Tag Archives: Mayan

Religious and Cultural Significane of Cacao and Chocolate in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

            For the pre-Columbian civilizations of Central and South America, cacao, the seeds of the cacao pod growing on the Theobroma Cacao tree is more than just the input used to make what is commonly known as chocolate. Cacao’s central and southern American origin makes the plant particularly significant to the peoples who established civilizations there, specifically the ancient Mayan, Aztec, and Olmec peoples. The process of turning these cacao seeds into what is known as chocolate is an intricate process developed by these Mesoamerican peoples requiring them to grind the cacao seeds and create a paste called chocolate liquor. For the ancient Mesoamerican peoples, cacao was not just a food, but much more than that. Cacao held a spiritual, cultural, and religious significance. In many ways, cacao shaped the social and spiritual customs of Mesoamerican peoples in pre-Columbian civilizations. All parts of the Theobroma tree, including the cacao pods and seeds, have a sacred place in the religious beliefs of these peoples, having caused them to create specific societal customs and traditions. The ancient Mayan civilizations are commonly cited for their use of cacao in religious ceremonies like marriage along with uses in social gatherings. In fact, Mayan’s believed that cacao was the food of the gods. Three main ways in which cacao demonstrated its spiritual importance was in marriage ceremonies, religious offerings, and death rituals. The way in which cacao has been discovered to be used in these ways illustrates the significance of this precious Mesoamerican food.

            Cacao was discovered to have religious and spiritual significance through discoveries of ancient archeological finds and through literature like the Dresden Codex and Madrid Codex. These early Mayan pieces of literature describe the important religious rituals and deities that the Mayan people preform and celebrate. In the codex, many gods are depicted either eating or holding cacao beans, and are referenced as the food of the gods. A depiction of gods spilling blood over cacao pods can be seen in the Madrid Codex, illustrated in Figure 1 (Coe, et. al. 79). There has always been a strong connection between cacao and religious beliefs for ancient Mesoamericans.

Figure 1

            Cacao played an important part in religious beliefs for ancient Mayan people. The ancient peoples had the belief that the cacao seed was the food of the gods, many times having depictions of cacao and gods on religious vessels. The Maize God, or “iximte” as it was known to the ancient Mayans is depicted as a cacao tree. Cacao pods are protruding from the figure’s body as it points at a vessel. This vessel would have been used to transfer and carry chocolate liquor or other sacred foods. This type of depiction is quite important when trying to understand the role cacao played in Mayan religious practice. This type of illustration shows that there was a clear link between the gods and cacao, so much so that they are drawn interweaved with each other. Cacao was simply a gift from the gods that was a part of their religious belief systems.

Figure 2

            Cacao was more than just depicted in hieroglyphs and images by ancient Mesoamericans. It was also a part of their daily religious and societal practices. An important way in which cacao was implemented into their customs was through marriage ceremonies. At these ceremonies, a frothy cacao based drink called “kakaw” would be served amongst the individuals attending these events. This was a societal ritual that was practiced at weddings specifically royal weddings. This important ceremony of serving kakaw usually was served in a special vase which shows depictions of cacao and people serving kakaw drinks.This type of vase was used particularly to serve nobles and royalty and was a part of Mayan culture. Other ceremonies that kakaw would be served at besides weddings include, war victories or a ruler coming into a throne, and even rites of sacrifice. (Carassco 105). In Figure 3 we can see that at these ceremonies, a vessel was used to carry cacao. These vessels were seen at these types of sociocultural events. Cacao was essential at all of these types of sociocultural events as they had religious significance and was a food of the gods as discussed earlier.

Figure 3

Another important way in which cacao was important in the religious and spiritual lives of ancient Mayans and Mesoamericans can be seen during death. In all cultures death is an essential part of belief systems. Death is an important part of the ancient stories of the Maize God. Based on the legends the death and rebirth of the Maize God gave way to the germination of the earth, proving the land with trees and seeds, including cacao (McNeil. 178).

Works Cited

Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica. Waveland Press, 2014.

Chase, Arlen F., and Diane Z. Chase. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a Cultural History of Cacao. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.

Figure 1: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3ABacabs.gif&psig=AOvVaw08DFRFhWcNJ2vAqqtx5EAV&ust=1585374906509000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCKC29Mb-uegCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD

Figure 2: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3AMaya_maize_god.jpg&psig=AOvVaw3xS9xjlzDD_Tve_OxeaD_e&ust=1585375049452000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCLjr1Lz-uegCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD

Figure 3: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3AClevelandart_2012.32.jpg&psig=AOvVaw0dR2sX0wq2H60guhjruVIe&ust=1585375476503000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCKCQpoP-uegCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD

Cacao Currency

Currency is the most influential object or idea to ever grace humanity. Wars have been fought, people have been killed, and important decisions have been made all because of money. Whether we realize it or not, money impacts our everyday life, and a lot of the decisions we make are based upon money or the potential to acquire more. The concept of currency hasn’t really changed throughout history, but the medium in which we exchange has. Back in the time of Mesoamerica money quite literally grew on trees, instead of the paper currency we use today, Mesoamericans used cacao beans as currency. Using cacao beans as currency really signified just how important cacao was to the Mesoamericans, and was also an excellent medium of currency for them

