Ever wonder where chocolate comes from? That sweet and milky confection eaten around the world? You wouldn’t be remised if you said that they came from the heavens above. After all, the ancient Mesoamericans revered cacao and use it alongside sacred worship and rituals. Of course, the chocolate we consume today is far sweeter and much more accessible than those of the Pre-Columbian days. More importantly, it has none of the context of a sacred dish dedicated to celestial beings—it’s meant to be consumed and enjoyed. Today, we are surrounded by chocolate brands everywhere. They are so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to walk into any store and not see a line of Hershey’s Bars, Reese’s Pieces, and Kit-Kat stacked in front of the cashier, waiting to be bought and consumed. How, then, did a ritualistic food dedicated to Mesoamerican gods become the universally-eaten confection that we know of today?
Spaniards first brought chocolate to Europe in the early 16th century. However, many hesitated to consume the foreign food, with one describing it as “a bitter drink for pigs” (Fiegl). Contrary to popular beliefs, Europeans were not the first to add sweeteners into chocolate; the Mesoamericans added honey into their chocolate drink before the Spaniards stepped into the new world. The Spaniards needed time to accept chocolate as any foreign food back in the days were judged with skepticism (Norton, 16). However, by the 17th century, the Spanish royal court began to obsess over chocolate, effectively elevating chocolate to an elite symbol and forever changing a whole continent’s proclivity for the delicacy.
But it wasn’t until 1828 when Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten found a way to separate cacao butter and powder. It was actually Casparus, Houten’s father, who created the technique of separating cacao butter and powder; but it was Houten who perfected the technique and brought it out to market. Houten wanted to make chocolate more soluble so that people at home could make chocolate easily by adding hot water or milk. To do this, Houten invented the cocoa press method which allows cocoa solids to separate from cocoa butter by adding alkali salt. Houten’s invention helped transition chocolate as a drinking delicacy to a confection that one can ‘eat’ (Cox, 218). It immediately caught the attention of the European elites and became the standard form of chocolate eaten during the 19th century. Today, this is called the Dutch Process Chocolate. It is used to create most if not all of the chocolate and ice cream that we know.
With the advent of the Dutch Process Chocolate, the chocolate business in Europe was growing rapidly. People all over the continent were experimenting with ways to make chocolate sweeter, more satisfying, and more marketable.
Enter Daniel Peter.
In 1875, Daniel Peter, with his neighbor Henri Nestlé, invented a way to blend milk with chocolate. Their experiment proved to be a wild success in Europe. Together, they built one of the largest and arguably the first successful chocolate company in the world. With Europe eating out of their hands, they decided to bring their confection to the new world where millions of Americans were still milk chocolate virgins. That venture proved to be a wild success and in 1905, the Nestlé’s Chocolate Company was formed. Modern chocolate owes its thanks to Peter and Nestlé’s for inventing what we now know as milk chocolate.
Today, chocolate is ubiquitous, and this is no accident. While Nestlé’s was the dominant player in the chocolate business during the early to mid 20th century, there are now five companies, including Nestlé, that control the chocolate monopoly. These companies are: Ferrero SpA, Nestlé, Cadbury, Hershey, and Mars. These five companies are responsible for churning out a majority of milk chocolate candies found in almost every market today. However, such control over the chocolate business invites some speculation on what it is they are actually making. After all, how do they make so much chocolate with the limited supply of cacao in the world? The short answer: they don’t. Kit-Kat and Hershey’s Kisses are actually the product of a complex, global supply chain. In fact, A close study of a Hershey’s Kisses shows that the chocolate is made of 11% cacao and 89% milk and sugar. Basically, we are eating a sweet milk-based candy with a 1/10 hint of chocolate. False advertisement.
Ghana and The Ivory Coast produce 60% of the world’s cacao. However, Africa as a continent consume 4% of the world’s chocolate while the US, Europe, and Canada consume a combined total of 73%. There is multiple evidence that children under 11 years old are forced to harvest chocolate pods in precarious conditions (Hawksley). In addition, workers do not receive any proper compensation but are paid depending on the weight of the chocolate pods. These facts alone should raise some red flags about what these companies do to bring chocolate to our local markets.
Chocolate has constantly evolved throughout the time—from a valuable commodity reserved for gods and nobles, chocolate is now a sinful indulgent that anyone can enjoy. But while chocolate has done many goods in our lives, it has also encouraged our worst impulses. We have exploited young children and entire countries in Africa just to bring packaged goods to people who are ignorant of such atrocity. Of course, it’s not entirely our fault. We’re just uninformed. Chocolate companies, now conglomerates, have successfully sold us the idea that chocolate is a simple product made with the labor of love. But simplicity is the ultimately complexity, and if we don’t acknowledge what goes into every packaged chocolate, we are unintentionally complicit in this large and industrialized supply chain.
Cox, Helen. “The Deterioration and Conservation of Chocolate from Museum Collections.” Studies in Conservation, vol. 38, no. 4, 1993, pp. 217-223.
Fiegl, Amanda. “A Brief History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian, 1 Mar. 2008, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/?no-ist.
Hawksley, Humphrey. “Mali’s children in chocolate slavery.” BBC, 12 Apr. 2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1272522.stm.
Norton, Marcy. “Conquests of Chocolate.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 18, no. 3, 2004, pp. 14-17.