Tag Archives: Analyzing Chocolate

Cooking Chocolate: Cacao and Colonial Values

From Hershey’s kisses to Snickers bars, the chocolate circulating contemporary culture tends to be sweet. Contrary to modern times, the Aztecs prepared savory chocolate drinks used for sustenance, religious ceremonies, and special occasions. Aztec people came to the Valley of Mexico by the early 1300s and, after being cast out into small islands, utilized warfare to eventually rule many parts of Mesoamerica. Cacao became integrated into the Aztec way of life following the conquest of the Xoconusco province during the late fifteenth century.


Heavy cacao production occurred in this part of southeast Mesoamerica. By the time Spaniards came to Mexico’s interior, the Aztecs had solidified a sprawling, socially stratified society thriving from the tribute required of provinces. The Aztecs had a rich, amalgamated culture drawing from the land’s natives and the extinct Mayans. In addition to the importance of chocolate in Aztec culture, a close analysis of a recipe narrated by an anonymous conquistador reveals colonialist thinking and ultimately foreshadows the exploitation of Mesoamerican lands and peoples to sustain Europeans’ hunger for chocolate during the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

Drinking cacao-derived beverages was reserved for elites in Aztec culture, as most likely noticed by an anonymous conquistador when he published his description of Tenochtitlan in 1556. The recipe he provided in his composition mentioned

“seeds which are called almonds or cacao are ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins with a point [whatever that may mean], and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose” (Coe and Coe 84).

The way chocolate permeated economic and social customs explains why the Aztecs had vessels specially made for chocolate and made sure to foam the liquid for a luxurious feel. Cacao functioned as money, a noble beverage, a sustaining drink for warriors, and a metaphor for the heart or blood, giving it use in sacrificial rituals. The recipe hints at cacao’s high status by mentioning the specialized, precious silverware involved in the formalized process. However, this recipe from the “gentleman of Hérnan Cortés” leaves out some information (84). After carefully extracting the almond-like cacao seeds from the mucilaginous pulp in cacao tree pods, they had to be fermented and winnowed from their shells. The vague “other small seeds” mentioned are most likely maize, as the plant was common in food preparation due to its versatile and filling nature.


Above is an image of an Aztec “woman gently dropping shucked corn into boiling water” (Maite Gomez-Rejon 1). Maize was a crucial food item, as the woman is blowing on maize to calm it before cooking it in a fire. Unlike the hot chocolate drinks of the Mayans, the Aztecs served their cacao mixtures cold and incorporated a variety of flavors and spices.


The most common addition was chili, a sharp peppery taste well-known to the Aztecs. Though other portions of the conquistador’s publication are not mentioned, the recipe cited by Coe is interesting for what it does and does not contain. Cacao’s significance is implied, but the lack of detail regarding cacao’s preparation and the type of grains or seasonings added suggest and defend a colonialist mentality.

In order to justify plundering lands, killing natives, disrupting cultures, and stealing natural resources from distant lands, European conquistadors had to label locals as inferior savages in need of civilization and Christianity. This entailed disparaging the Aztecs and trivializing their ways of life. The anonymous conquistador implies that chocolate is significant to the Aztecs, yet cannot be bothered to supply thorough information despite having ties to Mesoamerica through Cortés. He ambiguously refers to additives as “other small seeds,” leaving out the important, widespread uses of other flavorings (84). The conquistador snidely comments “whatever that may mean,” dismissing the Aztec people’s socially constructed realities and thereby encouraging his readers to do the same (84). The recipe’s cavalier tone and shortcomings in capturing Aztec chocolate traditions reflect views shared by other conquistadors. Hernán Cortés officially claimed Tenochtitlan for Spain in 1521 using violence and deception, aided by beliefs in European superiority over the Aztecs.

