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Sugar-Free Chocolate: An interview with a chocolate lover who can’t eat chocolate

“Chocolate is sensual, it’s attractive, it’s flavorful, it’s palatable, it’s elegant, and it’s pretty; that’s why I like it”.  Many can agree with this description of chocolate shared by the interviewee and may feel the urge to eat a piece after reading this statement. Unfortunately, the interviewee can’t share this urge and even though he’s very attracted to it, he can’t eat chocolate due to its sugar content. Sugar and other sweeteners have been added to chocolate recipes since its invention, some might argue that chocolate without some sort of sweetness is not chocolate at all. Some contemporary chocolate companies have found alternatives to sugar and added them to their products, marketing them as sugar-less. But for someone like the interviewee, it can be very hard to find a safe option when consuming this delicious treat, risking his health for a small bite.

A Life Without Sweets

The interviewee is a middle-aged man who grew up and lives in South America. He shares a genetic illness with two of his sisters, they can’t eat sweet foods without endangering their health. None of their children or grandchildren have inherited this biological sensitivity to sugar. He calls it an allergy to fructose or an allergy to sugar, but after repeated medical tests done throughout his lifetime, the cause remains a mystery and there hasn’t been a formal diagnosis. Even though he has lived his entire life without sweets, this hasn’t stopped his curiosity from trying them and enjoying them, especially when it comes to chocolate.

“My body is programmed to reject sweets” he said. No one told him he couldn’t eat sugar; he always knew he couldn’t have it and got used to excluding it from his diet. He explains how his reaction to sugar has changed over time, now he immediately gets diarrhea and stomach pains, but when he was a child, he would face a sudden fall in his blood pressure inducing vomiting, convulsions and symptoms closely resembling anaphylaxis. “I almost died once; I fell into a short coma. I survived because the doctors knew of this illness through my older sisters”. He was given medication to increase his blood pressure during every episode, saving his life, but leaving him feeling weak for the following days. Due to this, he got used to avoiding sugar at an early age.

Picturing a childhood without eating sugary treats is almost unimaginable, it even seems cruel if you’re the only one who can’t eat them. He grew up watching his schoolmates eat candy, lollipops, cakes, chew gum, and drink hot chocolate during first communions. He would be tempted to try them but knew he couldn’t. Yet, his curiosity didn’t stop him from tasting some of the desserts that attracted him the most, “I remember I was fascinated by chocolate covered vanilla ice cream bars. One day I secretly ate a whole one, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I got very sick and was afraid I’d get in trouble if I told my parents what I had done”. To curve his craving, he would find unconventional alternatives to sugary treats, sucking on natural gums or eating black licorice that had a bitter taste with a hint of sweetness. He was also able to satiate his need for sugar snacks by adding flour products, cheese and saltine crackers to his diet, but chocolate has always remained irreplaceable and fascinating to him.

Attraction to Chocolate

In the interviewee’s own words, “The two foods that attract me the most are cheese and chocolate, knowing that I can eat cheese, but I can’t eat chocolate. It still attracts me; I don’t care about not being able to eat it”. It attracts him more than ice cream, candy, cakes or any other desserts. He was introduced to chocolate as a child and has been able to try different varieties throughout his life. He is able to take small bites of chocolate and enjoy it in small doses, a ball of chocolate such as a Ferrero Rocher truffle can last him up to a week. Through small tastes, he’s been able to define not only which chocolate varieties he prefers and which ones he dislikes, but also those that are less damaging to his health. For example, he dislikes chocolates with fillings and caramel as well as dark bitter chocolate, but enjoys milk chocolate and white chocolate, which he can eat if they have small quantities of sugar. His favorite are mixes of milk with white chocolate due to these being less sweet.

When asked about how often he eats chocolate, he replied “Whenever I feel like it. Nowadays if I buy chocolate, I end up giving it away”. Yet even though he doesn’t purchase it most of the time, he described how he always visits the aisle with chocolates in the supermarket and also visits chocolateries, curious about new products available and attracted by their distinctive smell. His interest in chocolate despite his inability to safely consume it is undeniable.

Chocolate and Sugar

In order to understand the pervasiveness of sugar and sweeteners in chocolates found in the market today, it’s important to briefly go back in history when this practice first begun. According to Coe and Coe, cane sugar was introduced to Mesoamerica by the Spaniards, who craved sweetness (111-112). As told by Mintz, sugar was added by Europeans to bitter substances to make them taste sweet, since sweet substances were more appealing to new consumers than bitter ones (109).

