Transatlantic Taste Buds: Chocolate, Globalization and Palate Change

Transatlantic Taste Buds: Chocolate, Globalization and Palate Change


The Maya Bar (above)  is 70% cacao solids, described by manufacturer Gearhearts Fine Chocolates as “dark chocolate accented with cinnamon, orange and smoky Ancho chile” (Gearhearts). This homage to Mesoamerican cacao recipes from Gearhearts, a Virginia-based American artisanal chocolatier, is a paragon of the common-culture legacy of chocolate’s indigenous roots. Although oranges were never an original ingredient in Mesoamerican cacao recipes (they originated in Asia, and in fact weren’t brought to modern-day South and Central America until the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500s), the bar’s overarching nod to the Maya and the flavors and ingredients they utilized is an example of the cultural influence that this group of people had (Morton). In fact, transatlantic trade and interaction between European and Mesoamerican populations had a significant effect on the consumption patterns of each group of people. These changes were visible in the way that each culture ate and drank not only chocolate, but also dozens of other food staples. Most centrally, the advent of chocolate began an irreversible expansion of the European palate.

Today, chocolate remains a food with rich cross-cultural roots, and it carries aspects of both Mesoamerican and European influence that have persisted for hundreds of years. Though it was the Europeans who were the colonizers, Mesoamericanization of the European palate was significantly more pronounced than the reverse influence of the Europeans on Mesoamerican consumption habits. The Europeans viewed chocolate as an exotic, untamable substance, in the no-man’s-land between luxury and health. Even in the early stages of colonialization, Europeans recognized its importance and value, both in Mesoamerican culture and as a commodity. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz writes in Sweetness and Power, “… for [the Spaniards’] North European rivals trade mattered more… and plantation products figured importantly…[including] cacao, a New world cultigen and more an indigenous food than a drink” (Mintz 36). Cacao became critical and desirable in several socioeconomic contexts, and rapidly became popular amongst elite individuals, first in Spain and later Italy, France, and even the United Kingdom.

Most importantly, chocolate was the first time that European society placed a high culinary and cultural value on bitter flavors. It set a flavor precedent for the success of tea and coffee, both of which became extremely societally significant all over the continent (Mintz). Even the highly-prized froth that formed on top of the cacao beverage (below) has a European descendant in the form of the foamed and frothed milk that is instrumental to so many coffee-based drinks today. Chocolate was a fundamental case of the Europeans adapting to, or- depending on one’s perspective- co-opting, the extremely foreign chemical flavor preferences of another culture.



Of course, as with any occurrence of cultural fusion, Europeans didn’t completely adhere to traditional practices and recipes. They made several changes to the chocolate beverage recipe to fit their tastes – most notable were the additions of sugar, by the Spaniards, and milk and milk powder, by a Swede. They also assigned new meanings to chocolate beverages that had not been shared by the Maya and the Aztecs. In his book The Brief History of Chocolate, Yale anthropologist Michael Coe writes, “The Spaniards had stripped it of the spiritual meaning which it had for the Mesoamericans, and imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya: for the invaders, it was a drug, a medicine…” (Coe & Coe 126). Interestingly, much of colonial and postcolonial Mesoamerica grew to share the same views: because of colonial occupation, mostly by the Spaniards, some of the European adaptations of chocolate ended up reflecting back to the Mesoamericans.

The culinary and industrial technology which premiered in Europe during the Industrial Revolution brought a level of physical refinement and cultural-economic prestige to chocolate that had been inaccessible to the Mesoamericans. “Eating chocolate,” as it was called, was characterized by the silky textures created by conching and further processing. Prior to the Europeans, the only commonplace solidification had been in the form of Mesoamerican “cacao balls.” These dried lumps of ground cacao and maize, which have since been replaced by balls of cacao, sugar, and flour, were broken or grated “… dissolved… in water… and heated [it] to make a thick hot drink” (Presilla 2). This solidification allowed for chocolate to travel differently and to travel prepared for consumption, contributing to the ultimate democratization of chocolate that we see in both Mesoamerica and Europe today.

The two graphics below, from a lecture by Dr. Carla Martin, detail the prevalence of certain additional ingredients in both European and Mesoamerican colonial chocolate recipes. Some of these ingredients, like vanilla (and to a lesser extent achiote), became popular quickly and are still extremely common in Western chocolate today. The bounce-back mentioned above extended to many of the common additives: sugar became popular even in Mesoamerican cacao recipes during the colonial period, and was found in approximately 40% of recipes (Martin).

Ultimately, the braiding of European and Mesoamerican culture via the transatlantic slave-driven trade had long-lasting impacts on chocolate and cacao. From ingredients preferred by each group permeating into the chocolate preparations of the other group to shared cultural significances, the Europeans and Mesoamericans would not have experienced chocolate in the same way- whether that be positive or negative- if it weren’t for each other.


Works Cited

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

Gearhearts Fine Chocolates. Gearhearts Fine Chocolates. Web. Accessed Mar. 11, 2018.

Martin, Carla D. “Expansion”. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. Feb. 7, 2018. Class Lecture 3.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power. Penguin Random House LLC, 1985.

Morton, J. Orange. p. 134–142. In: Fruits of warm climates, Miami, FL, 1987. Web. Accessed Mar 9, 2018.

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


Photos, Google (foam from the Mexican Cook website)


The Cacao Cure

We hastened indoors after a long morning of sledding. Rhode Island public schools had all been cancelled for a snow day, and the hills around my hometown were cluttered with sheer exuberance. My brothers and I had been outside for hours, so we’d finally returned home to enjoy a much-anticipated cup of hot chocolate. After shuffling through the door, we bolted into the kitchen and wrapped our hands around the warm mugs that awaited us. But just moments later, my mother rushed in. Boys. Somebody needs to go close the front door—now. Money doesn’t grow on trees! 

Looking back on this phrase my mother commonly used, I can’t help but laugh at the multi-layered irony. First, it actually did grow on trees (though it’s not technically used as money anymore), and I was drinking it. And second, the hot chocolate I had really didn’t deserve to be called chocolate at all. In actuality, I was drinking chocolate-flavored milk and sugar, and it’d be years before I’d taste an authentic piece of chocolate or raw cacao. Although they’re not classic Mesoamerican vessels, the cups below demonstrate the simplicity and delicacy of the drink compared to our Americanized whipped-cream smothered cups of pure sugar. But still, there is one thing this cup of “cocoa” did for our frozen cores and stuffy noses, regardless of the actual cacao content. It healed us.

