Against the March of Time: Challenges Facing Chocolate Makers Attempting to Return Chocolate to its Roots

That path of the development of American chocolate has been at its core, a circular one. Initially introduced before the United States was an independent country, its form has shifted many times over the years. Initially sold in the colonies as blocks of processed cocoa to be grated, melted down, and consumed as a liquid, the formulation changed as chocolate morphed from drink to edible bar, and again as it became a mass-produced product. In the past 50 years, however, there has been an effort to return chocolate to its roots- starting with increased research on the history of chocolate in the 1960’s and 1970’s, continuing with the emergence of single origin chocolate and ideals of purity in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and continuing into the 2000’s and 2010’s with an explosion craft “bean to bar” chocolate manufacturers. However, while the modern artisanal chocolate movement is attempting to bring traditional chocolate to to the masses, chocolatiers face two major challenges on this path- the reliance on European primary sources in chocolate scholarship, and the inherited taste preferences of the chocolate-consuming public.

To understand the reasons for this, one first has to know a bit about the history of chocolate. Residue on ancient pottery suggests that Cacao was consumed as a drink in what is now Mexico as early as 1900 BCE, predating the arrival of Europeans in the Americas by thousands of years. During the entirety of that time, the civilizations that consumed it, from the Olmecs to the Mayans and Aztecs, drank chocolate rather than ate it. This was the most ancient form of chocolate- a frothy drink, served either hot or cold. If sweetened, it was sweetened with honey, and was often seasoned using chili peppers. Unfortunately for us, most firsthand accounts of how these civilizations lived has been lost to time- destroyed by conditions under which paper records decompose or by invading forces. What is known is that pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas were large and complex- to the point it is suspected that exchange of ideas (and possibly trade) occurred between the Aztec of Mexico and the Incas of Peru. (Chard, pg 13) This is an important fact, as it has a direct bearing on what ingredients may have been used to flavor chocolate at the time of Columbus’ arrival in South America.

It is important to note that the accounts of the consumption of chocolate at the time of its discovery by the Spanish discovery are not unbiased accounts. While often presented as being firsthand accounts, these accounts are from the perspective of outsiders, new to both the culture, and the land.  A quote found in Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe’s A True History of Chocolate from Jose de Acosta in 1590 captures the significance of this well –


The main benefit of this cacao is a beverage which the make called Chocolate, which is a crazy thing valued in that country. It disgusts those who are not used to it, for it has a foam on top, or a scum-like bubbling…”.


Coe and Coe go on to explain that


To cross the ethnocentric taste barrier and be accepted as a normal beverage by the Spanish-born and the Creoles, the cold, bitter, usually unsweetened drink had to undergo its own process of hybridization.”(Coe and Coe, pg. 114)


but fail to mention that as a result of this hybridization it is quite possible that many of the subtleties around the creation and consumption of chocolate may have been lost to them.

Let us look at a specific example- the type of pepper used to flavor the chocolate drink consumed by the Aztec at the time of European arrival in the Americas. Many texts write of this flavor pairing being common among the Maya and Aztec, and speak of recipes being adapted to European tastes by substituting black pepper for chillis. But what do these “firsthand” accounts mean when they mention chili peppers? There are many species of Capsicum commonly called “chili peppers”. Many scholars including Coe and Coe, refer to the spice used to flavor chocolate at the time of Spanish arrival specifically as Capsicum Annuum, without going into any detail as to why they suspect this- perplexing, given the dizzying array of pepper plants in the world. The characteristics of these plants vary greatly from variety to variety, and even more greatly from species to species. Capsicum Annuum contains everything from sweet bell peppers to jalapenos. Hot peppers belonging to the species Capsicum Annuum are rarely sweet, and are often said to have a bitter flavor that accompanies their heat. But other species, most notably Capsicum Chinense and Capsicum Baccatum are described as being sweet and fruity, while still ranging from mild to blazingly hot.

Furthermore, without a keen eye for botany and extensive study of the plant while it is producing fruit, it is next to impossible to determine which species a particular pepper belongs to. Mesoamerican civilizations are likely to have had exposure to all of these types of peppers, yet we have no indication of which types were used to flavor their traditional chocolate drinks. Since it is established the Inca and the Maya likely had contact shortly before the arrival Columbus, it is entirely possible Capsicum Baccatum may have been one of the types of pepper used to flavor chocolate when the Spanish first encountered it. Without context-specific firsthand accounts, this sort of specific information is difficult to establish.

Similarly, it is important to note that another type of Theobroma commonly known as Pataxte (Theobroma Bicolor) was traditionally cultivated alongside Cacao (Theobroma Cacao), and that a third species, Theobroma Angustifolium, grows in Costa Rica, which is thought to have been on Olmec trade routes. Many organizations which compile information about the Maya people indicate that these uncommon species may have also been used in the production of chocolate, including FLAAR, who have associated articles on both their site for Maya Ethnobotany and their site for Maya Archeology.   However, neither Pataxte or Theobroma Angustifolium are commonly mentioned in texts about the history of chocolate. This is partly due to the European bias in what we consider primary sources- early Spaniards declared that Pataxte was an inferior grade of cacao, and thus it was both phased out of common cultivation and of literature. This significantly underplays the role that Pataxte had in Mayan society, where it was used as a form of tribute and is mentioned many times in the Popol Vuh, often in the same context Cacao was mentioned.

