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Good Chocolate / Bad Chocolate: A Gradient of Chocolate Qualities in Harvard Square

The history of chocolate and its relation to society is long and full of dichotomies, some true, and some false: the use of chocolate by Aztec male soldiers and nobility as an energizing, strengthening elixir in preparing for battles, while women grinded and prepared the cacao (Coe); the consumption of chocolate drinks by European aristocrats, while those of lower classes were could not really afford indulging in tea, coffee, and cacao beverages (Coe); advertisements where women do the chocolate-indulging and men are the providers who gift it; chocolate as a healthy superfood or chocolate as an evil, sugary cavity-causing agent (Martin, Lecture 7, Slide 28). These are just some of the instances in the history of chocolate where there are binary instances in who is eating chocolates and what kinds of chocolate consumers can eat.

With my new background surrounding the culture, history, and food politics of chocolate products from class, I went into Harvard Square to examine what the stores there had to offer. Two of the shops that I explored sold a wide variety of products. I noticed the stores seemed to offer two very different sorts of chocolate- a dichotomy in chocolate price, quality, and social-consciousness. This observation is based on just a glance at the labels and the price tags at the chocolates sold at the two different stores: CVS and Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe. Considering the labels and inconsistencies between them, however, I found that there was no binary in chocolate quality between the two stores, but that each offered an array of production process differences to consider.

Big 5, Small Prices:

I first browsed the chocolate offerings at the Harvard Square CVS on the corner of Brattle Street. CVS arranged their chocolates in two different sections. Through the aisles of the store, on a shelf facing the back wall was a small shelf labeled “Premium Chocolate.” On this shelf, there were a dozen or so types of chocolates, composed of fewer brands than the other “non-Premium” chocolate shelves of the store contain. About six feet away, in the direction of the register, is a second panel of chocolate bars, not labeled “Premium.”


CVS’s “Premium” assortment of chocolates.

CVS does not spell out what Premium actually means, and how the chocolates on the “Premium” shelf differ from the others. To me, the difference seems to be defined by the brands of chocolate: Ghiradelli, Lindt, and Ferrero Rochers, which all have more decadent images on their gold and metallic-hued wrappers than the loud and bibrant wrappers in CVS’s second chocolate section. The bars in the “Premium Chocolate” section are pricier, also, but only by a few dollars.

The CVS chocolates, made up of inexpensive impulse buys and the more expensive “Premium” Chocolates, which I found were still not as costly as the chocolate products in Cardullo’s, were not always the cheap, industrialized foods they are on these shelves. Once a luxury reserved for drinking in elite chocolate houses in Europe, the price of chocolate was driven down by industrialization of the chocolate production process. Chocolate making began as a laborious process, the ability to mechanically winnow, mill, and conch in chocolate making made cacao products a more easy-to-make and available foodstuff, driving down the price (Martin, Lecture 5, Slide 66).

Moreover, the less expensive chocolate products of CVS were mostly products of the “Big 5.” The Big 5 are mainly composed of enormous food companies that have dominated in the chocolate industry for centuries. They include Ferrero, Nestlé, Cadbury, Hershey, and Mars (Allen, 7). Each company has its own unique historic roots that make it a well-established and sought-out brand. The five complete with one another for power in the chocolate market, driving down the cost of their products. These corporations do not label where their chocolate comes from, and bulk cacao can come from many sources, often through middle men who make an unfair share of the pay coming from bigger chocolate producers (Martin, Lecture 10, Slide 42). As a result, those who shop for Ferrero, Nestlé, Cadbury, Hershey, and Mars get these outstandingly low prices, like those I found at CVS, but sacrifice the knowing social consciousness of smaller chocolate producers, who often pinpoint on wrappers where their cacao is from. Because the cacao is sourced from many different places and obtained using these “middle men,” it is less likely that these bigger companies have long-term relationships with the cacao farmers they are using, and there is no way the “Big 5” can make sure the farmers themselves are being fairly paid for their work in the cocoa supply chain (Martin, Lecture 10).

