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Savory Chocolate: Cacao as a Seasoning

Langouste au chocolate amer;” even those who speak no French can guess at the contents of this dish, and yet many Americans would find it unbelievable. Lobster and chocolate? Who would ever think to pair such ingredients? Certain chefs of haute cuisine, evidently, and they are not alone in this tendency (Terrio 58). Maricel Presilla gives a similar recipe, this time of Catalan origin – Langosta con Chocolate y Almendras – in her book The New Taste of Chocolate. She details chocolate’s inclusion in the picada, “an essential mixture of chopped nuts and herbs, added to saucy foods almost at the end of cooking for flavor and texture,” and explains that it has played an essential role in several Catalan dishes since the 1700s (Presilla 225). Cacao can add richness and flavor to savory dishes, but this is a foreign concept for most people today, largely because “chocolate” is now synonymous with “sweet.”

The marriage of cacao and sugar is so prevalent that many consumers cannot imagine anything different, but this was not always the case. The Mayans and the Aztecs drank a variety of cacao beverages, of which only a few were sweetened. The introduction of sugar to such drinks could not take place until after European conquest, as sugar cane is not native to Mesoamerica. It was in Europe that sugared chocolate took off, eventually growing to its ubiquitous current position. This confection holds a complex place in the modern American diet; on the one hand, most chocolates are loaded with sugar, making them a potential health risk. On the other, in recent years cacao has been touted as a health food thanks to some studies, notably that conducted on the Kuna people of Panama by Norman Hollenberg (Presilla 57). Although divorcing cacao from sugar would certainly make chocolate healthier, the actual benefits conferred by cacao are still debated, complicating the health food argument. Perhaps we should eschew that reasoning, then, and instead focus on cacao for its flavor rather than its antioxidants or phenylethylamine content. Outside of Mesoamerica, much of the world has lost the knowledge of cacao as a seasoning, as a flavorful component in its own right that adds not sweetness but depth to a dish. By separating cacao from sugar, consumers can gain a greater appreciation of the beans themselves, of their quality and unique tastes, thus opening up a whole new type of cuisine to be explored.

Modern chocolate – with very few exceptions – is sweetened; it can be consumed in a

Although this bar incorporates a savory ingredient, it is still meant as a sweet treat; the first ingredient is sugar, setting it apart from the unsweetened cacao dishes eaten by the Maya

number of forms, from cakes to mousses to bars, but all of these, even when flavored with more “creative” ingredients like spices or even bacon (as pictured right), contain sugar. It thus seems rather one-dimensional in comparison to ancient Mayan and Aztec recipes, for, as Coe and Coe report, “Pre-Conquest chocolate was not a single concoction to be drunk; it was a vast and complex array of drinks, gruels, porridges, powders, and probably solid substances, to all of which could be added a wide variety of flavorings” (Coe and Coe Ch.2, “Lords of the Forest”). There was no one standardized preparation, no single ingredient present in all cacao dishes. Hieroglyphs on Maya artifacts, particularly on vases and deep bowls believed to have held cacao drinks (as shown below left),

rio azul
Discovered at the Rio Azul site, this vessel shows some of the “recipe” glyphs inscribed onto Mayan cacao-drinking ware. The glyph for cacao is apparent in the grayscale image just under the left side of the handle, and looks a bit like a fish

often include “recipe” glyphs detailing the specific contents of a particular vessel (Coe and Coe Ch.2, “Lords of the Forest). These recipes can differ tremendously, showcasing the diversity in Pre-Conquest cacao consumption. Elements of these early cacao drinks remain with some Maya descendants today, especially those recipes combining corn, water, and cacao into a type of gruel. The video below gives an example of one such modern preparation, complete with grinding the cacao beans on a metate as the ancient Maya would have done. The sweetness we now associate with chocolate, then, does not stem from its earliest consumers – Europeans were the ones to popularize sugar in chocolate.



