From Money to Food, the Economic Drive of Chocolate

Chocolate is everywhere. It fills grocery store shelves, gifts, cookbooks, and desserts, even expanding to vinegars and cosmetics. A simple taste of the sweet candy is enough for anyone to decipher why we go crazy for it. It makes sense that businesses would capitalize off of this love, filling stores with variations of flavorings, textures, and purities of chocolate. By rule of supply and demand, the excessive options for chocolate are simply filling our greedy demands, right? However, it was not actually a pure love for the flavor that prompted chocolate’s global expansion, but rather the economic greed of colonizers and businesses.

Chocolate was not a flavor we all inherently liked. In the 1500’s, cacao, the base ingredient of chocolate, was a cause of disgust to many Europeans in their first encounter (Leissle 23). As colonizers entered the New World, cacao already had a strong presence and meaning to natives. The Mayas and Aztecs revered chocolate for religious, traditional, and health purposes (Leissle 28). As such, the powerful, foreign colonizers often encountered the beans as currency, beverages, and ritualistic symbols when dealing with the native rulers. However, those who stayed did not immediately understand the natives’ deep respect for the crop. Girolamo Benzo remarked that chocolate “‘seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity. I was in this country for more than a year, and never wanted to taste it’” (Coe & Coe 110). This initial distaste for chocolate was not uncommon, and allowed the crop to be passed up for consumption for many years. As seen in the unequal cocoa consumption displayed below, even today, chocolate is not universally loved.

Depiction of modern global consumption and production levels of cocoa from the 2018 Cocoa Barometer (Balch)

While this may be difficult for us to comprehend today, a taste of a more traditional chocolate drink would shock our modern expectations. Chocolate was not always the sweet solid bar that we know, and love, today. It was originally served as a bitter drink without sugar and mixed with a variety of ingredients like corn and chile (Harp). Europeans did not get used to or accept cacao’s flavor, rather they made it more palatable using sugar and spices, like cinnamon and anise seed, that they were more accustomed to (Coe & Coe 115). The need for other flavors to make chocolate palatable is emphasized by the fact that it did not universally spread to all countries it was exposed to. Countries that increased their sugar production and consumption, namely Britain and the US, also saw rises in chocolate consumption, while countries, like France, who did not adjust their diet towards sugar saw little to no rise (Presentation 3). Due to this distaste for traditional cacao, it would make sense for Europeans to disregard it altogether. However, the process of making it more palatable displays a desire to consume it, an active effort, rather than an inherent liking. This suggests alternative motives to value the crop. 

One such motive that is often suggested follows a belief that it was the chemical stimulation of cacao that transformed it into an addictive substance which drove people’s desires to make it more palatable and continue production and consumption. However, while it does contain caffeine, there is nowhere near a high enough level to truly affect us, especially compared to tea and coffee. There is a level of the weaker stimulant theobromine, however again the effects of this would be too weak to explain the craze of chocolate from an addictive standpoint (Leissle 28). Instead of anything physically inherent to chocolate, it was the social and economic value that catalyzed its global spread. 

While colonizers did not initially understand the natives’ reverence of the chocolate drink, its monetary presence cemented its importance and initiated a greedy drive to dominate its market. Cacao beans were a form of currency in Aztec and Maya civilization. A currency that the Spanish quickly adapted to and learned to use to their advantage.

Prices of common goods in terms of cacao beans in the 1540’s (“A History of Cocoa – 200 Years in Charts.”)

As a currency, cacao beans quickly became important to the Spanish government as a resource to exploit in their new territories. This resulted in “a group of people who had never seen or heard of it before… drive its trade” (Leissle 34). To Europeans, the value of cacao began solely as a monetary commodity. This resulted in the Spanish Encomienda system which taxed a certain amount of tribute and labor from the local people, mostly in the form of cacao cultivation. “The Spanish very quickly realised that they could profit from growing and trading cocoa. When they colonised Mexico, they started exporting this drink to Europe, but added sugar to it to make it more to the liking of the Europeans… It gained immediate popularity with the Spanish Court and was in turn savoured by the European élite” (“Museum of the National Bank of Belgium”). As desire for chocolate grew, its price quickly shot up and colonizing powers in Europe became intent on joining the market. As seen below, prices and value of cocoa rose disproportionately to its production level, making it a very economically valuable commodity.

Depiction of cacao exports as compared to its value (Martin, Lecture 3)

The spread to the common population was similarly driven by economic incentives. With a new product to market, businesses utilized imagery of the wealthy enjoying the deletable sweet to infuse the idea of wealth with their new product to the illiterate masses (Leissle 38). Furthermore, once the hydraulic press was capable of separating the expensive fats from the chocolate liqueur to form cocoa powder, chocolate was integrated into the average kitchen to spread the new product. The spread of chocolate domestically was instigated in the 19th -20th century by “enterprising housekeeping and cooking educators who partnered with industry in the name of ‘domestic science.’ … Walter Baker & Company demonstrated chocolate making with their equipment and offered free samples to visitors. In an attempt to encourage the use of their chocolate in cooking, they also provided free copies of Maria Parloa’s ‘Choice Receipts,’ a recipe brochure with suggestions on how to use chocolate and cocoa in home kitchens” (Martin). This entrepreneurial partnership defines the roots of the creation of a new economic market companies have monopolized on ever since. Four of the five leading chocolate producers, which create over half the chocolate in the world, have been around for over a hundred years. These companies saw a chance to open a new market, dug out their areas, and took every chance to acquire potential competition and monopolize the market (Leissle 75). To this day, the current market is controlled by the original players who first figured out how to turn a currency into a dietary staple. The inherent economic basis of chocolate instigated and continues to drive its expansion into our diet, homes, and pockets.

Works Cited

“A History of Cocoa – 200 Years in Charts.” Winton, www.winton.com/longer-view/cocoas-bittersweet-bounty.

Balch, Oliver. “Child Labour: the Dark Truth behind Chocolate Production.” Raconteur, Raconteur Media Ltd., 18 Feb. 2020, www.raconteur.net/business-innovation/child-labour-cocoa-production.

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

Harp, Jenna, et al. “Xocolatl (Aztec Chocolate) Recipe.” Allrecipes, 2 Nov. 2010, www.allrecipes.com/recipe/216166/xocolatl-aztec-chocolate/.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018

Martin, Carla. “Brownies.” US History Scene, ushistoryscene.com/article/brownies/.
“Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.” A Tasty Currency: Cocoa – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm.

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