Tag Archives: elitism

Chocolate: A Shift From Elitism to Convenience Store Staple

A Shift From Elitism to Convenience Store Staple

If you were to walk in to any grocery or convenience store today, chances are you would find a vast selection of chocolate at a relatively low price. At any given moment, it is safe to say that chocolate is within reach. For these reasons, we don’t seem to associate the consumption of chocolate with any form of elitism: eating chocolate is something that we’ve grown accustomed to in the United States. In fact, the average American consumes roughly twelve pounds of chocolate every year (Martin, “The Rise of..”, 2019). Despite playing such a huge role in our diet today, chocolate hasn’t always been accessible to everyone. Once reserved for only elite Europeans, we’ve seen chocolate shift to being consumed by a much broader audience. With this shift, however, we are left to question what led to our society’s chocolate craze;  is it the rich, indulgent taste, or is it the sense of prestige that comes with it?

When chocolate was first introduced to Europeans, it looked much different than it does today. While we commonly associate chocolate as a food that we eat, chocolate was first consumed exclusively as an unsweetened beverage called “xocoatl” (Coe & Coe, 2000). This was a bitter drink that was created by brewing cacao beans (beans from the Theobroma Cacao tree) and played a major role in mesoamerican culture among groups like the Olmec, Aztecs, and Mayans. In mesoamerican culture, the cacao bean was thought to have many medicinal, spiritual, and even magical properties. Because of this, cacao was a major part of many religious ceremonies, sacrifices, and a key player in medical practices of the time (Coe & Coe, 2000).

A depiction of how the Aztecs would typically prepare the xocoatl beverage for ceremonies and special occasions (Image sourced from: Martin, “Mesoamerica…”, 2019).

While it is uncertain as to exactly when Europeans first came into contact with cacao, it is believed to have been offered to Spanish explorer, Hernando Cortes, by Aztec King Montezuma when he and his men first arrived in the Americas. Believe it or not, when the traditional beverage was initially tasted, the explorers hated it, describing it as, “a bitter drink for pigs”. This initial opinion of chocolate is ironic now because with time, and with the addition of sweeteners like honey or cane sugar, the drink soon became popular throughout Spain and eventually the rest of Europe  (Fiegl, 2008).

Similar to how the mesoamericans thought of the cacao bean as having magical powers, a huge part of the success of chocolate in Europe can be attributed to the fact that it was believed to have many medicinal, nutritional, and aphrodisiac properties. At the time of its initial introduction in Europe, however, it was a luxury that only the rich could afford. This is because it had to be imported from the far-off chocolate growing regions of the world (Central/South America and later West Africa), and couldn’t be produced in large quantities. Because the ability to consume chocolate was directly linked to wealth, partaking in such activity came to be seen as a mark of status in an elite social class (Coe & Coe). Chocolate was truly a luxury.

As consumption of chocolate increased, so did production. This created a positive feedback loop, eventually making chocolate more affordable and therefore more accessible to a broader range of people. Several developments led to higher consumption of chocolate. First was the creation of “dutch cocoa” by a dutch chemist in 1828.  He found that by removing the cocoa butter, or fat, from the pulverized cocoa beans, you could create a form of powdered chocolate, namely, cocoa powder. This led to an increase in chocolate consumption among a broader range of people because it allowed for the creation of solid chocolate that could be made from a mixture of cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and other additives like sugar and milk. This meant that chocolate became cheaper because manufacturers could make more product with the same amount of cacao (Fiegl, 2008). A second major development was made by Rudolphe Lindt when he created the chocolate conche: a mechanical way to distribute cocoa butter in chocolate and improve the overall palatability. The conche increased chocolate consumption by streamlining the chocolate making process, allowing it to be produced in higher quantities for a lower cost. By the end of the 19th century, chocolate was no longer only consumed by the elite, but it was also enjoyed by the general public (Martin, “Sugar and Cacao”, 2019).