Cortés acted on behalf of Spain, a country that sanctioned these measures because of colonialist ideas. The anonymous conquistador, and later the Western world, praised the chocolate drink rather than the culture that created it, removing the Aztecs’ agency and shifting the focus to the product rather than the producer. A close reading of this recipe is limited by the scarce context about the conquistador and his writings, though the telling language he used has historical significance.

The rest of the recipe contains passionate praise of the chocolate drink with exaggerated language that fed into the European chocolate frenzy and justified cacao’s expansive cultivation after conquistadors destroyed the Aztecs. The gentleman of Cortés found that

“This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else. … It is better in hot weather than in cool, being cold in its nature” (84).

Hyperbole litters his description, for while the alkaloids and caffeine provide ample energy, the maize-chocolate beverage was not the “greatest sustenance” one could drink “in the world” to sustain him “no matter how far he walks” (84). By embellishing the effects of the Aztec cacao recipe, the conquistador encourages Europeans to greedily consume chocolate. As cacao became firmly ensconced in European appetites, forced labor disrupted indigenous populations and tied them to perpetual debt as they tried to keep pace with demand. The conquistador comments that the drink is “cold by nature” to classify the drink according to the humoral theory of disease and nutrition that was popular in Europe until the 1800s (84).


According to the system, health “depended on a proper balance among four bodily humors” – blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm  (Presilla 27). An example of achieving this stability is to “correct excessively ‘warm’ and ‘dry’ tendencies” through “doses of ‘cold’ and ‘moist’ foods” (27). The Aztec chocolate drink had to fit into this humoral theory in order to be adopted by Europeans, so its designation as cold asserts its place in the Western world and gives Europeans more reason to eagerly consume it at the expense of Mesoamerican peoples and lands. Alternatively, this classification empties the drink of the intrinsic meanings it had within the community that created it in order to fill the beverage with palatable European ideals.

The limited analysis of the Aztec cacao drink recipe provided by an anonymous conquistador exposes a harmful colonialist worldview. Through dismissive comments, a contemptuous disregard for the full picture of Aztec life, and exaggerations of the drink, the conquistador sheds light on beliefs that justified colonial ventures. Chocolate’s relationship with European violence is a horrifying reality evident in the sixteenth century retelling of an Aztec recipe.


Works Cited:

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

Gomez-Rejon, Maite. “Cooking Art History: The Aztecs.” The Huffington Post. 3 May 2010. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

“Hernan Cortes: Conquered the Aztec Empire.” The History Channel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1P_euomdHOU

“Indulge in Our Mayan Chocolate Stout and Spicy Aztec Chocolate Cake.” Airways Brewing Company. Kent Brewing Company LLC, n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

“The Humoral Theory.” Medical website. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.


Chocolate at Whole Foods: Emergence of Bean to Bar Chocolate in America

With the distinction of being one of the largest grocery store chains in the United States, and a store that has begun expansion into other countries around the world, one would expect such a company to carry goods from the largest food manufacturers as well. However, at Whole Foods Market, chocolate or candy from the “Big 5” chocolate companies was entirely missing, and the candy shelves were instead stocked with the products of smaller companies. These smaller companies are part of a new “bean to bar” trend in the United States, where chocolate bars are often organic and produced in much smaller amounts. These companies often take part in Fair Trade Programs, which help many people in the chocolate supply chain but is also intended to appeal to the emotions of consumers. Apart from the three candy displays many other foods, drinks, and supplements were chocolate flavored, representative of a much larger phenomenon in America which sees the vast majority of the population enamored with the taste of chocolate. At the Star Market in Back Bay less than a five minute bike ride away, candy from Hershey’s, Mars, Nestle, Cadbury, and Ferrero can all be found in abundance and at a far lower price than candy at Whole Foods.  At the Symphony Hall Whole Foods Market in Boston, the chocolate shelves were filled with small to mid-size chocolate makers, and lacks entirely representation of the “Big 5” chocolate companies. This represents a greater trend in America which has seen smaller “bean to bar” chocolate companies become more popular with trendy consumers. Part of this movement involves the participation in many fair trade, organic, non-GMO and other programs by chocolate companies in part in an attempt to appeal to the emotions of the consumer. However, with people willing to pay the higher prices these products command, with many other non-candy items being flavored by chocolate, and with an abundance of large manufacturer chocolate found at Star Market it is clear that Americans still very much love chocolate.