Mesoamerican drinking chocolate (Bowe)

Before I get into what I mean by this, let’s take a brief step back in history. The warm, liquid “hot chocolate” we drink today is far different from the Mesoamerican drinking chocolate whose origins lie deep in the rainforests of Central and South America (St Jean). Dating back to about 1900 BC, people followed a multi-step process to treat the beans, which were ground into a chocolate liquor and mixed with water along with various spices. The finished, frothy drink was prized in a wide variety of occasions, one of which happened to be in a medical setting. If you’re interested in a unique timeline, you’ll surely be mesmerized by the rollercoaster of cacao’s use as medicine across time.

From early to modern times, cacao has been used in three unique stages with respect to medicine: a flavorful disguise for actual medicines, a preventative and remedial cure-all for a variety of ailments via the humoral system, and a targeted, well-researched concentrate. Many speculators actually assume that the early success of chocolate, not unlike other stimulant beverages, was due to its acceptance as a medicine, claiming that it was only later appreciated as an object of recreation and pleasure (Norton 36).

In the first “stage” I’ve referenced above, cacao was typically used as a medicinal disguise for “real” medications. According to the Florentine Codex, a study compiled by priest Bernardino de Sahagún back in 1590, the Aztecs brewed a drink from cacao and silk cotton tree bark to treat infections starting around 1400. Additionally, children suffering from diarrhea received a drink made from ground cacao beans and healing plant roots (Thompson). Again, the cacao was used here to disguise the bad flavors of additives.

During this same time period, Aztecs used cacao to mask unsavory flavors of medicinal ingredients such as roots used to treat fevers and “giant bones” used to treat urinary bleeding. This manuscript of Maya curative chants suggests that, after chanting, patients consumed a cacao-flavored concoction of herbs that treated skin rashes, fevers, and seizures (Thompson). Thus, perhaps the fact that was cacao was so commonly associated with healing is the real reason it eventually became known as a curative food itself.

This brings us to the second “stage.” After Maya dignitaries introduced chocolate to Spain in 1552, cacao really took on a medicinal role in society. Whether or not chocolate was good, bad, or indifferent for one’s health was a vital topic for many Spaniards, who were “at the mercy of a worthless and often destructive constellation of medical theories which had held the Western world in its grip for almost two millennia” (Coe et al 120). It’s important to note that, at this point in time, European medicine still drew heavily on the philosophy of classical scholars Hippocrates and Galen (Coe et al 120).

Hippocrates held that the body contained four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Whenever these humors fell out of balance, disease ensued (Thompson). Diseases could be “hot” or “cold” and “wet” or “dry,” and physicians typically treated them with oppositely classified pharmaceuticals. Though cold by nature and therefore normally used in this state, cacao could be prepared in hot or cold forms, depending on necessity (Thompson). As a side note, I’m surprised that chocolate was considered “cold” given it was strongly flavored and quite bitter (Coe et al 128).

In a 1631 treatise, Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma gave a glowing description of cacao as a wide-reaching medicinal food: “It quite takes away the Morpheus, cleaneth the teeth, and sweeteneth the breath, provokes urine, cures the stone, and expels poison, and preserves from all infectious diseases” (Thompson). Later, in the 1700s, many doctors began the transition to focusing cacao on specific ailments, incorporating chocolate into smallpox treatments as a way to prevent weight loss associated with the disease. Richard Saunders—a pen name for Benjamin Franklin—references the benefits of chocolate against smallpox in the 1761 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac (Thompson). Can you imagine walking into the doctors office and getting a shot of chocolate to treat something? I know I’d be “sick” every day!

Hypothetical depiction of chocolate as a vaccine (Thompson)

This brings us to “stage” three. I’ll start by reluctantly admitting that, dutching—a process by which chocolate is treated with an alkalizing agent that modifies color and gives a more mild taste—has removed dark chocolate’s acidity and flavanoids since it began in the 1800s (Thompson). This can be explained by the fact that many people started adding cocoa butter back into processed chocolate to make bars, along with dairy and sugar that are now widespread across modern chocolate candy, and dutching simply made it taste better when combined with these other sweet additives. Ironically, however, these manufacturing methods likely made chocolate more of a medical hindrance than help.

But there’s a bright side. Recently, raw, unadulterated cacao has been re-recognized as a so-called “superfood” that boasts healthful sources of phytochemicals including procyanidin, flavonoids, catechin, and epicatechin (Keen 436). Note that I say re-recognized given that, even though the Aztecs and Maya appeared to be shooting in the dark with their many claims about cacao’s medicinal properties, they were actually quite brilliant. In fact, they’re now joined in their claims by leading institutions such as Harvard, which are even looking closely at using cacao for treating serious ailments. If this study on using cacao to protect against heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes produces positive results, these scientists definitely can’t take all the credit.

I’ve left my chocolate-flavored sugar days in the past, now savoring dark chocolate each and every day, and it’s particularly comforting to know that this delicious treat is still being proven as a healthy food hundreds of years after it was first claimed to be so. Now, I’ll embrace my new saying: A cacao bean a day keeps the doctor away!


Works Cited

Bowe, Tucker. “The Legend and Lore of Hot Chocolate.” Gear Patrol, Gear Patrol, LLC, 18 Dec. 2015.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., vol. 1, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Keen, Carl L. “Chocolate: Food as Medicine/Medicine as Food.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, vol. 20, no. 5, 21 June 2013, pp. 436–439. Taylor & Francis.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3, 1 June 2006, pp. 660–691. Oxford Academic.

St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” HeritageDaily, Heritage Foundation, 9 Feb. 2018.

Thompson, Helen. “Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin.”, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015.

Image Links



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,

From Producers and Consumers to Producing Consumers: Nestlé and the Weaponization of Brazilian Women

In a dense Rio favela or small Amazonian village at current day, you might meet someone much like Celene da Silva, who at 29 manages her own small business. This is no small feat for a woman from one of the most impoverished areas in the world. Armed with only a pushcart, da Silva travels door to door, selling infant milk products, candy bars, puddings, and cereals to her many clients.[i]

In the small town of Vevey, Germany (now Switzerland) at the turn of the 20th century, you might have stumbled upon Henri Nestlé, also a small business owner. Using his pharmaceutical background, Nestlé invented a milk alternative known as infant formula by combining cow’s milk, flour, and sugar.[ii] What, then, links a modern-day Brazilian entrepreneur to small-town German pharmacist? What if I told you they worked for the same company?