A modern example of the chocolate conching process. Take note of the extreme efficiency that comes from using this machine. (Sourced from: ProXES, 2018)

The widespread consumption of chocolate across all socioeconomic levels can be attributed to advances in technology and increases in production, which led to decreases in price,  but there is another factor that we must consider. Given that chocolate was once an indulgence that only the elite could afford, it is possible that people desire chocolate because they want to attain the same prestige that once surrounded the food. Ordinary people are able to treat themselves to a supposed luxury for as little as a dollar. The rich, decadent taste of chocolate could certainly be the main culprit in drawing so many people in, but it is definitely worth considering the desire to taste the finer things in life, or to see how “the other half” lives, as a driving force in the spread of chocolate consumption from the wealthy elite to broader audiences. As shown in the advertisement below, chocolate is still depicted as a food for the elite, even if we can buy it at any convenience store.

This advertisement from Ferrero Rocher suggests that their chocolate is a luxury fit for royals and the elite, even if it may be on the shelves of convenience stores (Sourced from: Commercials, 2017).

Works Cited :

Chocolate, ProXES, director. Conching Chocolate with STEPHAN Universal MachineYouTube, YouTube, 2 Sept. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lTI3Ux9nsc.

Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. “The True History of Chocolate .” Goodreads, Thames and Hudson, 1 Oct. 2000, http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/88456.The_True_History_of_Chocolate.

Commercials, director. Ferrero Rocher Hazelnut Chocolate Truffles | Ferrero Rocher Commercial AdYouTube, YouTube, 27 Dec. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ReCI64d34U.

Fiegl, Amanda. “A Brief History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Mar. 2008, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/.

Hocking, Abby. Influential Candy Bars. 2018. (Cover Photo)

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” 6 Feb. 2019, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University.

Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” 20 Feb. 2019, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University.

Martin, Carla. “The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market.” 13 Mar. 2019, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University.

Chocolate Consumption and Societal Divides

Chocolate in Europe, brought to Spain originally from Mesoamerica in the 1500s, has amassed into a staple of almost everyone’s diet today. However, the history of chocolate consumption and its social constructs have expanded and changed over the centuries since chocolate’s first venture into Europe. Chocolate began as a drink, medicine, and eventually a snack “among the white-skinned, perfumed, bewigged, overdressed royalty and nobility of Europe” (Coe and Coe, 125). However, as time went on, and the price and availability of chocolate began to expand to beyond the upper circles of Europe, the elitism that surrounded chocolate still existed. Even today, when majority of people consume chocolate—often times in similar forms, for example as a bar or hot beverage—there still is a separation between chocolate for commoners and chocolate for the wealthy. How come even though there have been drastic consumption changes over the centuries, in quantity and form, there is still a strong social tension amongst different types of chocolate? By looking at the history of chocolate, it will become clearer that chocolate has always had societal divisions and it is merely impossible to fully break away from those constructs that are inherent to chocolate.

Chocolate for European Elites

In order to understand how consumption in Europe has and has not changed over the centuries, it is important to start at the beginning of chocolate in Europe. Once chocolate was brought over to Europe through Spain during the Renaissance, it was immediately viewed as for elites only— “it was in Baroque palaces and mansions of the wealthy and powerful that it was elaborated and consumed” (Coe and Coe, 125). While Spaniards more or less “stripped [the chocolate beverage] of the spiritual meaning” attached to it by the Aztec and Maya, they did start by consuming the beverage as a drug or medicine for healing (Coe and Coe, 126). This consumption was often matched with mix-ins custom to Spain and Europe, such as “atole and sugar” for a colder drink or “honey and hot water” for a more soothing hot beverage (Coe and Coe, 134).

However, this beverage was still strictly for the elites of Europe even once it started to spread throughout the continent. As time progressed, the royals started to create more recipes of chocolate beverages to be served to special guest, with a princess in 1679 recalling: “There was iced chocolate, another hot, and another with Milk and Eggs; one took it with a biscuit…besides this, they take it with so much pepper and so many spices” (Coe and Coe, 136). With the spread of popularity amongst chocolate beverages, there also were technical advances to enhance the experience. For example, the Spanish royals invented mancerina, a decorative saucer and small plate that helped avoid spills on fancy clothing (Coe and Coe, 134-5).