Chocolate’s transformation from the drink of the Mayans and the Aztecs to the sweetened confection we now know happened largely in Europe after the 16th century. Marcy Norton argues that it was a slow evolution, that colonizers actually “unwittingly developed a taste for Indian chocolate” and that the move to sweet chocolate was the result of “a gradual process of change linked to the technological and economic challenges posed by long-distance trade” (Norton 660). Sugar and other Old World ingredients were more abundant and accessible to European consumers than the Mesoamerican ear-flower, for example, and so over time the former came to dominate chocolate recipes. There were a few experiments into savory chocolate dishes during the 1600s, most notably in Mexico – mole, the most well known savory chocolate sauce today, was supposedly invented during this time – and Italy, where there is recorded evidence of chocolate being added to liver, polenta, and veal (Coe and Coe Ch.7 “Chocolate in Cuisine”). These were rather unique occurrences, however; by and large, sugared chocolate swept across Europe such that by the 18th century it was the typical way to consume cacao. When the Fry firm created the first bar of eating chocolate in 1847, sugar was already an indispensible key ingredient, and it has continued to be so ever since (Coe and Coe Ch.8 “Quaker Capitalists”).

Modern consumers are so accustomed to sugar in their chocolate that – speaking from first-hand experience – the bitterness of cacao liquor can be a surprise. Sugar, not cacao, is the main ingredient in most “chocolate” candies, as demonstrated by this Snickers

Though marketed as a chocolatey candy, Snickers bars list sugar first on the ingredients list, and then again (corn syrup and sugar) later down the list. The taste of this candy is a far cry from the bitterness of chocolate liquor

nutrition label. The amount of sugar in modern American diets has become a major concern as obesity rates increase; articles like Robert Lustig’s “The Toxic Truth About Sugar” link added sugars to a number of diseases, arguing that “overconsumption of [added sugars] is driving worldwide epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes” (Taubes). Lots of chocolate products, particularly milk ones, are thus implicated for their high sugar content, creating a strange tension: do we love cacao, or just the sugar added to it? After all, most chocolate eaters cannot imagine enjoying unsweetened chocolate, and yet it is the sugar, not the cacao, that is the problem. In a rather ironic twist, cacao itself may have a number of health benefits.


Cacao is a complex substance, and several of the compounds it contains – including iron and magnesium – are beneficial to humans. “Every few months,” Williams and Eber write, somewhat indulgently, “another study appears touting cardiovascular, antiaging, mood-enhancing, and other healthful benefits from eating chocolate” (Williams 184). The antioxidants in cacao, specifically flavanols, have recently also come into special focus following Hollenberg’s study of cardiovascular health in the Kuna people, which “point[ed] to a link between cacao consumption and low blood pressure” (Presilla 58). This possible connection is far from conclusive evidence, and yet studies like Hollenberg’s have prompted the new “health food” status of chocolates with high cacao content. Cacao may confer some health benefits, but as James Howe reveals in “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered,” some of these claims – and the studies behind them – should be taken with a grain of salt. Howe looks cautiously upon modern notions that “chocolate reduces hypertension, minimizes cardiovascular disease, and even fights diabetes and cancer,” drawing from his own experiences living among the Kuna people to push back against Hollenberg’s study (Howe 43). He notes that while the Kuna do consume a large amount of cacao, it is not nearly at the level that Hollenberg claims. Instead, Howe points to their overall diet, which is relatively low in fat; he admits that “it may well be that chocolate consumption…makes a positive contribution” to cardiovascular fitness, but puts far more emphasis on the Kuna lifestyle as a cause. Other traditional indigenous populations share in this trend of low blood pressure, despite consuming no cacao, lending weight to Howe’s argument (Howe 49). Cacao thus may afford some health benefits, but the exact nature and strength of these benefits is still unclear.