Da Silva, along with thousands of other Brazilian women, has been recruited and trained as a door-to-door vendor for Nestlé–the world’s largest food conglomerate with some of the most aggressive marketing practices in history. Vendors are dispatched throughout Brazilian cities and countrysides, offering “nutrient-rich” processed foods from a selection of over 800 products.[iii] Even in hard to reach areas, where geography or social stigma prevent women from vending, Nestlé has found a strategy. Pictured below is a Nestlé-sponsored boat, which travels remote Amazonian tributaries as a floating supermarket offering products to “isolated” consumers.[iv] Clients are often only interested in a handful of these products, however, with foods like Kit Kat bars, Nescau 2.0 (a sugary chocolate powder), chocolate pudding, and cookies being ordered the most.[v]


What complicates matters is Brazil’s tortured history with chocolate–once one of the top producers of cacao, the country has faced severe drought in recent years.[vi] Look at the country’s historic disconnect between production and consumption, namely due to slavery, and Nestlé’s door-to-door program appears particularly menacing. The anthropologist Sidney Mintz most accurately encapsulates this divide in his 1985 seminal work Sweetness and Power, writing of 20th century “It is not ironical to point out that the white migrants would soon be eating more sugar, produced by the nonwhite migrants at lower wages, and producing finished goods at higher wages to be consumed by the nonwhite migrants.”[vii] Many of these “finished goods” are now sold by Nestlé, who while relying on the labor of cacao farmers in countries like Brazil then dilutes products with sugar and milk to sell them at a profit. While Nestle’s door-to-door vendor program has disrupted the feminization of poverty, its attempt to turn sites of production into sites of consumption has come with devastating health effects.

Nestlé’s strict hiring quotas have allowed it to conceal its aggressive marketing efforts under the guise of gender equity. By employing over 7,000 saleswomen and 200 microdistributors,[viii] all women with little to no previous job experience, Nestlé has established a strong relationship with the Brazilian government and managed relatively little international oversight. In fact, in 2014 alone food companies donated a total of $158 million to Brazil’s National Congress.[ix] For women on the ground like Celene da Silva, the program has also brought much-needed economic empowerment. As the New York Times details, “With an expanding roster of customers, Mrs. da Silva has set her sights on a new goal, one she says will increase business even more…’I want to buy a bigger refrigerator.’”[x] Da Silva’s strong relationship with the women in her neighborhood, coupled with Nestlé’s one-month layaway plan timed to match the government-funded food stipend program, has stabilized her income.[xi] Despite the fact that she herself is 200 overweight with high blood pressure, da Silva, like many vendors, believes in her employer’s commitment to health. The question then becomes, however, the limit to employing women whose life spans will be shortened by their own products.

Nestlé’s marketing practices rely on notions of their products as healthy in order to attract the support of governments and consumers alike. Along with lobbying and employing women as door-to-door vendors, the company aligns its brand with nutrition and exercise to garner attention. As consumers in the U.S. have given up sugary chocolate products in favor of healthier foods, Nestlé has moved to introduce these same products to even the most remote parts of the Amazon by adding commonly deficient vitamins and minerals. The chocolate powder Nescau 2.0, for example, claims to be “packed with calcium and niacin.”[xii] As Professor Susan George writes in “The Limits to Public Relations,” Nestle is one of the only companies to so publically document these efforts. She says, “Very rarely do multinational corporations provide details of their activities in underdeveloped countries. Nestle is an exception.”[xiii] This distinct tactic is what has strengthened the trust between vendors and their company. As da Silva explains, “Everyone here knows that Nestlé products are good for you.”

Brazil serves as a case study in the transformation of a country from cacao producer to chocolate product consumer. The public health effects of Nestlé’s aggressive marketing campaigns are only beginning to be studied, as are alternatives. As one Nestlé consultant points out, “If I ask 100 Brazilian families to stop eating processed food, I have to ask myself: What will they eat? Who will feed them? How much will it cost?”[xiv] Processed foods have undoubtedly provided a solution to the issue of overpopulation, but have failed to nutritionally benefit consumers. The story of Nestlé and Brazil has often been one of deceit, in which sugar-laden chocolate products are billed as nutritional through women’s empowerment programs in an effort to target communities with poor records on gender equity and public health. The question then becomes how to balance demand with accessibility, affordability, and nutrition–without exploiting vulnerable populations.






[i] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health.

[ii] Owles, Eric. “How Nestlé Expanded Beyond the Kitchen.” The New York Times, June 27, 2017, sec. DealBook.

[iii] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health.

[iv] Garfield, Leanna. “Nestlé Sponsored a River Barge to Create a ‘floating Supermarket’ That Sold Candy and Chocolate Pudding to the Backwoods of Brazil.” Business Insider. Accessed March 20, 2018.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] “Chocolate Has New Latin King as Ecuador Overtakes Brazil.” Bloomberg.Com, January 21, 2014.

[vii] Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. Penguin, 1986.

[viii] “Door-to-Door Sales of Fortified Products.” Accessed March 19, 2018.,brazil.

[ix] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] George, Susan. “Nestle Alimentana SA: the limits to public relations.” Economic and Political Weekly (1978): 1591-1602.

[xiv] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health.

Cacao and its Ancient Literary Significance

Cacao seeds, the source of chocolate, don’t often figure as a divine substance in the modern word. However, cacao holds ancient significance as food of the Gods for the Mayan. The world of the Ancient Maya was in many ways built on chocolate. Today, many understand that chocolate was a drink for kings and nobles. There are dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars that depict chocolate as part of a ritual or feast (Presilla 12). Indeed, the Maya incorporated chocolate into their lives daily. Furthermore, they were among the first people to uncover the intricate process of creating and refining cacao seeds into chocolate drink. However, cacao operated as much more than just a food source; the Mayans used it as currency and wrote it into their creation myth. The Popol Vuh and the Dresden Codex offer a window into the ancient significance of cacao, connecting it to cultural identity. The act of processing  cacao beans, roasting and grinding them, is not only a cooking process but also deeply connected to a symbol of re-birth and power, due to its framing within a creation epic. Cacao is thus a spiritual food deeply connected to the identity of the Maya.



Cacao’s origins begin with the Mayan civilization and the creation of chocolate beverages. According to Maricel E. Presilla, the Maya “consumed the pulp itself and juice made from the cacao fruit pulp (Presilla 12). Additionally, inscriptions from drinking vessels outline a clear culture of drinking cacao, as the Mayans used terminology such as ‘tree-fresh cacao’ and ‘green cacao’ in order to describe certain tastes or preferences (Presilla 12). Historians have uncovered many vases and vessels, such as a painted pottery jar from a tomb at Río Azul, Guatemala. The vessel depicts a chocolate drinking being made and further shows the process of pouring the substance from one vessel into another “to raise the foam” (Coe 48). Thus, artifacts reveal the intricate care and use of chocolate; the Mayans were so particular about their chocolate routine that even specific moments in the process feature in art.