Mesoamerican chocolate tasted very different from what we now consider chocolate, “chocolate was commonly (though not invariably) used as a food flavoring or sauce without sweetener in its original tropical American home” (Mintz 109). The Spanish influence quickly changed chocolate preparation at the time, “the cold, bitter, usually unsweetened drink had to undergo its own process of hybridization” (Coe and Coe 114). Therefore, the term chocolate was coined for a beverage drank hot and sweetened with cane sugar (Coe and Coe 117).  Chocolate recipes introduced to Europe after the Conquista included sugar as one of its main ingredients (Coe and Coe 122-166), and so it remained once chocolate bars began to be mass produced in the 19th century (Coe and Coe 231).

Nowadays world’s biggest chocolate brands that dominate the markets of Europe and North America feature a vast array of chocolate products sold in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors, and themes (Leissle 73) containing sugar or sweeteners (Leissle 73-75). Sugar has been a prominent ingredient found in chocolate recipes since its popularization; accordingly, sweetness is now considered to be a characteristic and attractive quality of chocolate.

Sugar and Health

The consequences of eating sugary foods are not exclusive to the interviewee, they can affect everyone else’s health as well, especially when consumed in large quantities. Experts have argued that sugar doesn’t provide as many health benefits as it was originally thought, it’s considered to be harmful to one’s health instead (Albritton 343-344).

One of the early uses of sugar in Europe was as medicine, it was meant to cure illnesses such as “fever, dry coughs, pectoral ailments, chapped lips, and stomach diseases” (Mintz 99) as well as “chest coughs, sore throat, and labored breathings” (Mintz 105). Its use as medicine diminished during the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was mass produced for use as a sweetener and as a preservative (Mintz 108). These uses led to an even higher increase in the consumption of sugar (Mintz 108), especially when paired with other foods such as chocolate.

According to Taubes and Couzens’ article about the health effects of sugar, sugar consumption rates have steadily increased in the past decades, reaching an all-time high. This is not without consequence, as the percentages of obesity in children and of adults with obesity, heart disease and diabetes have greatly increased since 1980 (Taubes and Couzens). These changes are especially true in the United States, since “fat and sugar constitute 50 per cent of the caloric intake of the average American” (Albritton 343). Sugar was also found to be addictive; it’s been compared to tobacco addiction because it produces craving and many sweet products are easily affordable (Albritton 344). Yet government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture continue to consider sugar as safe (Taubes and Couzens), as a result, cheaper foods with sweeteners have become staples in the American diet (Albritton 343-345).

The Sugar-Free Chocolate Market

Chocolate is not exempt from the harmful effects of sugar, as Coe and Coe put it “As for obesity among so-called “chocoholics,” this would probably be the result of overindulgence in milk chocolate, which has high levels of sugar, in combination with a sedentary lifestyle” (34). On the other hand, there’s been an increasing interest in finding the health benefits of chocolate (Coe and Coe 34). As evidenced by Howe’s study of the Kuna case, some claims of the health benefits of chocolate have been based on wishful thinking rather than tangible evidence (Howe 50). Even though its effects in humans need to be studied further, there is a belief that “quality dark chocolate probably is good for you” (Coe and Coe 35).

The chocolate market has changed as a result of the increased awareness of the health effects of sugar and dark chocolate. In fact, it’s been predicted that dark chocolate sales will substantially increase over time (Leissle 10). As Leissle describes it, “Demand is rising for dark chocolate, with its lower sugar content (at least, lower than that of most milk chocolate and bonbons), and for chocolates that claim additional healthy properties, such as “raw” or organic” (9-10). This view is reminiscent of the interviewee’s observations on the contemporary chocolate market “Nowadays it’s easier to find chocolate without sugar because sugar is harmful to our health and also because there is a tendency towards organic and natural foods, especially in chocolate”.

Although we can now find several varieties of dark chocolate in convenience stores, drug stores, and supermarkets, finding sugar-free dark chocolate is still challenging. A look at the sugar-free dark chocolate varieties and a taste test of unsweetened chocolates available at Whole Foods Market can provide some insight on the difficulties the interviewee faces when searching for an alternative to traditional sweetened chocolate. Whole Foods Market was chosen due to the interviewee’s personal preference for organic foods and due to its vast array of chocolate products. The findings are as follows:

