Category Archives: Multimedia Essay 1

Cacoa, Chocolate, Confections, Cravings, and Confusion: What’s in a Label? A too short view at Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and Other Labels.

Pareve, USDA Organic, Rainforest Certified, Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Equal Exchange, GF, Peanut/Tree Nut Free?! What is in a label? How do you decipher the myriad of symbols on your chocolate bar or confection? What do they mean? Are they important? Is one symbol more important than others? How can you tell? And where do you find the answers? How can a consumer find the answers?

Equal Exchange Chocoalate Orange.jpg


Equal Exchange Mint.jpg

When you purchase a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup the label (if you look very closely) will tell you that it is Gluten Free. You won’t find the myriad of symbols that you find on Newman’s Own Peanut Butter Cups. The symbols there state that it is a Gluten Free, Fair Trade product amongst other things. An Equal Exchange chocolate bar label tells you that it’s USDA Organic, Worker Owned Cooperative, Kosher Pareve Certified in Switzerland and Equal Exchange Fairly Traded. The inside of the label goes on to tell you that not only is its cacao sourced from small farmers, but its sugar and vanilla are as well. It also introduces you to one of the farmers that they trade with. It also asks you, the consumer to “JOIN OUR MOVEMENT”.

Equal Exchange Clara Huaman Santa Cruz.jpg

 The inside of this label also gets to the crux of the labelling issue:

“With your support over the last 30 years, Equal Exchange has become one of the leading alternative trade organizations in the world. Together, we have enabled small farmers to gain market share and influence never believed possible.

And yet our mission is more threatened than it was 10 years ago.

Corporate control of Fair Trade-and in fact the entire food system-has reduced the power of small farmers and left consumers confused and demoralized. At the same time climate change is wreaking havoc on farmer communities.”

Equal Exchange-Luis Diaz Aylas.jpg

What and who defines Fair Trade?

 This video by Equal Exchange makes Fair Trade cacao farming seem almost idyllic. These are happy, well dressed cocoa farmers who are bettering their lives and their communities.


Ndongo Sylla in his book, The Fair Trade Scandal, states, “Fair Trade is but the most recent example of another sophisticated ‘scam’ by the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market. This noble endeavour for the salvation of the free market was tamed and domesticated by the very forces it wanted to fight. With its usual efficiency, the free market triggered the implosion of the Fair Trade universe and hijacked its mission, without Fair Trade supporters and stakeholders even realising it.” (Sylla, pp. 18.)

Sylla credits “Frans van der Hoff, a Dutch priest and economist living in
Mexico, and his fellow countryman Nico Roozen, Director of the
Solidaridad non-governmental organisation (NGO)” (Sylla, pp. 19.)with starting the first Fair Trade label, Max Havelaar in 1988. The foundation put out this video in 2013 to celebrate it twenty-fifth anniversary. (Sorry, I was unable to create a direct link.)

Another Viewpoint on Fair Trade. There are no happy farmers in this video.

Professor Don Boudreaux in this video from MRUniverity  actually argues that Fair Trade   actually hurts the poorest producers and workers of agricultural goods by diverting money and resources from them to areas where there is the infrastructure to support Fair Trade.

The Fairtrade Foundation in the UK argues that, “Twenty years after the first Fairtrade chocolate bar was launched in the UK, Fairtrade chocolate is becoming increasingly popular and now makes up 12% of all British chocolate sales – providing vital economic benefits to cocoa growers.

Last year, UK sales of Fairtrade chocolate reached £542 million, and as a result Fairtrade cocoa producer organisations earned £4 million in Fairtrade Premium, on top of the price they earned for their beans, to invest in business, social and environmental projects in their communities; this represented a 30% increase on the previous year.

Stephen Lord, Product Officer (Cocoa) at the Fairtrade Foundation, said: “Fairtrade currently works with 167,000 cocoa farmers in countries including Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana and the Dominican Republic. Most are small-scale farmers who live on very low incomes, and Fairtrade enables them to trade their way out of poverty, by helping to ensure they have stable incomes and long-term contracts with companies.” (Fair Trade News-10.13.2014.)


Andy Harner, the global cocoa director of Mars Chocolate, said this in an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The demand for cocoa to make chocolate and related products is projected to exceed supply. If current trends continue, we anticipate that the world will need at least 1 million additional metric tons by 2020—more than Ghana, which is the second largest supplier of cocoa in the world and nearly as much as the current total annual production of the Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa producer. Despite this increasing desire for cocoa, farmers in the West African and Southeast Asian countries that produce more than 85 percent of the world’s supply are often not able to invest in their farms to benefit. In the last 10 years, yields for many farmers have stagnated or decreased and income has remained flat, which has affected the long-term competitiveness of the industry and challenges the willingness of farmers and their families to continue growing cocoa.

Mars guides its business strategy according to five principles, one of which is mutuality, the belief that all actors in the supply chain should share in the benefits. With many cocoa farmers living on less than $2 a day, we launched our Sustainable Cocoa Initiative to enhance and promote mutuality for the farmers we depend on for our chocolate business. We believe that our business should benefit farmers today and tomorrow, which is why our guiding principle is Farmers First. For the cocoa industry to be truly sustainable, the world’s 5 to 6 million smallholder farmers must be put first so that they can have the opportunity to professionalize their farms, increase their incomes, diversify their crops, and support their families.

Increasing growers’ productivity dramatically is the most effective way to raise farmer income, and increasing farmer income is the most important way to empower farmers and their communities to create lasting change.” (Andy Harner, Stanford Social Innovation Review.April 25, 2012.)

Does anyone from any side of the debate have any common ground?

Direct Exchange is a panacea in the debate in the cocoa-Fair Trade- Mega-Corporation triangle. While the video below indicates the perhaps ideal relationship between grower and cacao artisan, as we discussed in class, this exchange is so limited in scope that it affects such a tiny percentage of the farmers trying to eek out an existence for themselves and their families that it is impractical to view this as a realistic solution for the majority of farmers who aren’t one of the lucky “few”. (“Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food”. Carla D. Martin, PHD. April 28, 2018.)

When we look at  our labels we can see that Fair Trade, Direct Trade, farmers, corporations and consumers all have a stake in the mix. Fair Trade and Direct Trade products such as Taza, Equal Exchange and others vie for a market share of an affluent market, but can our shelves and displays of specialty chocolate and confections change the tide of our aisles with bags or Mars Bars, Hershey Kisses, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, etcetera.

“While perhaps this is not surprising – modern capitalist business production relies on size and quantity metrics and notions of continuous growth and aggregation to determine value – it stands opposite to many of the values expressed by those involved in craft production.” (Martin, PHD, Carla D.. Sizing the Craft Chocolate Market. Fine Cocoa and Chocolate Institute. August 31, 2017.)


Sylla states that, “in spite of their ever greater ambitions, Fairtrade protagonists still have not come to realise theextent to which recent developments have rendered their movementanachronistic. First, agricultural products have been experiencing a
trending decline for many decades now. They now account for
only 9 per cent of the international merchandise trade, while
processed agricultural products represent two-thirds of exchanged
goods. In the case of LDCs, however, they merely accounted for
0.3 per cent of this latter market in the period 1991–2000 (FAO,
2004: 26). By focusing on primary agricultural products, Fairtrade
is pulling developing countries back. Besides, it does not allow
them to envisage local industrial processing, which creates more
value added and is more profitable in the long term.” (Sylla, pp. 235.)
This is an exceedingly complex issue that will not be solved in a blogpost or even a few books. It is an issue that needs a comprehensive approach with an eye toward the individual farmer and consumer, but also a reckoning that profit, mass market, and mass production aren’t ever going to be eliminated from the supply chain that brings us our bean to bar cacao, as well as, our most decadent chocolate confections.



Fair Trade News. Choose Fairtrade to Make a Positive Impact for Cocoa Growers. October 13, 2014.

Harner, Andy.  Stanford Social Innovation Review. April 25, 2012.

Martin, PHD, Carla D.. Sizing the Craft Chocolate Market. Fine Cocoa and Chocolate Institute. August 31, 2017.)

Sylla, Ndaongo. 2014. The Fair Trade Scandal.