Furthermore, child labor has been accounted as an issue in parts of West Africa where farmers depend on cacao as a livelihood (Off, 130). In some instances, young boys help of farms as a way to assist the family, but when labor is physically injurious and keeps children from school or a normal childhood, these farming sources are problematic and unethical (Martin, Lecture 8, Slide 49). By not properly and informatively labeling chocolates or certifying them in some way to warn customers, there is no way of knowing who farmed the cacao in the bar or how those people were paid, even if evidence of child labor on cacao farms is varied (Ryan, 47). Still, even in the 21st century it is a consideration for chocolate consumers to think about.

The chocolates at CVS are all ones that I recognized by name. As is the nature of chain stores, the CVS candy selection was not different at all from that of other CVS stores I had been to. Moreover, the products are ones I have been exposed to at cash registers, on TV, in magazines, and all around my in advertising from a very young age. An important part of the business of these major chocolate companies is a cradle-to-grave loyalty established with consumers of chocolate from a very young age (Martin, Lecture 7, Slide 20). By going into CVS, customers are guaranteed to find brands that they know well and most likely have been exposed to over time.

The CVS selection overall was quite different from that of Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe. Its selection offered familiar, inexpensive chocolate bars produced by major well-established food corporations was a trade off for the possible unethical qualities along the chocolate production line, which could not really be indicated to the uneducated chocolate consumer buying at CVS. I did, however find one instance of more “ethical” chocolate at CVS. Among the shelves of non-”Premium” chocolate, there was a brand of chocolate called “Endangered Species Chocolate.” This bar was a stark contrast from all others at CVS, which had no ethical chocolate certifications, and instead advertised that its contents are “Fairtrade,” “Non-GMO Verified,” “Certified Gluten Free,” and “Certified Vegan.” This stood out to me as an indication that not all of the chocolate at CVS is evil and corporate (in fact, chocolate being affordable and accessible is a great thing about the CVS candy selection, it just comes with supply chain trade offs to consider). CVS offered the majority of certification-free, big corporation candy bars, but definitely had something to offer for customers looking for another, perhaps more informative option.


Endangered Species Chocolate was an enormous contrast the the other chocolate bars I found at CVS. It had lots of informational certifications on the wrapper, and was still much less expensive than most of the Cardullo’s options.

A “Gourmet” Selection:

Across the street, at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, there is a very different selection of chocolate offerings. Cardullo’s is not a chain store like CVS. The store sells all sorts of specialty gourmet foods, including candy, syrup, tea, coffee, seasonings, and wine. On the store’s left wall, is their panel labeled “Chocolate.” The shelves are taller than me by a few feet, and it seems that the chocolate selection is wider than CVS’s selection. The wrappings and brands enveloping the candies are all less loudly colorful than the candies I saw in CVS. Overall, the chocolates are less familiar to my eyes- not the brands I find at my supermarket in my home town. None of these candies are produced by any of the “Big 5” corporations represented in CVS. Anyone shopping for chocolates at Cardullo’s has to be willing to spend more than they might at CVS. The prices here are higher, between seven and thirty dollars. Part of this is because not many of the chocolates sold at Cardullo’s are from the “Big 5” corporate chocolate manufacturers. Many are instead from smaller chocolate companies that emphasize an assortment of certifications on their labels, which indicate the chocolates are “Fairtrade,” “Non GMO Project Verified,” “Certified Gluten Free,” and “USDA Organic” among other things.

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A picture of just some of the diverse selection of chocolates Cardullo’s had to offer.

These are what separate the chocolates at Cardullo’s from the chocolates at CVS. I could conclude two things a customer might be looking in chocolate here: more “ethical” chocolates, and chocolates that have some “health benefits.” Many of the products emphasized, right on the wrappers, where the cacao came from, empowering Cardullo’s customers with the ability to decide about single-source chocolate and the kind of relationship the chocolate company has the the cacao farmers. Often times, these smaller chocolate companies have more direct relationships with the farmers and offer long-term business to them, as well as fair working wages. Still, chocolate with higher prices can mean that the middle man is being paid more also, and that the farmer’s wages are not being increased as much as a customer thinks (Martin, Lecture 10, Slide 9). So while there is this ethical choice customers at Cardullo’s are able to make, unclarity and inconsistency in the way the chocolate is labeled obfuscates this decision.