  • Sugar-Free Chocolates: In the candy aisle, twenty-one sugar-free chocolate bars were found made by five brands. They include alternative sweeteners such as honey (made by Cocofuel and Pure 7 Chocolate), stevia (made by Lily’s), maple syrup (made by Not Your Sugar Mamas Martha’s Vineyard), and coconut sugar (made by PrimalChocolate). These brands offer various flavors of sugar-free chocolate such as milk, dark, caramel, almonds, coconut, rice, raspberry, and lavender. There are also different percentages of cacao available, 40% for milk chocolate bars (two bars found) and 55% – 85% for dark chocolate bars (nineteen bars found). Each of these bars prominently display wording in the front of the packaging indicating the sweetener used instead of sugar, “Stevia Sweetened”, “No Sugar Added!”, “Sweetened Only with Honey!”, “Made with Organic Coconut Sugar”, “Free of Gluten, Dairy and Refined Sugar”.
  • Unsweetened Chocolates: In this case ‘unsweetened’ refers to chocolates without cane sugar or any sweeteners. Only two unsweetened chocolate bars were found in the candy aisle, 100% Cacao Pure7 Dark made by Pure 7 Chocolate and Midnight Coconut made by PrimalChocolate. Both bars contain 100% cacao and are marketed in the front of their packaging as “Artisanal Chocolate with No Added Sweetener” and “No Sugar Added Organic Certified” accordingly. In terms of ingredients, the main difference that exists between the two is that the Pure7 bar has Himalayan pink salt, while the PrimalChocolate bar has organic shredded coconut.

Twenty-three sugar-free chocolate bars were found in total, the great majority of them being dark chocolate. This number is low in comparison to the overwhelming variety of products and brands found in the candy aisle containing sugar. There are options available that fit each consumer’s individual taste preferences, yet the number of bars available pales in comparison to the number of bars that include sugar. It’s clear that these companies want to separate themselves from sugar to attract consumers, especially those knowledgeable about its harmful effects, but they can also be seen as novelties.

In terms of the interviewee, the alternative sweeteners added to the sugar-free bars mentioned above are too sweet for him to consume safely, leaving unsweetened bars as his only options. Even though there are two bars of unsweetened chocolate, he can only eat one of them without worrying about risking his health. Since the PrimalChocolate bar includes coconut, which he considers to be sweet, Pure 7 Chocolate’s bar is a better choice. Pure 7 Chocolate’s unsweetened bar maintains the consistency of chocolate, but its flavor is very faint and indistinct. Unfortunately, due to the lack of chocolate’s unique flavor in this bar and limited variety, we can predict that he would continue to be attracted to sweetened chocolate despite its risks.

Conclusion

Even though he has lived his entire life without being able to eat sweets, the interviewee considers chocolate to be attractive and unique. His medical condition and sugar’s harmful effects on his health haven’t stopped him from being able to enjoy chocolate, even if it is in minute quantities. Sugar’s harmful effects are not exclusive to him, they are widespread and becoming more prevalent as consumption continues to rise.

Sugar and chocolate appear to be linked since it’s invention and popularization, but the number of chocolate brands offering sugar-free varieties proves us that this doesn’t have to be the case anymore. Undeniably, replacing sugar with other healthier sweeteners in chocolate bars is a move on the right direction, but there aren’t enough unsweetened options available for those who can’t consume sweet foods like the interviewee. Chocolate manufacturers should consider not only seeking healthier options to sweeten their products, but also offering chocolate without sweeteners that are flavorful and cater to consumer’s varied taste preferences.

Works Cited

Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” Food and Culture: A Reader, Third ed., Routledge, 2013, pp. 342–352.

Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, 2012, pp. 43–52., www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2012.12.1.43.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. 1st ed., Polity, 2018.

Piggylita. “Interview with a Chocolate Lover.” 21 April 2019.

Taubes, Gary, and Cristin Kearns Couzens. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” Mother Jones, 2012, www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign/.

Multimedia Sources

Piggylita. “PrimalChocolate – Chocolate Bars Sweetened with Coconut Sugar.” 2019. JPEG file.

Piggylita. “Lily’s – Chocolate Bars Sweetened with Stevia.” 2019. JPEG file.

Piggylita. “Pure 7 Chocolate – Chocolate Bars Sweetened with Honey.” 2019. JPEG file.

Piggylita. “Not Your Sugar Mamas – Chocolate Bars Sweetened with Maple Syrup.” 2019. JPEG file.

Piggylita. “Cocofuel – Chocolate Bars Sweetened with Honey.” 2019. JPEG file.

Piggylita. “PrimalChocolate – Unsweetened Chocolate Bar.” 2019. JPEG file.

Piggylita. “Pure 7 Chocolate – Unsweetened Chocolate Bar.” 2019. JPEG file.

Drinking Money: Cacao as Currency in Mesoamerica

Nowadays the first thought that comes to mind when we think about cacao is chocolate, the sweet dessert that is easily attainable and can be enjoyed by all. Cacao had a very different meaning in Mesoamerica, it was consumed as a drink by the elite during religious rituals and banquets, it was highly valuable as it was also used for religious offerings and gift exchanges. It’s no surprise that thanks to its connection to the elite and its exclusivity, cacao beans were eventually used as currency throughout Mesoamerica.