Destined for Contention: Chocolate’s Place in a “Healthy” World

Chocolate, and what it means to people, differs across time and space. From its inception as the seeds of a fruit tree to the myriad ways in which it is transformed and eventually consumed by humans, chocolate’s potential variety seems limitless. The history of chocolate merits this variety; it is a fascinating story across multiple continents and cultures. What becomes ever more apparent when studying chocolate’s history as a food, and potentially as a healthy food, is that human obsession with food – in general, but more pertinent to this paper as a source of health – is no new phenomenon. The Western diet has undergone huge transformation since the industrial revolution, chocolate was transformed along with it, and both have not slowed in their development. When chocolate was first encountered by Europeans, the scientific reasoning behind food knowledge was based on a 1500-year-old system developed in Ancient Greece and Rome. Today, modern science allows us to measure the nutritional content of anything and everything we can think of ingesting. But, alas, this technological exactitude has not led to uniform consensus when it comes to which foods are healthy and which are not. Diversity, in both our options of foods and the opinions on which of them we should choose to consume, still reigns supreme. This paper will track chocolate, from its birth place to the continents where it is now most widely and voluminously consumed, and attempt to appraise its value as a beneficial dietary supplement. It will also discuss what effect the perception of chocolate as a health food might have on the industry today. What becomes apparent is that, while Galen’s humours may no longer hold sway in the scientific realm, the Hellenic wisdom from Apollo’s temple that prescribes, “Everything in Moderation,” is as true today as it was two thousand years ago.

According to Michael and Sophie Coe, in their exhaustively well-researched book, The True History of Chocolate, feelings have been mixed about the legitimacy of chocolate as a health food for a long time. The Aztecs, who did not discover or invent the cacao seed and its most valued product, but were controlling the product across its empire with an iron fist, did not view chocolate as a panacea like some Europeans came to do. For the Aztecs, the chocolate drink, as it was consumed then, was taken chiefly as a preferable option to wine – drunkenness being hugely frowned upon (Coe: 75). There were some supposed benefits, that were reported by the Spanish mendicant friars, including increased “success with women” (Coe: 96), and as a cooling drink that could be taken before hard labour to avoid overheating (Coe: 123). But there were also warnings against chocolate, with a myth purporting that chocolate had made Aztecs fat and weak, distancing them from their superior forebears (Coe: 77). In Europe, chocolate arrived as a medicine (but Coe notes, “it soon became a medicine that was appreciated for its taste, its filling nature, and its stimulation, 126). However, the guise under which it came, the now utterly refuted Galenic humoral system, makes its supposed benefits interesting but not pertinent to this discussion. To sum up briefly, chocolate was claimed to benefit a host of ailments including: angina, constipation, dysentery, dyspepsia, kidney disease, liver disease, breast and stomach illness, asthenia, indigestion, fatigue, gout, haemorrhoids, erectile dysfunction, and the list goes on.1 It was not until modern medical research took root in the 19th century that false claims started to become harder to make (though they have never been completely extinguished).

So what claims can be made about chocolate? Unfortunately, because chocolate in the United States only has to be 10% or more made from cacao, very little can be said uniformly about chocolate.2 So it is important to clarify that the only chocolates that can be said to have possible health benefits (at least benefits that derive from the cacao) must be those produced with a significant cacao content. Much has been said recently about the health benefits of dark chocolate, some of it true, some of it exaggerated, and some of it quite misleading. If one googles, “dark chocolate health,” the vast majority of articles one will find will boast of the “superfood” qualities of high cacao content chocolate or of the benefits of adding raw powdered cacao as a supplement to one’s diet.3 The nutritional properties of cacao most touted are its antioxidants – polyphenols and flavonoids – with claims that they are good for cardiovascular health, protection from disease, anticancer properties, lower cholesterol, cognitive health, and lower blood pressure.4 Antioxidants has become a “buzzword” in the health community, especially the health selling community, and so anything that can be provably claimed to contain antioxidants and can also be produced and sold will appear in advertising before long. However, scientific research results have not proved as exciting as the claims of fitness and holistic-living “experts.” The antioxidant immunity boost from chocolate has showed to be extremely short-lived in humans5 and studies have revealed, like that of red wine’s supposed health benefits, that the amount of chocolate (or wine) that would need to be consumed to enjoy the rewards from the antioxidants contained would be such an enormous amount that the damage caused by the fat and sugar (or alcohol) would far outweigh the goodness done.6 Thus, the health benefits of chocolate, if any, must be attainable from a small amount, as its fat content is so high.

So if the antioxidants in chocolate are too small in number, are there any other benefits to eating dark chocolate? In short, yes. Small amounts of very dark chocolate, approximately 85% cocoa content, do boast three important nutrients that, while less glamorous than immortality-inducing antioxidants, are incredibly important to human health. High cacao content chocolate boasts impressive amounts of fibre, iron, and magnesium. While the numbers are not uniform brand to brand, a comparison of eight brands at a Somerville, Massachusetts convenience store (Perugina, Green and Blacks, Jelina, Scharffen Berger, Newman’s Own, Lindt, Chocolove, and Divine) showed enough correlation to warrant discussion. The average fibre content from the eight brands darkest products (ranging from 72%-85%) was 19% of a person’s recommended daily amount; for iron it was 27.5%. Magnesium is generally not listed on FDA required packaging and so product to product this number is hard to acquire. However, Humana Press’s comprehensive compendium, Chocolate in Health and Nutrition, is not vague when it comes to chocolates magnesium content claiming, “Chocolate has one of the highest magnesium levels reported of all foods.” (Watson 430) Are these facts about chocolate’s nutritional profile important? Possibly. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service claims that 57% of Americans do not have enough magnesium in their diet; it also claims, more dramatically, that 92% of Americans do not get sufficient fibre in their diet.7 Magnesium deficiency is not trivial. The American National Institutes of Health claims:

“Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body. It has been recognised as a cofactor for more than 300 enzymatic reactions, where it is crucial for adenosine triphosphate (ATP) metabolism. Magnesium is required for DNA and RNA synthesis, reproduction, and protein synthesis. Moreover, magnesium is essential for the regulation of muscular contraction, blood pressure, insulin metabolism, cardiac excitability, vasomotor tone, nerve transmission and neuromuscular conduction. Imbalances in magnesium status—primarily hypomagnesemia as it is seen more common than hypermagnesemia—might result in unwanted neuromuscular, cardiac or nervous disorders. Based on magnesium’s many functions within the human body, it plays an important role in prevention and treatment of many diseases. Low levels of magnesium have been associated with a number of chronic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, cardiovascular disease (e.g., stroke), migraine headaches, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”8


For anyone living in America, sadly, these diseases and afflictions are not unfamiliar. Fiber deficiency too poses health risk with the Harvard School of Public Health claiming, “Fiber appears to reduce the risk of developing various conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, diverticular disease, and constipation.”9 Iron deficiency is not, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, a seriously prevalent issue among Americans with 89.5% getting enough in their diet. Although the risks associated with iron deficiency, for one in ten Americans,

“can delay normal infant motor function (normal activity and movement) or mental function (normal thinking and processing skills… can increase risk for small or early (preterm) babies. Small or early babies are more likely to have health problems or die in the first year of life than infants who are born full term and are not small, … cause fatigue that impairs the ability to do physical work in adults. Iron deficiency may also affect memory or other mental function in teens.”10

Iron deficiency is not a huge issue at the moment, but with the amount of meat being consumed in the American diet coming under attack, alternative sources of iron might be important to a new generation of health and environmentally conscious consumers looking to eat considerably less meat, and with it the iron it provides.

The number not yet mentioned, but most important when discussing the possible benefits or dangers of high cacao content chocolate is that of the fat, and especially saturated fat, content. The average saturated fat content from a single serving of one the eight brands mentioned previously is 58% of the recommended daily amount, according to the FDA packaging. This number is astronomically high. The dangers of saturated have been widely reported for many decades10 but recently there has been contention within the medical community. The British Medical Journal posted a controversial article in 2017 claiming “Saturated fat does not clog the arteries… Despite popular belief among doctors and the public, the conceptual model of dietary saturated fat clogging a pipe is just plain wrong.”13 The article came under fire, not for necessarily being outright wrong, but for being misleading.14 Fat is still something that should be monitored, whatever the type is being consumed. So, unlike a food source like a kiwi, which boasts enormous health benefits and can be added to any diet with no known drawbacks (unless one is allergic), chocolate can only be effectively employed as a source of nutrients to a diet low in fat. For many this is bad news. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service reports that only 40% of Americans are staying within the guidelines of consuming 10% or less of their calories from saturated fat.15 Ultimately, this means for a large section of society the only way to employ dark chocolate as a health food is if they restructure their diet to include significantly less saturated fats.

