As is the case with many of the fundamental aspects of 21st century Western life, food is often taken for granted due to its widespread availability and how easy it is to obtain. As we all likely know (but don’t think of often), the efficient nature of food production and distribution is a relatively new phenomenon. In this week’s blog post, we will examine the history of the industrialization of food through a case study of the industrialization of America’s sweetheart: chocolate.
Pre-Industrial Cacao and Chocolate
Cacao-based food products predate the industrialization of food by millennia. We can trace the consumption of cacao (in various forms) by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations (and likely even Olmec – they used the term “kakawa”) all the way back to as early as 1500 BCE (Aframer 119x).Of course, one should understand that the industrialization of cacao/chocolate in the 18th century and onward did not represent the first wave of technological advances involving and developed for cacao and its derivative forms.
The most prominent pre-industrial advance is the metate, a grinding stone that has been in use as far back as 7000 BCE (although used for corn/maize at this time) (Hernandez 2013). This tool is used to grind roasted cacao beans into a chocolate liquor, from which various chocolate derivatives are formed. Another development was the molinillo, a device used to create a frothy texture to chocolate drinks which was ironically developed by Spanish colonists in Mexico in the late 17th century (Aframer 119x). While the industrialization of chocolate represents an era of drastic technological change, it is important to remember that technological advances in the production and consumption of cacao preceded this era.
The Industrialization of Food
Initially, it seems a bit odd to consider how the industrialization of food would matter when cacao consumption has origins long before industrialization. Indeed, in the timeline of cacao-based consumption and production, the industrialized era represents but a small portion. Perhaps this picture would become clearer by looking at the industrialization of food in general and subsequently applying it to chocolate.
Four key factors contributed to the rise of industrial cuisine in the West: the development of preservation, mechanization, retailing (and wholesaling), and transport (Goody 1982). Breaking down the steps to the industrialization of food highlights a key misconception about the term “industrialization.” While most people associate industrialization with the development of the steam engine, factories, and assembly lines, industrialization was the byproduct of a multi-faceted effort across the aforementioned factors, not just mechanization.
Advances such as the salting of food (dating back to ancient times), adding sugar to create preservatives, and the development of hardy foods such as hardtack represent innovations driven out of the necessity for longer lasting food. In a more modern context, international trade and military expeditions required food supplies that would not perish over the course of the voyage. The industrialization of food through a preservation lens came from two major aspects: canning and artificial refrigeration/freezing. Canning in its primitive form was developed by Nicolas Appert in 1795 (Goody 1982), beginning with glass jars and ultimately turning to the tin can as a supplement as technological advances in the method of development of tin cans allowed food producers to preserve food more efficiently and cheaply. Refrigeration with natural ice began in America in the early 19th century (Goody 1982).
In the context of chocolate, we see the effects of the development of preservation to this day. Chocolate is stored in wrappers to protect it from the elements and often kept in cool conditions (provided by refrigeration) that allow for chocolate to stay in its ideal solid consistency. Without the ability to preserve chocolate, it would undoubtedly be not as popular and widely available as it is today.
The second element of industrialization, mechanization, falls more in line with what the average person considers when thinking about the industrialization of food. As Goody mentions, mechanization depended on the “adaptation of simple machinery for producing standard goods on a large scale” (Goody 1982). In the case of chocolate, we can look to a factory of the Hershey company for an example.
WATCH: “Old Hershey’s Chocolate” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ophXa_LvUKk
Transport is an element of industrialization that is closely tied with mechanization, which intuitively makes sense. As production of chocolate increased, distribution demands increased as well. A railway boom in the mid 1800’s specifically in the years 1845-1847 marked a period in which 6,000 miles of rail were laid in England alone (Goody 1982). International transport was aided by the development of refrigerated ships. For chocolate, increased ease of transport was essential for the growth industry. As we have covered in class, chocolate is a very global industry in the sense that the consumers tend to live in North America and Europe while cacao production takes place in South America and West Africa.
Retailing is the last major actor in the industrialization of food. Changes in retailing were twofold. First, open food markets that dominated pre-Elizabethan times were replaced with closed retail shops (Goody 1982). In the case of chocolate, small retail stores known as chocolateries began to pop up. Retailing, along with mechanization, was largely responsible for the homogenization and standardization of food products (Goody 1982), and chocolate was no exception. Another aspect of retailing was the increased separation between the consumer and the producer of food products, which in large part likely explains why labor rights issues still exist in the chocolate industry today: consumers are blind to the supply chain beyond the major corporation and grocery store, and a large disconnect exists between cacao farmers and cacao consumers, which wasn’t always the case.
Consider: The Hershey Company
An interesting byproduct of the industrialization of chocolate was the standardization of flavor in chocolate products. A good example is the case of the Hershey company. M.S. Hershey set out to develop the perfect formula for his chocolate bars (with the help of John Schmalbach) (D’Antonio 2006). This flavor is described as having the sweet characteristics of European chocolates that preceded it, but with a hint of sourness not present in other chocolates. Having achieved the ideal formula, the next step was to develop a production system that would allow him to accurately recreate the perfected formula with each chocolate bar made by the company. This required the mechanization aspect of industrialization that we have briefly reviewed earlier. Hershey’s factory system not only allowed him to produce chocolate at a faster rate, but also to recreate the signature taste with every bar.
As we know, Hershey is a dominant force (among a few other major corporations) in the global chocolate industry as the 5th largest producer of chocolate in 2018 by net sales (ICCO 2019). It is a reasonable assumption that the standardization of the Hershey chocolate (only possible through the wonders of industrialization) also led to the standardization of the average US palate for chocolate. So, industrialization’s impact on chocolate has been the preclusion of the inevitable variety in chocolate products that would have existed without industrialization. Whether this effect is good or bad is up for debate. On the positive side, Hershey bars (and others) are standardized. On the negative side, chocolate has become a very commercialized, corporate and completely standardized food product that ultimately feels very much at odds with its historical and traditional roots in Mesoamerica due to industrialization. Comment your thoughts on this issue below!
As we’ve seen, the industrialization of chocolate (and food as whole) is multi-faceted, complex, and didn’t happen overnight. Indeed, the chocolate we know and love today is undeniably tied to the advancements resulting from this period of industrialization. Hopefully, this short post will allow lovers of chocolate everywhere to have a better understanding of the foundational and historical aspects of the modern world of chocolate!
Aframer 119x Lecture Notes and Lecture Slides
D’Antonio, Michael D. 2006. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. pp. 106-126
Goody, Jack. 2013. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” pp. 72-88
Hernández Triviño, A. (2013). Chocolate: Historia de un nahuatlismo. Estudios De Cultura Náhuatl,46, 37-87.
“The Chocolate Industry.” The International Cocoa Organization, 1 Feb. 2019, http://www.icco.org/about-cocoa/chocolate-industry.html.
Anonymous. “Hershey’s Kisses Coming out as Finished Products.” Chocolate Class, Aframer 119x, 6 May 2015, chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/can-a-hersheys-bar-be-simply-chocolate/.
Giller, Megan. “Metate Photo.” Chocolate Noise, http://www.chocolatenoise.com/taza-chocolate.
“HOW IT’S MADE: Old Hershey’s Chocolate.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Oct. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ophXa_LvUKk.
“Molinillo Photo.” Taza Chocolate, http://www.tazachocolate.com/products/molinillo?variant=8074820355.