Tag Archives: chocolate

MILO, the Chocolate-Malt Drink: Tonic Food or ‘Poison’?

Comparatively little has been written about the role of chocolate in foodways throughout Asia, much less within the region of Southeast Asia. Except for Philippines, a former Spanish colony, where a drink of hot, dark chocolate is still consumed as part of breakfast on Christmas morning, chocolate never ‘took off’ in India, Southeast Asia, or the Far East (Coe & Coe, 1996: 173-174), the same way it did across Europe in the 17th to 19th centuries.

The Chocolate-Malt ‘Tonic Food Drink’

However, chocolate did eventually make its way into Southeast Asian cuisine, albeit through a very different product and under tremendously different circumstances at a much later time. Chocolate became a popular ingredient in Singapore (and neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia) by way of Nestle’s MILO drink. Claiming its namesake after the great Greek athlete Milo of Croton, who won 6 Olympic events in the 6th century BC, Nestle’s MILO is marketed as a health-sustaining “Tonic Food Drink” since its creation in 1934, which has been attributed to Australian food scientist, Thomas Mayne. Mayne had apparently concocted the drink to feed the malnourished children of Depression-era Australia, where the economic crisis had undoubtedly spread. Nestle claims that Mayne had “developed a powdered chocolate malt drink that people could mix with water or milk, and drink hot or cold”. Indeed, advertisements from that time show MILO marketed as a “fortified” health drink, with an obvious ‘chocolate-y’ brown appearance:

milo 1

MILO was apparently introduced to Singapore in 1936 and has had a production facility on the small island nation since 1984. Print advertisements throughout the years have attested to the staying power of MILO in the Singaporean market:

milo 2.jpgA MILO advertisement painted on the side of a building in Singapore, 1949, above a similar advertisement for Milkmaid Milk. (Source: The Long and Winding Road)

milo 3A Nestle stall selling MILO drinks at the Great World Amusement Park, 1951. The park was considered a trendy entertainment spot for young Singaporeans at that time. (Source: The Long and Winding Road)

Interestingly, several of the print ads I’ve found of MILO in Singapore at that time depict the chocolate malt drink as an energy-giving sports beverage:

milo 4A MILO ad in Singapore from 1966 advertising it as an energy beverage for sportsmen and sportswomen. (Source: The Long and Winding Road)

milo 5Undated Singapore print advertisement of MILO in Chinese. (Source: Taking Up the Challenge blog)

Espousing the nutritional and energy-giving properties of MILO, the messages in these ads echo those of chocolate as a health food in Europe in the 19th century, when it was first introduced as a mass commodity and marketed to the working and middle-classes as affordable luxuries by chocolate manufacturers:

A Cadbury poster (left) and Hershey’s poster (right) from the 19th century, also found in Coe & Coe (1996: 239)

The Sugar Controversy of MILO

Chocolate “occupies an uneasy place in European diets today” (Martin & Sampeck, 2016), and the rise of sugar production and consumption throughout the centuries have caused health issues, such as obesity, over the increase in their consumption (Mintz, 1985). As a food product containing both sugar and cocoa, MILO consumption in Singapore and Malaysia have not been spared from similar discourse. In fact, precisely because MILO has been marketed as a health beverage, its ingredient list and the way that it is advertised, has been in recent years, scrutinized in Malaysia:

Sugar has been highlighted as one of the main ingredients of MILO, ‘proving’ the hypocrisy of food titans of the industry and sparking conspiracy theories of great ‘cover-ups’ by Nestle in the marketing of their food products:

“Big food companies are not incentivised to make you feel healthier. They’re incentivised to make you feel sick and keep you pumping your body with sugar because sugar makes you hungrier, so you buy more of their poisonous sh*t.”

Because of these allegations, Nestle launched ‘sugarless’ and low-sugar MILO products in Singapore, such as the MILO Gao Kosong* (sugarless) and the MILO Gao Siew Dai**(less sugar) and marketed them as healthier alternatives to regular versions of the drink:

Less-sugar MILO (left) and No sugar-added MILO (right)

Incidentally, both these ‘healthier’ versions of the drink emphasised a thicker (“gao”) flavour in their tastes, mirroring moves in chocolate consumers’ tastes towards “better”, “quality” chocolate containing higher proportions of cocoa solids (Coe & Coe, 1996: 257-261), perhaps drawing a closer but unconscious relation in consumers’ minds to “fine chocolate in the market sold as high in anti-oxidants and otherwise of potential benefit to consumer health” (Martin & Sampeck, 2016: 52). MILO Gao Kosong is even endorsed by government-sanctioned health authorities in Singapore as a “Healthier Choice”, with the President of Singapore appearing at the official launch for the beverage.

(*“Gao” means “thick” in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien and Teochew, where most Chinese diaspora in Singapore and Malaysia hailed from generations ago. “Kosong” means “empty” or “zero” in the Malay language. “Siew Dai” is a term for “little brother” in the Hainan dialect spoken by Chinese diaspora in Malaysia and Singapore, many of whom owned coffee stalls or coffee shops. It has become a term used to denote “less sugar” when ordering coffee or tea at local coffeeshops. )

milo 10The ‘no added sugar’ version of the popular chocolate malt drink MILO was launched in Singapore by President Halimah Yacob on 19 June 2018, attesting to the drink’s ability to evolve with consumption preferences across time.

From Healthy to Decadent – Staying Power

Like its ‘purer’ counterpart cocoa powder, MILO is has also proven to be a versatile ingredient for other food creations and its popularity in place of cocoa powder may be attributed to the relative affordability. A 400g tin of MILO costs just SGD4.14 (USD3.06) whereas a 225g tub of Hershey’s Cocoa costs SGD6.60 (USD4.88), with the latter being a foreign import and subject to import taxes.

milo 11The MILO Dinosaur, a MILO shake drink served in coffeeshops all over Singapore and Malaysia.

The affordability has meant that, like cocoa, MILO has been used as an ingredient in many confections in Singapore and Malaysia, such as shakes, ice creams, cakes, candy bars and even fried chicken, all of which diverge far from its intended ‘healthy’ image so carefully assembled by its marketeers.

MILO’s affordability and versatility has meant that it has established itself as a popular, though sometimes controversial ingredient in Singaporean and Malaysian diets. The chocolate-malt drink, like many of its cocoa counterparts, has had an unstable relationship with its consumers over the years. It is at once healthy yet decadent, nourishing yet ‘poisonous’ (as some have claimed), and energy-giving yet full of ‘empty’ calories (sugar) –  larger testament of the shifting, dichotomous and sometimes contradicting meanings societies imbibe in food.



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


Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. 2016. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” pp. 37-60


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



CHC: The Medicinal and Social Perception of Cannabis and Cacao Consumption

Cacao and Cannabis

Today, we tend to think of cannabis and cacao consumption as a treat or indulgence.  Yet, the use and cultivation of these two plants date back through antiquity. Back then, the beliefs about the purpose of cannabis and cacao consumption was much different and far less restrained by negative social or biological implications.  