Cacao Beans

European encounters

The first European encounter with cacao as currency happened in 1502 when Columbus and his son Ferdinand, during his fourth voyage to the Americas, captured a Maya trading canoe (Coe and Coe 107-108).  This vessel contained a number of goods valuable to the Maya, including what Ferdinand Columbus called “almonds”, he noticed their value but didn’t understand their importance (Leissle 32). He wrote, “They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe and Coe 108-109). Cortes on the other hand, was quick to realize cacao’s importance and use it to his advantage “to buy things, and to pay the wages of their native laborers” (Coe and Coe 93).

Aztec man carrying a cacao pod

From Drink to Currency

Cacao wasn’t initially thought of as money, its beans were used to create a frothy drink we call chocolate. This beverage was produced and consumed by both the Mayan and the Aztec elites, becoming a marker for high social status (Baron 211). “The drinking of chocolate was confined to the Aztec elite – to the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long-distance merchants and to the warriors” (Coe and Coe 89-90). It was served during marriage ceremonies, religious rituals and feasts, and used as valuable gifts to exchange during feasts, as tributes to form diplomatic alliances and as dowries (Reents-Budet 220). What transitioned cacao’s role as a drink to money was its use as tribute payments demanded by polities from their subordinates, “facilitating their use as a store of value for future transactions” (Baron 214).


A possible Maya lord sits before an individual with a container of frothed chocolate

Cacao as Currency

The cacao bean possessed several qualities that made it possible for it to become money in Mesoamerica: it had great value due to its use by the elite and during religious rituals, it was also “portable, relatively durable, divisible, recognizable, and somewhat difficult to counterfeit” (Gasco 225). Yet cacao beans are perishable, they could be only stored for a year before they spoiled, forcing owners to spend it or drink it before it became devalued, therefore preventing inflation (Baron 219).  

Those who possessed cacao beans could spend them on material and immaterial commodities. They could be used to pay work service, to purchase freedom from forced labor, and to pay taxes or service obligations (Reents-Budet 220). They could also be used to purchase goods, for example: a turkey hen for 100 full cacao beans, a turkey cock for 200 full cacao beans, a hare for 100 cacao beans, an avocado for 3 cacao beans, a tomato for 1 cacao bean, a tamale for 1 cacao bean (Coe and Coe 93-94).


Aztec tribute list demanding 200 loads of cacao beans
Folio 47r of the Codex Mendoza

Even though this money grew on trees, these trees were found only in specific areas within Mesoamerica, so beans were either demanded as tribute by rulers or transported by long-distance merchants to markets.  In the case of the Aztec, long distance merchants were called pochteca, they were part of the elite class since they were considered warriors, “they were often armed, they traveled through very dangerous lands to reach their markets, and often fought pitched battles with hostile foreign groups” (Coe and Coe 92). There were several pochteca guilds whose membership was hereditary, rising in rank within a guild involved hosting a banquet where chocolate made from beans from their storehouses would be served (Coe and Coe 91-92).

The royalty had storehouses where they kept a massive amount of cacao beans they collected as tributes from their people. Famously, Moctezuma’s warehouse stored 960,000,000 beans (Coe and Coe 82). These beans were used to finance war, pay salaries, trade with other empires, and maintain government institutions (Baron 214).  

Pochtecas with their freight,
Illustration from the Florentine Codex

Conclusion

Cacao had a dual purpose in Mesoamerica, a social and an economic one. Cacao beans were used to create a beverage that was consumed during social and religious occasions by the elite. At the same time, it served as currency demanded as tribute and exchanged for goods.

Even though cacao was used as money, it continued to be consumed during social events, which maintained its value and importance. Because of this dualism, we could say that the members of the elite were drinking their own money when consuming chocolate.

Works Cited:

Baron, Joanne P. “Making Money in Mesoamerica: Currency Production and Procurement in the Classic Maya Financial System.” Economic Anthropology, vol. 5, no. 2, 2018, pp. 210–223.

Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Gasco, Janine. “Cacao and Commerce in Late Postclassic Xoconochco.” Rethinking the Aztec Economy, edited by Deborah Nichols, Frances Berdan, Michael Smith, University of Arizona Press, 2017, pp. 221-247.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. 1st ed., Polity, 2018.

Reents-Budet, Doreen. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2006, pp. 202-223.

Multimedia Sources

“A Possible Maya Lord Sits before an Individual with a Container of Frothed Chocolate.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayan_people_and_chocolate.jpg.

“Aztec Man Carrying a Cacao Pod.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aztec._Man_Carrying_a_Cacao_Pod,_1440-1521.jpg.

“Codex Mendoza Folio 47r.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Mendoza_folio_47r.jpg.

“Illustration from the Florentine Codex, Late 16th Century.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pochtecas_con_su_carga.jpg.

Symens, Isai. “Cacao Beans.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao_beans.jpg.