The Spread of Chocolate: From Elites to the Masses and Back to the Elites Again

As with many of our favorite foods, like beer, coffee, bread, etc., chocolate has also fallen prey to the recent trend of reverting away from mass production and more towards the smaller scale worlds of “craft” and “artisanal”. For many, the appeal in craft products lies in the idea that the product is made by hand, individually, with the unspoken secret ingredient- love. On the other hand, the craft movement can be understood as yet another new face of class warfare- a way for the upper echelons of society to once again prove their superiority over those who are unable to afford the “finer things in life”. And indeed, chocolate is just one of those finer things. Though not strikingly different in taste, the innate understandings we have of a dark chocolate bar from brands like Hershey’s, Mars, or Cadbury are worlds apart from those with labels from Chocolat Bonnat, Godiva, or Neuhaus. But why? Shouldn’t something as wholesome, delicious, and universally loved as chocolate be an equalizer amongst us? The answers lie in the history of chocolate consumption itself, and its journey from popularity only amongst the European and North American elite, to that of the masses.

Shortly after European colonizers “discovered” cacao and its delicious byproducts, chocolate soon made its way into the hearts of the Spanish elites. Although the Spanish sweetened the bitter drink with cane sugar and cinnamon, one thing remained unchanged: chocolate was still a delectable symbol of luxury, wealth and power. Chocolate was sipped by royal lips, and only Spanish elites could afford the expensive import. Chocolate soon spread to other elite circles throughout Europe, such as those in France and England, and the demand for it quickly became greater than that which was being brought over from the New World. In order for the pace of production to meet the increased demand, Europeans had to establish colonial plantations in equatorial regions around the world to grow cacao and sugar.

Chocolate was, in every sense, a fashionable thing throughout the 18th century and only became accessible to the lower classes with the invention of a cocoa press by a Dutch chemist in the early 1800s. The cocoa press revolutionized the way Europeans made, sold, and consumed chocolate. What was once a quite labor intensive process was now easily able to be conducted on a mass scale. The cocoa press could squeeze the fatty cocoa butter from roasted cacao beans, leaving behind a dry cake that could be pulverized into a fine powder that could be mixed with liquids and other ingredients, poured into molds and solidified into edible, easily digestible chocolate. The product became known as “Dutch cocoa” and soon led to the creation of solid chocolate.

Not long after, chocolate bars were being made and sold on a massive scale, and being enjoyed across all classes. Companies such as Cadbury, Mars and Hershey that ushered in a chocolate boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s that has yet to abate. In America, chocolate was so valued during the Revolutionary War that it was included in soldiers’ rations and used in lieu of wages. Today, the average American consumes 12 lbs. of chocolate each year, and more than $75 billion worldwide is spent on chocolate annually. Interestingly enough, most of what we would consider “chocolate” today tends to be made with significantly more sugar and extra additives than actual cacao.

Recently however, there’s been a new revolution in the world of chocolate: the craft food industry. Similar to its fallen brethren beer and coffee, chocolate has now begun to reverse course in its journey toward universally affordable and enjoyable. Although many artisanal brands claim an aspiration to change the chocolate industry for the better- sustainable, effective cacao farming and harvesting methods – the reality is that they have created another avenue by which class division and elitism can be fostered. Today, it is considered trendy and hip to side against Big Food corporations in favor of these homemade delicacies. This apparent rejection of candy as a commodity, with identical shapes and sizes, is also an embrace of candy as status symbol. After all, why spend a buck for a pack of M&Ms when you can spend twenty times that amount for a single bar?

While it is all well and good to pursue sustainability and support local farmers, it is also important for us as consumers to understand the societal implications of such endeavors. For all the faults of Big Food and mass production (and there are indeed many), we needn’t be so quick to forget the good that this production has done as well. In the U.S., chocolate is one of the few non-essential items nearly everyone can afford; 85 percent of consumers buy it. Whether we realize it or not, chocolate plays a massive role in our everyday lives, and we ought to think more critically about its history of exclusivity before we bemoan the incredible inclusivity we have with it today.

Works Cited:

  1. Fiegl, Amanda. A Brief History of Chocolate. Smithsonian Institution, 1 Mar. 2008, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/.
  2. Kintzer, Brad. Inside The World Of Craft Chocolate. National Confectioners Association, http://www.candyusa.com/nca-news/cst/defining-craft-chocolate/.
  3. Klein, Christopher. “The Sweet History of Chocolate.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Feb. 2014, http://www.history.com/news/the-sweet-history-of-chocolate.
  4. Lindell, Crystal. “Mintel: U.S. Chocolate Market to Hit $25B in 2019.” Global Chocolate Report, Candy Industry, 9 June 2015, http://www.candyindustry.com/articles/86698-mintel-us-chocolate-market-to-hit-25b-in-2019.
  5. Shanker, Deena. Little Chocolate’s Big Moment. Bloomberg, 7 Feb. 2017, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-02-07/the-rise-of-craft-chocolate.


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