So, if it can be argued that a small amount of high quality dark chocolate can be employed as a nutritious source of food to an already health conscious individual, what could this man for the industry today? One positive effect that has started to occur is that people’s dissatisfaction with the amount of sugar in their diet has caused producers to start making chocolate with much higher cacao content. With cacao content coming under focus, the origin, quality, and ethical standards in production of the cacao have come out of the shadows for mainstream consumers to take a better appreciation of the politics behind what they put in their bodies. Chocolate has a dark past that unfortunately it has not completely shed. But with cacao becoming the star of the show for many selective buyers, attention is increasing, albeit too slowly, to cacaos often third-world origins and the ethics of production in countries like Ghana and The Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, healthy (or at least healthier) chocolate does not mean ethical chocolate. Lindt is a brand that has not exonerated itself with total transparency after accusations of turning a blind eye to the unethical means of production of its chocolate. Yet its 85% bar is a favourite among fitness enthusiasts for its nutritional content and great flavour.16

What is exciting is the recent explosion of craft chocolate in the United States and beyond. Craft chocolatiers are typically willing to pay more for their beans, and as Dr Martin of Harvard University has written, “buyers must pay more for cacao, uncertified and certified. Both practically and morally, consistent cacao farmer poverty in an industry replete with wealth is unacceptable.”17 Craft chocolate is also inherently made from higher quality ingredients, and with an emphasis on a robust amount of cacao per bar. An often reliably healthier option than mass-produced chocolate. The craft chocolate market is still small and producers have for the most part stayed clear of buying beans from West Africa, where the bulk of ethical concerns lie. However, increase in chocolate consumption is rising rapidly according to an article publish recently in Vox, “Chocolate retail sales in the US have risen from $14.2 billion in 2007 to $18.9 billion in 2017, the market research group Euromonitor International found, at a time when candy sales overall have been waning.”18 If demand for craft chocolate increases, perhaps a future where farmers are able to choose to sell their beans to craft chocolatiers over mass-producing corporations is possible.



Works Cited

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

Watson, RR, Preedy, VR & Zibadi, S 2013, Chocolate in health and nutrition. Humana Press Inc. DOI: 10.1007/978-1-61779-803-0

Sugar, Cacao, and Slavery in Brazil: Conversations between the works of Walker, Klein, and Luna

Introduction of the works

The relationship between commercial cacao production in Brazil and compelled or forced labor is one of extreme historical importance, yet it takes up little to no space in the history books. In his 2007 work, Slave Labor and Chocolate in Brazil: The Culture of Cacao Plantations in Amazonia and Bahia (17th to 19th Centuries), Timothy Walker analyzes this relationship, and believes that his research fills a gap in current academic literature. He argues that while popular published works explicate the importance of sugar, they do little to understand cacao plantations. For example, Walker explains that in Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz “argu[es] that sugar production was the primary reason for the institution of African slavery in the western hemisphere,” but what is not as well explained in his book is “the initial dependence on forced native American labor in the Brazilian cacao industry…and later heavy reliance of African slaves” (Walker, 78). What Walker’s work does not pay as much attention to, is the interconnectedness of the sugar and cacao industries in Brazil. In his concern over the unrepresented literature on cacao, he seems to discount (or at least does not sufficiently address) the importance of Brazil’s sugar production and its relationship to the cacao industry. Despite this, when put in conversation with other literatures such Herbert Klein and Francisco Vidal Luna’s Slavery in Brazil (2010), a much more comprehensive understanding of the economics of slavery and its relationship to the sugar and cacao industries can be drawn out.

Origins and Scope of Slavery and Crop Production in Brazil

In the American education system, slavery is taught to us from a quite slanted perspective that barely makes mention of slave trades in other parts of the world. We learn about the great extent to which slavery affected the United States and its enduring legacy in our institutions, so it can be incredibly difficult to wrap our minds around the idea that it could have occurred on an much larger scale. Figure 1 below illustrates the major regions where slaves arrived from Africa, and the size of the circle corresponds with the number of slaves brought to that area. Brazil received almost ten times as many slaves as the United States did (accounting for approximately 40% ), and was thus in higher demand by European powers to produce sugar and cacao commodities.

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 8.56.23 PMFig. 1. Major regions where captives disembarked, all years.

In Brazil, “[e]nterprising colonists had begun to plant sugar as early as the 1510s,” but by the 1580s, two major areas in the Northeast (Pernambuco and Bahia) became the largest production centers for sugar (Klein and Luna, 25). What we also learn from Walker, is that these same areas (mainly Bahia in addition to the Amazonian region) played the most important role in Brazil’s cacao production economy. With these products being grown in the country’s most fertile regions and close to major slave ports, a special production symmetry arose. As they were grown in close proximity, they “developed a strong commercial co-relationship in American and European markets” and “[e]lite consumers learned to combine bitter natural cacao with a sweetening agent to make the food more palatable” (Walker, 84). Sugar plantations later made their way down to southeastern Brazil in the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo regions in the late eighteenth century, which drove the slave ports in the South to receive even more slaves in total than in the North (Klein and Luna, 69).

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Fig. 2. Clearing agricultural land in Bahia, early 19th century.

Changes in Demand and Supply

The increasing or decreasing rate of production of sugar and cacao in Brazil was almost always a direct response to changing demand from Europeans. The demand for slaves also directly coincided with the plantation labor demands, so these factors went hand in hand. However, an increase in demand from Brazil specifically was not only because more Europeans wanted the commodity. One of the biggest hikes in demand for Brazilian sugar (and thus slaves as well) was due to the “collapse of Haitian slave production and the mid nineteenth century decline of British West Indian sugar production” (Klein and Luna, 78). This strengthened the plantation system in the Northeast of Brazil and allowed for even more expansion in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Ultimately, through the historical shifts in demand and supply from all regions involved in the production of these commodities, we can understand the intricate interconnectedness between the cacao, sugar, and slave markets. It is crucial to consider their overlapping histories, and not view them in a vacuum in order to arrive at a comprehensive image of how they influenced each other throughout history.


Fig. 3. Relative share of Brazil in world sugar production.



Works Cited

Klein, Herbert S., and Luna, Francisco Vidal. Slavery in Brazil. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, 1985.

Walker, Timothy. “Slave Labor and Chocolate in Brazil: The Culture of Cacao Plantations in Amazonia and Bahia (17th–19th Centuries).” Food and Foodways, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 75–106.

Image Sources

Figure 1:

Eltis, David, and Richardson, David. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Yale University Press, 2010.

Figure 2:

Walker, Timothy. “Slave Labor and Chocolate in Brazil: The Culture of Cacao Plantations in Amazonia and Bahia (17th–19th Centuries).” Food and Foodways, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 79.

Figure 3:

Fraginals, El Ingenio, I, pp. 40-2; II: 173. ***Found in Slavery in Brazil on page 80.***


A New Cacao History? A Differing Narrative of Cacao Beverages in Pre-Colombian America

While chocolate for most people in the United States gathers images of candy bars, delicious desserts, or even hot cocoa, many are also aware of the more traditional style of cacao beverage produced traditionally in Mesoamerica. These early chocolate beverages made from the traditional process of fermenting the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree, drying these fermented seeds, grinding them, and finally adding water to the ground seeds to form a thick beverage are almost omnipresent in Mesoamerican cultures (McNeil 2009).

Modern equivalent to a traditional cacao beverage, with cacao beans around the mug and a cacao pod in the background.