While much of the eurocentric understanding of cacao is extrapolated from studying the Aztecs, the Mesoamerican origins of cacao can be traced back even further to the Olmec civilization.  The Olmecs, possible ancestors of the Mayans, created a flourishing society in the humid lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast around 1500 BC. The humid, tropical rainforest climate created ideal conditions for growing the Theobroma Cacao Tree, but terrible conditions for archeological preservation.  That being said, linguistics experts have deduced the origins of the word “cacao” to the Mixe-Zoquean language used by the Olmecs in 1000 BC. Further, excavators discovered a stone bowl with chemical remnants of cacao (theobromine) at the Olmec capital city (San Lorenzo) and reasonably conclude they were among the first to discover the chocolate process (Coe & Coe, 84).    

Postdating the Olmecs, The Maya existed from 250 AD until its collapse in the ninth century.  The Maya thoroughly advanced wisdom and is remembered particularly for its contributions to agriculture, food, and spirituality.  Cacao, then pronounced “kakaw,” played an important social role for Mayans, even earning its own hieroglyph. Archaeologists find cacao heavily present in the primary source database, especially in connection with the gods.  In visual and written documents, cacao is presented in a sacred light—something consumed by the gods to support supernatural vitality. Specifically, this is evidenced in the Dresden Codex and Popul Vuh, which both feature cacao in direct connection with the gods.  For this reason, many historians refer to cacao as “the food of the gods.” Drinking chocolate was the premier means of cacao consumption in Mayan society, serving a certain symbolic importance in marriage and fertility rituals. Beyond its connection with the gods, cacao was also considered to be of medicinal value in Mayan society; the Maya used cacao for its digestive, anaesthetic, anti-inflammatory, and energy related benefits (Martin).   

The Aztecs, from 1300-1521 AD, also believed cocoa had a religious significance.  The Theobroma cacao tree was considered divine—a bridge between earth and heaven.  Beyond the ritualistic significance of cacao consumption to connect the Aztecs with the supernatural world, they also used chocolate for medical purposes.  Archaeologists have uncovered Aztec documentation of healing rites including cacao in ancient codices. Two manuscripts specifically, Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams, describe the proper medicinal applications of cacao for physical ailments and spiritual afflictions (Martin).  Cacao was administered in a variety of different ways to treat a range of illnesses, including skin eruptions, fevers and seizures.  Above all, chocolate was believed to foster vitality and improve love.

Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams

The use and cultivation of cannabis dates back through antiquity as well.  In ancient China, 2700 BC, Emperor Shen Neng prescribed tea with cannabis dissolved in it to treat a number of illnesses.  Marijuana was popular as a medicine, not a delicacy. Its effectiveness led to the proliferation of cannabis as medicine throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (Stack).  Primarily, cannabis was used as a stress and pain relief medication—especially effective during childbirth (Prioreschi). Ancient documents reveal a caveat to the overconsumption of marijuana, marking its negative side effects as impotence, blindness and seeing demons.  By the late 18th century, cannabis as medicine made its way to the occidental world as a remedy for inflamed skin, incontinence and venereal disease. Specifically, one Irish doctor named William O’Shaughnessy praised the medicinal benefits of marijuana and preached about its ability to effectively alleviate pain and nausea (Stack).

While cacao played a sacred role in their society, there is ample evidence the Maya used cannabis to understand the universe as well.  Mayan hieroglyphs and art also depict the act of smoking, whether it be tobacco or marijuana. Archaeologists contend the Maya cultivated marijuana in farms and ground cannabis to create psychoactive beverages.  As alluded to earlier, drinking was also the preferred method for cacao consumption in their ancient society. The psychoactive effects of cannabis allowed the Mayans to communicate with the gods and pray off demons.  Similar to the medicinal uses of cacao, cannabis was used to treat bug bites, snake bites, and alleviate other physical ailments (Civilized).

Today, just as our perception of these ancient civilizations, our realms of knowledge surrounding cacao and cannabis are quite different.  As we move forward from ancient times through history, we begin to see the understanding of cannabis and cacao develop alongside disciplines of knowledge.  For example, the further development of scientific methods and documentation of natural phenomena continues to help society understand these plants with a more robust fact base.  While it has been treated as an illicit drug in America for hundreds of years, cannabis has recently been proven to remedy severe medical impairments, such as epilepsy, and alleviate chronic pain, especially for chemotherapy patients (Zurer).

Scientists have found many similarities between chocolate and marijuana.  In 1996, researchers found cacao consumption to activate cannabinoid receptors in the human brain providing users a subtle “high” similar to the effects of marijuana.  While three substances in cacao were proven to activate cannabinoid receptors, the most prevalent finding was an increase in anandamide levels. The paper explains, “anandamide is a lipid that binds to cannabinoid receptors and mimics the psychoactive effects of the drug” (James).  Because chocolate is believed to enhance the effects of cannabis consumption, these findings imply that medical marijuana can be cushioned and moderated by combining the dose with cacao (Zurer).

These findings have affected not only the medical realm, but the legal realm as well; one lawyer sought to recuse his client by arguing the client tested positive for cannabis due to high levels of chocolate consumption (Tytgat, J., Van Boven, M. & Daenens, P.).  While this bogus argument was refuted, it still goes to show the sociopolitical landscape is changing as science elucidates more and more botanical similarities between these two plants.  Perhaps it is time we retreated from our perception of chocolate and marijuana consumption as gluttonous indulgences back to the ancient purpose of fostering wellness.


“Cacao vs Cannabis.” Digital image. Pics for You Evety Day. http://hulufree.top/When-Im-traveling-morning-cacao-and-yoga-is-an-essential-ritual.html.

Civilized. “5 Facts About How Cannabis Was Used by the Mayan People.” YouTube. October 16, 2017. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHwa3NH6pG4.

Coe, Sophie D. “The True History of Chocolate.” iBooks.

Harvard University. “Marijuana: The Latest Scientific Findings and Legalization.” YouTube. April 04, 2017. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvRf_3Bil0A&t=1943s.

James, J S. “Marijuana and Chocolate.” AIDS Treatment News, 1996.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, And The Politics Of Food”. Lecture slides. February 6, 2019.

Peake, Allen. “CNN Documentary on Charlotte’s Web, Medical Marijuana Treating Seizure Disorders.” YouTube. February 09, 2014. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxrKyjeClTk&.

Plinio Prioreschi, and Donald Babin. “Ancient Use of Cannabis.” Nature 364, no. 6439 (1993): 680.

Stack, Patrick, and Claire Suddath. “Medical Marijuana.” Time. October 21, 2009. Accessed March 2019. http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1931247,00.html.