Spanish porcelain mancerina used by royalty to avoid spilling their chocolate beverages. The cocoa drink would be placed in the middle ring of the mancerina.

Sugar Becomes a Chocolate Equalizer

Skipping ahead, with the addition of sugar mass production, chocolate became a consumable good for almost everyone around Europe and the world, breaking down many original societal barriers. During the early 1800s, the British “national consumption [of sugar] was about 300 million pounds per year,” rising to over a billion pounds in 1852 as prices continued to drop (Mintz, 143). The addition of sugar allowed for chocolate to more easily become mass produced, creating more affordability and accessibility throughout Europe. By 1856, “sugar consumption was forty times higher than it had been only 150 years earlier,” allowing for everyone—wealthy and poor alike—to enjoy such treats in different forms (Mintz, 143).

1885 Cadbury advertisement markets towards the “public,” claiming their cocoa is “exhilarating, comforting, and sustaining” as well as “guaranteed absolutely pure.”

Sugar was a major success in creating access to chocolate throughout history, giving way for major chocolate companies such as Lindt and Cadbury to become the “producers of majority of the world’s chocolate” (Martin and Sampeck, 49). For the first time in history, chocolate was being consumed in similar forms at similar price points by both the wealthy and poor because of these large manufactures—arguably stripping away many societal differences inherent to chocolate by creating a consistent form of chocolate everyone could enjoy. However, as the prices decreased, the quality of chocolate also decreased, with many large manufacturers “even cutting out…the substance that gives quality to superior chocolates: cacao butter” (Coe and Coe, 257). As lower quality chocolate created by major companies became a staple of poorer and working-class citizens, the elites often would opt to fly to specific regions of Europe—such as Switzerland or Belgium—to indulge in their high-quality chocolate from chocolatiers (Coe and Coe, 258). Therefore, even though sugar allowed for some narrowing of the social constructs surrounding chocolate, there was still a market for superior forms that are only accessible for a wealthier audience.

Still a Divide with Chocolate Today

Today, chocolate still holds of great importance to many peoples’ lives, with chocolate consumptions estimates for 2018/2019 at 7.7 million tons globally (“Consumption of Chocolate Worldwide,” Statista). However, even with the advances in chocolate consumption over the many centuries, there are still similar societal constraints around chocolate. While the different forms of chocolate are often times similar amongst upper and lower classes—ranging from hot beverages or bars to baked goods—the quality and price ranges can heavily vary, instilling a separation and exclusivity in societal groups that existed even in the 1500s when chocolate was introduced to Europe. For example, the range in quality of chocolate products is vast: there exist fair trade chocolate sourced in more humane manners, specific species of cacao pods with better characteristics and richer flavors, granulated texture differences, and even different percentages of cacao in chocolate mixtures. One can go to a deluxe chocolatier shop somewhere in Switzerland or Belgium and purchase extreme, rare examples of certain types of chocolate—frequently at higher prices. However, these levels of chocolate are often inaccessible to others of not a higher social class because they require having more money and the ability to reach the areas where superior-quality chocolate is created—such as expensive regions in Switzerland. For these other social groups, the desire for chocolate could still be just as strong, but the more realistic options are to purchase mass-produced chocolate, such as Hershey’s chocolate bars or M&Ms, that are often associated with quick, convenient snacks that are affordable.

This social distinction around chocolate exists even in Harvard Square today, where one could purchase a quality, single source hot chocolate at L.A. Burdick from specific locations such as Ecuador (with an “earthy finish”) or Madagascar (with “fruity notes”) at a starting price of $5.50 (“Single Source Drinking Chocolate.” L.A. Burdick). On the other hand, one could instead go to CVS in Harvard Square and purchase a 10 pack of Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa Mix for $2.79, averaging $0.28 per serving (“Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix.” CVS). There is clearly an audience for both choices, but the more accessible version is at CVS because it is drastically more affordable and easily accessible at any CVS around the world, while L.A. Burdick is a specialty chocolate shop with a much higher price point and only a few locations. So even though there have been major advances in chocolate and the levels of consumption over the last few centuries—including the expansion of different forms of consumptions and the spread of accessibility beyond the upper-class nobilities—there still persists a divide when it comes to chocolate today.