A fair trade certification on food labels, like this, lets customers know that the workers in the farming and production process of the food they are purchasing were paid fair wages, still there are other similar certifications and sorting out their meaning in relation to each other can be a lot for customers to consider.

Of course, just like at CVS, there were exceptions to the surface idea that one store has better or more ethical chocolate than the other. Cardullo’s had an enormous selection of Cadbury chocolates. Cadbury is included in the Big 5 so prominently marketed at CVS. The Cadbury chocolates, unlike many of the chocolates from smaller companies at Cardullo’s, did not have any fair trade certifications or special health labels. A customer at Cardullo’s buying the Cadbury chocolates there would be less sure of the origins and contents of the chocolate than if he or she were buying and of the Taza chocolate or Chuao chocolate. Just like CVS had options outside of the Big 5 majority on its shelves, Cardullo’s offered Cadbury chocolates free of labels indicating any superfood or healthy benefits to the candy or socially conscious certifications, so neither store sold exclusively chocolate from either sort of company, and even within these companies are more differences in food content and social responsibility.


While certainly confusing and perhaps in need of some sort of standardization to help customers decide what chocolate they would like to buy, the selection at Cardullo’s does offer more information for customers to consider according to their values in a way the Reese’s, Snickers, and 3 Musketeer’s of the CVS shelves do not. In this way, the Cardullo’s customer is seemingly more empowered and aware of the social consequences of the chocolate they buy. Still, there are chocolate options at Cardullo’s that are from Big 5 chocolate companies and chocolate that does not include fair trade certifications or informations about the cacao’s origins. Moreover, while CVS was filled with familiar big brand chocolate bars, customers looking for more “ethical” chocolate there will not be at a complete loss.

Additionally, besides considering the stores themselves based on their offerings, the companies cannot be properly compared using any kind of binary. Bigger chocolate companies are often placed into this role with their cacao sources where the corporation is the exploiter and the farmers are being exploited. However, there are many parts to the problems in unethical chocolate. Its continuation on shelves can be attributed to consumer action, government regulations, the cultures in the communities the cacao comes from, and relationships between countries that trade cacao (Martin, Lecture 8, Slide 22). It is a complex and important problem which cannot be blamed solely on the Big 5 or CVS. Customers of Cardullo’s and CVS can help chocolate move in the ethical direction by educating themselves in social problems surrounding cacao and using that to their power in buying.

In considering the manifold options while buying chocolate bars and candies, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration. For many, price is one of the most important considerations, and companies that purchase bulk cacao like Hershey and Mars are the sought out options. Beyond price, chocolate buyers can be provided with information about the ingredient origins, the company’s relationships with farmers, and nutritional details to consider. This is a lot to think about, and until there is some standardized certifications or rating across all chocolate labels for customers to read and compare, it makes buying “better chocolate” pretty tricky. Because of these inconsistencies in labeling and certification, as well as evidence of chocolate from both major chocolate producers and smaller companies in both stores, the binary “good chocolate/bad chocolate” that I had first considered upon glancing over the stores’ selection was rejected. Instead, Harvard Square’s chocolate destinations offer an assortment of options that customers who know about chocolate quality and food politics must consider for themselves and their own values.



Allen, Lawrence L. “Chocolate Fortunes.” New York: AMACOM, 2009. Print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Print.

Martin, Carla. Lecture 5.

Martin, Carla. Lecture 7.

Martin, Carla. Lecture 8.

Martin, Carla. Lecture 10.

Off, Carol. “Bitter Chocolate The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet.” New York: The New Press, 2008. Print.

Ryan, Orla. “Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa.” New York: Zed Books, 2011. Print.