In addition to the clear culture of cacao consummation, cacao plays an instrumental within the Maya creation story. The story centers on the journey of the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque in a world that precedes the present. Their father, Hun Hunahpu was killed in Xibalba (the underworld) after he and his brother lost to the Lords of the Death in a ball game (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). Hun Hunahpu’s head is placed in a barren tree which magically begins to bear new fruit. According to Michael Grofe, this tree is depicted as a cacao tree, the beans of which make the chocolate drink that the Mayans enjoyed. Ultimately, the Hero Twins fall into a trap from the Lords of the Death who trick them into jumping into fire; they are burned and the Lords dump their bodies into the river. However, the Twins come back within five days as fish. They defeat death and bring about creation (Grofe). Thus, within the story is also the story of cacao. Like the twins returning to Xibalba, chocolate comes from beans which is roasted, refined, and poured into water, only to create something completely new.


The Maya word “kakaw” is spelled with two fish glyphs, further emphasizing the connection between the cacao process and the magical story of the Hero Twins (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). According to the scholar Michael J. Grofe, in the “the famous Rio Azul cacao pot, we find both the two ‘ka’ glyphs together with the reduplication symbol, as well as the final syllable ‘wa’, spelling ‘kakaw’. It therefore seems likely that the story of the Hero Twins transforming into ‘two fish’ derives from a pun on the word ‘kakaw’” (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). Grofe explains the sacrifice of the Twins as parallel to “cacao processing: entrance into the underworld (burial, fermentation), burning (roasting), grinding of their bones on a metate, and pouring them into water” (Grofe “Recipe” 1). Ultimately, Cacao, through symbolic and mythological writing thus serves as a powerful representation of re-birth, underscoring the cultural significance of cacao to the Maya who used it regularly.

The Dresden Codex further illuminates the significance of cacao in literary Mayan culture. The Codex is a “folding-screen book” and in several sections “gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe 41). In addition, the Dresden Codex specifically connects gods to cacao; according to Sophie and Michael Coe, “the Opossum God travels a sacred road to the edge of the town carrying the Rain God on his back, while the associated text tells us that ‘cacao is his food [kakaw u hanahl]’” (Coe 42). The Mayan Gods, as depicted in the Dresden Codex, have a clear reverential relationship to cacao. Ultimately, cacao seeds are not merely food, but a divine life source, and connected to the what it means to be Mayan.

Image Sources:

  1. Vessel and Popol Vuh page:
  2. Map:

Works cited:

  1. Coe, Michael D. True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.
  2. Grofe, Michael J. “The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya.” Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, 15 Apr. 2009,
  3. Grofe, Michael J. “Xibalba: About.” Xibalba Cacao, Michael Grofe,
  4.  Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: a Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Chia, Coca and Cacao: Stimulants in Meso and South American Culture and Their Lasting Effects

Chia seeds, coca, cacao and their derivatives were used by the ancient civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs, Olmecs and Incans in a variety of ways for a variety of different reasons. They were used as sacrifices, as food, and even as a currency. Chia, coca, and cacao share a lot more in common than these words starting with the same letter; most people, however, do not know that. Exploring the relationships between these substances is vital to understanding how these substances had shaped the civilizations of the past and is still shaping ours today.

Chia seeds were a staple in the diet of Aztec civilizations along with beans, amaranth, and maize[1].There is ample evidence to suggest that Mayans also consumed chia seeds in their diet due to “chia” translating to “strength” [2] in Mayan and the region of Chiapas, which comes from Chiapan meaning “river of the chia”[3]. The Aztecs offered these seeds to their gods during religious ceremonies and were consumed with the thought that it had supernatural powers. “Ancient warriors attributed their stamina to this tiny seed.” [4] It is worth noting that a diet consisting of the four aforementioned crops meet today’s Food and Agricultural Organization diet requirements[5]. Chia seeds, as we now know, are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and dietary fiber[6][7]. These supernatural seeds have an extraordinary ability to absorb water and it can be visualized in this video:[8]. The reported “increased stamina” after consuming these seeds is because of this high absorption ability of them.

The coca plant is most commonly found on the Andes mountain range in Peru and Bolivia, the home of the ancient Incan civilization. The following excerpt from Sigmund Freud’s “Uber Coca” shows how coca was viewed and used by the indigenous people that cultivated it:

When the Spanish conquerors forced their way into Peru they found that the coca plant was cultivated and was closely connected with the religious customs of the people. Legend held that Manco Capac, the divine son of the Sun, had descended brought them knowledge of the gods, taught them the useful arts, and given them the coca leaf, this divine plant which satiates the hungry, strengthens the weak, and causes them to forget their misfortune. Coca leaves were offered in sacrifice to the gods, were chewed during religious ceremonies, and were even placed in the mouths of the dead in order to assure them of a favorable reception in the beyond.[9]

Like the chia seeds, there is a religious significance embedded in the society’s use of the coca plant. Coca leaves like chia seeds were cited to have supernatural and miraculous powers. Freud points out the story of a sixty two year old man performing “laborious excavation work for five days and nights” all while sleeping no more than two hours and consuming nothing but coca leaves.[10] Nowadays, tourists in the Andes are given a tea made from coca leaves that helps cure altitude sickness[11]. Despite having many other uses, the main use of coca is that of a stimulant that increases the physical capacity of the body.[12] However, nowadays the most common and far deadlier is the coca plant’s addictive derivative: cocaine.

The recipe for chocolate has been around for many centuries with traces going back all the way to the predecessors of the Mayan civilization, the Olmecs[13]. They were thought to be the first to first develop the recipe for “chocolate”. Chocolate and cacao beans were used in a range of different uses from religious ceremonies and medicines just as the coca leaf and chia seeds were also used. It was even thought to be an aphrodisiac[14]. The chemical name given to the cacao tree, theobroma cacao, translates to “food of the gods”[15]. The Mayan hieroglyph below shows just that, as it depicts the God of Maize as a cacao tree. This depiction signifies the importance of cacao as a crop to the Mayan civilization.


