Chats over Choco: A Discussion of Chocolate in History, Society, and Industry

Introduction: Why do you like chocolate?

The cafe is cozy and dimly lit, the perfect setting for an interview. Dave and I head to the back and sit at a small wooden table. A few days ago, he had eagerly agreed to be interviewed as soon as I mentioned that the subject of my questions would be chocolate. Of course, he only became more enthusiastic after I mentioned that we would be doing a blind taste test as well. We order a couple of loose leaf teas and two slices of white bread — an odd order at a cafe, but we would need them to cleanse Dave’s palate during the tasting.

I start out by asking Dave how much he likes chocolate, to which he replies, “A pretty large amount.” I then ask him why he likes chocolate, but he seems confused at how to answer. “Well, it has a unique taste,” he says. “It has that melt-in-your-mouth quality. It’s creamy, fragrant, smooth, appealing.” Basically his answer in a few words was that chocolate simply tastes good — it has a good flavor and a good texture.

The question I asked seems simple, but upon closer examination there seems to be no clear answer. Why is the world so crazy about chocolate? In “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving,” author David Benton notes that chocolate is “by far the most common food item that people report that they crave” (205). But is there some scientific reason behind this, or are we just continuing the traditions of ancient civilizations (such as the Aztecs and the Maya) who called chocolate the ‘food of the gods’?

In my interview, I aimed to first look at chocolate from a more historical point of view to examine reasons behind its inherent ‘specialness,’ before comparing this to what we think of chocolate today. I then wanted to examine something a little less black and white — Dave’s general feelings towards chocolate, and why these certain feelings may have developed as a result of pop culture and the media. After this, I wanted to touch on some thoughts about the nature of the chocolate industry and some of the problems in it. And finally, I wanted to try a blind chocolate taste test, to compare my knowledge about chocolate companies with Dave’s blind opinion about the chocolates themselves. I thought it would be interesting to see whether he could taste differences in quality, flavor, and texture.

Chocolate in History vs. Today: What do you associate with chocolate?

“I have fond memories of chocolate from when I was little,” Dave explains. “In a lot of the events I would go to, like performances, they’d have chocolate to give us kids and we’d eat it while watching the performers.”

It might seem rather arbitrary that we associate chocolate with special events and celebrations. However, this has been a pattern throughout history. Going back to the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations, chocolate has often appeared in rituals and religious ceremonies. In a sacred Mayan text, the Popol Vuh, cacao appears several times — for example, there are stories about gods being represented by cacao pods (Coe & Coe, 39). Cacao was also linked to marriage rituals (for example, as dowries) and rites of death.

A couple drinking cacao during a marriage

There are many sources that talk about how chocolate has always been special, historically. It has often appeared in religious and spiritual contexts. Such myths about cacao and gods may seem so detached from us now; maybe we are ‘logical’ or ‘scientists’ and no longer widely believe in such tales. But then maybe we are not so far from this mindset as we may initially think. We still romanticize chocolate as being a mystical substance with mysterious powers. Although we may not call it the ‘food of the gods,’ we still hold it with a similar regard. We still serve it at events and special occasions, we still relate it to fertility (it is associated with aphrodisiacs and romance), and yet we cannot easily explain what makes it so special.

For children especially, chocolate is an alluring treat associated with intensity and excitement (as it was to Dave). This may be why marketing to children is such a huge business: children are even more likely to ignore any logical arguments and accept chocolate as being magical. But there is even evidence of adults today thinking of chocolate in this way: for example, in “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered,” James Howe describes a doctor who was trying to scientifically explain the remarkable cardiovascular health of the Kuna people. The doctor notices that they drink a lot of cacao and immediately relates this to their heart health, although he may not have made the same conclusion had they been drinking a common cornmeal drink. And of course, their healthiness turned out to be unrelated to cacao drinking. The doctor had simply been romanticizing cacao, perhaps because it was more mysterious to him.

As for the reason why we are drawn to cacao, it could be scientific: chocolate has been shown to be one of the most complex natural flavors (Brenner, 64), so perhaps we are simply attracted to this multi-dimensionality. Or maybe the fascination of the Aztecs and Mayans with chocolate has carried over to our time. Or as Benton explains in “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving,” it could just be because it tastes good (214). Either way, all we can conclude is that chocolate is mysterious to us and that we still tend to consider it under in mystical context — kind of like how the Aztecs and Mayans did so long ago.

Chocolate and Emotions and Pop culture: How do you feel about chocolate?

“I think of chocolate and happiness,” Dave says fondly. “Yeah, it’s definitely a happy food. I sometimes eat it when I’m stressed, but then I eat a lot when I’m stressed in general.”

It seems that Dave is not the only person who thinks that chocolate encourages happiness. Chocolate is often given as a gift of love or celebration, in order to urge someone to think of you in a fond or romantic way. But because of chocolate’s clear link with improving mood, people often eat it when upset, bored, or stressed. As Benton describes in his essay, there is a link between chocolate and ‘emotional’ eating, and there is  also “consistent evidence that chocolate craving is associated with depression and other disturbances of mood” (206). In other words, because we associate chocolate with happiness, our cravings often occur when we are upset.