The earliest discovered vessels containing chemical residue of cacao date back to 600-400 B.C.E. from Belize (Dreiss and Greenhill 2008). Traditionally, academics assumed that Theobroma cacao tree was initially cultivated by humans in order to create the type of beverage described above which involves the lengthy process of fermenting, grinding, and mixing the cacao seeds with water.

cacao tree
Theobroma Cacao with cacao pods

Prominent chocolate scholars Sophie and Michael Coe employ this argument to support the hypothesis that Theobroma cacao was first cultivated in Mesoamerica, rather than South America, as the chocolate beverage described above was highly prominent in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, while in Pre-Columbian South America, this drink was absent (Coe and Coe 1996). However, when examining other traditional Mesoamerican and South American uses of comestibles of the Theobroma Cacao tree, a new theory for the initial cultivation of Theobroma Cacao may emerge (Joyce and Henderson 2006).


(Video demonstration of the cacao grinding process into a modern cacao drink below)

While the traditional processed chocolate drink described above may have been prominent in Mesoamerica, other traditional beverages using products from Theobroma cacao were extremely common across both Mesoamerica and South America as well. Although many different types of foods and beverages were produced, one that may shed light on the origins of the multi-step traditional chocolate beverage creation process and the initial cultivation of Theobroma cacao is an alcoholic beverage derived from the fermentation of the pulp and seeds found inside cacao pods referred to as “chicha” (Joyce and Henderson 2006). While this alcoholic drink is typically associated with pre-Columbian cultures in South America, and the nonalcoholic processed chocolate beverage discussed initially is associated with pre-Columbian cultures in Mesoamerica, there is evidence to suggest that alcoholic drinks made from fermenting the pulp of cacao pods were produced in pre-Columbian Mayan and Aztec Mesoamerica as well (Joyce and Henderson 2006).

(Video demonstrating the cacao pulp fermentation process)

As such, the discovery of the production of chicha may paint a new picture for the initial cultivation of Theobroma cacao. It does not make intuitive sense to reason that Theobroma cacao was initially cultivated to make the non-alcoholic chocolate beverage, as it is complex lengthy multistep process without clear initial benefits. It makes more sense to hypothesize that the traditional ground nonalcoholic beverage may have arisen out of the byproducts of brewing chicha, as chicha is a necessary byproduct of creating the nonalcoholic traditional chocolate beverage (Joyce and Henderson 2006). This narrative points to the initial cultivation of Theobroma cacao in order to make chicha. The benefits of the fermentation of the seeds would have then become discovered as a byproduct of the fermentation process to make chicha. In fact, the fermented cacao seeds may have then been eaten as a source of dietary fat, similar to how palm seeds were eaten in Mesoamerica for their rich fat content (Joyce and Henderson 2006). Additionally, cacao seeds would have been impossible to separate from the pulp prior to fermentation due to the gluey texture of the cacao pulp.

Early Olmec pottery cacao vessels found at San Lorenzo


This new narrative of the non-alcoholic chocolate drink arising out of the chicha fermentation process possesses further implications for the history of cacao in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. There is widespread evidence of the ritualized nature of serving cacao as a means of social performance (Dreiss and Greenhill 2008). The serving of the traditional cacao beverage utilized special serving and preparing vessels across Mesoamerica. Later pottery vessels from the post classic period (1000-1521 C.E.) are designed with a flared neck in order to facilitate frothing when pouring into cups, a necessary step for the traditional cacao drink to suspend the ground seeds in water in order to acquire the correct consistency (Joyce and Henderson 2006). Older pottery vessels tend to have narrow taller necks, which are not as suited to this frothing technique.

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 22.42.50
A Mexican woman frothing cacao in the traditional manner by pouring it from a vessel into cups. This is an early colonial drawing. 

The new flared neck bottle form develops around 900-700 B.C.E. In the social ceremonies in which cacao was served, the hosting party would create social debt to honor guests through the serving a feast prepared specifically for the guests (McNeil 2009). However, a fermented drink such as chicha would have already been in production due to the lengthy fermentation process. Fermented drinks would not have been given the same credit as the specifically prepared feasts for ceremonial occasions. Creating a performance out of serving the beverage would then circumvent this issue (Joyce and Henderson 2006).  These types of drink serving performances were commonplace with traditional non-alcoholic cacao beverages in later Mesoamerican society, with the hosting party adding other ingredients such as flowers or ground seeds at the time of serving (Dreiss and Greenhill 2008).  The process of grinding cacao seeds into a fine meal, may have originated as a method to increase the amount of social debt and honor to guests as the ground seeds were added to fermented cacao beverages at the time of serving. As such, these grounds had to be frothed into the drink at the time of serving creating a performance aspect to the drink. Therefore, this necessary performance aspect of the fermented drink may be the origins of the non-alcoholic varieties made from ground seeds and water which became universal across Mesoamerica (Joyce and Henderson 2006).

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Passing of a vessel containing frothed cacao during a ritual ceremony.

Through examination of the use of fermented cacao beverages, we reanalyzed the narrative of the origin of the cultivation of Theobroma cacao and discovered a potential new and enlightening prelude to the traditional origin story of modern cacao products. Cacao may have been first used in order to create the alcoholic “chicha” beverage which then gave rise to the traditional multistep nonalcoholic cacao beverage as a byproduct of complex serving performances of the alcoholic one during social ceremonies to honor guests.

Works Cited:

Christian, Mark. “A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE.” The C-Spot,

Coe, Sophie D and Coe Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Dreiss, Meredith L., and Greenhill, Sharon. Chocolate : Pathway to the Gods. University ofArizona Press, 2008.

George, Andy. “Fermenting & Roasting | How to Make Everything: Chocolate Bar.” YouTube,How to Make Everything, 11 Feb. 2016,

Gross, Robin. “How to Make Authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate (Chocolate Caliente).” The Spruce, 30 Aug. 2017,

Joyce, Rosemary A, and Henderson, John S. “The Development of Cacao Beverages in Formative Mesoamerica.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2006.

McNeil, C. L..Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: UniversityPress of Florida, 2009. Project MUSE,

Oneil, Megan E. “Chocolate, Food of the Gods, in Maya Art.” Unframed, LACMA, 27 Oct. 2016,

wilmo55. “Preparing Drinking Chocolate near Oaxaca, Mexico.” YouTube, YouTube, 25 Apr.2010,

Sugar, the gateway good to slavery, racism, and wealth.

When Americans think “slavery” they most likely picture the one below, a middle school taught history of blacks on southern plantations underneath the blazing sun picking cotton for hours a day with little pay or none. 

The symbolic image of a whip for lashings might also come to mind, or the political divisiveness caused by the institution necessitating a Civil War that still lingers in the air today. Maybe they remember a bit more than average and can recall tobacco as the first American “cash crop”, or can picture the simplistic, triangular slave trade as the united states imported bodies from Africa and exported goods to Europe. All these thoughts and perceptions however, stem from the misconception of slavery being uniquely held to North America with some involvement from the British, and negates the truth of slavery preceding colonization into the new world of the Americas with the United States’ component having only a minimal impact. This is important as one must first understand slavery and the slave trade in the new world at it’s conception to fully grasp the context of slavery in the United States. To do this, one must see sugar as the crop that financed the origins of the slave trade, and not the cotton or tobacco crops of North America. Once you do this, you realize that the simple triangular slave trade, is not so simple, and looks more like the one seen below.

To examine why and how sugar came to be the crop that altered afro-american relationships forever, one must look no further than the West Indies and South America. At one point or another, small island countries such as Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica were major financial supporters of their European owners. Just as an example, in the late 1700s, Haitian sugar provided nearly half the value of french trade, and exported about half of the world’s sugar production.. In their paper, Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Rise of European Living Standards after 1492, Hersh and Voth explain the demand:

“As the price of sugar declined, consumption spread to the lower classes. It was frequently used as a substitute for a protein source, consumed in the absence of meat when and where meat was too expensive. Though the simple carbohydrates from sugar do not have all the nutritional qualities of a protein source, its consumption offered calories at a time where energy availability may have severely constrained labor input (Fogel 1994). In addition, sugar was used to add sweetness and calories to food and drink, especially to tea or coffee, or added in liquid or powdered form to a whole range of foods … Sugar was also used in medicines. Combining caffeinated drinks with sugar was a European innovation, as was the adding of milk (Goodman 1995). Sweetened tea became popular amongst all classes in England. Tea and sugar (or coffee and sugar) were therefore complementary goods. For the poor, a cup of sugary tea could reduce feelings of hunger, and give energy for a short time. Tea could serve as a substitute for a hot meal, especially where heating fuel was in scarce supply (Mintz 1985).”