Image: (Fair Trade logo)

(All other images taken by the author)

Moms and Chocolate Milk: A Century-Long Storyline

Outside of models seductively pressing squares of milk chocolate to lips with a playful look and women with dark satiny fabrics outlining their curves in the name of chocolate bars, there is another stereotype being framed for women by chocolate company advertisements that is less loud and glamorous than the sexualization in chocolate advertising, but still problematic. For more than a century, and still in the present, chocolate companies have advertised their products to mothers as nutritional food products to feed children. The role of chocolate buying as a part of motherhood has historically been portrayed to consumers through advertising once as a nutritional obligation for mothers who want to nurture their families well, and later on as a way to appease children and husbands and be the best kind of mother. These messages, while less obvious today, can still be picked up on from commercials, especially for chocolate milk, and while some advertising has moved on to include women in roles outside of motherhood, chocolate milk industries still seems to fetishize the housewife role (Martin, Lecture 7, Slide 25).

The identity of women as mothers and housewives in chocolate advertisements became this controversial way after chocolate became less of a luxury and more commonplace through improved packaging, preparing, and distributing (Martin, Lecture 7, Slide 6). Chocolate was no longer for male-dominated chocolate houses, and instead being pushed to consumers as an energy-renewing and restorative snack and household necessity (Martin, Lecture 7, Slide 25). Industrialization of chocolate manufacturing made it more available to families for buying, and it became apparent to chocolate companies that they should advertise to the mothers of children buying food for their young ones. Shortly after, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, teaching women domestic skills became extremely popular, as evidenced by cookbooks by Maria Parloa and Fannie Farmer (Martin, Brownies). As a result, chocolate companies shifted to advertising their products to women, and encouraging them to feed their children and husbands chocolate as a healthful food (Robertson, 20).

Those creating these advertisements saw housewives as their target customers and in their advertising, showed these women as the family members in charge of the domestic jobs of food shopping and feeding children, and this influences the way mothers are portrayed in a hugely domestic role in chocolate milk advertising today. One example is the TruMoo commercial below.

In this advertisement from TruMoo, the woman considering the product is cast in a specific role that is not very different from the target audience of chocolate advertising in the past century.

This shows that even today, mothers are a target audience for many chocolate drink advertisements. These commercials still appeal to the concerned emotions mothers have for the health of their families. Boasting fortifying vitamins and energetic properties, chocolate milk commercials tell moms that they should feed their children chocolate milk if they have their health in mind. In these advertisements, young ones look to moms with wide, approving, grins while swirling Hershey’s and Nesquik. The companies are marketing children’s approval alongside the healthful benefits of the products vitamins and minerals. The role women play in grocery stores, pushing carts, and making important decisions about brands, health, and prices is a historic and sexist storyline women which chocolate companies have chosen to use.  As ultimate grocery decision-maker, women in these commercials do not have jobs or interests or lives outside of the light we see them in, a strict domestic, housewife sort of role. Ultimately, the TruMoo commercial mother listens to “the voice of reason” angelic advice and decides on TruMoo. Her son’s satisfaction suggests to women (and their children) that buying TruMoo makes women nurturing and fun moms.

An alternative I’d like to see? Dads shopping. Moms and dads shopping together. Two moms shopping together. Grandpas and grandmas and uncles and aunts shopping. I’ve included an example of a response to all of the shopping moms are doing in chocolate milk advertisements. In it, parents visit the grocery store together alongside their child, and both have a say in the approval and denial of supermarket products.


Besides the unbridled obsession with mothers that chocolate milk advertisements seem to have, what this response advertisement also addresses is the manipulative way the commercials portray chocolate milk as a wholesome treat for growing kids. Today, advertisements like the TruMoo one included in this post boast vitamins, minerals, and other dietary bonuses. Like Rowntree’s adverts from almost a century ago, TruMoo and other chocolate milk advertisers appeal to moms’ concern for the health and nutrition of her family. It is an effective marketing ploy, but duplicitous, indeed: a glass of chocolate milk can have more sugar than a can of soda (Martin, Lecture 9, Slide 23).

It also is an old technique of chocolate companies. Rowntree cocoa sold itself to mothers as “more bone and muscle-building than ordinary cocoa” (Robertson, 21). The company aimed to sell to mothers in this manipulative way, deciding that women were the “purchasing agent” they had to win over by tapping into their desires to nurture their families and husbands (Robertson, 20). This sounds cringy and sexist, but what TruMoo and other chocolate milk sellers are campaigning with the “health benefits” in their own products, combined with the supermarket-mom scene is not far at all from Rowntree’s manipulative principles. My advertisement counteracts this message by selling the chocolate as a fun and special occasion treat, which is still enjoyable, instead of as a nutritional form of sustenance, which sugary chocolate cannot be when eaten in access.

