Consumption rates of chocolate drastically vary between developing and developed nations, but it is safe to say that chocolate has a global presence. Chocolate is not only chemically complex, but also has the ability to yield a range of individual and cultural complexities. Individuals involved begin with the cacao farmer and end with the consumer while cultures vary by region, economic conditions, and many other variables. All parties involved walk away with some positive, neutral, or negative experience be it economic, emotional, physiological, social, etc. For the sake of clarity in this multimedia essay chocolate is defined as a solid edible substance consisting primarily of cocoa butter, milk fat, and sugar. This blog post will seek to unpack the layers of complexity surrounding chocolate by investigating:
Chocolate finds its roots in Mesoamerica. Unlike the sweet and silky chocolate bars we eat or the hot cocoa we drink Mesoamericans would grind the cacao bean and prepare it as a frothy beverage. The froth at the top of the beverage was most prized as its consumption was linked to the local deities. Initially this beverage was consumed by royalty and used at religious rites, but eventually warriors would consume the beverage to strengthen their resolve or as a reward after battle. The cacao bean became a form of currency in Mesoamerica as its popularity spread throughout the region (Coe, p.59).
As transatlantic trade and exploration became more popular it is said that Christopher Columbus was the first to send cacao beans back to Europe, but this is a myth (Coe, p. 109). Don Hernan Cortes later introduced the cacao bean in Spain where it began to gain traction by the wealthy (Coe, p. 117). Over the 17th century the cacao bean beverage spread throughout Europe. Initially consumed by the wealthy the cacao beverage would eventually trickle down to the common people. Chocolate houses were established in London where friends would meet one another for different versions of the bitter beverage (Coe, p. 167). Over time these establishments began to dwindle and cacao beverages became more of a household beverage with the addition of milk.
As cacao beverages became more and more popular in Europe the demand for cacao beans drastically rose. In order to fulfill these demands cacao plantations were established in Africa, Asia, and South America. Slave labor was the primary driver of these plantations. Much of the slave labor was sourced from Africa and shipped over to the West Indies (Coe, p. 193). Many would perish on the journey over due to their horrific treatment. The conditions for the slaves on the plantations was unfathomable. They would work grueling hours with no pay or stake in the process. This use of slave labor was driven by the capitalist ideology to minimize the cost of labor while maximizing profits for the owners of the plantation along with the rest of the supply chain. Over time European consumers became more aware of the use of slave labor in order to fulfill their cacao demands. Eventually plantations began to use less slave labor and marginally improved the conditions for laborers, but their eye was on maximizing profits as the price of the cacao bean continued to drop.
As mentioned above the use and exploitation of slave labor was a capitalist tactic to minimize cacao bean production costs in order to sell affordable cacao beverages to European consumers. While this disdainful practice eventually subsided to a degree, noting slavery still is a major issue in cacao bean harvesting, other capitalists were at hand to usher in the global presence of chocolate. One major champion of the chocolate industry was Milton Hershey. Milton built an iconic brand and business that has withstood the test of time.
Milton Hershey unintentionally created a unique flavor chocolate bar that defined that standard for American consumers. To create this flavor Milton and his team used a specific process of pouring skim milk with a large amount of sugar into a copper vacuum kettle. They raised the temperature gradually to allow for the low heat evaporation of a liquid condensed milk. The importance of this process was that it accepted cocoa butter. At the time there were many benefits to using liquid condensed milk. It had a long shelf life, but more importantly it could process through the pumping, channeling, pouring phases and in turn required less time to smooth and grind (D’Antonio, p. 108). This highly mechanized process allowed for Milton Hershey to mass produce milk chocolate faster and cheaper than his European counterparts. The flavor of a Hershey’s bar has a top note of rich sweetness followed by a slightly sour note. This unique sour note diverged from European counterparts and is due to the fermentation of milk fat (D’Antonio, p.108).
Milton perfected two major tenets within capitalism to secure his businesses future. First, he created a product cheap to manufacture that he initially sold at very low price point of five cents apiece to develop a consumer base. Second, Milton Hershey was able to master brand recognition and crafting.
The wrapper, pictured above, has a simplistic design that allows for the consumer to easily relate to the product. It also highlights the concept that chocolate is a nourishing food, a belief that dates back to Mesoamerican beliefs that the cacao bean has beneficial medicinal properties. Milton had greater foresight than just branding the product line. He also crafted a hospitable and charitable company brand. Profits were often reinvested into the workforce to ensure their wellbeing. Chocolate capitalists like Milton helped usher chocolate into mainstream food culture. Through capitalist marketing chocolate today is viewed as an indulgent product. A product lovers may exchange and eat around Valentine’s day or a gift one may give as a thank you or welcoming present. Others may eat it as a guilty pleasure or as a form of stress relief.
Nonetheless, chocolate plays a role in each of our lives in large part due to capitalist motives of large corporations. On the surface it is a sweet product that has good intentions, but that may not be wholly representative of the product. Often one may experience some form of stress, be it writing a multimedia essay or a big presentation at work. In order to assuage any fears we may reach for the M&M’s or chocolate bar. Or it’s the weekend and you’ve simply had enough of your restrictive diet and are simply craving chocolate. Are these aforementioned instances food cravings or addictions we have manufactured with the guiding hand of entrepreneurs such as Milton Hershey?
