The Development of Chocolate as an Industrialized Food

Globally, chocolate production rakes in $100 billion each year (Lecture 01, slide 4). Though just five companies control almost two-thirds of the chocolate market worldwide, an abundance of people have an invested stake in this business – almost 50 million people around the world financially depend on cacao (Leissle, 2018; Lecture 01, slide 4). Evidently, chocolate possesses a large importance in the global economy, and this eminence has been made possible by its massive industrialization. This industrialization of chocolate would not have occurred on such a large scale without the development of machinery, as well as the utilization of slave labor.

Man in factory, 1985.
Man in factory, 1985.

Before the rampant industrialization of chocolate, chocolate was produced by hand. Originally, cacao was found in the Amazon basin, and consumed by the Olmecs, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that preceded the Mayans (Lecture 02, slide 15). For some time, cacao remained local to Mesoamerica, until the first half of the 16th century (experts disagree on the exact year), when Hernaz Cortez brought cacao to Spain (Coe & Coe, 1996). Before this voyage, chocolate had to be culturally accepted by Spanish colonizers. Thus, they combined their own preferences with those of the Aztecs, consuming hot, rather than cool or cold, liquid chocolate; adding sugar, and spices; and employing the use of a molinillo to froth chocolate (Coe & Coe, 1996). Furthermore, the conversion of chocolate from a beverage to a solid form, as well as a powder that could subsequently be converted back to a liquid, was essential in the transportation of chocolate from Mesoamerica to Spain (Coe & Coe, 1996). Following the arrival of chocolate in Spain, this food subsequently made its way through other countries in the continent, going next to Italy, France, Britain, and then to the British colonies in the New World (Coe & Coe, 1996; Lecture 03, slide 25). 

As cacao made its way across the world, the means of chocolate production likewise changed. In Mesoamerica, cacao beans were ground with a metate, ultimately producing chocolate liquor. However, this mode of production was energetically expensive, and time-inefficient. With the inception of machines that were able to mechanically grind cacao beans into chocolate liquor, chocolate production has been able to increase exponentially, and this increased supply has been able to meet the growing demand of consumers – once consisting of the wealthy, now consisting of people from a variety of cultures and socioeconomic spheres. In fact, in 2018, US consumers of chocolate ingested more than a whopping 12 pounds of chocolate per person (Lecture 01, slide 3). 

Also important in the development of chocolate as an industrialized food was the use of slave labor in cacao production. “From demands for cocoa tribute by ruling Aztec kings, to enforced production by Spanish colonists in the Americas, through the importation of African slaves in South America and the Caribbean…the violent exploitation of humans has been a recurrent feature of cocoa production” (Leissle, 2018, p.131). Without this labor, cacao production, and consequently, the production of chocolate, would not have ballooned to modern-day levels, and the popularity of chocolate would likewise not be as great, as fewer people would have access to it. The first major explosion of cocoa production occured in the Gulf of Guinea, during the 1800s (Clarence-Smith, 1993; De Vasconcelos, 2007) . Through the employment of slave labor in this colony, Portugal was soon able to become the largest producer of cacao in the world (De Vasconcelos, 2007). Indeed, “the greater success of the Portuguese was due mainly to their access to a plentiful supply of slave labor” (Clarence-Smith, 1993, p.152). By 1876, slavery was legally abolished in the Portuguese colonies, but effectively continued in the shadows long after this emancipation. As chocolate production spread, slavery – whether legal or illegal – spread with it, allowing the industry to boom. Forced child labor can be found even in the modern era, as studies have indicated that almost 30 percent of child laborers in the Ivory Coast are effectviely held hostage on the fams on which they produce cacao, and more than an additional 10 percent of child laborers lack the financial stability to leave these farms, as of 2002 (Leissle, 2018). Coerced labor is the cheapest form of labor, and evidently still supports the industrialization of chocolate, even today. 

Artistic rendition of slave labor

Though the industrialization of chocolate has been supported on the backs on unfree laborers, the rise of Fair Trade organizations has served as an attempt to attenuate this injustice. These organizations award Fair Trade certification to companies that employ ethical cacao production practices, including protecting children from harsh labor, refraining from the use of unfree labor in their production, and instituting environmentally conscious practices (Leissle, 2018). Though much of the history of chocolate development as an industrialized food is morally unsavory, Fair Trade organizations provide the potential for a more just future in chocolate production. 

Box of chocolate confectionaries


Chocolate shapes [Photograph] (2015). Internet Archive.

Clarence-Smith, W.G. (1993). Breaking the Chains: Slavery, Bondage, and Emancipation in Modern Africa and Asia. The University of Wisconsin Press.

Coe, S.D., & Coe, M.D. (1996). The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. 

De Vasconcelos, A. The Cadbury and the Portuguese Cocoa, first decade 20th century. Economic interests, slave trade, and Quaker business ethics. Universidad de Aveiro, Dep. de Linguas e Culturas (2007).

Klimek, M.E. (1985). Vice President John J. Sullivan inside closed Ferry-Morse factory [Photograph]. Internet Archive.

Latuff. (2008). Afro-Brazilian, from slavery to poverty [Illustration]. Internet Archive.

Leissle, K. (2018). Cocoa. Polity Press.

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