One way these gendered advertisements are being changed, but not necessarily for the good, is through Hershey’s recent advertisement which includes a father and his daughter enjoying chocolate together. While this advertisement is a shift from chocolate marketing normally aimed toward women and children, and instead toward men (specifically dads!) and their kids, it still does so in a way that shows dad, who is absorbed in Skype conference calls and too busy to leave work to spend time with his eager daugher, as the breadwinner. The man in this commercial never leaves his house to grocery shop for Hershey’s, and instead his daughter purchases chocolate for the two to share. While this advertisement refrains from the traditional chocolate advertisement portrayal of women as the housewives and domestic gurus, its storyline with a father still casts the man as the working parent. He is completely uninvolved in the nutritional and health concerns for his daughter in his role as her parent, like a mother in so many chocolate commercials might.

In an age where the awareness of these advertising messages and the roles in which women are portrayed are scrutinized and considered more than in Rowntree’s advertising days, it is still a shame to think of the sexist ideologies in chocolate commercials like TruMoo’s and Hershey’s. And while the examples of women fetishized in housewife roles and men as breadwinners is less conspicuous, it is absolutely prevalent and problematic.


Works Cited:

Martin, Carla. Lecture 9.

Martin, Carla. Lecture 7.

Martin, Carla. 2016. “Brownies: The History of A Classic American Dessert.” US History Scene. Accessed 4 April 2016

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. 2010. 1-131. Print.

Women and Chocolate: Then and Now

The chocolate we see advertised today is a gendered product, marketed toward women and men shopping for women, sometimes in controversial ways. Chocolate has not always been this way, however. While chocolate today is heavily advertised to women, cacao products have not always been so accessible to them. With permission (or persuasion) to eat chocolate foodstuffs or not, women have had an important role throughout chocolate’s history in its progression from Aztecian drink for nobility to forbidden snack of sultry television commercials.

In its earliest known origins, cacao products were a meal for mostly men in Aztec societies. Cacao was combined with maize in drinks and gruel and served to male warriors as a sort of high-caloric fuel for fighting (Martin). It was a luxurious item and highly restricted to high class Aztecs and awarded to men successful in battle (Presilla). Women did not have these same honors and ability to indulge. In an Aztec palace, women catered to the powerful high-class men and,  “prepared the elaborate food, chocolate drinks, tobacco, and other stimulants so essential to display of palace hospitality” (Evans). Chocolate was a treasured substance for the Aztecs, and women of their society are to be thanked for the nobility’s drinks, gifts, and warrior’s sustenance provided by cacao (Presilla). Their role was in marketplaces, vending drinks they prepared, and doing physical work and technique in preparing frothy cacao splendors.  Aztec women were encouraged to learn such culinary skills in order to attract a wealthy husband (Evans). The Spanish colonists accounted for so much of what historians know about chocolate consumption by the Aztecs (Presilla). They observed its consumption by soldiers and nobility. Women seemed to really be essential to its enjoyment, which, when noticed by the Spaniards,  made its spread to Europe possible.


An image of a woman preparing a frothy chocolate drink, from the Códice Tudela. In the historical accounts by Spanish missionaries in Mexico, women were essential to the preparation of chocolate drinks and gruel for Aztec nobility and warriors (Presilla).



When the Spanish brought cacao to Europe, chocolate increased in popularity in different ways throughout the countries there. Some women of nobility were allowed to enjoy chocolate, but in certain regions, chocolate was reserved for men, like in England, where chocolate drinks were enjoyed in chocolate houses for the more elite. Images of these gathering spots depict only men meeting at long tables and drinking their chocolate (Coe and Coe).