A food craving “is a strong desire or urge for a particular food” (Benton, p. 206). The sensations of eating chocolate are very unique and often seem to yield a positive reaction from the consumer. A scientist, P. Willner, conducted an experiment where he rewarded participants as they pressed the space bar on the computer. After each trial the required key stroke would increase before the chocolate reward was distributed. Results were concluded that participants who had a higher chocolate craving were willing to press the space bar as much as was required to receive the chocolate reward (Benton, p. 206-207). Benton goes on to illustrate that many of the notable chemical compounds in chocolate are present at such a low level that it seems scientifically incapable that they would trigger humans to crave the food for positive effects such as magnesium supplementation, dopamine production, or serotonin synthesis. That said, humans appear not to crave chocolate for its physiological benefits, but more so from our environment which has allowed us to develop a psychological craving.
David Benton concludes at the end of his paper that we may crave chocolate due to psychological factors, but trying to imply that chocolate is addicting would be a mischaracterization as consumers do not experience symptoms of addiction when withdrawn from chocolate. Benton defines addiction as a “compulsion, loss of control, discomfort after drug withdrawal, and a positive psychological response when it is taken” (Benton, p. 215). What is not mentioned in this paper are the effects of sugar on the human anatomy.
There are a few excellent TED Talks that speak to sugar’s presence in foods and its effect on our anatomy. Sugar: Hiding in Plain Sight – Robert Lustig documents how the food industry adds sugar to the majority of our food products. At the two minute mark of the “Sugar: Hiding in Plain Sight” video makes mention that the FDA does not have a recommended daily sugar intake, but the World Health Organization suggests that humans should only consume 5% of their calories from sugar or approximately 25 grams of sugar per day. As seen in the picture below a Hershey’s bar contains 24 grams of sugar or 96% of our recommended daily sugar intake, per the World Health Organization.
While caloric intake may vary based on an individual’s needs it is clear that sugar is a dominant caloric substance found in chocolate product.
The second relevant TED Talk, How Sugar Affects the Brain, details the impact that sugar has on our brains and physiology. When we take a bite of that Hershey’s chocolate bar the receptors on our tongue send signals to our cerebral cortex to recognize that we are eating a sweet substance. This activates our reward system throughout the brain which prompts us to continue eating the chocolate. The more we continue to eat chocolate and its sugary counterparts the more we engrain this physiological and psychological conditioning for sugary chocolate. This continual conditioning can program our brains to crave chocolate and even become addicted to the sugar in it. The more sugar we consume the greater our tolerance for it becomes. If humans eat a healthy but restrictive diet dopamine levels eventually taper off. By eating a variety of healthy foods we can fight this potential dopamine decrease. Frequent consumption of sugary products, such as chocolate, will not lead to an eventually tapering of dopamine. Our bodies acclimate to this constant cycle of sugar consumption and dopamine release that when we don’t maintain the cycle we undergo withdrawal symptoms, in a lesser degree, similar to nicotine, alcohol, or drugs. David Benton was right to say that chocolate may not be an addicting substance, but the sugar in chocolate can be addicting.
Adding an addictive substance into products such as a chocolate bar is a no brainer to capitalist corporations. Sugar is cheap to produce, has the potential to addict its consumer base, and helps preserve the products freshness. The World Health Organization proposed that sugar content in baby formula should be reduced from thirty percent to ten percent. After hearing this the sugar industry took issue and this proposal was shot down. To put into perspective a baby that is bottle fed versus naturally fed consumes an additional thirty thousand calories or one hundred twenty chocolate bars in its first eight-month period (Albritton, p. 345). This is a particularly important time in a baby’s life as tastes are often developed during this time period (Albritton, p. 345-346). The sugar and food industry take a cradle to grave approach when marketing and producing their products. According to Albritton’s research children get fifty percent of their calories from sugars and fats added to snacks such as chocolate bars (Albriton, p. 346).
All of these extra calories we consume from sugary treats has led to a health epidemic. Mother Jones, an unbiased journalist site, researched the correlation between sugar intake and American health from 1980-2010 detailing their results in the following infographic.
The results show that as Americans continually increase their sugar intake we face potential challenges such as obesity or diabetes. These challenges and other sugar related illnesses cost Americans over $150 billion each year (Mother Jones). More and more research continues to be published about the dangers of excessive sugar consumption. While sugary treats such as chocolate aren’t necessarily a bad thing it is important to be conscientious of our sugar intake.
Chocolate is an incredibly complicated substance that has played a number of roles in human society. Its presence has had spiritual ties to gods while on the other end of the spectrum corporations and capitalists have added a potentially addicting substance, in sugar, to chocolate. It is important that we recognize all of the iterations and roles chocolate has played in our global society.
Albritton, Robert. “Betwen Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” Food and Culture: A Reader, Third ed., Routledge, pp. 343–352.
Benton, David. “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.” Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain, CRC Press, pp. 205–218.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.
Couzens, Cristin Kearns. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” Mother Jones, 25 June 2017, www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign/.
D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey Milton S. Hersheys Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. Paw Prints, 2008.
“HERSHEY’S Milk Chocolate Bar – 1.55oz.” Target, www.target.com/p/hershey-s-milk-chocolate-bar-1-55oz/-/A-13347750.
“Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Wrapper .” Https://Commons.wikimedia.org/Wiki/File:Hershey’s_Milk_Chocolate_wrapper_(1928-1935).Png, Hershey, PA, 1928.
Lustig, Robert. “Sugar: Hiding in Plain Sight.” TED, www.ted.com/talks/robert_lustig_sugar_hiding_in_plain_sight?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare.
TED-Ed. “How Sugar Affects the Brain – Nicole Avena.” YouTube, YouTube, 7 Jan. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEXBxijQREo&feature=youtu.be.