Not being someone who regularly shops at Whole Foods, upon entering the store to inspect its chocolate selection I was fully expecting to see Hershey’s Bars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Milky Way Bars but instead, there was not a single one of the “Big 5” chocolate companies’ products in the store. For decades Hershey’s, Nestle, Ferrero, Cadbury, and Mars have dominated the American chocolate market creating cheap but subpar confections which were mass produced. This resulted in chocolate selection being very homogenous, with large batches of chocolate produced from large amounts multiple-origin cacao being normal operating practice for the majority of chocolate companies. Although these companies still dominate the U.S. chocolate market, their absence from one of America’s largest supermarkets indicates a change taking place, away from these large manufacturers. Filling this gap left in the market is an increasing number of “bean to bar” chocolate companies. “Bean to bar” companies are a relatively new phenomenon, in which owners of the company have far more control over all production process than at most chocolate companies. Contrary to the “Big 5”, these owners often personally inspect all ingredients and machines involved in the chocolate making process which ensures a finer quality product.  Many of these companies also visit cacao farms, or otherwise attempt to ensure farmers and other workers are treated fairly and compensated fairly, as they may be exploited in the mostly third-world countries where cacao is grown. In the case study “Chocolate and Slavery: Child Labor in Cote D’Ivoire” by Samlanchith Chanthavong the child labor issue in the leading producer of cacao, The Ivory Coast, is examined and indicates that there is a very severe crisis in the labor behind the chocolate market (Chonthavong 2002). The fair trade programs chocolate companies participate in are crucial to helping stop this exploitation.

Taza Chocolate is a local example of a bean to bar chocolate company, and an example for others to follow.
Taza Chocolate is a local example of a bean to bar chocolate company, and an example for others to follow.

Over the past decade, Americans have come to understand that our country has an issue with obesity, and as a result many consumers choose to buy healthier foods with less sugar, and often with organic or more natural ingredients. These consumers still seek to eat great tasting foods but like to know that they were made with natural ingredients and if possible the origin of those ingredients. This trend is seen on the candy shelves of Whole Foods with companies such as Taza, Theo, and Pure7 who all produce chocolate with very few, all-natural ingredients and with a far higher cacao content than mainstream chocolate bars. In “The True History of Chocolate,” by Sophie and Michael Coe, the story of one such company called Rain Republic is analyzed and shows the ideas behind these companies, the many challenges they face, and the positive impact they have. The company’s founder Josh Sermos began as a cacao and coffee buyer in Guatemala, and began learning everything he could about chocolate. After purchasing the expensive and hard to find equipment necessary to make chocolate, like most small companies Sermos had trouble making the right bar as many in the chocolate industry are very secretive. However, after several years he learned how to produce high quality bars, and by working directly with farmers and other workers, he was able to deliver a delicious product and a safe supply chain(Coe & Coe 1996). This story is very similar to local Boston Company Taza chocolate, whose owner became fascinated witch chocolate after moving to Mexico, and who works very hard with farmers to ensure they are fairly compensated.

Simultaneously, a growing number of consumers are also becoming concerned with the supply chain of the products they purchase to make sure all workers in this chain are treated and compensated fairly. Stemming from a seemingly endless myriad of horror stories related to the exploitation of third world workers and child slavery (something commonly associated with the chocolate industry for centuries), the not so distant history of widespread slavery, and a lack of worker’s rights around the developing world all help to create and increase the empathy some American consumers have for such people. Partly due to these reasons organizations such as Fair Trade USA were formed, who guarantee fair compensation for all workers they do business with. Once a Fair Trade

Display of Whole Foods chocolate with
Display of Whole Foods chocolate with “Whole Trade” pamphlet which states “Improving lives with every purchase”.