By this point sugar production was the result of nearly 200 years of entrepreneurial advancements to take advantage of the high demand in Europe (I use the term “advancement” loosely and only related to the increase in sugar production, regardless of the morals surrounding them). Some of the advancements made were notable, a steam engine to better crush and separate the sucrose from the sugar cane, seen below, or a locomotive to move sugar cane from far out fields on the plantation.

Other “advancements” were more logistical, such as methodical record keeping and note taking. Perhaps the most important, although, had to be the development of the coordinating to transport free labor across the atlantic and putting them to work on sugar plantations.

Over the years, the usage of black slaves necessitated the desensitizing of their owners surrounding their quality of life. As told by slavery museum in Liverpool:

“Inside the plantation works, the conditions were often worse, especially the heat of the boiling house. Additionally, the hours were long, especially at harvest time. The death rate on the plantations was high, a result of overwork, poor nutrition and work conditions, brutality and disease. Many plantation owners preferred to import new slaves rather than providing the means and conditions for the survival of their existing slaves.”

This desensitivity lead way to racism, which only further perpetuated the horrible treatment of slaves in the Americas. As explained by Dr. William Hardy of the Open University, “The long-term economic exploitation of millions of black slaves was to have a profound effect on the New World’s history. Most fundamentally, it produced deep social divides between the rich white and poor black communities, the consequences of which still haunt American societies now, many years after emancipation.”  

It’s hard to argue that sugar production would become as lucrative as it was, when it was, without the use of free labor, so it’s easy to see how the exploitation of Africans directly led to wealth growth in European nations who participated. However, not only did Europeans exploit the use of labor from Africa, they exploited the use of land from much of the Americas. By exporting virtually everything those colonies created back to the mother-country, the countries who were producing the most lucrative crops on the planet never saw a share of the wealth created. This relative economic stagnation could explain why many countries which were once occupied by European ones, today remain rather poor and play catch up to the rest of the world.

Works Cited:

Hardy, William. “Riches & Misery: The Consequences Of The Atlantic Slave        Trade.”OpenLearn, The Open University, 25 Feb. 2014,

Hersh, Jonathan, and Hans-Joachim Voth. “Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Rise of European Living Standards after 1492.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2009, p. 9., doi:10.2139/ssrn.1402322.

“Slavery in the Caribbean.” National Museums Liverpool,



Chocolate as a Symbol of Love through Luxury: From Ancient Mayan Civilization to Today


Chocolate, more so than most foods, carries a sentiment of love and affection when shared with and given to other people, driven by the notion that it can be a luxury. Today, about 83% of people are likely to share candy or chocolate on Valentine’s day, and chocolate sales compile 75% of Valentine’s Day candy purchases (NCA). While it is believed that known chocolate brands (Hershey’s, Dove, etc.) influence our association of chocolate with love and affection (they certainly do to a significant extent), closer analysis suggests that usage of chocolate as a vessel for love and affection may stem from the luxurious nature of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica and chocolate in 17th-18th century Europe and the methods by which these commodities were consumed.

Chocolate as an Affectionate Gift Today

A significant amount of advertisement by chocolate companies frame chocolate as a luxury good that can be given as a gift to show affection towards another person. This advertisement by Perugina (owned by Nestle) highlights the symbol of chocolate as an expression of love for a family member, friend, and partner. The chocolate product advertised in this instance, as in many other, does not even appear until the final few seconds. And, when it does appear, it is given from a man to a woman and eaten in a substantially delicate fashion- the way one would treat anything opulent. This sumptuous branding of chocolate as a delicacy inherently labels it as a worthy gift that shos fondness towards someone. If that aspect is not enough to influence people to think of chocolate as a luxury gift that shows affection to someone, the quote from the advertisement, “The Italian way to say, ‘I love you’” lays out the message pretty clearly, and can be found in many similar messages throughout world chocolate marketing- one needs to only look as far as the product of a Hershey’s ‘Kiss’ or a heart-shaped dove.

Chocolate as a Social Enabler in Ancient Mesoamerica

Opossum God carries Rain God on his back, caption is “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal].”
Maya marriage rituals included tac haa – roughly translated as “to serve chocolate” or “to invite the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to discuss the marriage and serve him drink”

(Martin, 2018).


Today’s notion of chocolate as a luxury to be shared with others is not new by any means. Ancient Mayans can be seen using cacao in the context of love through marriage rituals. The Mayans associated cacao with their gods and religion- shown in colonial documents such as the Popul Vuh and the Dresden Codex, in which the Opposum God carries the Rain God on its back with the hieroglyphic caption “cacao is his food” (pictured above)(Martin, 2018). The glorification of cacao in these sacred contexts can be seen as the first notion of chocolate, or its origin cacao in this instance, as a luxurious commodity consumed by the powerful. Moreover, it appears as though the depiction of the God’s usage of cacao trickles down to carry social significance for the actual Mayan people. The image above shows their marriage ritual of the father of the groom offering cacao to the father of the bride to invite him to discuss the marriage, providing one of (if not the earliest) known examples connecting chocolate to fostering relationships.

Chocolate as a Luxury in 17th-18th Century Europe

The tradition of chocolate as a meaningful ritual via its opulence continued quickly into the assimilation of chocolate consumption in European culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. Specifically, the development of chocolate pots in Europe and their migration to Boston added to chocolate’s luxurious allure in both places: “fashioned for an elite clientele to serve imported luxury foodstuffs…chocolate pots were among the rarest silver forms in the early eighteenth century) (Falino, 2008). The creation of these pots initially may have been motivated by desire for functionality: “what distinguishes the chocolate pot from the coffee pot is the hole in the top under the swiveling (or hinged) finial that allows for a stirring rod to be inserted and do its work without cooling the drink” (Deitz, 1989). However, the functional appeal does nothing to hide its luxurious nature. In this surviving chocolate pot by Edward Webb, the base and top are decorated with intricate fluted design. These vessels made for the consumption of chocolate were desired only by wealthy merchants and a “succession of royal appointees who had sufficient funds and an appetite for the latest styles” (Deitz, 1989). In a similar fashion to the Mayans, the consumption of Chocolate was ritualized beginning in this rich form with silver pots.


1706-18 Chocolate Pot made by Edward Webb stored in Museum of Fine Arts


The Consumption in Chocolate Houses by Elite Add to the Allure

The development of chocolate houses in 17th-century Europe add to the history of chocolate as a luxury. These houses fostered political discussion and developed what Loveman calls “a separate identity” from coffee-houses. They soon evolved into the venue for parties with other types of drinks and games mostly for gentlemen, while “respectable ladies could call at a chocolate house” (Loveman, 2013). Furthermore, by 1680, a dialogue began during the making of a new chocolate house in Westminister developing the notion that women loved chocolate in a similar fashion that is advertised today (Loveman, 2013). These chocolate houses allowed for the practice of the consumption of chocolate by elites not only confirmed to the nature of chocolate as a luxury but also brought people together because of its appeal.

When people think about Valentine’s Day, they think about chocolate, specifically heart-shaped chocolate, and love. The association with love and affection is influenced by advertisements by chocolate companies today that convince us that chocolate is a delicacy to be shared with others, and they are able to convince us of this belief because of a deeply rooted history of chocolate as a luxury item. From the ancient Mayans believed that cacao was a food of the Gods, to 17th-century European elites using lavish silver pots to drink it, to the silky smooth texture with which they are created today, chocolate has always carried immensely more meaning than the simple ingredients that have combined to create it, allowing us to use it as a symbol for much more than a bit of food.


Works Cited:

“A Baci Chocolate TV Ad Italy “Say It with a Kiss” Valentine’s Day 2010.” YouTube. January 10, 2010. Accessed March 20, 2018.

Carla Martin. “Chocolate Expansion.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge. 31 Jan. 2018. Lecture.

“Chocolate Pot.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. April 06, 2017. Accessed March 20, 2018.

Falino, Jeannine, and Gerald W. R. Ward. Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000: American Silver in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: MFA Publ., 2008.

Kate Loveman; The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640–1730, Journal of Social History, Volume 47, Issue 1, 1 September 2013, Pages 27–46,

Marcy Norton; Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics, The American Historical Review, Volume 111, Issue 3, 1 June 2006, Pages 660–691,

Paula Deitz. (1989, February 19). Chocolate Pots Brewed Ingenuity. New York Times (1923-Current File), p. H38.