Tytgat, J., Van Boven, M. & Daenens, P. Int J Leg Med (2000) 113: 137. https://doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1007/s004140050284

Zurer, Pamela. “Chocolate May Mimic Marijuana in Brain.” Chemical & Engineering News 74, no. 36 (1996): 31-32.

From Cultural to Commercial: Cocoa’s Geopolitical Transformation

Molded by years of exposure to masterfully crafted marketing campaigns, average consumer knowledge of cacao [or cocoa] is limited to its function as an ingredient and source from which their beloved chocolate is derived. There is much more to the birth, rise, and spread of Theobroma cacao.

The following seeks to explain how a culturally significant crop among early civilizations dating back to 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013) transformed from a highly treasured ingredient and social currency cultivated within a fairly limited zone to a globally produced and traded commodity: a highly reformulated, mass-produced, and readily available confectionery product.

This journey traces cacao back to its genetic and cultural beginnings where it was religious and cultural fixture among early civilizations; how exploration and migration played into the geographical expansion of its cultivation and rise in popularity as a food; role in accelerating industrialization; and transformation from a social currency and treasured ingredient to a heavily traded commodity and mass manufactured consumer product.

Genetic and Cultural Beginnings

From births and burials, recipes and rituals, cacao’s cultural origins are linked to Mesoamerica (present day Mexico through Central America), where its social and religious significance among the Olmec dates back to 1500 to 400 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013). The rise of Maya and Aztec civilizations gave way for cacao’s evolution utility and proliferation as a consumable.

Cacao’s Role in Society and Religion

Evidenced by archeologic discoveries, translated texts, and scientific testing, several vessels and writings have been unearthed, clarifying and validating cacao’s significance, religious ties, and early application as a currency.

Mayan and Aztec civilization associated cacao with the gods. As such, they were believed to enrich and afford protections during and after life, playing a central role in offerings and rituals (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Ceramic vessels similar to those pictured here which date back to 455 to 465 CE were found in burial tombs at Río Azul (Martin, 2019). Further testing confirmed positive traces of caffeine and theobromine—two of cacao’s alkaloid signatures (Martin, 2019).

Dating back to 455 to 465 CE, “funerary vessels” similar to those pictured here were discovered in tombs at Río Azul. As testing revealed traces of caffeine and theobromine, two of cacao’s signature alkaloids, this further supported evidence of cacao’s religious significance (Martin, 2019).

As a food or drink, cacao took many forms. Popular among the Maya and Aztec, “cacahuatl” was a frothy preparation often transferred from one vessel to another and served cold (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Described by Coe and Coe in The True History of Chocolate and drawn by Diane Griffiths Peck, this illustration provides a glimpse into one of many Maya and Aztec cacao preparation and serving methods.
Of the 15 discovered, translated, and still intact, the Dresden Codex contains the aforementioned Mayan hieroglyphic depiction of cacao being consumed by gods and used in rituals (Martin, 2019). Other major works include the Popol Vuh or “Book of Counsel” is a colonial document later translated by Friar Francisco Ximénez that reveals the importance of cacao among early civilizations.

Exploration and Migration: Changes in Cultivation and Consumption

By definition, explorers were bound to make new discoveries and learn from their experience. Capturing the innocent confusion and eye-opening experience (only to be realized years later), the following briefly details just how one explorer mistakenly thought that cacao beans were almonds.”

Mistaken for Almonds: When recounting observations from his 1502 landing at Guanaja, one of many landmasses that make up the Bay Islands archipelago, Ferdinand Columbus, one of Christopher Columbus’ sons wrote about cherished “almonds” that traded hands similarly to how currency would pass between customers and merchants (Coe and Coe, 2013). It was not until years later after multiple interpretations and sources concluded that what he presumed to be almonds were in fact cacao beans.

As it came to be more widely known, not far from where Ferdidnad landed, throughout the Rio Ceniza Valley (present day coast of El Salvador), cacao was an increasingly popular form of currency being produced and traded in record volume—something . In time, this led to further learnings about the “Nahua counting system” and subsequent adoption of cacao as payment for “protection” by Spanish conquistadors.

Generally relegated to tropical climates falling 10-15 degrees north and south of equator, is was inevitable that cacao would make its way around the world. So as people moved, and culture spread, so too did the cacao, as a crop, currency, and curiosity, ultimately leading to its introduction to new geographies, and paving the way for new industries and traditions around the world (Martin, 2019).

New Formulations and Complementary Ingredients

As ingredients such as vanilla, chili, and many others traveled around the world, pairings and formulations rapidly evolved. Marking a major development and informing direction for the confectionery side as we know it today, sugar was introduced to Europe around 1100 CE and chocolate followed shortly thereafter in 1500 CE (Martin, 2019).

Cacao’s Role in Accelerating Industrialization and Expanding its Place in Society

While cacao consumption continued to be reserved for certain classes during its journey around the world, increasingly sophisticated processing methods streamlined productions, regulation eventually brought its price down, and despite medical and religious challenges to its place in society, cacao products were increasingly available to a grander population.

By the 1600 and 1700s, advances in processing continued to align with rising and more diverse consumption habits. Of course, by this time, the separation between “producing” and “processing” countries (read: colonies vs. industrialized nations) was increasingly clear.

So while cultivation and production spread across Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa to meet demand, industry began to take shape on the consumer side as well with the emergence of social gathering halls or “Chocolate Houses” in Britain, France, Spain, the United States, and other “industrialized” nations who had transitioned to managing the cacao’s trade as a commodity and processing for various food and beverage applications. It was not until Rudolphe Lindt’s invention of the conche in 1879, an advancement that bolstered flavor and feel (among other things), and set the stage for quality, processing, and mass production to take off (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Illustrated above, the matete, grinder, and conche are examples of what cacao processing tools were used by early civilizations (and are still used in the same or similar forms today) and evolved or industrialized processing equipment employed today (Martin, 2019).

From early civilizations to present day, cacao’s role in society, cultural significance, availability and consumption have evolved tremendously. However, its mystique and association as something special are still true to this day—just as they were in different and more elaborate forms among early civilizations. Perhaps this condensed history will give pause and reason for the average consumer to think beyond commercialization of cacao, cocoa, or chocolate, and value and validate its history and claims made by brands to improve global understanding, perception, and consumer habits.