In the half-century since chocolate was discovered by Europeans, it has been through changes- from personal drink to a mass marketed commodity.

But a recent trend in the market has been a shift back towards hand-crafted, small batch artisanal products. With this return to its roots, chocolate has also seen a resurgence of chili peppers, a notable nod to the original recipes practiced by the Mayan and the Aztec.

Chocolate and chili bar taste-off – a round up of 11 Chili Chocolate bars-

A survey of chocolate bars containing Chili peppers available on Amazon reveals a few interesting facts. Notably, the vast majority of the packaging for these bars feature peppers that have the characteristics of Capsicum Annuum – with the only other pepper commonly pictured is mentioned by name as a Habanero (Capsicum Chinense).

Another interesting thing to note is that most of these chocolates hover around 70% Cacao- with the remaining part generally comprising mostly of pure cane sugar. Many of these also have additional dried fruits pressed into the bars in order to further sweeten and provide flavoring.

Nowhere among this multitude does there appear to be a chili-chocolate bar incorporating Aji type peppers(Capsicum Baccatum)– a particularly surprising fact for a few reasons, first being the modern popularity of these peppers throughout the South and Central Americas. Aji peppers can be used fresh, or powdered. While they are more expensive than some of the more commonly used peppers (about 30% more expensive than Ancho or Chipotle chilis on, they are significantly less expensive than the next most common- the habanero. The flavor profile of Aji peppers seems to match many of the desires of chocolate consumers- as well as being spicy, they are extremely sweet to the point of being compared to candy and have a strong fruity pungency to them that varies in flavor from lemon to mango and passion flower.

Aji Dulce review in which a man describes the sweetness of a Capsicum Baccatum specimen-


Even as some of the spices traditionally associated with chocolate make a comeback in the modern chocolate market, it seems that one main adulterant not found in the original recipe is nearly ubiquitous – sugar.


“A rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, sugar had been transformed into a virtual necessity by 1850” (Mintz, 148)

This change in status was mirrored by a massive increase in its consumption as well.  Today, the amount of sugar consumed by the average American is staggering, comprising over 20% of annual calories consumed, in part because sugar found its way into a myriad of other products- including chocolate.

“…the per-capita ‘disappearance’ figure for all nondietary sugars (i.e. sugars not occurring naturally, as in fruits) is nearly 130 pounds per year. If disappearance is the same as consumption, then the daily total nondietary consumption of sugars is nearly six ounces per day.” (Mintz,207)


Though the Mayans and Aztecs often drank their chocolate completely unsweetened, they also sometimes sweetened their chocolate using honey. Surprisingly, this is a technique a few luxury chocolate manufacturers have adopted, choosing instead to rely on refined sugar in place of the natural product traditionally used to make chocolate more palatable.

Further drastically changing chocolate’s flavor profile was the invention of milk chocolate, which helped increase widespread consumption of chocolate and capitalized on an overproduced resource. By adding milk to chocolate, enterprising entrepreneurs were able to make it more palatable to European consumers, as well as to decrease the cost of it’s production significantly.

This milk chocolate is the most commonly consumed type of chocolate in the American marketplace- which remains by far the largest consumer of chocolate in the world. By using at little as 7-10% cocoa, large corporations are able to mass produce tons of chocolate at a fraction of the cost of . These mass produced chocolate bars are also packed full of sugar- in fact, the sugar and milk in bars such as Hershey’s or Nestle far surpass the amount of cocoa. The ubiquity of these bars at every supermarket, every pharmacy, and every gas station has had a significant effect on the perception of chocolate by the American public. As you can see in this video on Bon Appetit, even American children associate chocolate with sweet taste, and barely at all with the bitter flavor of the chocolate of centuries prior. According to Thamke, Dürrschmid, and Rohm, “Product with the highest Cocoa content was characterized as ‘dry, mealy, and sticky’… ”  not the most pleasant of associations.


Here in the 2010’s, the face of chocolate is changing once again. There is a quickly growing market for chocolate sold as a luxury good, often at exorbitant prices. Artisanal, small batch chocolate bars can cost more than $3 per ounce. To compare, a large size Hershey’s milk chocolate bar is $0.36 per ounce- roughly one tenth of the price of chocolate from companies that currently sell it as a luxury good.


LA Times news article on the recent explosion of Artisanal Chocolate Producers –

The marketing for many of these luxury chocolate companies tends to highlight the idea that the chocolate is closer to that made by the Aztec and the Maya. Many of these brands use the imagery of Aztec and Mayan writing, or have names which reference Mesoamerica. Though it is true these companies tend not to produce milk chocolate, they remain a far cry from the original form of chocolate consumed by the Aztec and Mayan peoples- it is a difficult find the balance between commercial appeal and traditional ingredients and practices.

Interesting to note is that while there are many dark chocolates that contain chili peppers available on the internet, there appears to be only one bar that combines both Chili and the use of Honey as a sweetener.


Works referenced:

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

Mintz, Sidney W. , Sweetness and Power- The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Penguin Group, 1985

Chard, Chester S., Pre-Columbian Trade Between North and South America, Berkley, <;

Ines ThamkeKlaus Dürrschmid, and Harald Rohm , Sensory Description of Dark Chocolate by Consumers, LWT- Food Science and Technology, Volume 42, Issue 2, March 2009, Pages 534–539







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