Regardless of chocolate’s precise impact on health, learning to separate cacao from sugar is still desirable. Lessening sugar content would certainly make chocolate healthier, even without taking into account the possible effects of higher cacao percentages. Stepping back from purely nutritional reasons, however, opens up even more possibilities. Cacao offers a distinct flavor that could be harnessed in cuisine outside of desserts, and perhaps doing so would allow consumers to truly appreciate the cacao bean itself instead of added sugars. Using cacao as a seasoning could potentially boost the endangered fine cacao market: just as different varieties of herbs and spices have unique tastes, so too do the different types of cacao. A Criollo bean (pictured below left), for example, will not taste the same as an Amelonado one (pictured below right), and the two would impact dishes differently. Chefs could experiment with various beans in seasoning food, thus hopefully increasing demand for the flavorful Criollo and Trinitario varieties, which currently make up only 5-7% of global production (Martin). This in turn would preserve genetic diversity in cacao, an essential factor in combating diseases and allowing this beloved crop to flourish in future generations.


Examples of Criollo (left) and Amelonado (above) cacao pods. The different varieties of cacao differ in appearance, taste, and genetic makeup; increasing production of Criollo varieties, despite their relative frailty, will go a long way towards preserving diversity

Chocolate and sugar have gone hand-in-hand in recent centuries, but consumers stand to gain by learning to separate the two. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs showed that there are ways to enjoy cacao unsweetened, and cooking and seasoning with cacao would allow people today to rediscover those lost dimensions and tastes. As added motivation, sugarless chocolate is healthier and may help combat cardiovascular diseases. If we allow an appreciation of cacao’s flavor to drive these culinary experiments, it might even help bolster the market for fine cacao, thus preserving the genetic diversity and flavorful variations of the crop. In order to better appreciate cacao as a whole, we must allow it to divorce from sugar and break out of its constraints as only a sweet confection.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. E-book.

Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12 (1) (May 1): 43–52. 2012

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 7: Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. CGIS South, Tsai Auditorium S010, Cambridge. Lecture.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111 (3): 660-691. 2006.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.

Taubes, Gary and Christin Kearns Couzens. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” <;

Terrio, Susan J. Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Print.

Williams, Pam, and Jim Eber. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Wilmor Pub., 2012. Print.

Multimedia Sources:

Bacon bar image: “20091226 – Christmas Presents.” Flickr. Yahoo! Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Rio Azul vessel image: Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. CGIS South, Tsai Auditorium S010, Cambridge. Lecture.

Chocolate drink video: Teabelize. “Toledo Ecotourism Association – Making a Chocolate Drink.” YouTube. YouTube, 2008. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <;.

Snickers nutrition: “Ingredients – Snickers Production.” Snickers Production. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <;.

“The Toxic Truth about Sugar” link: Lustig, Robert H., Laura A. Schmidt, and Claire D. Brindis. “Public Health: The Toxic Truth about Sugar.” Nature 482.7383 (2012): 27-29. Web.

Criollo cacao image: “Cacao Varietals.” Cocoa Kiss. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <;.

Amelonado cacao image: “Beniano.” C-Spot. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <;.



Female Objectification in Modern Chocolate Advertising

Sex sells – it’s an idea entrenched in today’s marketing schemes, with companies adding sexual images and double entendres into advertisements for completely unrelated

This Arby’s ad, run in 2009, shows just one example of the kinds of sexual objectification and innuendos employed by today’s marketing industry

products. Examples include this Arby’s poster, wherein the hamburger buns are clearly meant to represent barely-covered breasts and the tagline – “We’re about to reveal something you’ll really drool over” – stands as a blatant innuendo. There has been some pushback against this concept: this Forbes article highlights some of the controversies, especially over the extreme sexualization and objectification of women, surrounding this trend in areas like the fast food industry. Modern chocolate advertising, however, has received comparatively less attention, despite such themes being just as, if not more, pervasive. Ads are filled with images of pleasure, sensuality, and indulgence, essentially conflating chocolate with sex. The protagonists of such advertisements, including the one for Hershey’s Bliss Chocolate included below, are usually women, and these actresses and models are the ones to convey the physical gratification derived from chocolate. This heightened focus on the female body can play a dangerous role in shaping women’s self-image; a push back against the theme might thus take women out of the picture entirely and focus instead on the chocolate itself.