Works Cited

  • Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
  • Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, Vol. 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.
  • Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
  • Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018

Media Cited

  • Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past”. Nawatl Scholar. January 1, 1970. Accessed March 15, 2019. http://nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.
  • Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes”. Lynne Olver 2000. March 1, 2015. Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html.
  • Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “Map of Mesoamerica.” Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.famsi.org/maps/.
  • Río Azul [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Wikimedia Commons. File:Popol vuh.jpg. (January 16, 2015). Retrieved February 17, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Popol_vuh.jpg&oldid=146695431.
  • Matete [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Grinder [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Conche [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

Lectures Cited

  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 13, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 20, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

Maya and Aztec Chocolate Recipes: Authenticity and Origins

A quick search online for “Mesoamerican chocolate recipe” yields a plethora of interesting search results. Recipes range from “Mayan Chocolate Pudding,” a dark chocolate pudding flavored with habanero pepper, allspice, and cinnamon, to “Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate” which starts off with a typical recipe for hot chocolate but then calls for the fiery addition of chili, cinnamon, and the Mexican spirit Mezcal. A recipe for “Mayan Chocolate Truffles,” described as “dark chocolate truffles with some kick,” contains vanilla, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and coffee liqueur, and are then coated with everything from toasted coconut to ground almonds and even candy melts. Digging deeper, one can even find a video tutorial for Montezuma’s own recipe, which instructs the viewer to mix all the ingredients for hot chocolate together using a blender.


Pictured: Mayan Chocolate Truffles. Would the Maya have prepared similar confections?

While we can appreciate that these modern recipes acknowledge the historical origins of cacao, how closely do they actually resemble the cacao preparations from the Maya and Aztec cultures?

Cacao in the Classic Maya civilization

Cacao was a beverage enjoyed mostly by the nobility during this time. Believed to have been consumed by the gods, it was considered to be a sacred product and played a valuable role in almost every aspect of elite Maya culture. Events such as fertility rites, marriage rituals, and rituals of burial and death were toasted or celebrated with a ceremony of cacao drinking. Serving cacao beverages at feasts were displays of wealth and power, and it was used in negotiations and even political pacts (Leissle 30). It was also believed to have medicinal and healing effects so was often incorporated in healing rituals. Warriors consumed it as a stimulant as it was believed to imbue the warrior with invincible, protective powers. Cacao beans were so valuable that they were used as currency across Mesoamerica, often harvested by commoners who would pay tribute to rulers in beans (Leissle 30). Commoners were also the ones who prepared the cacao beverages for the elite, so there was certainly a class difference between those who produced cacao and those who consumed and enjoyed it.

While many recipes may have existed, customized by the flair of the individual preparing it, cacao was consumed solely as a beverage. Methods of processing the cacao pods were entirely manual and without the tools and machinery that would arrive centuries later with the Industrial Revolution, cacao could not be transformed into the bars or confections that we recognize as chocolate today. Instead, the cacao beans were roasted and ground into a paste and combined with ground maize and hot water. Then the concoction was poured from above from one vessel into another in order to create a foam, which was considered to be the most sacred part of the drink (Coe 48). This drink was typically flavored with ingredients native to the region such as vanilla and achiote, a native spice that imparts a red or orange color (Coe 61-62).

Cacao in the Aztec civilization

In Aztec culture, the cacao beverage was consumed similarly but usually served cold rather than hot (Coe 84). The cacao beans were ground into a powder and mixed with water, then poured from one vessel to another in order to achieve the prized foam. The Aztecs took many more liberties than the Maya when it came to flavoring this drink. Like the Maya, the Aztecs often mixed in ground maize, vanilla, “ear flower,” and achiote, but other flavorings included dried chili powder, allspice, and honey (Coe 86-87). “Ear flower,” a flower that was dried and ground into a powder was a very popular chocolate flavoring that tasted of black pepper possibly with notes of nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon (Coe 88). Another plant that was used was “string flower,” a plant related to black pepper that may have imparted a tarragon or anise flavor to chocolate. Other plants include magnolia flowers and the rose-scented “popcorn flower” (Coe 93-94).

Similar to the customs of the Maya culture, this elite drink was reserved solely for the nobility in the highly stratified Aztec society. As cacao beans were valuable currency, money that literally grew on trees, the drink was strictly consumed by the elite class. Interestingly, warriors were permitted cacao and were even given military rations of cacao ground and pressed into pellets or wafers (perhaps a precursor to the modern-day chocolate bar), signifying their importance and prominence in the Aztec culture (Coe 98).

So how accurate are the modern recipes?

Revisiting the modern recipes found online today, it is highly unlikely that Montezuma himself prepared his own cacao beverage (much less with the use of a electric blender!) as it was usually the commoners who prepared the sacred drink for the nobility.

However, our modern interpretations of these ancient recipes may not have been entirely inaccurate. Of course, the Maya and the Aztecs were not concocting puddings and truffles with their prized cacao. And since sugar only arrived post-Columbian conquest, if the cacao beverages were sweetened it was primarily with honey. The spices in these modern recipes such as chili pepper, allspice, vanilla are not inaccurate as they were all native ingredients utilized during that time period.


Pictured: A modern recipe for Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate with Mezcal and garnished with a cinnamon stick 

The only curious ingredient that seems to be included in every modern recipe is cinnamon. Cinnamon was not native to the Mesoamerican region and therefore perhaps never encountered by the Maya or the Aztecs. Its inclusion then, while inaccurate, speaks more to our imagination of these ancient beverages. After all, “ear flower” reportedly hinted at notes of nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon. So while we may not be able to easily achieve the exact flavors of this ancient sacred beverage, at least in the United States, we can at least use our imagination.


Works Cited

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

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Lopez-Alt, Kenji J. “Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate with Chili, Cinnamon, and Mezcal Recipe.” Serious Eats, http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2012/02/spicy-aztec-hot-chocolate-with-chili-cinnamon-mezcal-recipe.html. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Mayan Chocolate Pudding.” Food & Wine, January 2013, http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/mayan-chocolate-pudding. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Mayan Chocolate Truffles.” Tasty Kitchen, 9 March 2012, tastykitchen.com/blog/2012/03/mayan-chocolate-truffles. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Montezuma’s Chocolate Drink, Recipe Rewind, S1E5.” Youtube, uploaded by Recipe Rewind, 28 Sept. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWhorrHUItE.

The Aztec Allure

Sign outside Paul A Young Fine Chocolates

In 2014, a flickr user who goes by the username “Kake” posted a visual guide to the London restaurant scene (Flikr 2014) Among the many photos in his album of London storefronts and delicious-looking meals, he shared this photograph of a sign outside of the Paul A. Young Fine Chocolaterie in London, UK. The sign emphasizes, in large bold lettering, an exciting feature on the chocolaterie’s menu: Aztec Hot Chocolate. Below the Aztec Hot Chocolate text, and in a distinctly different color and font style, Paul A. Young details the rest of their offerings, including “Sea Salted Caramel Billionaire Shortbread,” “Sichuan Pepper and Slem,” and “Ginger Pavé and Pavé shards.” These offerings, written in yellow, are more typical of chocolate desserts and are united by their yellow text color. They are described in specific detail, while the Hot Chocolate’s main attention drawing descriptor is that it’s “Aztec.”