The Industrial Revolution then changed chocolate consumption with better means of mass producing cacao products using improved machinery. Like for Aztec society, women still were important to chocolate-making. Even with mechanical means of production on a larger scale, many women were employed in chocolate factories. Women were essential for factory work for the English Quaker John Cadbury, founder of the Cadbury company. Cadbury employed women, and also men, but the two sexes were not allowed to work alongside one another. The company set out to “protect” women employees by separating male and female workers, and then firing the women when they married, to let them devote themselves to a housewife lifestyle, as a part of Cadbury’s Quaker values (Satre). In Cadbury’s factory and others, men worked the more physically demanding jobs, while women were allocated tasks like wrapping and boxing chocolates for distribution (Robertson). Still, the chocolate world was dominated by famous male entrepreneurs who started some of today’s most successful candy companies (Martin).

As the availability of chocolate rose because of its shift toward mass production, the ways in which it was consumed diversified as a result of increased availability. At the end of the 19th century, in tandem with a rise in the “domestic science” and ventures in selling home economics to women, the popularity of celebrity cooks increased. Women began baking chocolate into new and diverse treats, like brownies, cakes, puddings and pies (Martin). Recipe books, which integrated chocolate with treats for the family, truly enforced the shift in chocolate being gendered for women. Famous confectioners’ recipe books became extremely well known, like those of Maria Parloa and Fannie Farmer, both women. The popularity of baked goods incorporating chocolate  was shared by women and through such cook books, enhancing the gendered role of women in the kitchen and popularizing their delicious chocolate treats (Martin).

Chocolate companies during this time began advertising chocolate to women in ways that enforced roles for them as homemakers and mothers. Advertisements portrayed happy mothers and boasted the benefits of chocolate for their children (Martin). Even today, chocolate advertisements tend to target women, framing chocolate as a sexy, dark, romantic, forbidden item. These advertisements enforce traditional gender roles, much like the chocolate advertisements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but in a way that is more provocative.

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These two advertisements, one a newspaper clipping and the other a television commercial, both portray advertisements, from the early 1900s and 2000s, that are aimed toward women as chocolate consumers, but sending very different messages.

Overall, from chocolate-makers forbidden from enjoying cacao, to packagers, to the target audience of chocolate companies, snacking on dark, forbidden Dove squares, women have been an inseparable part of chocolate’s rise to global popularity (Martin). As the ways in which we consume chocolate changed, were elaborated, and diversified, the role of women in its production progress made a sort of turnaround, from forbidden by society to consume cacao, to encouraged by advertising, but simultaneously discouraged somehow through heteronormative messages that chocolate is a forbidden snack, and meant as rich indulgence for women.



Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Evans, Susan Toby. 1998. “Sexual Politics in the Aztec Palace: Public, Private, and Profane.” RES Anthropology and Aesthetics. No. 33.

Martin, Carla. 2016. “Brownies: The History of A Classic American Dessert.” US History Scene. Accessed 6 March 2016.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.”

Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History

of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Robertson, Emma. 2014. “‘You weren’t Supposed to Eat ‘Em but Everybody Did:’ Women Confectionary Workers And Contested COnsumption on The Shopfloor.” Food and History. Vol 12.

Multimedia Sources

Códice Tudela. Digital Image. Wikimedia Commons, from 1553. Web. 6 March 2016.

Vitavose Milk Advertisement. Digital Image. Wikimedia Commons, from 1932. Web. 7 March 2016.

DOVE Chocolate “Only Human” TV Commercial. Video File. Youtube video, from 23 July 2010. Web. 7 March 2010.

Cacao’s Natural and Cultural History: Inseperable

In the harsh, fluorescent light of CVS where the bar code scanner bleeps intermittently, the Hershey’s chocolate bars below the counter sit in a spot between other candies wrapped in loud, metallic casings. Chocolate’s origins, however, are botanical and tropical, and a complete contrast to the supermarket aisles and humming vending machines we find it in day to day. Chocolate’s natural historical background, while not considered often by consumers of Cadbury, Nestle, and Mars chocolates, were essential to its earliest cultivators, to its worldwide distribution and exponential growth in popularity, and its importance as a cultural and culinary staple.