Maya Maize God

Recent studies show that what we know today as “dark chocolate” contains two main alkaloids that are responsible for its stimulant properties, theobromine and caffeine.[16] It is therefore safe to assume that even before the incorporation of sugar into chocolate recipes it had stimulant properties like coca leaves and chia seeds. And while there is no evidence to suggest that chocolate was used to perform “supernatural” and “miraculous” feats, it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

All of chia, coca, and cacao have been used in some sort of way as a drink mixed with other ingredients to release their stimulant properties. Moreover, chia seeds and cacao beans were used as currencies in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations respectively[17].[18] More recently than the Mayan and Aztec periods, the derivatives of the coca leaf and the cacao beans, cocaine and chocolate respectively, have become highly addictive substances that are widely consumed nowadays. The former is illegal and the latter is not, however, the amount of money in both industries is in the multibillions, with the people at the top of the chain usually the ones to profit the most. Pablo Escobar, the King of Cocaine, reportedly burned two million dollars of cash to keep his daughter warm.[19]

Chia, unlike coca, cacao and their derivatives, does not have an exploitative history. In the later cultivation of chocolate, sugar was, and still is today, a main component used in chocolate production. Sugar workers, slaves “imported” from Africa, were treated very harshly on colonies. The following website shows just how just many slaves were exported from Africa over the years:[20]

Cocaine’s exploitative and negative history came more recently in the 1900s when after seeing initial success in it being used as an anesthetic, later became thought of as a narcotic like opiates when the number of addicts rose.[21] The War on Drugs by the United States of America on South American countries in the late 20th century saw many people die just as many Africans died during their life tenure as unpaid workers or even before their ship had docked in their forced destination.


Chia seeds and the history of their cultivation and consumption being free of controversy is very possibly the reason it was nearly forgotten and why people are not as aware of it now as they are of chocolate and cocaine. Spanish colonists banned the cultivation of both the coca leaf and chia seeds as they viewed the religious association of these substances as “heathenish and sinful”.[22] Unlike chia, however, the Spanish later allowed coca cultivation as they saw that the Indians were unable to complete their labor without it[23]. A combination of these factors led to chia not being widely present. In addition, there does not exist universally known brand names for a chia seeds product. Coca Cola (although it does not contain cocaine anymore), and Hersheys or Cadbury are synonymous with coca/cocaine and chocolate respectively. Furthermore, there are widely acclaimed and recognized movies about chocolate such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that instantly come to mind and many movies and television shows about drug dealers and the cocaine business like for instance, Narcos. Movies or shows about chia on the other hand, if they even exist, do not even ring a faint bell in one’s memory.

The association of all these substances to some religious deity or ritual, their perceived supernatural powers, and their wide range of uses are what initially elevated these crops to a higher regard in ancient times. What has kept these items in the current conversation though is their stimulant properties and the large amounts of profit associated with their respective industries.


[1] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA,

[2] “Chia Seed History and Origin.” ANCIENT GRAINS,

[3] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[4] “Chia Seed History and Origin.” ANCIENT GRAINS.

[5] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[6] Ullah, Rahman, et al. “Nutritional and Therapeutic Perspectives of Chia (Salvia Hispanica L.): a Review.”

[7] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[8] Watch Chia Seed Expanding in Time Lapse,

[9] Sigmund Freud, “Uber Coca,” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, no. 1 (1984): 206.

[10] Freud, “Uber Coca,” 207.

[11] Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods” in The True History of Chocolate (Thames and Hudson Ltd., 2013), 33.

[12] Freud, “Uber Coca,” 212.

[13] Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion,” 3.

[14] Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’”16.

[15] Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods,”31.

[16] Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods,”57-58.

[17] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[18] Carla D. Martin, “Chocolate Expansion,” 8.

[19] Amanda Macias, “10 Facts Reveal the Absurdity of Pablo Escobar’s Wealth.”

[20]Kahn, Andrew, and Jamelle Bouie. “This Haunting Animation Maps the Journeys of 15,790 Slave Ships in Two Minutes.”

[21] Joseph F. Spillane, “Making a Modern Drug: The Manufacture, Sale, and Control of Cocaine in the United States, 1880-1920,” in Cocaine: Global Histories, ed. Paul Gootenberg (London: Routledge, 2006), 22.

[22] Freud, “Uber Coca,” 207.

[23] Ibid.

Works Cited:

  1. “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA, Accessed 14 Mar. 2018.
  2. “Chia Seed History and Origin.” ANCIENT GRAINS, 20 Mar. 2015, Accessed 13 Mar. 2018.
  3. Freud, Sigmund. “Uber Coca: Freud’s Cocaine Discoveries.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Edited by Howard Shaffer, vol. 1, 1984, pp. 206–212.
  4. Kahn, Andrew, and Jamelle Bouie. “This Haunting Animation Maps the Journeys of 15,790 Slave Ships in Two Minutes.” Slate Magazine, 25 June 2015, Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.
  5. Macias, Amanda. “10 Facts Reveal the Absurdity of Pablo Escobar’s Wealth.” The Independent, 29 Dec. 2017, Accessed 17 Mar. 2018.
  6. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.” Accessed 7 Feb. 2018.
  7. Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Accessed 31 Jan. 2018.
  8. Spillane, Joseph F. “Making a Modern Drug: The Manufacture, Sale, and Control of Cocaine in the United States, 1880-1920 .” In Cocaine: Global Histories, edited by Paul Gootenberg, Routledge, London, 2006, pp. 21.
  9. “The Tree of the Food of The Gods.” in The True History of Chocolate, by Michael D. Coe, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013, pp. 31–58.
  10. Ullah, Rahman, et al. “Nutritional and Therapeutic Perspectives of Chia (Salvia Hispanica L.): a Review.” Journal of Food Science and Technology, Apr. 2016, Accessed 12 Mar. 2018.
  11. “Watch Chia Seed Expanding in Time Lapse.” 16 Oct. 2014, Accessed 13 Mar. 2018.

The Chocolate Lens of Religion

Depicted in various Mayan artifacts, cacao along with its various forms were interwoven into Mayan society. From rituals to everyday life, cacao seemed to have an immortal presence in Mayan society, so much so that it found its way into Mayan religious paintings that depicted cacao beans or cacao trees intertwined with the Gods. In the picture below, the Maize God, a central deity in the Mayan religion, is seen shaping himself as a cacao tree, and pointing at what seems to be a vessel holding liquid cacao: “His limbs are studded with ripe cacao pods, and his skin is marked with wavy ‘wood’ motifs. Clearly, an anthropomorphic cacao tree is at hand” (Simon Martin 155).

The Maize God, a central deity in the Mayan religion, depicted as a cacao tree on an ancient Mayan bowl.

Along with the Maize God, cacao seems to also play a central role in other Godly tales, but why? Why did cacao play such an important part in Mayan theology? The answers lie in the very same picture above. This artifact highlights how the Mayans used the story of the Gods to explain the world around them, and ultimately, how, and why, the Mayans decided to incorporate cacao into their theology.

First, let’s establish the magnitude of how holy the cacao tree is according to the Popol Vuh, “a colonial document from records of Franciscan friar, believed to be the oldest Maya myth documented in its entirety” (Carla Martin 35). According to the Popol Vuh, a central Mayan God, the Maize God, was sacrificed during harvest time in Xibalba, the Underworld, by the Death Gods. He was later buried and somehow was reincarnated as a cacao tree, albeit quite an anthropomorphic one. The picture below depicts how the Maize God supposedly looked after he was slain and reborn as a cacao tree.