Before they were used to describe hot chocolate at a London Chocolaterie, the Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people who inhabited the region we now largely classify as Central Mexico between the 14th to 16th century (Smith, 12). Like the Maya, their Southern Mexican predecessors, the Aztecs cherished and cultivated cacao, creating numerous cacao-based food and drinks which soon inspired the Spanish and other nations to introduce cacao and chocolate to their diets. Eventually, cacao and chocolate became global products, commercialized through colonization and exploitative labor practices and making their way to countries like England and the U.S. Paul A Young’s “Aztec Chocolate” is one of many modern-day chocolate products which recognizes chocolate’s origins as a publicity technique, while creating a chocolate product that most likely fails to resemble what scholars actually believe the Aztec’s produced.

The Aztecs primarily consumed chocolate as a drink, but with flavorings and recipes which deviate from how hot chocolate is popularly consumed in the present day. In one of the earliest accounts of chocolate consumption in Aztec society, an associate of the conquistador Hernan Cortes described the Aztec chocolate drink making process. He explains that the cacao is ground into powder, mixed with water, and changed from “one basin to another, so that a foam is raised” (Anonymous Conqueror 1556). The anonymous author highlights the process of foaming chocolate drinks, utilized by both the Aztecs and Maya. The Aztecs would pour their chocolate drinks from one container to another to create a foamy texture that they believed to be intrinsic to the chocolate consumption experience. The anonymous author also specifies that the chocolate “is better in hot weather than in cool, being cold in its nature” (Anonymous Conqueror 1556). Unlike most modern day hot chocolate consumers, the Aztecs consumed their chocolate cold (Coe 83).

Aztec woman pours chocolate.

Aztec chocolate makers were also immersed in all aspects of the chocolate-making labor, from the cracking of the cacao bean to the mixing of chocolate drink. Much of what we currently know about Aztec chocolate practices comes from Fray Bernadino de Sahagún, a Spanish missionary who is considered to be the world’s first field ethnographer (Coe 66). One of Sahagún’s native informants described the chocolate making process conducted by a female seller. She crushed and separates the cacao beans, soaks them, aerates them, filters them, grinds them and, finally, stirs in water (Sahagún 1950-59). The seller not only created the final cocoa and water mixture, but also worked with the cacao at every stage of the process. This process differs from that of chocolate-makers and consumers today, who often do not know the process behind the cocoa or chocolate they use to produce their chocolate and chocolate drinks

The Aztec chocolate beverage existed in many variations with different spices and flavorings. Chili was a very popular addition to chocolate, and chocolate makers added it in powder form to chocolate drinks called “Chilcacahuatl” (Coe 86). They also added maize or corn to drinks, making them nutritional and savory (Coe 85). The most popular chocolate flavor among the Aztecs was “cymbaopetalum penduliflorum,” a flower that was both flavorful and potentially inebriating (Coe 88). Absent from these chocolate recipes, however, is sugar or milk, both ingredients which were central to future European and global chocolate recipes (Coe 131). Ultimately, global chocolate production lead to the 1847 British chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons creating the first solid edible chocolate bar from cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar (History.com 2014).

Chocolate has gone through many transformations since its Aztec origins. Red Online offers some clarity as to the way in which Paul A Young interpreted Aztec-style hot chocolate. A published 2015 recipe includes sugar, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, and a variety of spices like chili, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom and instructs. It instructs the reader to mix and heat the sugar, cocoa, and chocolate in a saucepan and then to add spices. While it adopts the Aztec name, the Paul A Young Aztec-style chocolate drink holds little resemblance to the often hearty and chilled beverage consumed by the Aztecs. The Aztec name serves moreso as its own ingredient, an exotic and exciting reminder of a historic civilization.

Works Cited

An Aztec woman generates foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another in the Codex Totula, “History of Chocolate.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_chocolate#/media/File:Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg.

Anonymous Conqueror 1556: 306a, cited and translated by Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.

Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.

Kake. “Sign Outside Paul A Young, City, London, EC3.” Flickr, Yahoo!, 22 Mar. 2014, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kake_pugh/13324305415/in/photostream/.

Klein, Christopher. “The Sweet History of Chocolate.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Feb. 2014, www.history.com/news/the-sweet-history-of-chocolate.

Smith, Michael Ernest. The Aztecs. 3rd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Sahuagan 1950-59, cited by Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.

The Transformation of Cocoa’s Production and Continued Reliance on Child Labor

Geographic Transition of Cocoa Production:

For few centuries of Cocoa’s introduction and use of Cocoa, the entire supply came from the Americas, where Cocoa originated. However, at the turn of the twentieth century, Cocoa production began in Africa. By 1920, Africa accounted for around 50% of the world’s supply of Cocoa and, today, it accounts for over 70% of the world’s supply. These changes can be seen in the image below.

Cutting Costs via Labor:

Labor costs primarily underpinned this geographic transition of Cocoa Production, as producers, realizing they could grow Cocoa in West Africa, saw the opportunity to no longer transport African slaves across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Furthermore, the transportation costs to their processing plants in Europe, also one of the largest consumption areas of chocolate, were reduced due to the shorter shipping routes. As slavery was completely phased out, the costs of labor remain the cheapest in West Africa. One unfortunate reason for this is the presence and wide usage of child labor.

Prevalence of Child Labor:

It has been reported that over two million children are working in hazardous conditions involved with the production and collection of cocoa in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. (Tulane University) The job of these children includes using chainsaws to cut down trees, dealing with hazardous pesticides, using machetes to hack open the cocoa bean pods, and carrying sacks of pods that weigh over one hundred pounds. These children come from multiple countries and through many avenues. Many child laborers come from Burkina Faso and Mali with hopes of earning decent wages and returning home to their families. (Robson) These hopes are usually dashed and replaced by the realities of working for years in harsh conditions with little to no payment and motivated by false promises. Other children are forced into work after being sold by family members desperate for money or after being abducted. Regardless of the path to working on a plantation, a unifying theme among all of these paths is poverty.

Poverty is widespread throughout these West African countries with poverty rates ranging from 30% to 50%. (Wernau) The extreme poverty rates lead to the question of why cocoa farmers resort to child labor instead of hiring adult laborers. The motivation for using child labor is also the result of monetary factors. Cocoa farmers earn an income of $0.78/day, which is one third of the $2.51/day living income standard. (Fountain, Huetz-Adams) These low prices lead farmers to rely on child laborers to maximize profits, as child laborers are much more vulnerable and more easily manipulated than adult laborers. Many times, farmers can get away with paying child laborers nothing by driving them onward with false promises that they will be paid.

Ineffectiveness of Child Labor Efforts:

The issue of child labor has received widespread attention since the early 2000s, prompting the major chocolate manufacturers to be signatories on the 2001 Harkin-Engle Protocol, which aimed to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. However, by 2011, little had been accomplished in combatting the issues of child labor. In fact, reports have shown that the number of child laborers in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana increased by 21% from 2008-09 to 2013-14. (Wernau, Tulane University) The ineffectiveness of the Harkin-Engle Protocol led twelve major corporations to join CocoaAction, an organization that aims to support select plantations and significantly reduce child labor by 2020. The 2018 Cocoa Barometer Report states, “Not a single company or government is anywhere near reaching the sector-wide objective of the elimination of child labor, and not even near their commitments of a 70% reduction of child labor by 2020.”

