a gift, an offering, or consumed with greater purpose than to satisfy hunger. This has been a recorded purpose as earlier on as 3,000 BC and is still true today. Chocolate has not only remained highly regarded by more people than ever before, but the cheap and adulterated chocolate that seeks to imitate the food of the gods is flattery to the delicacy that is high quality chocolate.

Works Cited:

Bratskeir, Kate. “What Exactly Is White Chocolate.” Huffington Post 10/28/14. Web.

Bruinsma, Kristen, and Douglas L. Taren. “Chocolate: Food or Drug?” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99.10 (1999): 1249-56. Print.

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

Hansen, Kristine. “6 of the World’s Most Expensive Chocolates.”  Fox News. 2/6/15. Web.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate : A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st rev. ed. Berkeley Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

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