Being allergic to chocolate is more socially isolating than one would immediately assume. So many birthday cake slices go uneaten, Valentine’s Day candies shamefully chucked into the trashcan when no one is looking, so much time spent wistfully staring at the chocolate-lined shelves of Walgreens and CVS check-out line. Being excluded from such a significant aspect of consumption and food culture affects one’s life in small, unexpected, and sometimes frustrating ways, such as discovering your chocolate allergy at a birthday party and going home with hives. I was four when that happened. That was not, however, the last time I ate chocolate. I have braved the storm of hives induced by my allergies more than a few times simply because I really wanted to partake in the experience of eating chocolate and trying out different brands, such as Twix or Mars Bars. And that is the power of marketing. The question of how European companies, such as Cadbury, Lindt, and Hershey, became the guiding hand in framing chocolate as a product in the west involves historical questions of ownership, appropriation, and colonization. By controlling the historical narrative of chocolate and redefining food culture, the mass-marketing practices of industrial-era European companies continue to influence how chocolate is perceived and consumed today.
History of Cocoa
Cacao trees produce pods, and those pods contain small almond-shaped seeds that go on to be processed into what we recognize as chocolate. Cacao trees are native to the Amazon basin and they were first domesticated and commodified by Central American natives, namely the Mayans and Aztecs as early as 900 AD. In Mesoamerican culture, chocolate was the frothy beverage of the gods, embodying strength, divinity, and denoting wealth. In other words, if you were not a priest, an elite, or a warrior, you were not getting your hands on any sacred “xocolatl”, one of the many words for chocolate in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs (Coe and Coe 96). The seeds encased in cacao pods were not only the drink of the gods and their few human favorites, they also functioned as currency and demarcated sites of intense geopolitical warfare in the competition for control over fertile cacao-producing lands, such as the Soconusco in present-day Mexico, amongst native Mesoamerican populations (Coe and Coe 97). Whether obtained through means of trading, conflict, or planting, cacao seeds inevitably went into the stockpile of royals and the elite or the production of chocolate.
How Chocolate is Made
Mesoamerican xocolatl— the original chocolate– was produced through a lengthy process that transformed harvested cacao pods into a foamy drink. Cacao seeds were dried, roasted, removed from their shells, and ground into a paste (Coe and 25). A metate stone, a tool that functions as a giant mortar and pestle, was used to grind the beans into a paste. The resulting bitter-tasting paste, which looked like melted chocolate, was often flavored with spicy chili peppers, vanilla, and other natural flavors found in the region (Coe and Coe 90). The chocolate paste resulting from grinding cacao beans on the metate stone, however, was not the end goal. Drinkable chocolate, or xocolatl, meaning ”bitter water” in Mayan, was what many Mesoamerican natives made.
Making xocolatl involved the additional step of pouring a mixture of cacao bean paste and water back and forth between two jars to produce the chocolatey foam that was so prized by the Maya, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican groups. Little has changed in the process of chocolate-making since 900 AD, but the face of chocolate was forever changed by colonization.
When European colonization began in Central and South America in the 1500s, everything was swept up into the current of goods being stolen and extracted from the New World and sold in Europe. Under this economic climate, indigenous Mesoamericans were enslaved and the artifacts of their world and culture erased and rewritten. A pillar in the architecture of European colonialism was the demonization of indigenous identity and customs. Oftentimes, such demonization was achieved by positioning indigeneity as monstrous and anti-Christian. Thus, it is unsurprising that 16th-century conquistadors, colonists, and priests opposed chocolate in the Spanish colonies of Central and South America. Voyager Girolmo Benzoni, for example, claimed that chocolate “seemed more a drink for pigs” (Coe and Coe 109). Such demonization of Mesoamerican cultures was common throughout European colonial rule and presence in the region. Whether classified as a food, drink, or medicine, the xocolatl brought to Europe by conquistadors quickly gained popularity throughout the continent, giving way to a new industry. Despite their enthusiastic conquest of foreign lands and populations, the European attitude towards the products brought from these regions was ironically cautious and skeptical.