Corporate Responsibility:

The CocoaAction foundation has pledged to spend $500 million over ten years to combat child labor. (Harrison-Dunn) This may seem like a significant amount, but it pales in comparison to the profits of these corporations. Mars, the largest of them, is the 4th largest private company in the United States with over 76,000 employees and revenues exceeding $32 billion a year. Their profits easily exceed $1 billion a year. (Kaplan) Nestle netted a profit of $15 billion in 2014 alone and around $8 billion the year before that, and Hershey’s profits are around $800 million a year. (AFP) The profits of these three companies completely dwarf the $50 million a year commitment made by over a hundred chocolate companies to reduce child labor in cocoa production. Even as these companies claim they are making efforts to ensure the fair production of their goods, it falls upon the public to pressure these companies. The public needs to hold these large, profitable companies accountable for their hypocrisy and empty-handed words of improvement.


AFP. “Nestle Net Profit Soars 45% despite Slipping Sales.” Business Insider. N.p., 19 Feb.  2015. Web. 05 Apr. 2016

Fountain, Antonie & Huetz-Adams, Friedel. (2018). 2018 Cocoa Barometer. Retrieved March 16, 2019, from http://www.cocoabarometer.org/cocoa_barometer/Download_files/2018%20Cocoa%20Barometer%20180420.pdf

Harrison-Dunn, Annie-Rose. “Joining the Cocoa Dots: 12 Confectionery Titans Join            CocoaAction Strategy.” Confectionery News. N.p., 10 June 2014. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.         

Kaplan, David A. “Mars Incorporated: A Pretty Sweet Place to Work.” Fortune. N.p., 17 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 Apr. 2016

Robson, Paul. “Ending Child Trafficking in West Africa.” Anti-Slavery International (2010):   1-37. Print.

Tulane University, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. “Survey Research on    Child Labor in West African Cocoa Growing Areas.” (July 2015): n. pag. United States Department of Labor. Web.

Wernau, Julie. “Child Labor on The Rise in West Africa as Demand for Cocoa Grows.” WSJ. N.p., 30 July 2015. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

Comparing culture surrounding cacao in Mayan and Aztec Civilizations

The history of chocolate is something that countless people tend to take for granted in today’s world.  It is very rare to find someone eating a chocolate bar to stop and think, “what elements of this food have had significant historical influence? are the ingredients found in present day chocolate similar to those used millenniums ago? what types of techniques were involved in making chocolate hundreds, if not thousands of years ago?” A large percentage of people do not understand how influential chocolate, more specifically cacao, was during the earliest time periods is production. Furthermore, an awareness of the true history of the culture surrounding cacao.

Mayan and Aztec Production of Chocolate:

Some of the earliest civilizations to implement cacao as a main element of daily diet were the Maya and Aztec people.   It is believed that the first civilization to use cacao was the Olmec people dating back to 1500 BCE. However, it was not until the Maya and Aztec civilizations that the production of cacao was recorded. They would “harvest the beans from cacao trees… ferment and dry them, roast them, remove their shells, and ground them into paste. They often combined this paste with water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and other spices, then poured the spicy, bitter mixture back and forth between two containers to create a frothy head” (Howstuffworks). The “frothy head” was considered the most desirable aspect of the drink to the Maya and Aztec people (Coe & Coe, 2013). The final product had a very bitter taste, but cacao was looked upon in such high regard that the Mayans called it the “food of the gods” (Godiva).

Cacao Uses in Mayan Culture:

Cacao was available to people of all classes, which resulted in the bean making a large presence in the Maya culture. Cacao was consumed, used in marriage rituals, sacrificed to gods, implemented as a currency, placed in graves, and given as medicine.  The Maya consumed the cacao beverage warm.   Royal elites of the Maya would consume the cacao beverage at the end of meals with different spices such as vanilla and flowers. While the middle and lower class would enjoy cacao with less expensive ingredients (Howstuffworks).

In marriage, “the bride would give the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, and also gives him five grains of cacao” (Coe & Coe, 2013).  Here we see that the exchange of cacao between bridge and groom was used to seal marriage ceremonies. It also important to note cacao was served while the father of the bride and the groom would sit to discuss the marriage (Martin, 2019).

Cacao was often called the “food of the gods”. Furthermore, the Maya worshiped the God, Ek Chuaj (seen below), who was the patron of cacao and had a festival each April.  The sacrifices during the holiday included offerings of cacao (ricochetscience).

            As a currency, cacao beans were used as a bargaining tool to exchange for everyday items like cloths and food. The True History of Chocolate gives insight into the varying prices for different goods. The example, “a rabbit was worth about ten of these “almonds,” eight chicosapote fruits were worth four “almonds,” a slave about a hundred of them, and the services of a prostitute, eight to ten “according to how they agree,” provides a clear value of cacao bean within the Mayan rule (Coe &Coe 2013).

            The final use of cacao was medicine. Cacao was prescribed as a cure for digestive problems, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory purposes (Martin, 2019).

Cacao Uses in Aztec Culture:

When comparing the Maya and Aztec uses of cacao, we see that there are many overlaps in cultural aspects. Similar to the Maya, Aztec peoples used cacao as a food, currency, divine sacrifice, and for medicinal purposes (Chocolate.org). The main differences between the two cultures is found with in the minor details of the categories mentioned above.  

Unlike the Maya, the Aztec people would consume the cacao beverage cold. Additionally, the cacao drink was not widely spread throughout social classes of the Aztecs. The drink was more expensive to make, due to the importance cacao beans as a main form of currency, so only upper-class citizens would enjoy it frequently. The lower-class citizens would only enjoy cacao on very special occasions (Godiva).

            The Aztec took cacao as currency to different levels compared to the Maya.  As it was the main form of currency and more valuable than gold. The cacao beans were taxed and held a strict price level for trade (Chocolate.org). The cacao was used as a form of “ready cash” which was used to buy anything from small household items to farm animals (Coe & Coe, 2013).

            Lastly, the Aztec would use cacao for a variety of medical treatments, like the Maya, which included fevers, skin eruptions, and seizures (Martin, 2019).

            In the image above we see an Aztec glyphic of two individuals worshiping a cacao tree and its produce. The Maya and Aztec had similar ideologies on the cacao bean as something of divine nature.

            The two Mesoamerican civilizations are the reason chocolate is so popular today. If it wasn’t for the European invasion, the chocolate we eat so much of today could have played an extremely different role in our everyday lives. 

Works Cited:

Source 1

 Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames &

            Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Source 2

Contributors, HowStuffWorks.com. “The History of Chocolate.” HowStuffWorks,

            HowStuffWorks, 18 Nov. 2007, recipes.howstuffworks.com/food-facts/history-of-


Source 3

The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs, www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-


Source 4

 “Cacao: The Mayan ‘Food of the Gods’ • Ricochet Science.” Ricochet Science, 14 Apr. 2016,


Source 5

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, And The Politics Of Food”. 2019. Lecture slides.