“Valentine’s Day Central.” NCA. Accessed March 19, 2018.

Recipes and Reverence: Understanding the Role of Early Cacao Recipes in Mayan and Aztec Culture

What Came First? The Issue of Differentiating Cacao Appreciation from Cacao Preparation

By now, it is incontrovertible that two Mesoamerican civilizations—the Maya and, shortly thereafter, the Aztecs—were the first to develop a vast range of creative recipes and technically-advanced preparations of cacao. Ever since the discovery of the Princeton vase, we have been able to date the preparation and consumption of chocolate-based drinks to as early as A.D. 750.[1] Meanwhile, Stephen Houston and David Stuart have confirmed that chocolate drinks could be prepared to feature a variety of flavor profiles,[2] textures, and even temperatures.[3] Indeed, we have the Maya and Aztec to thank for a variety of innovative recipes that feature cacao as their main ingredient.

Heretofore, historians have used this information to bolster arguments about the ingenuity, creativity, and sophisticated nature of the Maya and Aztec civilizations. In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe They describe the various ways in which the veritable Golden Age of Mayan civilization[4] manifested itself: the erection of temples and palaces, installation of successful court systems, and development of various chocolate recipes. They argue that the preponderance of cacao preparations utilized by the Maya was just one of several manifestations of the civilization’s sophistication.[5] Moreover, they note that cacao was a highly valuable product in both societies, used variably as a foodstuff for the elite, a ritual offering to the gods, and even as currency. [6] In this light, it would seem that the variety of cacao recipes were developed because the substance was already considered to be valuable.

Though the Maya and Aztecs were undoubtedly sophisticated and intellectual peoples,[7] and though cacao certainly meant a great deal to them in its own right, I would like to problematize the assumption that they devised such developed preparations for cacao simply because the product carried monetary and ceremonial value. On the contrary, the proliferation of recipes and rise in respect for cacao are inextricably linked and intensely intertwined, two phenomena that occurred simultaneously and encouraged one another. By analyzing cacao preparations, I show how the preparation of cacao played an important role in engendering and augmenting an appreciation and adoration of the foodstuff. In so doing, I will prove that the early fascination with cacao did not cause the development of recipes with which to honor it; rather, the two phenomena were always contemporary and interrelated.


Making, Creating, and Self-Implicating: Intertwining Cacao and the Self

“She grinds cacao [beans]; she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes foam; she removes the head, makes it thicken, makes it dry, pours water in, stirs water into it.”[8]

When Fray Bernardo de Sahagún asked natives of the Yucatán for insight into the Mayan process of creating fine chocolate, he received the above description. Undoubtedly, the account confirms the Maya’s technical advancement—it evidences a woman so adept at food preparation that she easily carries out a multi-step process in order to achieve a precise, desired consistency. But beyond evincing the facility with which Maya women prepared this ceremonially important foodstuff, this passage elevates the very act of creating a chocolate beverage to the level of ritual.

The tone, structure, and content of this passage reveals that the act of preparing cacao beverages was itself ritualistic and profound, allowing the chef to implicate herself in the creation of ritually-significant foodstuffs. Written in lilting, assonant triads, this account lulls readers with a mesmerizing beat. “She chooses, selects, separates.” “She drenches, soaks, steeps.” These words accurately describe the preparation, but reading them is itself enjoyable. Moreover, the content implies a close relationship between the chocolate handler and the final chocolate product. Throughout, the subject of each sentence is not the chocolate but rather the person manipulating it. This woman acts upon the chocolate—she pulverizes, filters, strains, aerates, and pours itThis is crucial, for it implies that the artisan is the most important ingredient in this ritually significant beverage. By molding, shaping, and changing the cacao into a drink, the woman insinuates her very being into the foodstuff.

Certainly, one should consider the lengthy process of harvesting cacao as part of the process of creating the drink. As this video shows, this process was time-intensive and required subjective and objective specialized knowledge.[9] After harvesting the pods, farmers remove the mucilaginous center, leave the seed to ferment, sun-dry, and toast, and finally shell them to remove the nibs that will be ground on a metate to produce chocolate liqueur. Such a process would have certainly engendered a respect and appreciation for cacao beyond its monetary or ritualistic value.

Moreover, watching the process of making such a beverage confirms what the above poetic passage suggests. Namely, that the process was itself highly ritualized and called for its agent to insinuate him or herself into the final product. As early as four seconds into this video, the maker of this beverage begins a choreographed process of a certain frothing motion and particular method of serving the foamy liquid. Just as a dancer makes practiced motions look effortless, this gentleman creates the illusion that this process is simple. However, his performance belies the forethought, practice, and repetitive preparation required to master the recipe’s flavor balance and textures.


Imbibing and Internalizing

Finally, it is important to consider the implications of the final step in the process of creating cacao-based beverages: consuming them. The Princeton Vase, when it was originally discovered and deciphered, was an exciting find for anthropologists because it “it illustrates the process of pouring the potion from one vessel into another to raise the foam, which was considered the most desirable part of the drink by the Aztecs, and almost certainly by the Classic Maya.”[10]


As I have mentioned, this finding has usually been discussed in the context of Spanish conquest. In The New Taste of Chocolate, Maricel E. Presilla assures readers that “before the Spanish arrived, frothed drinks were often used as sacred offerings (a use that persisted into modern times in scattered spots).”[11] While this is an important reminder given previous histories’ tendency to unduly credit Europeans with the discovery, creation, and appreciation of chocolate,[12] it distracts readers from aseparate, important element—the implied last step of any recipe: consumption. It is easy to forget, amidst all of the talk of creative seasoning and ritualized preparation of cacao beverages, that the final step in each of these processes was to serve the beverage to a Mayan or Aztec royal. Given that the final, drinkable product was one that, I argue, functioned as an extension of its maker, this final step of any recipe is crucial to understanding how cacao preparations engendered and augmented appreciation for cacao. Indeed, it must have been a heady experience to serve such a beverage—which symbolized painstaking labor, a ritualistic extension of the self—to the Mayan or Aztec king and watch him imbibe it with pure bliss.


Potential Recipes for Success

Today, “the mere idea of chocolate without sugar seems incomprehensible to most of us.”[13] Just as the Europeans colonizers initially turned their noses at the complex, sometimes bitter flavor profiles of Mesoamerican cacao-based beverages[14] and sought to mask its flavor with sugar to serve not only their own taste preferences but also their imperialist and capitalistic motives,[15] Americans today have let themselves grow accustomed to overwhelming sweetness—with disastrous consequences. These days, it seems our fastest ticket to improved health is to somehow decrease our sugar intake. To modern readers, who may be unfamiliar with the tastes of chocolate as the Maya and Aztecs knew it, the profundity of the cacao-consuming experience should inspire pause and careful thought.

Indeed, the process of making, creating, molding, mixing, and changing the chocolate—followed by the process of consuming it and internalizing it—allowed the cacao to take on a type of value that was neither monetary nor social, but instead personal. By altering and then consuming cacao, the Aztecs and Maya entwined themselves in the creation of its value and then literally and figuratively internalizing that value by eating the cacao.



[1] Coe, 48.

[2] Coe, 61.

[3] Coe, 49.

[4] Coe, 39.

[5] Coe, 48.

[6] Lecture, 24 Jan. 2018.

[7] Lecture, 31 Jan. 2018.

[8] Coe, 84.

[9] Lecture, 24 Jan. 2018.

[10] Coe, 48.

[11] Presilla, 9.

[12] Lecture, 31 Jan. 2018.

[13] Coe, 94.

[14] Lecture, 7 Feb. 2018.

[15] Mintz, 43-4 and 121.

Works Cited

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

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

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

The Legendary Cacao: Ancient Mayan Religion and the “Food of the Gods”

The global importance of cacao today is rooted in a widespread love of chocolate. The chocolate industry is one that is lucrative yet exploitive, enticing but oppressive—yet all based on the versatile fruit cacao. Cacao, named the “food of the gods” (theobroma cacao) by Carl Linnaeus, gleans its importance today from its role in the chocolate industry, but in the ancient Maya civilization cacao’s significance was as much religious as it was dietary (Luna 87). This post will explore artifacts from the classical period of the Mayan civilization (500-800 CE) and evidence of cacao’s influential spiritual significance. The ancient artifacts explored showcase cacao’s intimate relationship with the human origin story of the ancient Maya. These spiritual beliefs laid the foundation for the important role cacao would play in Mayan civilization from a social, religious, and alimentary perspective.