Based on the history of chocolate, it seems unlikely that societal constructs around chocolate will ever completely disappear because there will always be a market for better quality, more elaborate chocolate consumption as well as affordable, accessible chocolate. However, as the interest in “fine flavor” chocolate continues to grow in more recent decades, then more “small-batch chocolate companies” will begin to come around “with a heavy focus on batch production, flavor, quality, and perceived ethical sourcing of raw ingredients,” creating more access and maybe eventually lower prices of higher quality product for everyone to enjoy (Martin and Sampeck, 54). While the future is uncertain, one steadfast is that chocolate will still be present in most peoples’ lives because of its unifying, joyous, cherished qualities that impact people on a daily basis—no matter one’s social rank.

Works Cited

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

“Consumption of Chocolate Worldwide, 2012/13-2018/19 | Statistic.” Statista, Statista, Nov. 2015, http://www.statista.com/statistics/238849/global-chocolate-consumption/.

Martin, Carla D., and Sampeck, Kathryn E. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2016, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.

“Single Source Drinking Chocolate.” L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolate, http://www.burdickchocolate.com/DrinkingChocolate/single-source-drinking-chocolate.aspx.

“Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix.” CVS, http://www.cvs.com/shop/swiss-miss-milk-chocolate-flavor-hot-cocoa-mix-prodid-828715?skuid=828715.

Multimedia Sources

Anonymous, Cadbury’s Cocoa advert with rower 1885. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cadbury%27s_Cocoa_advert_with_rower_1885.jpg. Accessed 11 March 2019.

Anonymous, Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th century. Wikimedia Commons, 6 August 2013, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Interior_of_a_London_Coffee-house,_17th_century.JPG. Accessed 11 March 2019.

Daderot. Talavera mancerina (chocolate cup holder), ceramic – Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas – Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons, 10 October 2014, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Talavera_mancerina_(chocolate_cup_holder),ceramicMuseo_Nacional_de_Artes_DecorativasMadrid,_Spain-_DSC08143.JPG. Accessed 11 March 2019.

Lam, Willis. Swiss Miss Simply Cocoa. Flickr, 2 December 2014, https://www.flickr.com/photos/85567416@N03/15826425118/in/photolist-q7wyNA-4Vi3xj-2c1quQF-bAR6UB-5KXJTX-4uvVPN-e14Lxw-8Wa8AZ-nLpJvi-Cbm1VF-dqASpX-2ampJbb-Rd9TCh-2bZA3Mz-2bZ2eHi-RetAk7-7jSCz3-8h4wTf-bAqsAk-LuMes-2dotp4v-oRr31-axSjhw-98qkXu-ihJDzj-227rKBA-i2LSJm-iupoqe-5ro6Ux-HxgKn6-7qkecG-8WYapy-2ch8p7d-PkuWzx-hjPRMw-4m3SWK-2dfdft2-2cggZSf-PzRfGR-2chxsFj-2cg2pA7-Rft18y-PBbapT-PASK2P-3k8YWU-CDyBre-2dhZJb5-2diX3ZC-ReRqrL-9Sp3i. Accessed 11 March 2019.

Phelan, John. L A Burdick Chocolate, Walpole NH. Wikimedia Commons, 26 April 2014, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:L_A_Burdick_Chocolate,_Walpole_NH.jpg. Accessed 11 March 2019.

Cacao: For Luxury, Flavor, or Health?

Wherever I share information about cacao, it is the Maya obsession with cacao that people find most surprising.

From religion, marriage ritual, and chokola’j drinking ceremonies to fete visiting dignitaries, to economics, agronomy, botany, and currency, to death and the afterlife, cacao was as vital as maize to ancient Mesoamerican diets.