Many European elites who were among the first to receive items from the New World, scrutinized those very goods because of their proximity to indigeneity. European attitudes towards the New World goods “supplanting more familiar items” were not immediately welcoming despite the excitement surrounding their novelty (Mintz 151). Pseudoscientific theories cautioning against chocolate were widespread. For instance, Doctor Giovanni Batista Felici, physician to the Tuscan court, held that chocolate caused “palpitations, thickened blood, lack of appetite, and so on” (Coe and Coe 209). Convincing Europe’s elite to embrace cacao as a delicacy and, later, a staple and medical phenomenon was key to establishing chocolate as an industry in Europe. Spanish colonists’ usage of quick-dissolving tablets to make instant hot chocolate “mixed with spices” in the 1600s, for example, reveals the early chocolate craze that swept Europe’s colonial elite and nobles (Coe and Coe 184). The chocolate-drinking craze which later began to “spread through all classes” of Baroque Europe further demonstrates how the delicacy of the aristocracy became a socioeconomic phenomenon that crossed class lines (Coe and Coe 181). Ultimately, the technological advances and increased production rates of the Industrial era allowed chocolate to become a household staple. In other words, the repackaging of Mesoamerican cacao into a sweet, everyday dessert and medicinal commodity amongst the elite helped set the stage for an expanded market that would eventually reach the general public– the larger and more reliable engine of industry.
How Chocolate was Changed by European Enterprise
The startups of the Industrial period are the tycoons of today, and their marketing influence is historically rooted in the industrial revolution and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. While chocolate had been primarily consumed as a beverage or dessert for the elite, the 1800s industrial boom saw chocolate become accessible to the general public (Coe and Coe 211). Chocolate-making companies, such as Cadbury, Lindt, and Hershey, were launched during the industrial revolution of the 1800s. Continuing the precedents set by Europe’s elite consumers, such as Cosimo III de Medici, these companies departed from the original Mesoamerican chocolate recipes (Coe and Coe 145). Chili peppers were replaced with sugar, vanilla replaced with milk and cream (Coe and Coe 115). Joël Glenn Brenner’s observation notes the westernization of chocolate-making in “The Emperors of Chocolate”:
“Each process produced it’s own unique chocolate flavor, and over time, these differences translated into distinct national tastes. The British, for example, prefer their milk chocolate very sweet and caramel-like, while Americans identify with the harsher, grittier flavor popularized by Hershey. German chocolate generally ranks as the richest because of it’s traditionally high fat content, while Italian chocolate is drier, more bittersweet. Swiss chocolate, considered the finest by connoisseurs, is characterized by a strong, aromatic, almost perfumey flavor and the smoothest, silkiest texture.” (Brenner)
Industrial era companies, such as Nestle, created products that contained little to no actual cacao. Milk Chocolate, a mixture of powdered milk and cacao butter that uses little to no actual cacao, and other similarly faux chocolate products, like nougat, relied more on sweetness and chocolate coating than authentic cacao (Coe and Coe 250). Products from the Western Hemisphere, like cacao and sugar, flowed into Europe through Trans-Atlantic colonialism while the later Industrial Revolution allowed for production on a massive scale. This allowed for a fusion of Mesoamerican cacao with imported goods from the New World brought from Europe (Mintz 151).
Chocolate Moves to the Factory
Industrial-era companies focused heavily on marketing chocolate which had previously been reserved for the elite to the general public– “everything had to be faster, cheaper, bigger, better” (Brenner 8). Milton Hershey, for instance, constructed a town-sized complex to house and facilitate workers in his chocolate factory (D’Antonio 108). This was a sharp contrast to the way chocolate was hoarded in royal courts, like that of Cosimo III, in the seventeenth-century. Given the new technology of the era, the philosophy of chocolate companies transitioned to massive operation and marketing.
The history of chocolate was rewritten with a new origin story that began in Europe, demonstrated by the marketing campaign of companies, like Rowntree which owned one of the largest newspapers in London and used full-page advertisements and billboards to promote their chocolate (Brenner 65). Such marketing campaigns all but erased the Mesoamerican roots of cacao and chocolate consumption by westernizing chocolate’s history and redefining the good as quintessentially European in post-colonial consumer and popular culture. The development of factories allowed for shortened production time and increased volume. Further, the expansion of colonial plantation economies into West Africa and other regions supplied the factory economy developing in Europe. By controlling the historical narrative of chocolate, and redefining food culture, the mass-marketing practices of industrial-era European companies made chocolate a western good. Bolstered by a history of Trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism, the Industrial Revolution allowed for powerful marketing campaigns that are largely the reason why companies, like Mars, Hershey, Lindt, and others, are among the most popular chocolate-makers today.
Brenner, Joel Glenn. “Chapter Five: To the Milky Way and Beyond.” The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, Broadway Books, 2000, pp. 49–69.
Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, London, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
D’Antonio, M. (2006). Hershey. New York, NY. (pp. 121).
File:Hershey Factory.jpg. (2016, November 29). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 20:19, March 25, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Hershey_Factory.jpg&oldid=223766892.
File:Takalik Abaj metate 1.jpg. (2019, March 20). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 20:20, March 25, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Takalik_Abaj_metate_1.jpg&oldid=343320395.
Khan, Gulnaz. “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making.” National Geographic, September 11, 2017. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/.
Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history. New York.