Certified Company, businesses are allowed to display the Fair Trade Seal on their products, which will appeal to this concerned customer base. In response to this trend and several issues some have with the fair trade organization, many companies such as Taza Chocolate form their own fair trade organizations, or join already existing organizations which catalyzes the Fair Trade movement. This, combined with the knowledge of where products are grown and the terroir of the product give the consumer a connection to that location, as well as the worker because the consumer also knows the worker is fairly treated and compensated.

During the past several years, some companies have realized this connection is what consumers desire and have marketed their chocolate accordingly. This is achieved through the separation of cacao by the location of origin, and only using one specific crop of cacao creating an “Ivorian” or “Venezuelan” bar, or wherever that specific cacao is from. This is conveyed to the consumer using the bar’s wrapper, indicating the source of that particular chocolate’s cacao. This is often combined with artwork representative of that location. In Bill Nesto’s “Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate,” he discusses the realities of

Front and back of Mast Brothers chocolate made from single origin Madagascar cacao beans, with design of wrapper reflecting and advertising this origin, and description on the back helps build terroir.
Front and back of Mast Brothers chocolate made from single origin Madagascar cacao beans, with design of wrapper reflecting and advertising this origin, and a description on the back helps build terroir.

chocolate terroir as he sees them: although the great distance between cacao farms and chocolate factories as well as the processes which yield chocolate from cacao threaten the chocolate’s terroir, he concludes that “The more control man has over the entire chain of production from plant to product, the better man can pre-serve terroir.” He also concludes that the term terroir can indeed be applied to chocolate companies who have complete control over all materials and processes (and for him companies where production facilities are very close to farms) (Nesto 2010). This trend is seen in other parts of the food industry such as the coffee industry, where single origin coffee is growing steadily in popularity, much in the same way as chocolate. Some chocolate bars in addition to some type of fair trade certification will also have a short testimonial, biography and/or picture of a worker in their supply chain, creating an even deeper connection. The connection is finalized by the terroir of the chocolate bar. Terroir is the combination of factors including soil, sunlight, and climate that give foods their own distinct flavors. Using single origin cacao and making chocolate in small batches allows the consumer to taste and experience the subtle flavors or a specific region in a way that a chocolate bar made with mixed-origin cacao, such as a Hershey’s bar, does not allow.

While this new small batch chocolate trend has interested customers in chocolate in a new way by using terroir, America’s love of chocolate is long entrenched and can be observed all throughout the Whole Foods Market. First, although there are only three displays of chocolate bars, the quality of those bars is very high and the displays are placed strategically around the store to catch the eye of someone who perhaps did not come into the store to buy chocolate. This is a strategy used in supermarkets across the U.S. in response to chocolate being something Americans will purchase on an impulse for themselves, rather than only as a gift for others (as is largely the custom in Asian markets). As a result, chocolate and chocolate confections can also be found at each cash register in Whole Foods. Besides chocolate bars, many other products are chocolate flavored and chocolate can be found in these products all throughout the store.

Checkout line at whole foods containing organic chocolate and chocolate confections from
Checkout line at whole foods containing organic chocolate and chocolate confections from “Justin’s” and “Lake Champlain Chocolates”.

Even in the health supplement aisle, products flavored with chocolate can be found in abundance. In that aisle many energy bars, nutrition bars, nutrition shakes, and other products are chocolate flavored, or contain chocolate chips. Chocolate also sees heavy representation in the desert selection at Whole Foods. In the baking aisle chocolate chips, powder, syrup, baking chocolate and other products as well as mixes for brownies, cakes etc. allow customers to enjoy chocolate in desert that they can make at home. At the market’s bakery, customers can purchase a variety of pre-made chocolate desserts and confections from chocolate cakes to chocolate truffles. Even items such as chocolate milk, chocolate chip waffles, chocolate muffins, chocolate cereal, chocolate pastries and many other breakfast foods allow one to enjoy chocolate from the first thing they eat in the morning to the last thing they eat at night. With more chocolate flavored products or products containing chocolate than I can note after multiple visits to the store it is very clear that American consumers love chocolate and that the medium of enjoyment is much more diverse than only a chocolate bar.