It is understood that this importance started  with the Olmec and probably even earlier. But the cacao obsession continued for the Maya, the Aztec, and forward from there, even into the post-Columbian. There are still pockets of ritual chocolate drinkers in central America and southern Mexico, but so much knowledge has been lost to time, in this regard and others. Colonialism brought about the end of most of the native cacao plantations, as the cacao plantations throughout mesoamerica were laid waste by disease, and by the loss of aboriginal peoples who also succumbed to abuse, neglect, and disease (Ferry, 1989).

The loss of ancient expertise which spanned back over millennia after so many from the native populations were lost (Acuna-Soto, 2002; 2005), and the over-all colonial mismanagement and exploitation, eventually brought about the end of a colonial enterprise in cacao.  There was clearly a cause (the co-option by  the colonial Spanish), in depleting the widespread native stake in the cacao agronomy, and the concomitant extinction of ancient varieties and strains of cacao. It is easy to imagine that the Spanish cacao plantations, in contrast to the native Cacao forests, were hostile not only to growing healthy cacao, but also beneficial insects and any similarly symbiotic plants, bacteria and fungi that might keep pests and diseases at bay.

Fortunately there were a few Spanish colonial priests who diligently recorded so many aspects of native Mesoamerican life. And by their works we know some about the medical conditions that the American peoples used cacao for. Some of these made their way to Europe, where Europeans expanded greatly on the indications for cacao, much of it very often quackery and superstition (Coe, 1996).


Censer Lid with Woman Holding Cacao
Guatemala, Maya, A.D. 250-450
Coastal Plain
Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City

One additional cause of surprise  for people that I visit with about cacao, is the possible myriad health benefits of consuming cacao (as dark chocolate). When I understood that the Madécasse company had found their cacao sourced in Madagascar from plantations apparently growing an old line of Criollo, there was a mix of happiness and trepidation. Happiness on learning my taste buds are discerning for having discovered this otherwise low visibility chocolate bar to be yards ahead of the rest (as far as cost, taste, and aftertaste goes). Trepidation because  of what will happen as elites jump on a criollo dark chocolate bandwagon with a well-monied vengeance. I also envision supply issues for cacao, as what was done to the subsistence grain Quinoa (Philpott, 2013).

Perhaps my trepidation is a form of misplaced paranoia, as Madécasse does not appear to compete with the overpriced much-hyped hipster founded and hipster marketed brands. Madécasse bars taste so much better than the bars I have tried at twice the price earlier, when I was experimenting with taste and price. My reasoning is that the elites will spend their money on fancy wrapping and understated marketing themes that play to ideals of exclusivity, narcissism ,and greed. Hopefully they might be leaving the plain wrapped Heirloom Madécasse bars for humbler, albeit savvier consumers. And by that route spare us related supply issues.

The company at the top of the chocolate Elite is Amedei, the Tuscan manufacturer of “The World’s Finest” chocolate. At 17 dollars a bar on Amazon.com, the Amedei bars are rightly called the “world’s most expensive” Chocolate.

It is a lovely, even elegant manufacturing facility.

But are they distinguishable from less expensive bars?

I am not well-to-do so I will not be taste testing Amedei any time soon. What I can do is contrast the Amedei marketing and branding with Madécasse’s marketing and branding. This video above, of the Amedei processing plant, is very stylish and even understated. The stylish understatement speaks volumes to a new elite sensibility around inconspicuous consumption (“Luxury Branding,” 2015).

I had become aware of the fine Amedei wares but had passed on the opportunity to purchase. To begin a contrast, I was completely unaware of the flavor bonanza in Madécasse’s bean to bar product at 5 dollars or so a bar at Whole Foods (which is why I grabbed an “Heirloom” bar) and I was very willing to try it without knowing anything about the product. I was completely aware of the luxury symbolism pre-loaded into my psyche by the pricing alone of Amedei’s product line. My stopping point has been consistently around 6 dollars when I regularly contemplate the dark chocolate display at Whole Foods.