Cacao and the Origin of Life

As  Maya hieroglyphic specialist Gabrielle Vail explains, the role of cacao was grounded in an ancient history that traced back to the creation of humanity.  According to the Popol Vuh, and ancient Mayan epic, cacao is one of the “precious substances”, along with corn, that poured from the “Sustenance Mountain” to ultimately create humanity (Vail 4). Before cacao catalyzed the creation of human beings, it belonged to the realm of the Underworld lords, where it “grew from the body of the sacrificed god of maize, who was defeated by the lords of the Underworld in an earlier era” (Vail 4). Later the god of maize would be resurrected by his sons the Hero Twins, who overcame the gods of the Underworld, ushering in the advent of human life (Vail 4).

 The Maize God in the Sustenance Mountain

The work of historian Simon Martin provides great insight on the role of cacao in Classical Mayan religion. The image below displays a black ware vase and Martin’s sketch of the artifact. Known as the Berlin vase, it depicts what Martin calls the “transubstantiation of man, maize, and cacao” (156). Produced in the Early Classic period, the artifact illustrates the mythological tale of cacao’s divine role. The vase depicts the death and transformation of the maize god, and the new lord who would follow in his footsteps (Martin 157). The lord who continues in the maize god’s steps is represented by the middle tree, which sprouts two cacao pods. The corpse of the maize god, reduced to a skeleton, can be seen at the base of the image.

Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 158.

The Maize God as a Cacao Tree

                  The image below is from a small stone bowl from the Early Classic era of Mayan civilization (250-600 CE). Martin analyzes the relationship between the artistic imagery and hieroglyphic text in this piece. Per Martin, the ripe cacao pods that adorn the man’s limbs and the “wavy wood motifs” which decorate his skin, indicate that this artifact depicts an anthropomorphic cacao tree (155). Although this deity has been dubbed a ‘Cacao God’ Martin argues that references to cacao in the image instead depict the Maize God as “the embodiment of a cacao tree” (155-156). Martin substantiates this conclusion through the translation of the hieroglyphs, which roughly translate to “Maize Tree God” (156). This combination of cacao imagery and maize deity inscription led Martin, like Vail, to the sixteenth-century K’iche’ Maya epic, the Popul Vuh,  a mythological tale in which both the artifact’s text and depiction make sense.


Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 155.


The Maize God as a World Tree

This image below is Simon Martin’s sketch of the lid of a Late Classic period ceramic censer which depicts an arched maize god with a cacao pod in his headdress (Martin 167). The artifact depicts the maize god in an inverted posture bearing a cacao pod. The depiction of the god is reminiscent of the idea of World Trees, which were often depicted with inverted postures (see the inverted crocodilian tree below). The artifact continues in line with the Popul Vuh, with the maize god now appearing as a World Tree. World Trees are a vital concept with ancient Mayan lore. According to the colonial era Chilam Bam documents of Yucutan, world trees helped define the limits of the cosmos and the cardinal directions (Martin 165). The depiction of the maize god as a World Tree followed his death and consequent rebirth as such a tree.

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 9.29.50 PM
Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 167.
Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 5.56.19 PM
Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of
Florida, 2009, p. 159.

The artifacts explored demonstrate the high value attributed to cacao within the religion of the ancient Mayan civilization. Cacao was revered on a cosmic and existential level, central to the organization of the universe and the creation of humanity. Anahi Luna suggests another spiritual connection the Maya had to cacao, by highlighting their affinity for plants with anthropomorphic structures. This idea can explain the sacred nature of both cacao and corn within the culture, both of which possess an orderly arrangement of seeds (Luna 85). The prevalence of cacao within Mayan spirituality would continue, allowing cacao to play an important role cacao in rituals, offerings, wedding ceremonies, and eventually be used as currency (Vail 5-6).


Works Cited

           Grivetti, Louis Evan, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and
Heritage. Wiley, 2009.
            Luna, Anahi. “Chocolate III: Ritual, Art, and Memory.” Artes De Mexico, no. 110,
June 2013, pp. 72–96. JSTOR [JSTOR],
           Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a
Cultural History of Cacao, by Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase, University Press of
Florida, 2009, pp. 154–183.


Pre Columbian customs and beliefs involving cacao and chocolate

In today’s society, chocolate is a well known commodity that many people associate with sweetness and romance. A key ingredient in the making of chocolate is cacao. When people think about chocolate, they think of a sweet treat with European origins from places such as Switzerland. However, many people are often unaware that cacao was believed to be discovered in early Mesoamerican civilizations. These civilizations also had quite a different view of cacao and chocolate than the modern view. They viewed these items as luxury goods given to them by the gods and used them for more than simply eating. Cacao and chocolate were used in religious rituals, marriage rituals, and even used to cure illness. The Mayans viewed chocolate so fondly that they would have a yearly festival to honor the cacao god, Ek Chuah.

Cacao can be traced all the way back to the Mesoamerican civilizations. According to Magnus Pharao Hansen, cacao was seen as luxury crop during this time period and it provided theobromine for the nervous system after a labor process of cultivation and processing. This evidence allows us to understand that Mesoamerica was becoming a civilization, moving past the stages of just necessities and creating class division and hierarchy. The image to the right shows vessels with residue of pasted image 0theobromine, which is an ingredient in cacao. This shows us that chocolate was becoming a big attraction in civilizations such as the Olmecs. Other civilizations such as Mayans and Aztecs have records that show a strong presence of cacao and chocolate.Documents such as the Dresden Codex, Madrid Codex, and ParisCodex (shown on the right) were in hieroglyphics and have cacao featured throughout, often being consumed by gods in ritual activities. Evidently, cacao was viewed by the MesoamDresden_codex_page_2erican people as more than just a food item, but rather a sacred item given to them by the gods. According to historian Marcy Norton, cacao was viewed in a religious setting as essential to one’s physical, social, and spiritual well- being. During this time as well, many marriage customs involved the presence of cacao. The Mayan marriage rituals had the husband serve chocolate to the father of the girl he wanted to marry and discuss the marriage. Cacao was also used in customs involved death. The rites of death referred to cacao that was dyed red and helped ease the soul’s journey to the underworld. Cacao was used in beverages, as well, during the time of the Mayans. Chocolate beverages were viewed as sacred drinks with the foam being the most important part of the beverage. The beverages were able to boost energy for people due to the caffeine in the chocolate. Usually, it was men of royalty and elite status who consumed chocolate through beverages, while women and children were not allowed to drink the cacao. This is because they viewed it as an intoxicating food. Eventually, cacao and chocolate were being used for medicinal purposes. In the Mayan civilization, cacao was used for digestion and as an anti- inflammatory. In the Aztec civilization, cacao was used to cure infections and illnesses. As Teresa L. Dillinger states, “Childhood diarrhea was treated with a prescription that used five cacao beans. These were ground and blended with the root of tlayapoloni xiuitl (unknown plant) and then drunk. To relieve fever and faintness the prescription called for 8–10 cacao beans to be ground with dried maize kernels and blended with tlacoxochitl.” (Dillinger et al, 2060S) While the uses for chocolate expanded far beyond social use and pleasure, cacao still had an effect on the social landscape of the Mesoamerican civilizations. The Mayans had words such as “chokola’j”, which is translated to “to drink chocolate together”. Cacao had quite a special effect on people and played an important role in society and still does to this day.

Clearly, there were many customs and beliefs that the Pre Columbian civilizations had involving chocolate and cacao. The influence chocolate was able to have on these civilizations was immense and impacted their everyday lives. Many aspects of life were changed socially, religiously, and physically. Cacao and chocolate were able to change social interactions and physical treatments of people. People in the Mesoamerican civilizations used chocolate during many marriage, death, and religious rituals. As shown in lecture, foods and beverages such as the one shown on the right, still use the influence of earlresizey civilizations in order to sell products. The description of this beverage states, “Recommended served warm (106°), this delicious and relaxing beverage was blended to revive the delicacies and keen insights of the ancient Aztec tribes of Central America. Passed from generation to generation, our take on this blessed drink brings you the sensational benefits of anti-oxidant rich cacao and the powerful digestion aid blend of spices to create a tasty healthful experience.” With this description, we can clearly see how the Mayans and Aztecs views on chocolate still influence the modern global chocolate market. Due to the significance of cacao in the Mesoamerican society, chocolate has played a major role in the lives of many people and continues to have a major influence all over the world.

Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past.” Nawatl Scholar, 1 Jan. 1970,

Dillinger, Teresa L., et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 130, no. 8, 2000, doi:10.1093/jn/130.8.2057s.

St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses For Chocolate in Mesoamercia, 9 Feb. 2018,

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’”

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.”

The Rise of Craft Chocolate Makers and the Consequences of a Saturated Chocolate Bar Market

Whether it’s a CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, or nearby vending machine, consumers can always expect to find a Reese’s, bag of M&Ms, or Snickers. The tastes, packaging, and experience from these common chocolate bars have been ingrained in our minds since we were little.

A lighthearted commercial Kit Kat Large uses of “Dancing Babies” so people will remember the happy memories of them eating Kit Kats and to increase brand loyalty, the driving factor for the success of the Big Five companies (7). 

Up until the 1970s, the Big Five companies: Cadbury, Ferrero, Nestle, Hershey’s, and Mars faced little competition from smaller chocolate makers and if they did their strategy was to acquire them or bully them out of the market. The companies leveraged being first to enter the chocolate market when the “industrialization of the manufacturing process, retail, and transportation” of chocolate started (8). It is no surprise, these companies split over 70% the U.S. confectionery market share (5). However, after the 1970s and 1980s, the competition increased in the chocolate confectionery market due to the rise of craft chocolate makers who “returned to small-scale manufacturing and single origin fine cacao” (8) This paper will discuss why the craft chocolate makers were able to break through despite the firm grasp the Big Five has held on the chocolate market including reasons such as increasing the transparency of the manufacturing process and ingredients, embracing variations (new and old) in recipes, flavors, and richness, and because of a shift in the typical consumer’s attention to the ethics of the companies they are purchasing from.

Craft chocolate, not Kraft chocolate

There have been warning signs that hint the pendulum swing occurring in the chocolate bar market since the 1970s. By pendulum swing, I am referring to the transition from the pre-industrial chocolate which was rich, handmade with fine cacao in Mayan and Aztech households to the dip in quality and diversity that occurred after the invention of the cocoa press and dutch process chocolate and with the rise of industrial chocolate (2, 11). The year 2017 was a “positive year for many confectionery players outside of the Big Five” (14). Companies like Hershey with +1.25% and Mondelez with +2.3% net sales growth were outpaced by rest of chocolate industry growth of +3.3% (14). Furthermore, net profit took a large spike for companies in the Big Five (10).  These companies’ savvy advertising techniques, meticulous taste testing of flavor profiles, and their economy of scale are not as scary to new chocolate makers or enticing to consumers.

Pop up, craft chocolate makers have “exponentially risen over the past few decades to approximately 200 today” in North America (10). These include Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, Soma chocolate, and Rogue Chocolatier (1). What uniquely separates these companies are their attention to the combination of flavors, origins of cacao beans, initiatives the companies support, and experiences they create for the consumer.

Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker - Ferry Building, San Francisco

Founded in 1996, Scharffen Berger was the first Modern bean-to-bar chocolate company in North America. One of its slogans Romancing the Bean highlights the companies finest chocolate bars paired with luxurious wine. This company was one of the first to start selling bars made with cocoa from Madagascar. (12) Note Scharffen Berger was acquired by Hershey in 2005 after its success as craft chocolate maker. 

This stainless steel instrument is a grindometer. A worker at the Dandelion Cafe is using it to measure particle size in suspensions in order to arrive at the smooth sweet chocolate texture the chef desires. This is a prime example of DIY small machines that allow for craft chocolate makers to produce high-quality products by controlling the whole chocolate making process. 

Just like the culture change beer and coffee are experiencing with new small breweries and niche coffee shops, the chocolate market is growing with new ideas and diverse flavors (13).

A great example of this change in culture around chocolate is Dandelion Chocolate. The cafe sits in the hip Mission District of San Francisco. Here is a sign showing the advertising the company is using to draw consumers in and convince them of their unique chocolate bar’s taste (3). 

These craft chocolate companies describe their process as “Bean-To-Bar Chocolate”, meaning all produced in-house. Cases like these are reshaping the chocolate retail market slowly as the market shifts back to pre-industrial chocolate making and the frequent use of vintage machines to produce Mayan and Aztec inspired tastes and chocolate forms as opposed to “industrial chocolate: low cost and taste consistency” (4).

The dynamics of the selling point for chocolate companies have changed and the new millennials and advancements in communication with social media are at the core pushing this transformation. Over the past two decades, the Big Five chocolate companies have been facing large scrutiny for their negligence or responsibility for some of the worst forms of child labor and forced labor in its supply chain and industry. “On average, cacao farmers earn less than $2 per day” in Western Africa (1). While these large companies profits reach the billions, these countries fall into a trap of poverty and dependence on the commodity. To combat this scrutiny in the eyes of the public, these companies set up plans to address these issues. Mars, Hershey, and Ferrero promised that by 2020 they would purchase 100% of their cacao from “certified producers (6). While the other large companies aimed to invest in cacao non-profits to train and assist farmers in these regions such as Western Africa.

From these companies’ ambitious responses and promises, it is clear that they are worried about the perception of the manufacturing processes they use. However, we have yet to see how the chocolate market will respond or if they will reach these goals. The advantage heavily favors craft chocolate makers who produce the chocolate from scratch. The maker “roasts, grinds, and smoothens them into chocolate in a single facility” (6). The success of these small companies are driven by consumers who can trust the chocolate is made carefully and without ethical concerns.

This brings me to my last topic, the implications of the saturation of the chocolate market with more craft chocolate makers. As the pendulum swings to more traditional small chocolate chains, I suspect more pressure on the large-scale companies that depend on in-store purchases to change their marketing model and increase transparency of their manufacturing processes beyond ensuring their cacao comes from certified cacao farms. E-commerce will be the biggest cause of this transformation. The Big Five market share for in-store purchases will shrink, they will be forced to consolidate their large product/brand offerings into one brand, and companies will explore different recipes to pair with chocolate. Additionally, with the increase in the number of companies, I believe there will be a stronger necessity for a standardized, international regulation of cacao quality and a metric to quantify rich, milk,  or real chocolate. All in all, the rise in craft chocolate makers will lead the charge for more ethical cacao farming and increased standard of living in regions that grow cacao.

Works cited

  1. “Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry.” Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry | Food Empowerment Project, slavery-chocolate.
  2. Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate.  Thames & Hudson Ltd: London (1996) Print 
  3. “Dandelion Chocolate.” Dandelion Chocolate,
  4. Giller, Megan. Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: Americas Craft Chocolate Revolution: the Origins, the Makers, and the Mind-Blowing Flavors. Storey Publishing, 2017.
  5. Hershey. “ The Hershey Company Fact Book.” Thehersheycompany, Oct. 2017, https://
  6. “Inside Big Chocolate’s Child Labor Problem.” Fortune, chocolate child-labor. O’Keefe, Brian. “Inside Big Chocolate’s Child Labor Problem.” Fortune, @2018 Time Inc.,
  7. Kit Kat Dancing Babies Commercial, YouTube, 18 Jan. 2013,
  8. Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 1: Introduction” and “Lecture 3: Chocolate Expansion”
  9. Martin, Carla, D. “Sizing the craft chocolate market,” Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (blog), August 31, 2017,
  10. “Mondelēz Revenues Slide 13% in 2016 as Analysts Casts Doubt on Kraft-Heinz Merger.”, 7 Feb. 2017,
  11. Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009
  12. SCHARFFEN BERGER|Artisan Chocolate en_us/home.html.
  13. Shanker, Deena. “The Rise of Craft Chocolate.”, Bloomberg, 7 Feb. 2017,
  14. “The Candy Papers: Confectionery Industry Year in Review 2017.”, William Reed Business Media Ltd 2018., 12 Dec. 2017,