Deceptive Chocolate: Tracing Counterfeit Cacao Culture from Aztec Currency to Modern Production

Paying with a one hundred dollar bill in any store will prompt cashiers to raise their eyebrows. Yet, their skepticism is not unfounded. According to the United States Department of Treasury, approximately $70 million counterfeit dollars currently circulate the market (Wilber). While people remain hyperaware about the current proliferation of counterfeit currency, this practice is not new. One form of imitation currency evolved during the Post Classic Period (1300-1500) in Mesoamerica, a reign known as the Aztec empire. During this time, the Aztecs witnessed the spread of counterfeit currency — their highly prized cacao beans.

The number of cacao beans a person possessed during the Aztec empire determined their social status. People used cacao to purchase commodities such as turkey hens, pay employees wages, and host social climbing parties (Coe 99). Since cacao became a difficult commodity to obtain in large amounts and grow quickly, Aztec cacao distributors began faking cacao beans (Coe 100). As cacao galvanized followers across the world over time, major cacao production companies started faking all aspects of cacao from chocolate bar filler ingredients to brand labels.

Despite public denouncement of counterfeit culture throughout history, cacao counterfeit culture has never truly gone away. The idea of counterfeit cacao, which has evolved into counterfeit chocolate, has prevailed in society due to scanty regulation and created more consumer health risks.

The Beginnings of Deception in the Aztec Empire


Cacao was used to trade for various commodities such as food products and animal parts

Pre-Conquest Mesoamericans exalted huge amounts of cacao beans. Instead of calculating cacao value by weight or bulk, merchants assessed cacao value by counting beans (Coe 81). Key leaders such as Texcoco’s Nezahualcoyotl and Tenochtitlan’s Motecuhuzoma adopted this mindset when they stashed millions of beans in their vaults and graves to preserve their wealth (Coe 82). Due to the overwhelming potential of of commodities, the Aztecs began creating and refining fake cacao bean production.

Anthropologist Joel Palka, who investigated archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala, unearthed the widespread use of clay cacao beans. (Garthwaite). In an interview with The Smithsonian, Palka suggests that these beans may have passed through the market as a real currency or even substituted for cacao during rituals. As the Aztec’s main currency, billions of cacao beans circulated the market. Most certainly, cacao counterfeit currency reached the wealthy who possessed millions of beans. Since it would be impossible for the wealthy to throw out all fakes among millions of cacao beans, this suggests counterfeit cacao culture existed and proliferated.

Creating a Fake Currency


In a mountain of cacao beans, it becomes difficult to discern real beans from their fake counterparts

Even with billions of cacao beans exchanges, Aztec cacao sellers took great measures to disguise their fake cacao. According to Bernard Sahagun, a Spaniard documenting Aztec lives, cacao sellers processed fakes using hot ashes, chalk, and a generous coating of amaranth dough, wax, or avocado pits (Coe 100). To further camouflage their counterfeit cacao, sellers mixed the fake cacao with pure Theobroma cacao beans. Other cacao deception experts exploited empty shells by filling the insides with mud (De Maré).

The many methods used to deceive buyers presented risks, such as exposure and banishment, but documentation of this practice makes counterfeiting seem universal at the time and for the most part, unchallenged by leadership (De Maré). While people no longer use cacao as a currency, the same counterfeiting ethos has not been lost in society. In fact, this cynical practice of counterfeiting still pervades the chocolate market and can drastically affect consumers’ health. This is now chocolate adulteration.

Counterfeit Cacao Becomes Adulterated Chocolate

In Europe, it is common to see adulteration in the production phase. Since nineteenth century France, producers have replaced cocoa butter with egg yolks or mutton and added alkali to artificially darken chocolate (Coe 243). More recently, the 2005 European government allowed chocolate producers to add any sugar to chocolate along with 40% chocolate filler and still label it chocolate, despite chocolate purists’ outcry (Bolenz). Unsurprisingly, producers then selected cheaper fillers such as lactose Helianthus tuberosus flour, pea and oat fibers, and potato starches (Bolenz).

During a similar time, government leaders accused several companies, including Cadbury and Hershey, of adulterating cacao butter (Squicciarini). Now companies can avoid this public humiliation by rebranding products. Labeling products “chocolate flavored” in order to distract the consumer from the product’s true cacao percentage is considered legal (Bolenz). Since these corporations control a large percentage of the chocolate distribution chain, customers have a limited sense of what chocolate tastes like without additional fillers. The popularity of chocolate adulteration, exemplified by the participation of two big five companies, shows how chocolate fraud endures during modern times.


Illegitimate companies pass off their products as reliable but their counterfeit products pose extreme dangers to customers

Counterfeiting becomes especially visible when malicious producers employ flashy brand names to attract consumers. During Lunar New Year in 2017, the French government discovered a Chinese company that plagiarized Ferrero and Mars stickers to pass off their fake chocolate as legitimate (Yu). Unfortunately, many people probably purchased and consumed the counterfeit candies containing chemicals or larvae before then (Yu). While governments may punish counterfeit chocolate, the proliferation of fake chocolate, from fake branding to adulterated ingredients, persists and poses significant risks to consumers.

Evidence of counterfeit cacao dates back to the Aztec empire, but the practice remains rampant today. With the advent of new counterfeiting practices, the consumer now faces potential health risks. Only when more people start learning about cacao and chocolate counterfeiting, demand recipe transparency from companies, and pressure leaders to regulate and dismantle unethical companies will consumers learn to savor the taste of pure, unadulterated chocolate.

Works Cited

Bolenz, S., Amtsberg, K. and Schäpe, R. (2006), The broader usage of sugars and fillers in milk chocolate made possible by the new EC cocoa directive. International Journal of Food Science & Technology, 41: 45-55.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.

De Maré, Laurie. “Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.” A Tasty Currency: Cocoa – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, 4 Mar. 2013, http://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm.

Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/.

Squicciarini, Mara P, and Johan Swinnen. The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Wilber, Del Quentin. “Fantastic Fakes: Busting a $70 Million Counterfeiting Ring.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 27 Apr. 2016, www.bloomberg.com/features/2016-counterfeit-money/.

Yu, Douglas. “Fake Ferrero and Mars Chocolate Seized in China.” Confectionerynews.com, William Reed Business Media Ltd., 8 Feb. 2017, www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2017/02/08/Fake-Ferrero-and-Mars-chocolate-seized-in-China.

Media Citations

“Chinese Counterfeit Chocolate with Larvae Worms.” YouTube, YouTube, 3 Sept. 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=sO9OTPXbXUA.

Ross, Kurt. “Cacao Trading Manual.” Codex Mendoza: Aztec Manuscript. Barcelone, Espagne: Miller Graphics, 1978. Print.

Greenwood-Haigh, David. “Cocao Beans.” Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/users/dghchocolatier-5671698/



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