“Generally, luxury brands increase in profitability when consumers perceive that these goods offer more value (or premium degree) than other comparable products… We’ve found that symbolic brands can be more easily exported into nonadjacent categories than functional brands and can succeed in these categories when they consistently promote their core symbolic attributes.”      Reddy, 2005

The Madécasse company has a remarkable founder story in a field replete with fairly sentimental gestures (as opposed to effective gestures) underlying the basic marketing themes that Fair Trade has come to signify (unfortunately). Two Peace Corps volunteers who worked with the corps on the Island of Madagascar off the coast of Southeast Africa, decided to start a chocolate manufacturing concern in Madagascar.

The west coast of Africa where nearly 75% of the world’s chocolate is grown, does not produce chocolate product in any measurable quantity. The founders of Madécasse, Tim McCollum and Brett Beach, went beyond the Fair Trade gesture of direct relations and direct sourcing from farmers in developing countriesin the purchasing of raw materials, and decided to manufacture the product in-situ on Madagascar. Instead of the more common practice of exporting the raw cacao to be produced in more developed countries.  (Evans, 2014)

Moving a bit beyond the caring connections idealism in Fair Trade symbologies and signifiers, such as farmer stories and founder stories, Amedei, with its implications of an inconspicuous consumption that is a signifier to elites (Eckhardt, 2015), is a stark contrast to the practically shy (by comparison) marketing themes of the Madécasse brand.

However, another complicating discovery for my consideration here, is that the Forastero cacao of a few areas in Brazil that were tested and compared to Nacional of Ecuador, and Trinitario of Venezuela and New Guinea, are highest in flavan-3-ols (Oracz, 2015) under varying roasting conditions.

And so now we have three confounding consumer ideals, the inconspicuous elite consumers  of Amedei (varietal craft chocolates), the tasty and cheap Madécasse (heirloom criollo bars), and the additional health benefits such as what might be obtained via consumption of Brazil forastero dark chocolate products.


The health benefits of cacao clearly show promise for the most common health issues in our times. One disease in particular which may have some treatment options with combinations of compounds found only in cacao, is Trigeminal Neuralgia (Cady, 2010). Also known as “suicide disease” trigeminal neuralgia has a severe impact on well-being by the intense and unrelenting facial pain associated. The sufferers are not always responsive to an array of treatment regimes for it, which include medications. Without relief by medication, the treatments will culminate in surgeries that may or may not work. At the end of options, the suicide disease leads to irreversible decisions of too many of its sufferers. But the likelihood of those afflicted with trigeminal neuralgia finding an avenue for relief by dietary intake of pure dark chocolate, is greatly decreased by the actions of chocolate marketing by producers.

When otherwise beneficial chocolate products are branded and publicized as either luxury, revived ancient heirlooms, or for perceptions of a rarified tastiness, the likelihood is greatly decreased that a general public realizes the benefits of cacao as a supplement that can possibly alleviate an issue so drastic as Trigeminal Neuralgia, and possibly other debilitating medical issues as well.

While it is understandable that a company will distance its products from liability for any claims of health benefits, there are still ways for chocolate producers to inform the public and enhance well-being by providing access to information as a sideline in their marketing. But if cacao producers are more concerned with taste and pricing, there is  going to be little to no energy expended on figuring out how to boost the beneficial compounds, such as might be done by a careful attention to roasting temperature and humidity.

The importance of cacao health benefits in marketing chocolate, has taken a rear seat to the luxury and taste components when it comes to marketing and branding cacao products in the form of consumable dark chocolate bars. This is an artifact of the times, where marketing and branding is imprinting tastes and compulsions with imagery, symbology, hierarchy and status; by appealing to more base human emotions and selfish drivers of human behavior. In that context, might it also be unethical to ignore the health benefits in order to reach consumers with status and hierarchy concerns, vis-a-vis developing needs for taste and status at the expense of educating about less tasty/less status, but with more health benefits?

The amount of energy and expenditure in creating branding ideals around chocolate that have less to do with its intrinsic life-improving benefits and more to do with perceptions of materialistic benefits, is truly wasted effort.

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