Khan, Gulnaz, director. Ancient Art of Chocolate Making National Geographic, 11 Sept. 2017,



Picture 1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ek_Chuaj

Picture 2 https://tonantzinchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/simbolismo.jpg

The Development of Chocolate as an Industrialized Food

Anywhere you go in the world, you can find people enjoying various brands of chocolate with a smile on their face. With chocolate being so widely consumed, nobody ever thinks about how a market was actually born from the universal enjoyment of chocolate. It originated in the Pre-Columbian times as a ritualistic treat for Mesoamericans. Chocolate was not as sweet back then, but they nonetheless added sweeteners to try to improve the taste. Nowadays, much more complex ingredients are used to obtain the sweet, rich, and creamy goodness that is chocolate. Chocolate can be found in grocery stores and homes all over the world; it’s so commonly seen that if you went to a check out line in any store and they weren’t selling chocolate bars, you might actually question the legitimacy of their business. For as long as many of us have been alive, chocolate has been bought and sold abroad but it wasn’t always so widely industrialized.

Chocolate first arrived in Spain in the early 16thcentury. It took some time to become widely accepted, as many Spaniards were initially skeptical of the foreign, bitter drink (Norton 2004). Eventually, acceptance of chocolate became widespread in Spain as the Spanish royal court began to develop a growing taste for it and certified it as an elite delicacy. From then on, all of Europe had a different respect and interest for chocolate.

Until 1828 when a technique was developed to separate cocoa butter from cacao solids, chocolate was something you could only drink. Casparus van Houten created the cocoa press method and his son, a Dutch Chemist by the name of Conraad Johannes van Houten, perfected it. In an attempt to make chocolate more soluble, Houten was able to effectively separate the cacao butter from cacao solids by adding alkaline salt. This would make it so that chocolate could be made in the home fairly easily and therefore would be more accessible to the common man. With the invention of the cocoa press method, chocolate became more than something you could just drink; people were for the first time able to eat it as a snack (Cox 1993). Chocolate as a solid bar caught the attention of the entire continent and eventually became more prevalent than its previously enjoyed liquid form. The chocolate that results from the cocoa press method is now referred to as Dutch-Process cocoa. Dutch-Process cocoa is one of the standard ingredients in most of the chocolate we consume today.

With the European chocolate industry growing rapidly throughout the 19th century, people continued to try to find new ways to optimize the taste of it and make it more marketable. In 1875, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle invented milk chocolate by blending milk with chocolate. Milk chocolate boomed in Europe, but the growing market for chocolate was increasingly more crowded. As more and more people got into the market and tried to develop better chocolate than their competitors, the quality of chocolate inevitably improved. With inventions like the conching machine in 1879 by Rodolphe Lindt, the texture of chocolate became much smoother and was able to be made much faster, pushing further industrialization. In order to attack a new market that had never seen the type of chocolate they specialized in, Peter and Nestle brought their product to America and created Nestle’s Chocolate Company in 1905. From the invention of milk chocolate and the introduction of it to the American market sprung the industry we are most familiar with today. Major chocolate companies today would not be so profitable if it weren’t for Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle.

Since 1905, a few (and I do mean a few) other companies have also gotten in on the mega-market that the sale of chocolate has grown to produce. The top companies that make close to all of the brands of chocolate sold around the world are Nestle (who is till the biggest company), Cadbury, and Mars. These companies drive what has turned into an ever-growing market that we all are guilty of contributing to on a regular basis.

Chocolate has come a long way from the time when it was first consumed on Earth to the much more marketed chocolate we are familiar with today. It went from being a hand made commodity to being produced through a much more mechanized process and from being consumed in one particular part of the world to being consumed worldwide. Chocolate is and will always be a part of our lives, as our love for it seems that it will never fade. Hopefully this Food of the Gods, as it was once regarded (Presilla 2009), will be waiting for us in the afterlife.

Works Cited

Cox, Helen. 1993. “The Deterioration and Conservation of Chocolate from Museum Collections”. Studies in Conservation, vol. 38, no. 4.

Norton, Marcy. 2004. “Conquests of Chocolate”. OAH Magazine of History, vol. 18, no. 3.

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

Cacao and Religion in Ancient Mesoamerica

The presence of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica dates back to the Pre-Classic civilization of the Olmec. Archeologists have been able to study the presence of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica by debunking hieroglyphs, discovering artifacts, and chemically testing for cacao residue. From their studies, they have been able to discern that cacao played an intimate role in ritualistic religious practices. Evidence shows cacao being incorporated in a myriad of ancient ceremonies like marriage, burial, sacrifice, and shaman initiation, dating from the Pre-Classic age through Post-Classic Mesoamerica. The focus of this piece is to explore, further, the connection between cacao and religious practices in ancient Mesoamerica by way of artifacts found by archeologists. Religion played a massive role in the everyday of people in Mesoamerica, as I have come to find out, cacao did too. The first step is understanding what cacao meant to religion is to better understand what exactly the people of the time believed in.

It is important to clarify that,“cacao” for the purpose of this paper is starkly dissimilar to chocolate. The processes ancient Mesoamericans used to consume their cacao were very simple, not many ingredients whatsoever, compared to the cacao to chocolate processes of today. We use it as a decadent treat, whereas they used it primarily as a stimulant (McNiel 82). There was a focused purpose when someone consumed cacao, purposes stated in the preceding section. The ancient Mesoamericans, in particular the Mayans, held cacao in such a high-regard that the importance of cacao of the time was akin to maize (Mahony). It is well understood that maize was more integral in the everyday diet of the Mayan people, however, maize was not integral in the ceremonial processes of the time. Cacao represented much more than sustenance, there was a sacred component to it which is why I became interested in discovering its relationship with cacao in Mesoamerica.

Religion throughout ancient Mesoamerica has remained fairly consistent beginning with the Olmecs, moving to the Mayans, and ending with the Aztecs. Professor Davíd Carrasco, who studies specifically Mesoamerican anthropology at Harvard, suggested this assertion to me through a book recommendation and I find the thesis of the book very compelling. Professor Carrasco turned me to Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy which aims to tackle the question, “Why did people believe what they did?” When discussing ancient Mesoamerica his primary contention and explanation was “As above, so below” which basically means that ancient Mesoamericans thought that the happiness or discontent of the gods was directly reflected in their earthly ongoings (Berger). In other words, they believed that life was being played on two different levels simultaneously: one being their autonomous action and the other being the will of the gods in the other world. This is commonly referred to as “duality” in anthropology. They used religion to explain the ongoings of the natural world. As a result we have seen a repetition of ritualistic archetypes from all ancient civilizations in attempt to garner the favor of the gods. Even through the years it is noted that the Nahuas made a cacao sacrifice to an effigy of Jesus Christ that the spaniards brought in (Mahony). This offers even more evidence of their religious practices remaining consistent even through severe transition. All in all,  Berger makes a compelling argument as to why ancient Mesoamerican belief has been rather consistent.

