Book three: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry, Hermione, and Ron are riding the Hogwarts Express back to school when they are suddenly attacked by soul sucking Dementors. These ghostly abstractings suck all feeling of joy from their bodies, making them sink deeper and deeper into despair until finally, a teacher banishes them from the train. Shivering and afraid sitting in their compartment, the students accept pieces of chocolate the professor as a cure for the Dementor’s affect. As they eat the chocolate they can slowly feel the warmth returning to their bodies, their spirits brightening slowly as the chocolate melts on their tongue.
This moment in the Harry Potter series expresses the phenomenon of “chocolate magic” in its most literal sense, depicting magical effects of chocolate in young witches and wizards. However, this correlation between chocolate and miraculous effects are all around us in modern society, from shady internet articles claiming that chocolate can cure all kinds of diseases, to recipes for “chocolate magic:” cakes that are so good they can only be made by magic. Although the phenomenon of chocolate magic may seem harmless—only a fun trick of the imagination or a novelty diet—examining the origins of this popular association reveals the problematic aspects of our associations with chocolate. Cacao originally held an important role in the culture of the indigenous population of the Ancient Mayan civilization. By tracking the histories of indigenous communities, we can see how the modern chocolate industry perpetuates colonialist behavior and presents a reductive portrait of indigenous culture.
A Brief History of Ancient Maya and Cacao
Ancient Mayans placed cacao in a prominent position in their culture and society, using it not only as currency but also as a religious object. Ancient Mayans believed that the gods themselves discovered cacao in a “mystical mountain,” and given to the Maya by the god Hunahpú (Windelspecht, Cacao: The Mayan “Food of the Gods”). Imagery in ancient religious texts, like the Dresden Codex, depicts the relationship between cacao and the gods. This image found in the Dresden Codex depicts two gods interacting with cacao pods, captioned with the words “cacao is his food.”
This connection between the divine and cacao can also be found in a different Mayan codex called the Madrid Codex, in which gods sprinkle their blood over cacao pods (Coe, The True History of Chocolate). Thus, we can trace the roots of the relationship between mysticism, chocolate, and indigenous peoples to these religious texts and beliefs of the Mayan people. As cacao was depicted alongside the gods it took on a mystical property in the Maya’s belief of its divine properties.
The movement of this belief into western culture occured when the Mayans introduced cacao to their colonizers—the Spanish—in 1544 when Dominican friars brought a group of Mayan elders to Prince Philip to feed him a cacao beverage (Windelspecht, Cacao: The Mayan “Food of the Gods”) After this initial introduction cacao spread quickly through the circles of the european elite. Cacao drinks were regarded as a mystical healing substance hailing from the mysterious New World: this european attitude can be evidenced by Alphonse de Richelieu’s action in introducing cacao to seventeenth century France in his use of cacao as a medication for his spleen. Seventeenth century europe’s essentially turned this sacred mayan substance into simply a mystical substance from the new world that could help cure them of their ailments. In this way we can start to see the way in which european and white society has appropriated and fetishized indigenous culture by reducing the significance of cacao as simply a mystic medicine that existed to help them, ignoring the rich history of cacao in mayan culture.
Science, Fetishization, and the Modern Chocolate Industry
This kind of fetishization of mayan beliefs has not only persisted into the modern day, but evolved to breach other fields of science. In the 1990s Dr. Norman Hollenberg of the Harvard Medical School and Boston Brigham and Women’s Hospital travelled to Panama to conduct a series of field studies on an indigenous population called the Kuna. Inspired by a 1940’s study that found the population as a whole to have very low blood pressure, he ran his own studies among two sub-groups of the Kuna people: those who stayed in the original island Kuna community and lived a rural and traditional life and a population who had moved into modern society, living in suburban and urban areas (Howe 3). He observed that the traditional Kuna consumed much more cacao than the population that had moved away, stating that “they consume enormous amounts of cocoa daily,” and concluding that “flavanol” in chocolate called epicatechin could “protect against diabetes and cancer as well as high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks” (Howe 4). He went on to widely promote his discoveries as a scientific breakthrough, asserting that all diets should include cacao. His discoveries have even been adopted into the popular beliefs around chocolate: Hollenberg’s work has been cited in websites, clubs, and at least two books (Howe 4).
However, later scientists have found significant evidence to disprove Hollenberg’s claims of the link between the Kuna’s cardiovascular health and cacao. After living amongst the traditional Kuna community, researcher James Howe claims that Hollenberg greatly exaggerated the amount of cacao the Kuna consumes. Instead, he claims, the Kuna much prefer coffee and oatmeal drinks. (Howe 5). In his article, Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health, Hollenberg claims that the Kuna’s extraordinary cardiovascular health can be accounted for by not the amount of cacao they consume, but by their otherwise healthy diets and high level of cardiovascular exercise (Howe 6).
Hollenberg’s false claims demonstrate the willingness and tendency of white, western culture to perpetuate stereotypes of indigenous cultures. In his work, Hollenberg refused to consider the possibility that the Kuna simply lived a healthy lifestyle through regular diet and exercise. Instead, he subscribed to the belief that indigenous populations know something that we don’t, that they hold mystical knowledge that other, more modern culture, cannot recognize. Furthermore, he also perpetuated colonizing behavior by attempting to take what he saw as an indigenous aspect of life and marketing it to the masses as an easy health trick, reducing indigenous life as simply a gimmick in modern dieting. In this way, Hollenberg perpetuated the cycle of fetishization around indigenous beliefs by manipulating science, a field that is supposed to obtain some semblance of objectivity and fact, to only further ingrain the image of the mystical indigenous population into larger societal beliefs. Furthermore, by only focusing on and greatly exaggerating the role of cacao in Kuna society, Hollenberg’s research also served to reduce the complexity and richness of their culture. He left out the many other rituals they hold around other food items, reducing them simply to a gimmick: a cacao fueled society. In this way, Hollenberg’s actions were colonialistic as they reflected a long history of colonizers erasing rich histories of indigenous culture in favor of supporting their own personal endeavours.