Dave doesn’t explicitly mention eating chocolate when he is stressed or sad, but he does describe some of the chocolates he likes best: specifically, those small dark chocolate nuggets wrapped in colorful foil with inspirational messages written on the inside. It seems that the companies manufacturing chocolate are aware of its power to improve mood, and they try to exaggerate this effect as much as possible in order to encourage people to keep coming back. And yet, as Benton describes, there is no convincing evidence of certain constituents in chocolate having special mood-improving powers. This is again part of what makes chocolate so mysterious to us; we can look at its components and try to analyze scientifically, but in the end it’s the chocolate as a whole that is inexplicably stimulating.


A Dove chocolate with a cheerful, inspirational message:
“All you really need is love, and a little chocolate doesn’t hurt!”

But what deeper effects could these emotions have? Chocolate encourages happiness for so many people; how can we see the effects of this in the media and pop culture? I ask Dave how he relates chocolate to pop culture. He leans back in his seat, looking a little wistful.

“Oh, romance for sure,” he says, waving a hand. “And holidays… I always buy the most chocolate during those Christmas, Halloween, and Easter sales. And Valentine’s Day, of course — although I haven’t recently gifted chocolate in a romantic way or anything. But I want to.” He goes on to describe a romantic scene of him standing in a park near a bench with snow on the ground, holding a red box of chocolates and a single rose. “I always think of those little red heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. Dark chocolates. With a bow.”

Confectionery company Cadbury greatly increased sales
by starting to sell their chocolates in a heart-shaped box

It’s surprising how specific these images are; we now seem to inherently relate Valentine’s Day to chocolate without questioning why we would do so. As for the other holidays, they are also important earning opportunities for chocolate-selling companies, especially if those companies take advantage of our associations of chocolate with romance and love. Many a chocolate advertisement will ruthlessly target women, appealing to them as mothers and housewives.

Hershey’s Syrup TV Commercial: https://www.ispot.tv/ad/AfkQ/hersheys-syrup-fairys-chocolate-milk. A Hershey’s chocolate syrup ad appealing to mothers and associating their product with a ‘happy family.’

In terms of romance, Dave’s answer reveals the influence that these advertisements and depictions in the media have on us: he never even considers the possibility of a woman gifting a man chocolate. As a male, he assumes that it is his duty to do the giving. And this is no new concept — as Emma Robertson describes in “Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History,” women have been positioned as consumers since the time of the Aztecs (68). So we see again that there are common themes throughout history that have survived even until today.

Ultimately, we know that we crave chocolate because it tastes ‘good,’ and that we consider it an aphrodisiac and so relate it to fertility. We also know that historically, people have also loved and obsessed over chocolate, and wondered at its unusual powers — so much so that they associated it with divinity and spirituality. But in the end, we marvel at chocolate just as much as them. There are few satisfying or scientific answers as to why we associate chocolate so strongly with love, women, and happiness, rather than some other delicious treat. The fact that chocolate has held such an important position since so early in history just enhances its image in our eyes, and we continue to romanticize and fantasize, as can be seen from the media and its influence on people like Dave. At this point, we are fed so much information about chocolate’s link to romance and happiness that I would be surprised if Dave had not described the exact specific imagery that he had.

The Chocolate Industry: What do you know about the industry?

I knew that when asked about the ‘biggest’ chocolate brands, Dave would most likely name Hershey. But I wasn’t so sure about the others.

“I love Lindt, Godiva. Ferrero,” Dave lists. I was surprised. Lindt is the first one he mentions? “And Hershey’s, of course. Hershey’s is comfortable.”

I ask him why it’s comfortable. He describes how one of his teachers used to give him a big Hershey’s Symphony cookies n’ cream bar on his birthday, how he would split it among his friends, and hide it from his parents. “Well, it’s comfortable but the taste is aggressively sweet. I like dark chocolate, mostly.”

It seems that so many people have fond memories associated with Hershey’s. But is Hershey’s actually good? All of the other brands Dave mentioned suited his preference for dark chocolate; Lindt and Godiva are known for making higher quality, more expensive products (especially better quality dark chocolate). Hershey’s, however, seems to have established itself as a reliable and homely brand. As seen in advertisements such as the one for Hershey’s syrup, they appeal to family and strive to create good memories to associate with themselves. So it would make sense that people such as Dave would remember Hershey’s fondly, even if their preferences lie elsewhere.

There is a stark difference, in fact, between what American consumers and other consumers think of Hershey’s. Americans, having grown up on it and having forged many good memories with a Hershey’s bar in hand, are more likely to say that Hershey’s tastes ‘like home.’ However, other consumers have commonly remarked that Hershey’s tastes rather ‘like vomit.’ In his chocolate-making process, Hershey unintentionally added the side effect of milk fat fermentation, which creates a sour note in his milk chocolate (D’Antonio, 108). Since the milk is partially soured, it creates an acid that is found in substances such as baby spit-up — but American consumers are now too accustomed to the taste, or perhaps swayed by their pleasant memories of Hershey’s, to notice or complain (Metz).

