We all love chocolate, but how has it evolved into what it is today? Europeans have transformed chocolate into one of the most common dessert foods in the world. This journey began fairly local to the equator and now continues throughout the entire world. Europe transformed chocolate into something everyone desired, and those involved in supplying this demand did so in quite innovative ways. However, the history of chocolate is not as sweet as it may seem, as it involves some very inhumane practices.
The story of chocolate begins in what is now known as Mexico, Central America, and South America. People like the ancient mayans had many uses for the cacao plant. Some of the most common uses were chocolate as medicine, as flavoring in food, and as a ritualistic drink (Garthwaite 2015)(lecture 2, slide 54). Throughout all of these uses, chocolate was not the sweet milky treat we often think of today. Chocolate was more raw and bitter tasting (Garthwaite). It was often prepared as a drink or mixed into a different food. The ancient Mayan drink, Xocolatl, is a perfect example. “Xocolatl” translates to “bitter water,” and was thought of as the food of the gods to the Mayans (Harris 2019). An example of how important chocolate was to the Mayans is the marriage ritual “tac haa.” This ritual used chocolate to help bring the families of a couple who would potentially marry together. Things involved in marriage are always those things that are most important to us, and this is no different. Chocolate was so valuable that cacao seeds were even used as currency in Mesoamerica (Cartwright 2020). Before Europeans got their hands on chocolate, it was a bitter product used to enhance the experience of life with no negative repercussions. This changed when Europeans brought themselves into the world of chocolate.
Chocolate is mass-produced in many variations in today’s world. Most commonly, chocolate is a sweet milky product consumed more like a dessert or candy. The chocolate market is currently valued at about 100 billion dollars per year (lecture 1, slide 4). Chocolate has evolved from something used for health benefits and religious purposes into something that is most commonly a guilty pleasure of those who consume it. In fact, we can’t get enough of it! In the year 2017 alone, Americans consumed 3 billion pounds of chocolate (lecture 4, slide 11). It’s fair to say that chocolate has changed drastically throughout history, and this change has been largely facilitated by Europeans.
When Europeans travelled to the New World, they would bring things back to Europe that were useful or valuable, and cacao was one of these things. They began calling the processed and traded product “cocoa” instead of cacao. This is the first sign of Europeans starting to separate their product from traditional Mesoamerican chocolate. Like with anything, Europeans wanted to make as much money as possible from cacao production. At first, only the elite could afford to have chocolate. Naturally everyone wants access to the luxuries that the wealthy have access to. This image along with the addition of things like sugar and powdered milk to chocolate recipes led to a huge European demand for chocolate. A familiar name, Henri Nestle, was a Swiss man who created powdered milk in 1867, and another Swiss man, Daniel Peter, used powdered milk to create the first milk chocolate bar in 1879 (Lecture 5, slide 21). These European innovations were huge steps towards modern chocolate. Demand was high, people were making money, but chocolate and sugar were not cheap to produce and ship to Europe. Jean Tobler created the Toblerone filled chocolate bar in 1899 (Lecture 5, slide 25). Filling the chocolate bar with nougat was not only delicious, but it significantly reduced the cost of producing these bars. Everything seemed to be great in Europe’s chocolate industry, but what about the places where all of this chocolate and sugar was coming from?
To maximize profits and reduce costs, Europeans used slave labor to meet the soaring demand for these crops. African slaves were brought to the New World on European ships and forced to work under extremely harsh conditions. Countless slaves were worked to death to satisfy the European sweet tooth, and both slave and child labor continues to this day (foodispower.org). There is great evidence that all of this slavery in the Americas did not happen because of racism, but racism against Africans and African-Americans is a byproduct of this slavery (Lecture 5, slide 67). All of the terrible racist acts throughout our history stem from greedy Europeans wanting more and disregarding others.
Yes, Europeans did incredible things for the growth and expansion of chocolate, but at what cost? In developing the chocolate industry and supplying the ever-growing demand, innocent lives were destroyed, and individuals with no relation to the chocolate industry continue to suffer the consequences. We can all still enjoy chocolate for what it is, but we need to be recognize the sacrifices and violence that has brought it to us.
Cartwright, Mark. “Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 24 Mar. 2020, http://www.ancient.eu/Chocolate_in_Mesoamerica/.
Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/.
Harris, Karen. “Xocolatl: The Mayan Food Of The Gods.” History Daily, 10 Apr. 2019, historydaily.org/xocolatl-the-mayan-food-of-the-gods.
“Chocolate: Child Labor & Slavery in the Chocolate Industry.” Food Empowerment Project, 11 Mar. 2019, foodispower.org/chocolate-child-labor-slavery-in-the-chocolate-industry/