Dating back to the Olmec civilization starting around 1500 BCE, cacao has taken on uses in religious, cultural, and medicinal contexts (Coe & Coe, 2013). It was featured in early colonial documents alleviating fevers and treating fatigue. Global consumption of sugar and chocolate skyrocketed so that it contributed to the obesity epidemic in America. Americans now question the “healthy” snack that used to “food of the gods” (Lippi, 2009). As our society becomes more health conscious, chocolate consumption declines. Brands like Hershey’s and Mars are adjusting their products, and snackers opt for vitamin-rich dark chocolate, smoothies, and salads. For years to come in the United States, chocolate most likely will remain integral to social events but be consumed in smaller amounts and different contexts, such as protein shakes and bars, more frequently than caloric snacks off the shelves at the cash register.
Although chocolate was consumed in religious rituals, social settings, and used for decorations, it was also applied to cure illnesses. The ancient Maya believed it had many benefits, including aphrodisiac qualities, which is why we gift it on Valentine’s day (Martin, Feb. 13 Lecture). Manuscripts featured chocolate in medical applications, such as the Badianus Codex of 1552 using cacao flowers to treat fatigue, the Florentine Codex of 1590 using cacao beans to treat hearts, and the Badianus Manuscript of 1552 applying cacao flowers to energize men in public office (Dillinger et al., 2000). The books of Chilam Balamand and The Ritual of the Bacabs are copies of codices and also feature cacao being used as medicine (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). The Maya used it during ceremonies to alleviate fevers, seizures, and skin abnormalities. Their botanical remedies typically featured cacao as the main ingredient to cure such ailments.
Alphonse de Richeliu introduced the treatment to France, and it was taken on for energy, digestion, breast milk production, kidney stones, poor appetite, and other purposes (Coe & Coe). The Spanish even believed it improved conception probability and breast milk quality (Dillinger et al., 2000). Chocolate was thought to have many nutrients, so the Church banned consuming it during religious fasts unless for medicinal purposes. Chocolate was considered a cure for almost any ailment.
Chocolate consumption grew exponentially throughout the 1900s due to several innovations that allowed mass production of cheaper chocolate and enabled it to spread beyond the elite. Incomes rose and production costs fell after the Industrial Revolution. Coenraad Johannes Van Houton invented the hydraulic press, which separated cocoa solids from cocoa butter (Coe & Coe, 2013).
As shown above, the press is comprised of cylinders, pistons, and hydraulic pipes. A piston is inserted into the small cylinder to create pressure so liquid cocoa can move through the pipes (Coe & Coe, 2013). As it goes through the press, the fat is squeezed out and the result is fat free cocoa powder. Another development was conchin, a stirring process to make chocolate smooth. These inventions allowed chocolate to change from a foamy drink only consumed by the elite to a cheap and delicious option for all classes. Fry & Nestle even created a solid form of chocolate, which further increased accessibility (Coe & Coe, 2013). Mintz noted that sugar production increased so much that it became integral to the English diet (Mintz, 1986). By 1900, sugar constituted 20% of English calories consumed and chocolate was a major part of their diets.
There are positive effects to chocolate. Dark chocolate has a high cocoa content and antioxidants. Harvard Health notes that dark chocolate can help athletes’ oxygen availability during competition (Tello, 2018). Americans adopted chocolate as a delicious treat but had difficulty consuming it in moderation. Today, chocolate mostly is seen as a contributor to obesity. Many favorite snacks are loaded with sugar and fat. Cacao butter is filled with saturated fat and harmful for cholesterol (Mintz, 1986). With America wrestling with an obesity epidemic, chocolate and sugar are identified as culprits.
Rather than focusing on the medicinal qualities of chocolate, society now raises concerns about high sugar content (Twitter). Low prices of huge sharing size bags lead to some consuming excessive amounts of sugar in one sitting. A bag of Hershey’s individually wrapped chocolate bars contains up to 81 grams of sugar (Google Images). The negative health effects commercial chocolate contains are gaining media attention, and people are adjusting their eating habits accordingly.
Consumption of chocolate is now falling in America because of trends toward being healthier and losing weight. Diet brands are raking in dollars as consumers opt for more nutritious options with less sugar. Salad chains, Weight Watchers, and workout classes such as Barry’s Boot Camp and Soul Cycle have become popular. Chocolate consumption drops. The average American ate 12.6 lbs of chocolate in 2007 but only 9.5 lbs in 2015 (Wong, 2016). Healthier brands like Atkins and Kind are selling better than Hershey’s and forcing companies to adjust to their audiences. A recent Skinny Pop commercial depicts the new trend:
The commercial ends with a child remarking, “It’s all real, that’s pretty cool” regarding the three ingredients in Skinny Pop (popcorn, sunflower oil, salt). The next generation is being raised to be more health conscious and to consume natural ingredients rather than sugar and saturated fat.
The consumption decline is shown by dominant brands diversifying as they lose market share. More than 50% of confectionary market share was controlled by only five brands: Hershey’s, Mars, Nestle, Craft, and Ferrero (Coe & Coe, 2013). Hershey’s recently acquired amplify snack brands, which owns Skinny Pop, in a $1.6 billion deal (Global News Wire, 2017). Hershey’s is even beginning to produce meat bars, as their former best sellers are no longer sailing off shelves. Hershey’s isn’t the only old dominant brand struggling. Mars invested in Kind Bars, which features health conscious mottos on their labels (Global news Wire, 2017). Chocolate brands adjust their products and tailor to a changing audience, which will alter how chocolate is consumed.
Not only are Americans consuming less chocolate, but when they do it is in different contexts. Fitness spots such as Equinox still sell chocolate but offer bars that are gluten, dairy, sugar alcohol, and trans fat free.
Chocolate is featured in low sugar bars and protein shakes more frequently than in caloric foamy drinks. The turn in society towards healthier lifestyles, less sugar consumption, and increased fitness has caused vendor diversification and is changing the way chocolate is consumed.
Despite chocolate and cacao’s widespread medicinal uses in the past, it has been demoted to a sugary dessert in America. As people fight the obesity crisis, consumers practice self-control and grab alternative foods off the shelves. Brands with “skinny” in the name have grown in number: skinny pop, skinny cow, and halo top with the number of calories in huge print. Advertisements featuring natural ingredients, such as the Skinny Pop commercial, are successful. The chocolate market may never be the same—Hershey’s with the famous brown sealed chocolate bar now is selling popcorn and even meat bars (yuck). Not only has chocolate consumption declined, but the way the population consume it has changed because it is being revamped into healthier foods and not just sweet desserts.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 . The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Dillinger, Teresa, et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” Oxford Academic The Journal of Nutrition, Oxford University Press, 1 Aug. 2000, academic.oup.com/jn/article/130/8/2057S/4686320.
Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Edgar Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.
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Lippi, D. “Chocolate and Medicine: Dangerous Liaisons?” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19818277.
Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 13 Feb. 2017. Lecture.
Mintz, Sidney. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.Popcorn, SkinnyPop. “SkinnyPop | Simple Tastes Better.” YouTube, YouTube, 10 Aug. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iCta8t7BmU.
Tello, Monique. “Can Dark Chocolate Improve Vision?” Harvard Health Blog, Harvard Health Publishing, 1 May 2018, http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-dark-chocolate-improve-vision-2018050313767?utm_content=buffer4fdfe&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=buffer.
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