Hollenberg’s influence can be found today in the sermons of people wielding “science” to claim mystical properties of cacao. Countless websites and books boast cacao and, more specifically, raw cacao as a kind of “superfood,” or a food with extremely beneficial health benefits. One popular prophet of the incredible properties of cacao is David Wolfe, who claims in this video that cacao is the most “chemically complex food in the world” and has “over twelve hundred constituents of flavor alone.”
In reality, very few of Wolfe’s claims are scientifically supported. There is no evidence to suggest that cacao is the most chemically complex food in the world. The claim that cacao has “over twelve hundred constituents of flavor” is pure nonsense—a “flavor constituent” is not an term acknowledged by the scientific or gastronomic communities. By promoting unsupported scientific claims on the extreme effects of cacao, people like David Wolfe contribute to the characterization of cacao as a mystic substance and unknowingly perpetuate colonialist behavior. Cacao was a sacred substance to the ancient Mayans: when people like David Wolfe and Dr. Hollenberg diminish the rich history of Mayan religion, as they contribute to the modern chocolate industry, the modern chocolate industry hinders social progress and understanding by popularizing a reductive narrative of indigenous life.
Popular Culture in Modern Chocolate Industry
Although unsupported science is greatly influential promoting reductive portraits of indigenous culture, other reductive portraits can be found in everyday life. Representations of chocolate in popular culture reflect and perpetuate the way modern society tends to view indigenous culture.
Perhaps one of the most well known representations of the chocolate industry is Roald Dahl’s famous children’s book, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The book centers around the story of a poor boy invited to tour a famous and mysterious chocolate factory run by a man named Willy Wonka. The factory is filled with countless impossible wonders, all made out of chocolate and candy. The factory’s manpower is provided by Wonka’s limitless workforce: oompa loompas. However, although modern adaptations of the book portray the oompa loompas as miniature fantasy characters, in the original text depictions of the workers resembled descriptions of indigenous people. In her book, Chocolate, Women, and Empire, Emma Robertson finds that Roald Dahl originally depicted the workers with “skin […] almost black,” as Willy Wonka “found them in the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before” (Robertson 1). In fact, even in early illustrations of the book the Oompa Loompas resemble indigenous populations.
By blatantly invoking the slavery of indigenous populations in the mystical chocolate factory, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ties the concept of the mystical properties of cacao to indigenous people. However, although some could perceive this association as Roald Dahl referencing indigenous history with cacao, his attitude towards the enslavement of the Oompa Loompas eliminates a reading of the text as an appreciation of indigenous culture. Dahl portrays the Oompa Loompas as happy to be enslaved, content in serving Wonka and working with magical chocolate. This representation ignores the brutal and long history of the terrible treatment of slaves working in the chocolate industry. Therefore, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory only fetishizes mysticism in chocolate in relation to indigenous populations without truly honoring indigenous cultures, but only erasing the histories of oppression of indigenous groups.
The modern chocolate industry has completely ignored the dark history of this children’s book. The major chocolate producer Nestlé produces a line of Wonka themed candy, including different kinds of chocolate bars. By advertising under the Wonka name, Nestlé is popularizing the narrative of Roald Dahl’s book to the masses, therefore unknowingly—or knowingly—perpetuating the shallow and reductive association of mysticism, chocolate, and indigenous culture.
This capitalization on chocolate mysticism is not exclusive to the Wonka brand. Many other products link chocolate to magic, and more specifically to Mayan mysticism. For example, this Mayan Magic Chocolate Making Kit claims that it lets “chocolate lovers make and experience pure, decadent chocolate the way ancient Mayans and Aztecs used to create it 3000 years ago” (The Green Head).
However, the majority of the materials in the kit uses techniques that the ancient Mayans would never have even dreamed about, like the use of molds and refrigeration. In this way, this company presents a greatly reductive portrait of ancient indigenous life in order to sell their product which is unfair to both indigenous people as it diminishes and erases their history, and to the modern consumer by informing them with false information. By advertising these reductive portraits of indigenous culture and history, the modern chocolate industry only further ingrains harmful reductive notions into the consciousness of the public.
We Can Do Better
After examining different ways in which the contemporary chocolate industry has failed to accurately represent indigenous culture, I propose three actions that the industry can take in order to try and correct their error of promoting this reductive narrative of indigenous culture:
- Reject unsupported science that exaggerates mystic properties of cacao.
- Acquire education about the histories of cacao and indigenous culture and religion.
- Alter advertisement to avoid reductive portrayals of indigenous life.
Striving to meet these three goals would be at least a step forward towards a more balanced and respectful portrait of indigenous history and culture as it pertains to cacao and chocolate. Reducing indigenous culture through false science, representations in pop culture, and inaccurate advertising only fortifies and perpetuates the colonialistic behavior that our forefathers before us set in motion. Breaking this cycle not only requires us ceasing imperialization and colonization, but also examining and altering the ways in which we think about and resultantly portray indigenous identity today. The long history between cacao and indigenous people makes the contemporary chocolate industry a compelling place to start alterations in our society: the wide influence of chocolate to all people and nations allows it to influence perceptions in communities around the world. In order to progress as a society we must be better than the people who made mistakes before us. Recognizing and fixing mistakes in chocolate is a sweet place to start.
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Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: a Social and Cultural History. Manchester University Press, 2013.
“Willy Wonka Chocolate.” FoodBev Media, 13 Aug. 2013, http://www.foodbev.com/news/willy-
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