While the uses of the cacao tree’s products are diverse and extremely historic, all of these can be attributed to the botanical properties and biological traits that make Theobroma cacao so unique. Chocolate’s botanical genesis is set within 20 degrees north and south of the equator in the warm equatorial regions of Central and South America and Africa. It is here that Mesoamerica’s ancient civilizations began to use cacao as foodstuff, which took off in tandem with a start to understanding cacao as a plant and natural resource.

 While chocolate does not grow on trees, its essential ingredient, cacao beans, are contained by colorful pods that grow from the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). The cacao beans which are ground into chocolate liquor and used in diverse ways are contained in colorful fruits that grow from the trunk of the tree, a trait known as cauliflory. The pods contain a cream colored pulp that surrounds the beans, and is likely what the earliest users of the cacao tree were drawn to, eating the sweet inside flesh as a fruit. Even entomological and botanical artist Maria Sybilla Merian has artwork depicting the cacao plant. The detailed work emphasizing the details of the plant shows an in-depth understanding of its anatomy at the turn of the 18th century. The consumption of the bitter cacao pod’s pulp and accounts by Europeans describing cacao’s physical features show an awareness of the structural traits of cacao pods, beans, and trees that evolved alongside cacao’s increased and diversified use as food, money, and a health product.  


Maria Sybilla Merian’s 1705 botanical illustration of the cacao plant. 

Our scientific understanding of cacao, beginning long before the advent of molecular biology is well-documented. For centuries, botanists and biologists have taken interest in plants that have profound importance. Cacao, in its transformation from luxury food item to culinary staple, has been long studied and understood. Carolus Linnaeus, for example, the Swedish botanist and father of Linnaean taxonomy, designated cacao’s scientific name in the 18th century. It is Latin for “food of the gods, cacao.” Linnaeus classified organisms based on their similar morphologies, and his naming the cacao species demonstrates the observation and consideration of the plant’s reproduction and other biological features. Even today, scientists study cacao in greenhouse and natural settings to understand how pests and other threats can be combatted. Over time, the cacao has been extremely influential and a major resource, and has driven botanists and farmers to work to understand its biology by outward appearance, chemical composition, and, in the case of modern biologists, genetic makeup.

Spanish colonists in Mesoamerica’s Aztec empire used different words to describe the tastes of the cacao varieties: cacao dulce for sweet cacao and cacao blanco for white cacao. They experimented with the different varieties and flavors and learned the distinctions between the different cacaos that generated different flavors. Today, we known from a genomic level that there are several varieties of cacao which, according to DNA-sequencing molecular biology technology, are genetically distinct. Scientists can use this genetic data in a number of applications related to cacao, but one job of this research is to understand the different varieties and relatedness of cacao, and to comprehend its evolution. Over time, in addition to studying the outward appearance of the beans and plant, people’s comprehension of cacao has been influenced by a sense of taste. Whether colonists describing its taste knew it or not, they, like cacao geneticists, studied diversity in cacao and had some botanical sense of which cacao caused which flavors.

This video, from an Australian publication, gives a whimsical, but informative explanation to cacao genomic studies. 

As biological advancements have exploded in this century and last, our understanding of cacao will only increase. Scientific curiosity regarding the tree and the properties of its fruits and beans reflect the same value that the cultural history between cacao and people represents. While its use in drinks and as money has morphed and expanded, its cultural importance remains. In the face of harmful insects, rapid population growth, and inequities in the chocolate production industry, our research and botanical understanding of cacao will be motivated for the future, as long as its significance to chocolate consumers worldwide persists.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Linnaeus, Carolus. Systema Naturae, 1st edition (1735). Translated in Dutch Classics on the   History of Science (Netherlands, 1964), pp. 17-30.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” 2016. Slide 68. Retrieved from:

Presilla, Maricel E. “The New Taste of Chocolate.” Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. 1-59. Print.

Stearn, William T. “Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) as a Botanical Artist.International Association for Plant Taxonomy. August 1982: Volume 31: pp. 529-531.

Media Sources 

Horstman, Mark. “GM Chocolate Trees.” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 21 April 2011. Web. 18 February 2016.

Merian, Maria Sibylla. Veranderingen der Surinaamsche Insecten. 1705. Engraved by Pieter Sluyter.