Hate Hershey’s? The Changing Taste of Chocolate Throughout History

As both an international student and self-professed chocolate lover, I simply cannot stand the taste of Hershey’s. In a nutshell, I would rather eat no chocolate at all than consume a Hershey’s product; quite the statement for a big chocolate fan. Throughout history, events which may have seemed insignificant at the time have had drastic impacts on the ways in which we perceive chocolate around the world today. We often talk about the different types of chocolate which exist, but we rarely discuss (and explain) the differences in tastes of chocolates both today and how these have evolved throughout history. Our society seems to understand that chocolate today is much sweeter than it was in the past, but the true narrative is much more nuanced than that. Furthermore, given chocolate’s incredible presence in our generation, a question we can ask ourselves is: did the recipe for chocolate adapt to changing taste preferences, or did these preferences change as a result of chocolate’s intense popularity? Upon research, it seems as though the answer is likely a combination of the two, with different time periods presenting different directions of causality. In this blog post, we can briefly examine events from the first tasting of chocolate thousands of years ago to the giant manufacturers we see in the world today; discussing what contributed to such a changing taste and its unexpected effects on the rest of the world.

The first Mesoamerican cultivation of cacao was thought to be as long ago as 1500 BC by the Olmec (likely Mayan ancestors). During the classical period of 150-900 AD, the Mayans were documented for using cacao (or, “kakaw”) in many of their practices, including marriage rituals, funerals and other sacred gatherings. It appears as though cacao was used for more spiritual and practical purposes rather than the primary purpose of taste it is used for today. However, even centuries ago there are instances where it seems as though cacao was indeed exploited for its unique taste. Despite much of the literature stating that cacao was consumed solely as a drink in Mayan society, it was also used as a flavoring in food; considered a spice rather than simply a food in its own right.

Many of us understand that chocolate was not always sweet. In fact, sugar was only introduced into chocolate in the 16th century by the Spaniards, after their conquest of the Aztecs. The addition of sugar allowed the unfamiliar bitterness that Europeans did not enjoy to be counteracted and thus minimized. Chocolate would likely not have been accepted as a normal beverage by the Spanish had it remained cold, bitter, and unsweetened. It became heated, sweetened with cane sugar, and spiced with more familiar substances such as cinnamon. (Coe & Coe 250).

% of Colonial European Chocolate Recipe with Specific Ingredients: Carla Martin 2020

Britain commonly used cinnamon as an addition to chocolate in early colonial times; even more so than the more common vanilla (and in some cases, sugar) that we associate chocolate with today. This was, in part, due to Britain’s proximity and colonial ties to Asia, where cinnamon was endemic. It is clear that chocolate has geographically distinctive tastes, but why is this not the case for many other foods? Sampeck & Thayn suggest that this is primarily as a result of the fact that cacao has an unusual transformational ability, where it can be liquid, solid, scent and flavor (73). They argue that this made cacao a “colonial superingestible,” allowing for divergent (yet often connected) tastes.

This is just an example of how a change in consumer taste demographics can result in a fundamental changing of the chocolate recipe; presenting a case for causality in this direction. As another example, in the US, annual sugar consumption per person rose drastically from 2lbs in 1800, to 123lbs in 1970, to its current peak of 152lbs today. In all the societies to which it was introduced, sugar started out as a glamorous luxury for the rich – then worked its way down to the middle class, before becoming a staple for even the poor (Mintz 122). As these transitions occurred, its production increased; and so did its inclusion into chocolate recipes.

US Sugar Consumption Over Time: Stephan Guyenet and Jeremy Landen, Whole Health Source 2012

But this still begs the question: why do I (and my other international friends) have such a visceral distaste for North American chocolate? The answer lies in the history of Hershey’s, and how its creation shaped the taste buds of Americans today. In 1903, Milton S. Hershey and John Schmalbach discovered a method to create chocolate quicker – and therefore cheaper – than the Europeans were able to do so during the same time period (D’Antonio 108). However, one noticeable difference came to fruition as a result: the taste. D’Antonio states: “From the very beginning, Hershey’s milk chocolate has had a distinctive flavor. It is sweet, like the others, but it also carries a single, faintly sour note” (108). The added acidity that D’Antonio describes began as the result of the fermentation of milk fat; an unanticipated byproduct of Schmalbach’s process of slow and low-heat evaporation. D’Antonio adds: “Anyone who knew Swiss milk chocolate would have detected the unusual taste and may have found Hershey’s candy unpleasant. But in the mouths of people who had never tried the stuff made in Europe, Hershey’s milk chocolate would be a revelation” (108). The process of scaling-up chocolate for North American production is ultimately what gave Hershey’s its distinct flavor. The mass-production giant that it is, Hershey’s has come to define the taste of chocolate for Americans today. It’s incredible that an entire nation’s perception of chocolate was decided at the exact moment Milton S. Hershey decided to enlist the help of John Schmalbach on a whim; disregarding the chemists who had previously failed him. Had that process not been discovered in their random experimentation, it is likely Americans would have a vastly different taste of chocolate today. This is just an example of how the causality between changing tastes and changing recipes of chocolate can be reversed; the recipe/preparation techniques helped shape the taste of an entire nation.

The Chocolate Wars: American vs British Cadbury, Vanity Fair 2015

References:

  1. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007[1996].
  2. Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, 2017.
  3. Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, 1985.
  4. D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. Simon & Schuster Paperback, 2006.
  5. Spices: Exotic Flavors and Medicines (Chocolate), UCLA, 2002, https://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice/index.cfm?displayID=4
  6. CHART OF THE DAY: American Per-Capita Sugar Consumption Hits 100 Pounds Per Year, Business Insider, 2012, https://www.businessinsider.com/chart-american-sugar-consumption-2012-2?r=US&IR=T
  7. Martin, Carla. Colonial European Chocolate Recipe Ingredients, Chocolate Expansion, Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide 30. Spring Academic Year, 2020.
  8. The Chocolate Wars: American vs British Cadbury, Vanity Fair, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lUkZH2pIYM

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