A cacao tree with the Maize God’s head as a fruit. There are several instances in Mayan Bowls and Vases that depicts various gods and people as anthropomorphic cacao trees.

The Maize God, as a tree, impregnated an Underworld goddess, who subsequently gave birth to the Hero twins, Xbalanque and Hunahpu. Eventually, the Hero Twins “go on to defeat Xibalba and its ghastly denizens” (Coe and Coe 39). They then “resurrect their slain father, the Maize God…[and] rise to the sky in glory as the sun and the moon” (Coe and Coe 39).

Within this story alone, it’s undeniable that the cacao tree represents the Gods. It has a God-like quality, and is intrinsically connected to the Mayan idea of holiness. The cacao is not only deeply connected to the integrity of the Maize God, but to many others as described in the Dresden Codex, “Pre-Columbian Maya books written in hieroglyphics” (Carla Martin 34). In the Dresden, “seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe and Coe 42). Cacao is also frequently seen “being consumed by Gods in ritual activities” (Carla Martin 34). Depicted in a section of the Dresden regarding new year celebrations, the Opossum God is seen carrying the Rain God on his back, with caption being “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]” (Carla Martin 34).

The Opossum god carrying the Rain God on his back, with cacao apparently sustaining the entire journey. There are several instances, including this one, that describe cacao as foods of the Gods.

Whether through the cacao tree or beans, cacao has an incredibly important role in the Mayan religion, as shown by its extensive portrayal in the Popol Vuh and the Dresden. In addition to Gods being portrayed with cacao in some way, the cacao tree is explicitly referred to as the World Tree, which “connects the vertical realms of Sky, Earth, and the Underworld” (Carla Martin 44). This is consistent with how the Maize God was murdered in Xibalba (the Underworld), how he impregnated a woman who escaped into the world’s surface (the Earth), and how the Hero Twins avenged the Maize God’s death and became the sun and the moon (the Sky). The cacao tree is present in nearly all forms of activities of the Gods and of the cycle of nature, of life and death. From the epic of the Maize God to the tales of other Gods, it is obvious that cacao is deeply connected to the Gods.

With all this reverence given to the cacao tree, it’s only natural to ask why did the Mayans choose to akin cacao to the Gods?

Firstly, the Mayans used their religion as a tool to explain the world around them. Having “had an abiding and intimate relationship with the natural world,” (Simon Martin 154) the Mayans wanted to explain why and how the world around them grows the way it does, so it’s only natural for them to create these mythical stories to do just that.

Secondly, because cacao was so integral to the lives of the Mayan and so deeply connected to their way of life, it only makes sense that they so closely kinned the very nature of the cacao to the Gods. Looking closely at the Maize God’s epic death and rebirth, it is clear that the entire story was created to simply explain how their sacred cacao was created, and how it ultimately grows.

The act of the Maize God’s dead body giving rise to trees and edible fruits and seeds (enough to impregnate an Underworld goddess) symbolizes germination in nature: “Cacao, the most coveted product of the mortal orchard, was emblematic of all prized and sustaining vegetal growth—with the exception of maize—and the myth served to explain how it and other foodstuffs came into being” (Simon Martin 178). In other words, “the story, then, basically deals in symbolic form with the burial (that is, the planting of the seed), growth, and fruition of maize [and cacao], the Maya-and Mesoamerican-staff of life” (Coe and Coe 39). Essentially, the Mayans used the Gods to explain how and why the nature around the grows (especially their precious cacao), which was used to ultimately explain the phenomenon of life and death.

While the Mayans certainly had other reasons in creating their religious tales, there is no doubt that a number of myths, including the Popol Vuh, incorporated cacao to help the Mayans understand the world around them. After all, chocolate was, and is considered divine, so why wouldn’t the Mayans place their cacao in the hands of the Gods in their tales?


Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie, and Coe, Michael. “The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard College: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2018. Class Lecture. (Images also used from this Lecture as well)

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009.

Contradictions in Cacao: How a plant belies its complex origins

To gaze upon a cacao plantation is to overload the senses: a dense canopy of green filters light into dappled shadows, a thick layer of leaf litter covers the ground, and brightly-hued pods hang from small cushions on the trunks and larger branches of the cacao trees (see Figure 1). Yet, this visually rich and colorful image of the cacao plantation belies the power dynamics that went into shaping it (Mitchell 43). From speculation around cultivated cacao’s origins and the meaning behind its given scientific name, to the plant’s perplexing genome and reliance on intensive labor, cacao has been at the center of tumultuous social and political forces. Cacao, from its plant form to final chocolate product, disguises a complex history that impacts how contemporary consumers view and value it today.

Costa Rica. On the Chocolate Tour
Figure 1: A cacao plantation evokes a vibrant, colorful scene, yet its picturesque appearance  masks the complex social and political forces that led to its formation.

To discuss the origins of cacao is to reconcile a story of multiple beginnings. On one hand, there is the genetic source of the tree; on the other hand, there is the start of its cultivation and role in the chocolate-making process (Coe 25). As a biological entity, the cacao tree originated between the northwest Amazon basin and eastern slopes of the South American Andes. The initial cultural significance of the cacao tree was for its fruit pulp, rather than its seeds. In fact, the cacao tree’s bounty was not used to make chocolate during pre-Columbian times in South America (Coe 25, 37). The consensus is that, by 1800 BCE, it was Mesoamerican innovation that led to the development of the intricate process of transforming cacao beans into chocolate. Yet, there is contention regarding exactly how a wild tree from the Amazon appeared in Central America and Mexico to become a cultural and economic juggernaut. One explanation is that the ecological range of wild cacao was as far-reaching from the Amazon to southern Mesoamerica. Another possibility is that the tree was domesticated in South America for its fruit and transported to Mesoamerica via coastal trading routes (Coe 25, 37). The precise chronology of how the cacao tree became domesticated for chocolate production remains ambiguous.