The repeated ritualistic archetypes to appease the needs of the gods is where we find chocolate in ancient Mesoamerica. Burial ceremonies were religious in nature (Prufer). Their understanding of death was that it was more of a beginning than an end. Death embarked one’s journey into the other world. In an ancient burial ground dating back to the 5th to 4th century there was a bowl uncovered that had chemical tracings of cacao, discovered in what would have been ancient Maya. The bowl was thought to have possessed the ritual sustenance for that person’s travel into the other world (Prufer). As the person died and moved on to the next life the cacao was the fuel that allowed them to successfully travel to the other worldly side. Consequently, the people that were still alive would continually make sacrifices in order to gain the favor of the past relatives, cacao deities, and other agricultural deities.

Copán is a famous archeological site located in current day western Honduras, in the 5th to 9th century it is understood that they were a part of the Mayan civilization. This site is one of the most famous locations connecting religion to chocolate by way of physical artifacts and hieroglyphs. In Copán we see diagrams and hieroglyphs of cacao trees and other agricultural deities. An interesting discovery in Copán was that the cacao tree was used to help depict their ancestry. Furthermore, there were artifacts that correlated people whom were still alive putting multiple sacrificial ornaments in their past relatives’ tombs. The connection with their ancestors which played a massive role in their religion (McNeil). They would pay respect to the dead and they looked upon their ancestors as having almost god-like impact in the other world, they Mayans would look to their ancestors alongside deities to help them protect and maintain their cacao storages. As a means of protecting their ability to successfully complete their ritualistic practices both religious and social.

I have been very interested in exploring the roots of Mesoamerica because they are my ancestors. Their belief system being so closely tied in with chocolate of all things is fascinating.The implications of rituals has had dramatic effects throughout all ancient Mesoamerican history, it was fruitful finding where cacao finds it place in these repeated archetypes.

Works Cited

Berger, Peter L., 1929-2017. The Sacred Canopy; Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, N.Y. :Doubleday, 1967. Print.

Rosenswig, R. M. (2008), Cacao in Mesoamerica: A Culture History of Cacao ‐ Edited by Cameron L. McNeil. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 27: 435-437.

Mahony, Mary Ann. “Cacao in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (review).” Enterprise & Society, vol. 11 no. 1, 2010, pp. 175-177. 

Prufer, Keith M. W. Hurst, Jeffery; Cacao in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave. Ethnohistory 1 April 2007; 54 (2): 273–301.



The Worship of Cacao in Pre-Columbian Civilizations

Today we consume chocolate when we crave something sweet, as a warm drink on a cold day, or to acknowledge the ones we love on Valentine’s Day.  Chocolate is a part of our day to day life as an indulgence.  However, the culture of chocolate has developed and changed throughout the centuries.  The first uses and production of cacao can be tracked all the way back to Pre-Columbian civilizations where it was valued greater than a delicious treat.  Chocolate and cacao were staples in Pre-Columbian traditions, religion, status, and health and are portrayed in several artifacts and evidence we use to study the history today.

Thanks to companies such as Hersey’s or Ghirardelli, chocolate is consistently at an easy access and takes just minutes to retrieve from a nearby convenience store.  The process of chocolate making has not always been this simple and to Pre-Columbian civilizations, the making of cacao was a unique experience and the end result was never a bar of milk chocolate.  There were various methods of using cacao beans depending on the outcome these people desired.  In “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe”, it is expressed that cacao could be made into ritual offerings, beverages, and even currency during this time period.  Inscriptions on “monogrammed vases”, such as the one below, strongly reflect how the Mesoamericans “invested meaning in cacao” through their consumption and production (Martin and Sampeck, 39).  Through these and many other inscriptions, we are able to understand the presence of cacao and chocolate through one’s life during marriage rituals, religious practices, and at funerals.  

“Princeton Vase”, a Maya chocolate-drinking cup

At marriages, chocolate beverages were shared between the groom and the bride’s father during a pre-martial discussion.  In contrast, cacao was dried and dyed red during funeral processions and was believed to ease the soul into the afterlife, as portrayed in the image below. These chocolate beverages were prepared in a way very sacred to Mesoamericans.  It was made with a frothy foam that was believed to be for the soul.

“Codex Nuttal”, Mixtec funeral scene with funeral procession

Cacao was highly emphasized in religion with the Mayas as they believed “cacao was discovered by the gods in a mountain and was to be given to the people following their creation,” (St Jean, 1).  Ek Chuah was believed to be the Cacao God and the cacao tree resembled one of the Maya’s most prized possessions.  Other Maya gods, such as the Maize God were often represented as cacao pods and trees in inscriptions revealing the importance of these Pre-Columbian rituals and beliefs. The term “World Tree” is used to describe the center of the universe connecting Gods, Sky, Earth and the Underworld. The World Tree was also essential for maintaining the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  Often, deities are represented as these World Trees in several artifacts. Different civilizations had trees that they believed was their World Tree and for cacao-growing regions, it was the cacao tree. 

The Maize God as a cacao pod on a Maya vase

As previously mentioned, cacao was also used as currency during this era. An Aztec document, the Nahuatl, contains a list of conversions from cacao beans to other various goods. “A male turkey is worth 200 cacao beans. A hare or forest rabbit is worth 100 cacao beans each.A small rabbit is worth 30.  One turkey egg is worth 3 cacao beans. An avocado newly picked is worth 3 cacao beans; when an avocado is fully ripe it will be equivalent to one cacao bean,” (Nahuatl, 1545).  According to “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe”, this was likely due to a currency crisis and a lack of small denominations (Martin and Sampeck, 41). In fact, cacao was also the target of counterfeiting and Mesoamericans would often empty the beans and fill them with mud of the equivalent weight.  Cacao was so precious to these individuals that it was difficult for those with cacao plants to give up this good in exchange for something else.  For this reason, cacao was a very practical instrument of currency, (A Tasty Currency, 8).

The importance of cacao in the Pre-Columbian era can be examined in artifacts and documents dating back to the 15thcentury. Their beliefs and culture revolved around these trees and pods that they idolized from birth to death and everything in between.  The production meant much more to them than imagining a Hersey’s chocolate factory spitting out wrapped desserts.  The Mayas and Aztecs worshipped their World Tree and chocolate as a beverage, a death rite, a currency, and the representation of their Gods. 

Work Cited

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods’.” February 6 2018.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

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St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica – HeritageDaily – Archaeology News.” HeritageDaily, 4 May 2018, http://www.heritagedaily.com/2018/02/medicinal-and-ritualistic-uses-for-chocolate-in-mesoamerica-2/98809.