This Hershey’s ad, with its upbeat music and fully clothed women, seems like a relatively standard, unremarkable promotion – and that is why it’s a perfect demonstration of the deeply entrenched themes in chocolate marketing. One would see this commercial on TV and probably not spare it a second thought, and yet it hints at the sexism present in most chocolate advertising. All three models clearly enjoy the chocolate, and while their expressions of physical pleasure are not as exaggerated as in this ad for Cadbury’s Flake, where the water overflowing from the tub symbolizes erotic release:

the general idea is the same. The first woman, as shown in the screen cap (below left), closes her eyes in pleasure, savoring the bite of “creamy milk” chocolate. The second actress (below right) is more overt; her eyes are open, challenging and seductive, as she faces the camera and deliberately brings the chocolate to her lips. Both models have their lips parted to show a definite, sensual flash of teeth. The message is clear, even if the signs are subtle: chocolate induces pleasurable feelings, often comparable to sex, in these women, and can thus be expected to do the same for other consumers.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 7.07.07 PM
Screen caps taken from the Hershey’s ad

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 7.06.31 PM


The Hershey’s ad also underlines how chocolate marketing is primarily directed at women. It shows three different actresses, with a fourth performing a voice-over, but no actors, implying that women, the intended consumers, have a special relationship with chocolate.   Indeed, the trend of targeting women in chocolate advertising has its roots in history. Females have long been thought of as having a greater predilection for sugar than males; P. Morton Shand, writing of the origins of afternoon tea in Britain, called the tea “an excuse for the indulgence of a woman’s naturally sweet tooth” (Mintz 142). Chocolate is sweetened with sugar, making it an attractive treat, but it allegedly also has a special ability to invoke female obsession. As Emma Robertson articulates, “Chocolate has supposedly addictive properties which women are unable to resist” (Robertson 35). These “addictive properties” make it a constant temptation, one that women are expected to resist in order to keep to modern beauty standards. Giving in is thus seen as an indulgence, a “pleasurable surrender,” and chocolate ads play on this idea of guilty pleasure (Robertson 35). The Hershey’s commercial is no different: “Incredible indulgence,” it

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 7.08.22 PMpromises, while the third model flashes a small smile at the camera (shown right). Her expression has a hint of surprise and playful guilt, as if she’s been caught doing something she shouldn’t. As Robertson notes, this idea of temptation and indulgence eventually comes back to sex: “Chocolate,” she writes, “offers a safe…and natural release of implicitly sexualized desires” (Robertson 35). Release of desires, yes, but as the Cadbury’s Flake ad, and the Hershey’s ad to a lesser extent, show, the implicit has become explicit in today’s marketing.

Modern chocolate ads seem to be selling sensuality as much as chocolate. They often feature close-ups of women with eyes closed and lips parted, as if experiencing a physical revelation. This focus on specific, erotically charged body parts is a form of objectification, and can in turn have detrimental effects on female self-image. The Counseling Psychologist article “Sexual Objectification of Women” notes that the practice “equates a woman’s worth with her body’s appearance and sexual functions” (Szymanski). It places the highest importance on looks rather than personality or mental health, and can thus be harmful to young women especially. To combat this trend, then, an ad might take the focus off the body, female or otherwise, entirely. This proposed ad, shown left, pushes

A less controversial proposed ad, drawn by the author, to replace the original Hershey’s Bliss commercial. The blue squares stand for wrapped milk chocolate, the pink for dark.

back against the idea of chocolate as an individual, privately erotic experience for women. It forgoes any gendered component by not showing a person, instead placing all attention on the wrapped pieces of chocolate (represented by the blue and pink squares). It keeps the name Hershey’s Bliss, but by removing any references to sex or indulgence, the bliss no longer has a connection to erotic pleasure. Also, by the wording “Share a moment,” eating chocolate becomes a communal activity. The focus is less on individual enjoyment and more on the joy of sharing what one likes with someone else. Where the original ad only appears innocent, subtly reinforcing pervasive themes of objectification and sexual pleasure, the proposed ad avoids the trend altogether. Rather than a replacement for sex, chocolate is allowed to be an enjoyable treat.



Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.

Szymanski, D. M., L. B. Moffitt, and E. R. Carr. “Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research 1 7.” The Counseling Psychologist 39.1 (2010): 6-38. Web.

Multimedia Sources:

Arby’s Ad: “Does Sex Sell in Online Marketing?” SEO Training SW. 2013. Web. 07 Apr. 2016. <;.

Cadbury Ad: Cadbury’s. “Cadbury’s Flake 1991 Commercial, Featuring Rachel Brown.” YouTube. Web. 05 Apr. 2016. <;

Forbes Article: Dan, Avi. “Will This Powerful Video Stop Sexist Ads That Objectify Women?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine. Web. 07 Apr. 2016. <;.

Hershey’s Bliss Ad: Hershey’s. “One Square Inch Hershey’s Bliss Chocolate TV Commercial.” Youtube. Web. 07 Apr. 2016. <;



Sugar, Milk, and the Rise of Mass Chocolate Consumption

Walk into any convenience or grocery store in the U.S. and you will likely be greeted by a display of brightly wrapped candies. Many of these contain chocolate; a 2012 Bloomberg study found M&Ms to be the top-selling American candy, followed by Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate, and Snickers Bars (Arndt). All four of these products are marketed as chocolate-based sweets, but it is sweetness, not chocolate, that seems to be the main focus. The nutrition label for a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar, for example034000290055NF (pictured right), lists sugar as the primary ingredient, and then milk. Only after these two does chocolate appear. The addition of sugar and milk to eating chocolate goes back to the 1800s, largely motivated by that fact that, in a trend that continues to this day, cacao was more expensive than sugar or milk. It was the relative cheapness of the latter two ingredients that allowed for mass production – and thus true mass consumption – of eating chocolate from the late 1800s onwards. As the list of candies above attests, this combination still shapes modern chocolate preferences.

Europeans have been adding sugar to drinking chocolate since the early 1500s, when cacao was first introduced to the West. It comes as no surprise, then, that the first chocolate bar made expressly for eating, invented by Joseph Fry in 1847, was molded from a combination of cocoa powder, melted cacao butter, and sugar (Coe and Coe Ch.8, “Quaker Capitalists”). Soon after, in 1867, Henri Nestlé found a way to manufacture

Peter’s Milk Chocolate was the first of its kind to be created. This advertisement draws on words like “smooth” and “creamy” to draw customers in, adjectives that are still associated with milk chocolate. The relatively lower price on this and subsequent milk chocolate bars meant they could be marketed to customers other than the very wealthy.

powdered milk, and the first milk chocolate bar – an advertisement for which is shown on the left – a joint creation of Nestlé and Daniel Peter, was born in 1879 (Coe and Coe Ch.8, “Switzerland”). From 1903 onwards, Milton Hershey built his company around milk chocolate and cocoa powder, though he developed his chocolate using liquid condensed milk rather than the powdered variety. Liquid milk was easier and faster – and therefore cheaper – to transport from one end of a factory to another, allowing Hershey to make and sell his products domestically for a lower price (D’Antonio 107).


Milk chocolate was to become the foundation of popular chocolate consumption,

Cacao prices from 2006-2012, recorded in USD/metric ton

originally for price but later because of a developed taste for the added sweetness. To make it, one adds milk in with the other ingredients before refining and conching the mixture. Milk and sugar both add flavor and volume, allowing manufacturers to use less chocolate liquor – made from cacao beans – than would otherwise be needed (Coe and Coe Ch.8, “Quality vs. Quantity”). This makes the chocolate cheaper to produce, and men like Hershey would have recognized this when building companies. Over the past century, cacao has generally been more expensive than sugar or milk. The trend

Sugar prices from 2002-2009, recorded in US cents/lb. Comparatively, a ton of sugar is much less expensive than a ton of cacao

continues on in today’s market, as shown by the provided graphs (cacao above right, sugar on the left). At its lowest price between 2006 and 2012, a ton of cacao cost over 15,000 USD; by contrast, at its highest price over the similar time period 2002-2009, a ton of sugar (after conversion from cents/lb) could be bought for less than 500 USD.



