Before the enlightenment era and the centuries of subsequent learnings that followed, religious dogmas took for granted that people knew the fundamental facts about the world, and then built up teachings and rules to appease and satisfy those fundamentals. The scientific and industrial revolution was beyond all else, the understanding of society that there are things we don’t know – our acceptance of ignorance. As a result, these times led to drastic changes, including our understanding and socialization of food. Building on the learnings of the last 500, people developed countless inventions that impact how we eat, including novel modes of transportation, new machinery, new markets, and new ways of preserving food (Goody). This post will look at chocolate as just another product in the grand schematic of our diets. Because our diet can be separated into essential and luxury calories, we can analyze clearly how the composition of these two groups changed, and better understand chocolate, or luxury, consumption habits as a whole.
Generally, consumption of essential calories saw a continuous rise from the early 1800s to the mid 1900s, and the composition of these calories shifted away from carbohydrates and toward proteins. It is important to note that starting in the 19th century, famine was almost entirely a thing of the past as the last major food crisis occured in 1816 in much of Europe as a result of the end of the Napoleonic Wars (Grigg). From there on forward, there were no major notable famines in Europe. This security was the result of an economy that was rapidly increasing in productivity. In this time of security, there was a shift in the types of food people ate, moving from cheaper to more expensive goods. In the early 19th century, starchy staples comprised 65-75% of total calories, principally because starches like cereals and potatoes were so much cheaper than more protein rich products, and the majority of the population was poor (Grigg).
As society became wealthier and more productive from a series of industrialization related changes in the 1800s including agricultural advances for increased food production, transportation for an increased ability to exercise national comparative advantage and exports, and finally an increase in wages generally that resulted in improved buying power, the composition of the European diet changed dramatically. As demonstrated by Grigg, calories became more and more available per capita per day, increasing from around 2000 calories in the early 1800s to approximately 3000 by 1930.
These changes were paired with a decrease in the number of calories required due to sharp decreases in physical activity due to increased automation and improved heating within everyday buildings (Grigg). Together, these changes meant that there were surpluses in the margin of peoples’ diets, and as a result, people were able to shift their eating habits to more expensive mainstay foods and were able to more easily supplement essential calories with luxury ones. As seen in the table, caloric intake was at a peak around 1910 at which point people were first able to eat, at least for the majority of the population, however much they wanted. The fall in subsequent decades relates to increased awareness of the nutritional importance of moderation, and the related shift to lower calorie, higher cost items such as luxury goods like chocolate. The shift to preferred foods, like dairy, livestock protein, fruits and vegetables, and fats and oils meant that people were spending more on fewer, but better tasting calories. As seen below, Grigg highlights the dramatic shift away from starchy staples as France and other European countries entered the 1900s.
The question still remains as to why people are spending on more expensive items? Are these items substantially more valuable and therefore raising the social welfare of Europe as a whole, or are people attracted more to the social distinction and advertising marketing that sets these items apart as privileged and distinguished? If the latter is true, our conceptualization of history as a line of human progress is dramatically undermined insofar that we normalize more expensive items that do not substantively create value, and therefore counteract the improvements in everyday wealth with valueless spending.
Beyond mainstay items and general economic trends that allowed for increased consumption, luxury items such as sugar and chocolate became dramatically more accessible through the late 1800s as a result of industrialization. Factorization and the concentration of production allowed food production to be far more efficient, simultaneously emphasizing inequality as fewer firms had control over more and more means of production. Foods began to be processed less and less on farms and by individuals as larger establishments began consolidating production with machinery and outsizing capital. Chocolate saw different trends from other products insofar that this industrial manufacturing dramatically lowered its prices and improved its taste (Clarence–Smith). Luxury goods are luxury due to their price, and also because there is something special about their taste that sets it apart, in some way warranting the large price. This distinction was set culturally, while at the same time access and price lowered dramatically due to the benefits of scale in an industrializing world that focused production more and more under large establishments. Beyond cost, various industrialization era inventions improved the digestibility problem of chocolate. As seen since chocolates earliest times as a beverage, the product is bitter when untampered, and while the taste is unique, it was not for every palette. However, around 1914, sales expanded dramatically as chocolate diversified as a product, becoming more digestible in many different forms of powders and alkalizable in order to create a significant improvement in taste. Beyond the powderization, technical breakthroughs from the Swiss allowed for milk chocolate, which greatly improved the quality of eating it directly (Clarence–Smith). In looking at the various luxury goods, or “junk foods” as referenced by Coe and Coe, the trend for chocolate was set apart from coffee and tea. Chocolate grew faster than tea and coffee between 1870 and 1897 with the establishment of a neoliberal market. According to Clarence–Smith, “world imports of cocoa beans grew ninefold between 1870 and 1897, whereas those of tea doubled, and those of coffee rose only by about half” (Clarence–Smith). Chocolate, due to surpluses in the average person’s pocketbook, had been revolutionized as a widely available good. While chocolate had been universalized, the question remains as to whether or not chocolate actually added value to everyday lives, or instead was just a cultural phenomenon that costed far more than the joy it brought.
The actual value of chocolate can be analyzed through how Latin America approached and treated chocolate differently from Europeans in this time of industrialization, and ultimately it is clear that its excitement was entirely cultural. Latin Americans resisted the widespread socialization of chocolate, especially as a beverage, on account of its barbaristic relationship to pre-civilized times in Central and South America. Despite dramatic increases in incomes, consumption of chocolate did not appreciate significantly (Clarence–Smith), showing how an increase in consumption was perhaps more cultural in Europe, and not necessarily a distinctive value add. Moreover, even in European countries, Mintz argues that chocolate’s broad consumption was primarily induced from a place of power. As luxury goods that were originally enjoyed by the rich became available to the cotidian, they were glorified in ritualistic ways, used disproportionately during holidays and celebrations as a result of their luxuries nature. This relationship was held for chocolate as well as for sugar through the industrialization era, as Clarence–Smith notes that “public bodies vigorously propagated chocolate,” including a democratization of consumption via regular issues to military personnel during the Boer War of Britain, America’s war with Spain in 1898 and generally as a foodstuff for german troops in the 1880s (Clarence–Smith). This democratization was not enjoyed from the bottom up, but much like the effects seen in Mintz during monarchic times, it still came from the top down during the late 1800s when democratic governments began to hold the majority of the power in Europe.
Clarence–Smith, William. 2016. “Chocolate Consumption from the Sixteenth Century to the Great Chocolate Boom.”
Goody, Jack. 2013. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World
Cuisine.” pp. 72-88
Grigg, David. 1995. “The Nutritional Transition in Western Europe.” pp. 247-261