One other surprising aspect of Dave’s comment was that he failed to mention Mars, indisputably one of the most influential chocolate snack manufacturers. When I tried to bring up candies Twix and Snickers, he commented that he had had a vague idea that such candies were produced by the same umbrella company, but that he hadn’t heard much about it. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Mars has always been a secretive company — Forrest Mars had cared about quality and his empire vision and little else. Others had always agree that “Mars’s intelligence operations [were] infamous… they tried to pump information out of… anybody they could” (Brenner, 62). It is clear, then, that the nature of the company also largely impacts what the general public thinks of their brand and products.

Mars, Inc — familiar candies, unfamiliar company

I then asked Dave what he knew about unethical labor in the industry, just to gauge his awareness. He commented that he was aware of problems such as child labor in the system. “Consumers are definitely implicated in these problems, though,” he says, almost uncomfortably. “But if I saw a normal chocolate bar and a more expensive one labeled ‘ethically sourced,’ I’d probably go with the normal one. Nowadays it seems like labeling your candy as being ‘ethically sourced’ is more of a gimmick to squeeze more profit out of consumers. If I’m shopping and looking for a few items, I often don’t have the motivation to research the brand then and there.”

In other words, Dave was able to tell that the problem was complex enough that there could be no simple solution. He knew that just adding labels would not be enough to motivate consumers like himself to do research themselves and to start acting upon their new knowledge. As is true in many other situations, complex lives require holistic responses.

Tasting: what do you taste?

I had Dave close his eyes and taste test three different brands of dark chocolate (with a palate cleansing in between each): Cadbury, then Hershey’s, then Lindt. I was interested to see how his opinions might match up with the information I had about each brand.

On Cadbury: “This smells like dark chocolate! It is nutty, quite smooth, not too sweet, and melts nicely. But the taste is rather straightforward. It doesn’t linger.” Rated: 8/10

On Hershey’s: “This has a very odd odor. I’m not sure how to describe it. It melts incredible fast, is very sweet, and tastes a bit like coffee. It tastes lighter than the other one… maybe milk chocolate?” Rated: 7/10

On Lindt: “This smells very chocolatey; no odd scent here. It seems to melt slower though, and it tastes both very sweet and not so sweet at the same time. It does have some astringent notes and it seems to make my tongue dry. It’s very rich.” Rated: 5/10

Dave’s comments surprisingly matched up with what I predicted. He sensed that Hershey’s uses a lower percentage of actual cacao (by guessing that it was milk). He even smelled the sour note in the Hershey’s chocolate. However, he didn’t seem to like the texture of the Lindt chocolate as much, which was unexpected to me since Lindt was the one who invented the conching process. But in the end, he seemed to enjoy all three samples of chocolate (and continued eating them after the interview had ended).

Conclusion

After a closer examination, it becomes clear that chocolate has a complex and rich history, a controversial and influential role in society, and is the center of a competitive and powerful industry. The whole world is obsessed with this single characteristic flavor; so many people are constantly craving it, giving and receiving it, and talking about it. But is this such a surprise? The biggest conclusion at the end of the day is that chocolate is mysteriously delicious — and that perhaps we are not so different from those ancient civilizations and their myths about the ‘food of the gods.’

References

Benton, David. “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.” Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain, by Astrid Nehlig, CRC Press, 2004.

Brenner Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: inside the Secret World on Hershey & Mars. Broadway Books, 2000.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.

“‘Here There Will Be No Unhappiness.’” Hershey: Milton’s S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, by Michael D’Antonio, Simon & Schuster Paperback, 2006.

Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, 2012, doi:10.1525/gfc.2012.12.1.cover.

Metz, Elle. “Does Cadbury Chocolate Taste Different in Different Countries?” BBC News, BBC, 18 Mar. 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31924912.
“’The Romance of the Cocoa Bean’: Imperial and Colonial Histories.” Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History, by Emma Robertson, University of York, 2004.

Multimedia Sources

“Cadbury Heart Shape Box – For My Valentine.” Cadbury Joy Deliveries, http://www.cadburystore.com.au/media/catalog/product/cache/image/700×560/e9c3970ab036de70892d86c6d221abfe/v/a/valentine_box_open_box_1600x1600_03_new_1_.jpg

“A Couple Drinking Cacao during a Marriage.” Mexicolore, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/images-ans/ans_21_06_2.jpg.

“A Dove Chocolate with a Cheerful, Inspirational Message.” Cinnamon Spice & Everything Nice, http://www.cinnamonspiceandeverythingnice.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Dove-Dark-Chocolate-Mint-Swirl-Promises.jpg.

“Hershey’s Syrup TV Commercial, ‘Fairy’s Chocolate Milk’.” ISpot.tv, http://www.ispot.tv/ad/AfkQ/hersheys-syrup-fairys-chocolate-milk

“Mars, Inc — Familiar Candies, Unfamiliar Company.” WOWT 6 News, http://www.wowt.com/home/headlines/Mars-candy-products-recalled-369811351.html.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s