Milk and sugar were thus cheaper to obtain for companies looking to mass produce chocolate after the late 1800s. This made sweet milk chocolate less expensive to make than dark chocolate, which required more chocolate liquor. By the same token, it also meant milk chocolate could be sold at lower prices, making it attractive and accessible to consumers. Where before chocolate had been largely consumed by the wealthy, Hershey’s bars could be bought for only a nickel in the 1920s, a very affordable fee for the average person (Brenner 55). Cost was thus an important consideration on both sides, as the success of Mars’ Milky Way further demonstrates. Created in 1924, the Milky Way “tasted just as chocolatey” as a bar but was much less expensive to manufacture (Brenner 55). It’s main ingredient was nougat, “a whipped filling made of egg whites and corn syrup,” with only a thin chocolate casing (Brenner 54). Nougat was cheaper to produce than chocolate, and so Mars could make Milky Ways much bigger than traditional chocolate bars for the same expense. Consumers loved the candy for its price, size, and sweet taste; another Mars creation, the Snickers bar, enjoyed similar success, and continues to be the fourth best-selling candy in the U.S. (Arndt).

Today, milk chocolate candies remain vastly more popular than their dark chocolate counterparts. Although price remains a factor, a major reason for this is the acquired tastes of consumers for sweeter chocolate. It is expected that candy and chocolate will be packed with sugar, and this assumption stems from over a century of eating the sweetened milk chocolate of Hershey’s, Mars, Cadbury, and other such companies. The practice of adding milk and sugar stemmed from the cost of these ingredients relative to cacao, and what began as a method for cheaply producing chocolate has grown to shape the Western world’s perception of chocolate. Although dark chocolate has a strong following, milk chocolate still reigns supreme.


Arndt, Michael. “America’s 25 Favorite Candies: Top-Selling Sweets.” Bloomberg. Web. 07 Mar. 2016. <;.

Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. E-book.

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print.

Multimedia Sources:

Hershey Bar Nutrition Facts: “Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars, Six 1.55-Ounce Bars – MyQuickMart.” MyQuickMart. Web. 08 Mar. 2016. <;.

Peter Milk Chocolate Advertisement: “Milk Chocolate – History of Milk Chocolate.” What’s Cooking America. Web. 08 Mar. 2016. <;.

Cocoa price graph: “Cocoa Growing Region.” Web. 08 Mar. 2016. <;.

Sugar price graph: “Imbalance between Supply and Demand Drives Sugar Prices to 28 Year High | Economics.” Web. 08 Mar. 2016. <;.

Cacao and War in the Aztec Empire

Today, chocolate is associated with many things – love, comfort, sin – but not with war. In Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, however, and especially in the Aztec world, the two shared an important connection. Cacao was a commodity worth going to war over; the empire targeted major cacao-producing regions for conquest, and then demanded the seeds as tribute. Aztec armies carried cacao as part of their rations, and a class of warrior-merchants, the pochteca, made their livings transporting the valuable beans across often-dangerous terrain. At several levels, then, from production up to consumption, cacao’s place in Aztec culture was tied to battle.

For the Aztecs, cacao drinks were a privilege of the elite. Common people used the beans as currency, but in the “stratified, aristocratic society” of the empire, organized under hierarchical sumptuary laws, few outside of the nobles were allowed to drink cacao (Coe and Coe Ch.3, “Eve of Conquest”).

The Xonconocho (later changed to Soconusco by the Spanish) region, source of the Aztec’s fine cacao, is shaded black in the map above

Those who did consume the beverage understood that different regions produced varying qualities of cacao, and valued the seeds accordingly. The cacao grown in Xonconocho (seen left), part of the modern-day Chiapas State, was especially desirable, and as such was “a spur to conquest” for the Aztecs (Presilla 17). Before the arrival of the conquistadors, a campaign was launched to conquer Xonconocho, and the region soon became one of the empire’s major cacao-producing areas. Surviving records like the 16th century Códice Mendoza (shown below) make special note of the 400 loads – with 24,000 beans per load – sent to Tenochtitlan every year as tribute (Presilla 16).