The enigmatic qualities of the cacao tree are further confounded when considering its scientific name. When European colonizers arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century, one of their objectives was to name—or, more aptly, “re-name” what native people had bestowed—plants according to the prevailing classification systems of the time. Carl von Linné, an 18th century Swedish scientist, gave the cacao tree a name that happened to capture the tension between the two worlds (Coe 18). The use of a Greek term for the genus, Theobroma, evokes a sense of heritage—which is fitting for the cacao tree’s long history—but is misleading about the cacao tree’s South American origins. Moreover, Theobroma translates to “food of the gods,” demonstrating how the European invaders recognized how treasured cacao was in Mesoamerican society. Yet, the decision to relegate the more accurate designation cacao to the specific name captures how colonizers viewed the New World as second-rate, lagging behind Europe. When put together, the designation Theobroma cacao simultaneously identifies and obscures the origins of the cacao tree. Just as its paradoxical scientific name persists nearly three hundred years later, the ability of the cacao tree to not conform to imposed classifications continues to this day. While cacao does not have a large genome as compared to other food plants, it resists standard categorizations based on form, color, and flavor when examining the transfer of genes from one generation to the next (Presilla 61). Modern research is still working to uncover the direct links between the genetics of cacao and how they are expressed in the physical morphology of the plant (Martin, Feb. 2018; see Figure 2).

Costa Rica. On the Chocolate Tour
Figure 2: The genes that influence the shape, color, and flavor of cacao pods between generations are the subject of contemporary research on cacao.

The botanical structure of cacao also subverts the notion that, because it is a cultivated food plant, it must be easy to propagate en masse. The cacao tree is, in fact, difficult to grow, with a very specific set of ecological requirements. Only in areas within 20 degrees north and south of the equator, at altitudes where temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and under conditions of year-round moisture, does the cacao tree thrive (Coe 19). Cacao also exemplifies “biological inefficiency taken to the extreme” as only one to three percent of flowers bear fruit (Coe 21). Furthermore, the plant does not employ any dispersal mechanism for its seeds: animals intervene in the wild while humans perpetuate cultivated cacao by opening the pods and distributing the seeds (see Figure 3). The cacao tree’s need for intense and direct intervention has engendered a body of knowledge of expertise and skills, a material culture, a set of rituals, and a network of economies, that further elevate cacao’s cultural importance. Yet, this need for intense labor and involvement is not necessarily conveyed when viewing a cacao plantation (Mitchell 43). The opposite experience is even evoked with imagery of lush green canopy and rustic exoticism. While appearing idyllic, the form of a cacao plantation does not expose the exploitation of child labor or that only three percent of the final chocolate product’s economic value is allocated to the cacao farmers (Martin, Jan. 2018). How the contemporary consumer views production and how the producer experiences production are two opposing tensions that are tied to the cacao tree once again.

Workers harvested cacao…at the Monterosa plantation in Choroni, Venezuela in March
Figure 3: Direct human intervention is necessary for cultivating cacao and has led to the creation of an interconnected web of technical knowledge, cultural celebration, and economic exchange.

In short, the ambiguity of the origins of cultivated Theobroma cacao and the difficulty of classifying it, whether genetically or taxonomically, is significant for how cacao is framed and valued. Naming an object and establishing its genesis imbues it with importance and provides clues for how to derive meaning from its role in society. When cacao’s origins are unclear, end consumers may not be able to place it within a structure of similar meanings and, as a result, may lack a moral responsibility towards cacao’s source and production. The situation is exacerbated further when the seemingly picturesque appearance of a cacao plantation masks the inequality and struggles that go into shaping its formation. When viewing the landscape of modern cacao production, the question becomes: can consumers be made aware of cacao’s complex history in such a way that will empower them to action for social justice?


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” 24 Jan. 2018. AAAS 119x, Harvard University.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” 14 Feb. 2018. AAAS 119x, Harvard University.

Mitchell, Don. “New axioms for reading the landscape: paying attention to political economy and social justice.” Political economies of landscape change. Springer, Dordrecht, 2008. 29-50.

Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.

Multimedia Sources

All Pods Unite.” By Everjean is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Costa Rica. On the Chocolate Tour.” By Everjean is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Kohut, Meridith. “Workers harvested cacao…at the Monterosa plantation in Choroni, Venezuela in March.” The New York Times. “In Venezuela, Plantations of Cacao Stir Bitterness,” by Simon Romero. 28 July 2009.


“Is Chocolate Good for your Health?” – A Historical Study of Chocolate in Japan


Image 1: A photo of Aztec Chocolate
Source: Photo by Brian Hagiwara Studio, Inc. posted on Smithsonian Museum (2008), “A Brief History of Chocolate”. .[Accessed: March 18th, 2018].
Chocolate was once medicine. This is a great way to justify your love for this indulging sweet.  However, you need to know the whole history behind this mysterious product in order to use this as your argument. We will do this by exploring the historical trajectory of chocolate products as healthy food in Japan.

First of all, what is chocolate?  As it could be seen from the origin of the word- “chacau haa” meaning hot water or hot chocolate, chocolate that was born in Mesoamerica around 1500 BC in a form of liquid (Coe & Coe 2013, 180). In other words, chocolate was not candy to begin with, rather more like cacao juice.

According to Coe & Coe (2013, 108), in Ancient Maya civilization, the drink was considered as a stimulant, almost like an energy drink for warriors. After the Spanish colonized Mesoamerica, they brought back the product to their homeland. While there were heated debates over whether chocolate was good for people’s health or not, in general, the positive view persisted and spread amongst Europe. For example, in 1704, a French food writer Louis Lemery wrote that chocolate was strengthening, restorative, good for digestion, and enhances venery (Coe & Coe 2013, 208).

Such view in favor of chocolate as “healthy” is still alive today. However, the main focus is on the benefits of cacao, in particular that of the substances such as Theobromine and Catechin- an antioxidant (Benton et al., 1998; Arts et al., 2001 cited in Storrs 2017). So, the question here is, is the candy chocolate that we commonly know of, good for our health or not?

Image 2: “Morinaga Miruku Chokorēto” (Morinaga Milk Chocolate)
(Source: Morinaga Seika Kabushiki Kaisha 1918, December 18th, Tokyo Asahi Shinbun, 6)
Introducing chocolate as kami no kate (god’s food), the nutritional benefits of coco beans are explained in detail, such as improving digestion, and therefore contributing to longer lifespan.

The history of solid chocolate is quite recent. Around mid-20th century, the energy drink was turned into a bar to take it for hiking. Concurrently, the sugar content of chocolate rose up, making it into a sweet. Following the Industrial Revolution, chocolate became a cheap product, available to everyone. However, people’s understanding of health also changed around the same time and the belief in chocolate as panacea gradually diminished (Coe & Coe 2013, 241).

Now let’s take a look at Japan. In contrast to Europe where chocolate as a beverage spread amongst the elite class and then to the mass in the form of solid sweet, chocolate was welcomed in Japan after it had established its form as candy. Morinaga Confectionary corporation was the first company to produce chocolate bars from cacao beans in 1910. Around this time, advertisements were filled with health benefits (Image 2).