In contrast to the chocolate selection at Whole Foods, the selection at Star Market in Boston’s Back Bay reaffirms the domination of the American chocolate market by the “Big 5” chocolate companies. Found on the shelves are representatives from all five companies, and at a price that is far lower than most chocolate at Whole Foods. At whole foods, I purchased two chocolate bars for a combined 5.7 ounces and a combined $9.49, while at Star Market if I wanted to I could have purchased four Hershey’s Almond Chocolate bars for a combined 27.2 ounces and a combined $8.80-a very stark contrast (Whole Foods also carries Mast Brothers chocolate which is $9.99 for 2.5 oz).

Large amounts of Hershey's bars at Star Market, a pack of six bars costs half the price of one Mast Brothers bar.
Large amounts of Hershey’s bars at Star Market, a pack of six bars costs half the price of one Mast Brothers bar.

There is also a much larger amount of chocolate overall in Star Market, showing perhaps that outside of the organic food world chocolate is bought in greater quantities, possibly because the supply is much higher (because most chocolate is not organic).  Despite this large-manufacturer domination, Star Market also has a natural foods section with a limited selection of small bean to bar options available to customers, most of which can also be found at whole foods (Divine, Theo, Chocolove, Lake Champlain Chocolates etc). In Julie Guthman’s article “Fast food/organic food: reflexive tastes and the making of ‘yuppie chow’” she analyzes the early “ethical eating” countertrend that led to organic food and its opposition to fast food and manufactured food (Guthman 2002). These movements have expanded greatly and now, most supermarkets have at least one aisle of only organic products, and have many other products throughout the store which bear the USDA Organic seal. The biggest similarities between the two stores are the overwhelming presence of chocolate across multiple product types, and the placement of chocolate near registers which shows America’s deep infatuation with chocolate. The selection at Star Market also helps to put the selection at Whole Foods in Context: although the bean to bar trend is gaining a foothold in the U.S. marketplace, the shelves at mainstream stores and the American chocolate market are still dominated by large manufacturers.

At Symphony Hall Whole Foods Market in Boston, the lack of large manufacturer and inclusion of bean to bar chocolate companies are part of an organic trend taking place in the United States. Part of this movement involves the participation by companies in fair trade organizations, and with an increased focus on single origin crops in an attempt to experience the terroir of specific regions. However, the chocolate selection at Star Market in Boston’s Back Bay reaffirms the domination of the American Chocolate Market by the “Big 5” chocolate companies. Across both stores, the incredibly large amount of other non-candy products that are chocolate flavored or contain chocolate show that America is still very much in love with chocolate, and that chocolate permeates almost all aspects of the American food industry.

Works Cited:

Chanthavong, Samlanchith. “Chocolate and Slavery: Child Labor in Cote D’Ivoire.” TED Case Studies 664 (2002). Print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Guthman, Julie. “Fast Food/organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘yuppie Chow”” Social & Cultural Geography 1 (2003): 45 — 58. Print.

Nesto, Bill. “Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate.” Gastronomica 10.1 (2010): 131-35. Print.

Multimedia Sources:

Cullen, Matt. “Hershey’s in Bulk”. 2015.

Cullen, Matt. “Mast Brothers”. 2015.

Cullen, Matt. “Taza Chocolate”. 2015.

Cullen, Matt. “Whole Foods Checkout”. 2015.

Cullen, Matt. “Whole Trade”. 2015.