In this tribute list from the Codice Mendoza, loads of cacao beans are listed among other exotic goods like jaguar skins and feathers, showing the prized place of cacao in Aztec society

The pochtecha, designated long-distance merchants, were the ones to carry these tributary loads of cacao, as well as loads traded for outside of the empire, to the capital. Beyond Xonconocho, these merchants were responsible for transporting “exotic goods,” including cacao, to Tenochtitlan from “distant ‘ports of trade’” like Xicallanco in the Tabasco region (Coe and Coe Ch.3, “Flavorings”). Their dangerous expeditions could span hundreds of miles, all while carrying cargo precious enough to need protection. Upon completion, merchants often threw lavish banquets with spreads including their prized wares of cacao and hueinacaztli, or “ear flower” (Coe and Coe Ch. 3, “Drink of the Elite”). The pochtecha were permitted to imbibe cacao, despite not being nobles, perhaps because their job was so perilous. As Coe and Coe point out, these traders “were often armed,” and they “travelled through very dangerous lands to reach their markets, and often fought pitched battles with hostile foreign groups” (Ch.3, “Drink of the Elite”). In a sense, then, they were warriors.

Taken from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, the above image depicts a pochteca merchant carrying a load of some exotic product, possibly cacao beans. He would have had to traverse dangerous territory with this valuable good


The molecule theobromine has stimulant effects that would have been helpful on the battlefield

Aztec warriors were the final group allowed to drink cacao. On campaigns, armies were rationed ground cacao that could be added to water (Presilla 19). Warriors may have held a special place in a society so focused on expansion and military prowess, but they did not belong to the nobility. A brave fighter might earn some of the honors afforded to the upper class, but why give cacao to all members of the army? The practice suggests a knowledge of cacao’s stimulant properties. Cacao contains theobromine – withapproximately 25 grams per kilogram of cacao seeds – a compound similar in structure and effect to caffeine (“Theobromine”). The Aztecs would not have known this molecule, but over time they and the Maya before them observed the impact it had on consumers. The extra energy afforded by cacao likely sustained armies on the march and gave warriors a slight edge in battle. Furthermore, the Aztec priests’ other name for cacao, “heart and blood,” suggests an even deeper connection. Coe and Coe note that when a new Eagle or Jaguar Knight – honored as the bravest of warriors – was named, cacao was served at the ceremony, being a symbol for blood (Ch.3, “Cacao in Symbol and Ritual”). Warriors in the field might have been thought to gain from drinking this metaphorical “heart and blood.”


Aztec warriors often carried a macuahuitl, shown above, into battle. The war club’s edges were lined with obsidian shards, making it a formidable weapon, especially when combined with cacao’s stimulant effects

Aztec culture weaved together the ideas of cacao and battle. The seeds were valuable enough to motivate conquests, and there existed a whole class of society dedicated to safely transporting cacao from one place to another. Perhaps the most salient example of this connection, however, lay with the warriors. In an empire where only the nobles were permitted cacao beverages, armies were given rations of cacao to take to war. This apparent exception to the traditional sumptuary laws demonstrates the depth of the ties between cacao and war for the Aztecs.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. E-book.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.

“Theobromine.” Phytochemicals. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <;.

Multimedia Sources:

Macuahuitl Image: “Mexica Weaponry.” Mexicolore. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <;.

Pochteca Image: “Mice: Aztec Spies!” Mexicolore. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <;.

Theobromine Image: “Learn About Theobromine, the Caffeine-Like Chemical in Chocolate.” Education. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <;.

Tribute List: “CHOCOLATE.” Food of the Gods. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <;.

Xonconocho Map: “Agricultura De Exportación, Migración Y Remesas.” Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <;.