Particularly interesting about the advertisements in the pre-war era is the notion of calories. Concerned with diseases such as diabetes, we often refrain from eating things with high energy content these days. However, the advertisement published on a mainstream Japanese newspaper called Asahi Shinbun on February 8th, 1920 states that the main reason why chocolate consumption is encouraged is because of its “heat giving power”, in short- calories. The small chart also shows the comparison of calories in food products ranging from white radish, bread, and beef to that of Morinaga’s chocolate products written in bold, emphasizing the high calories of chocolate. Based on the assumption that cacao was the main product that was thought to be nutritious in Mesoamerica and Europe, it is possible that such was also the case with Japan. Yet, we should not overlook the power of sugar. Kushner (2012, 138) notes that sugar, at that time when staple food prices were increasing, was seen as an affordable way of acquiring calories.

This was inextricably linked to war. Triggered by the threat of Western nations, Japan, since the Meiji restoration in 1868, expanded its territory in East Asia, colonizing places such as Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria. In such context, gaining calories was seen as the way to form strong bodies, thus contribution to the nation. In this sense, chocolate was for everyone- men, women, and children (Image 4).


From the Left, Image 3“Morinaga Miruku Chokorēto” (Morinaga Milk Chocolate) (Source: Morinaga Seika Kabushiki Kaisha 1920, February 8th, Tokyo Asahi Shinbun, 6);  Image 4: “Tatakau katsuryoku, Morinaga Miruku Chokorēto” (Power to Fight, Morinaga Milk Chocolate) (Source: Morinaga Seika Kabushiki Kaisha 1920, February 8th, Tokyo Asahi Shinbun, 6); Image 5: Morinaga Chocolate Advertisements in the 1980s targeting women (Source: P-interest (n.d.) [Accessed: March 18th, 2018].


Graph 1.jpg
Graph1: Graph showing the growth of healthy chocolate market from 2014 to 2017 (unit: one hundred million yen)
Source: Meiji Con., (n.d.) “Chokoreto koka”. [Accessed: March 18th, 2018].
What awaited the burst of the bubble economy in the 1991, was the so-called the Lost Decades. Japan faced prolonged economic stagnation and serious social issues such as stress-society. After the economy recovered, with the phenomenon of ageing-population and declining birth rate, people started to become more aware of seikatsu shukan-byo (life-style related diseases), namely diabetes, high blood-pressure, and obesity. In other words, people came to view their life in the long-term, desiring a healthy life. According to a survey on people’s attitude towards food conducted by the Japan Finance Corporation in 2017, the main trend in people’s choice of food was healthy food with 44.6%, showing a steady rise for the past seven years. In the contrary, the second prominent factor money (31.4%) has been showing continuous decline, possibly indicating that people are prioritizing health over cost. This reflects the “health boom” which could be seen from the exponential growth of “healthy chocolate” market (Graph 1) (Meiji Co., n.d.).

Chocolates in this genre could be categorized into two groups: one, marketing special nutrients in cacao, and two, adding particular substances to chocolate. An example of group one chocolate is GABA, manufactured by Glico confectionary corporation ( ). As the name says, containing high amounts of a substance called Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid (GABA) understood to be useful in controlling stress, the chocolate targets working people, men in particular, calling itself a “mental balance chocolate” (Glico Co., n.d.). Chocolate Koka (Chocolate Effect) by Meiji Co., – the best seller in the healthy chocolate market is known for high content of cacao ranging from 72% to 95% (Image 6). The packaging even indicates the amount of cocoa polyphenol content and claims to be beneficial for people’s health and beauty (Meiji Co., n.d.)

Image 5.jpg
Image 6: Chocolate Koka Product Series with the Amount of Cacao content and Polyphenol per piece
Source: Meiji Con., (n.d.) “Chokoreto koka”. [Accessed: March 18th, 2018].
Moving onto the second group of chocolate. For those who are concerned about the calories of chocolate there is Libera. Glico confectionary corporation created this product which contains Indigestible dextrin- a type of fiber that prevents the intake of fat and glucose (Glico Co., n.d.). It is assigned as a “Function Claim”- “foods submitted to the Secretary-General of the Consumer Affairs Agency as products whose labels bear function claims based on scientific evidence, under the responsibility of food business operators”. Lotte corporation has also produced “Lactobacillus Chocolate” (Nyusankin shokora). Coating Lactobacillus brevis NTT001, a plant derived lactic acid bacterium, this product helps improve the condition of people’s intestines (Lotte Co., n.d.). These two are more targeted towards women.

These trends show how chocolate in Japan has reemerged as a magical health food. Although chocolate has been receiving a similar kind of attention in US and possibly in other parts of the worlds, it is mainly the high content of cocoa that is the primary focus of attention. Japan’s follows a similar trend but with a different strategy. It is by specializing in specific nutritional benefits of chocolate that they do so. Furthermore, it also contains nutrients foreign from cacao to provide a different type of benefit that chocolate previous did not have or could not have achieved. From this, we may be able to say that the Japanese consumers are wanting to health benefits from chocolate and perhaps food in general. Taste is not enough and chocolate is not just candy.


Works Cited:

Arts, I. C., Hollman, P. C., Bueno de Mesquita, H. B., Feskens, E. J., & Kromhout, D. (2001). Dietary catechins and epithelial cancer incidence: the Zutphen elderly study. International journal of cancer, 92(2), 298-302. Cited in Storrs, C. (May 25, 2017).

Benton, D., Greenfield, K., & Morgan, M. (1998). The development of the attitudes to chocolate questionnaire. Personality and Individual Differences24(4), 513-520. Cited in Storrs, C. (May 25, 2017).

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson.

Consumer Affairs Agenecy, Government of Japan (2015). “What are Food with ‘Function Claims’?” [Accessed: March 17th, 2018].

Glico Co., (n.d.). “Gaba”. [Accessed: March 17th, 2018].

“Libera”. [Accessed:                                                   March 17th, 2018].

Kushner, B. (2012). Sweetness and empire: sugar consumption in imperial Japan. In The Historical Consumer (pp. 127-150). Palgrave Macmillan, London, 138.

Lotte Co., (n.d.). “Nyusankin shokora”. . [Accessed: March 17th, 2018].

Storrs, C. (May 25, 2017).  “Is chocolate good or bad for health?” CNN. [Accessed: March 17th, 2018].

Japan Finance Corporation (2017). “Survey on Consumer’s Attitude on Food”. [Accessed: March 17th, 2018].

Meiji Co., (n.d.). “Chokoreto koka”. [Accessed: March 18th, 2018].

Morinaga Seika Kabushiki Kaisha (ed.) (2000) Morinaga hyakunenshi (100 years of History of Morinaga Confectionary Company), Tokyo: Morinaga Co..