Mesoamericans trading cacao beans (Cartwright)

Cacao was a staple for mesoamerican life and was used daily. At the time of the early Mayan’s, cacao beans weren’t exactly used how they are today, instead they were still bitter since the Mayan’s didn’t have the best roasting techniques, but still,  recipes consisted of an abundance of cacao. As time went on though, cacao gained much more of a cultural significance. Cacao became a sign of prestige, gained social importance, used during religious rituals and social gatherings, and much more. And even to this day, some Mayans and Spaniard grow chocolate as a cultural practice or  as a family tradition. (Garthwaite) 

Mayan marriage ceremony based around cacao (Mexicolore)  

Cacao had been thought of by the Mayan’s as a “Food of the gods” and that it was found in the mountains by the gods and passed down to the humans after creation. In the early stages of chocolate, liquid chocolate drinks were only consumed by the elite and rich, and wasn’t like how it is today. Instead, chocolate drinks were spicy and sultry, as they were also mixed with an arrangement of spices (Jean). Other uses of cacao included medicinal uses. With a major ingredient in cacao being caffeine, the mayans used this in many different ways, soldiers would even consume cacao before battle to get more energy. 

All of these factors contributed to the importance of cacao to the Mayans, making it an even better option of currency. Because of the already high cultural significance, it was an easy decision to add even more significance by also making it a currency. 

The interesting part of cacao to me is how it was used as currency. Some may think it to be crazy how something you could grow in your backyard could be used as currency, but for the Aztecs and Mayans, it proved to be a pretty effective system. To be a good currency, there are three big factors: durability, convenience, and distinctiveness. Cacao beans embody all three of these characteristics, and paired with their already highly touted nature, they made for the perfect currency. Cacao beans are relatively small, easy to carry, have a smoothly rounded shape, and are distinguishable from other common beans (Sampek). In order to be used as currency, the object needs to be relatively rare or precious in order for it to be desirable and of want (Maré), which characterizes cacao beans perfectly. Keep in mind, Cacao serves a function moreso as a means of trade rather than a standard value of money.

How a Cacao bean looks and its uses (Lecture slide) 

Although this may have seemed like you could have infinite money by planting an infinite amount of trees, that notion was wrong. In fact, Cacao needs to be grown under the right circumstances in order to grow successfully. Cacao trees are actually pretty picky in that they need the right amount of shade, water, and just the right soil in order to sustain life. And even under all of these conditions, it takes several years until the tree even begins to produce the cacao, which means a lot of labor has to be put in before you can begin to even see any earnings. (Sampek)  

There were some flaws with cacao. Like modern day money, cacao was sometimes counterfeited. People would counterfeit cacao by emptying out the inside contents of the bean, then fill it up with mud to the appropriate weight (Maré). But with some disadvantages came many advantages, and cacao doubled as a currency as well as a staple in mesoamerican culture and cuisine. 

Cacao played many roles in mesoamerican life from food, to medicine, being a social icon, to currency. No matter how you want to look at it, cacao defined mesoamerica and arguably was the biggest contributing factor to the culture back then. The use of cacao as currency showed just how significant it was in mesoamerican life, and also proved to be a great medium of exchange. 

Works Cited 

De Maré, Laurie. “Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.” A Tasty Currency: Cocoa – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, http://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm.

Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/.

Sampek , Kathryn. “Cacao Money.” Cacao Money, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-money.

Cartwright , Mark. “Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” Brewminate, 18 Sept. 2019, brewminate.com/chocolate-in-mesoamerica/.

On Mesoamerican Chocolate: Significance and Preparation of Mayan Xocolatl

The Mayan civilization existed on the Yucatan peninsula and rose to its peak influence during 250-950CE. During this time, the Mayans discovered and created calendars, pyramids, and hieroglyphs. They were central to the very architecture of Mesoamerican history and culture, and the civilization was the epicenter of Mesoamerican cultural production during its time (Mark 2012).

One phenomenon particularly salient in Mayan culture was the consumption of cacao.  While the Mayans were not the first to consume cacao (the Olmecs pre-dated the Mayans), our understandings of chocolate in Mesoamerica–where the consumption of cacao is believed to have started–are largely influenced by the Mayans. According to ancient Mayan texts, cacao was thought to be a health-promoting elixir, even a gift from the gods. Cacao was also believed to be nourishing and to contain aphrodisiac qualities. Thus, the consumption of cacao was integral to Mayan culture: the food was often consumed in religious ceremonies, marriage celebrations, medicinal practices, and also used as currency  (Lippi 2009). I argue in this blog post that by examining how cacao was prepared/consumed and the artifacts left behind depicting cacao usage, cacao was both consumed very differently than how we think of chocolate today and also held deep significance at the time to the Mayan civilization.

So how exactly did the Mayans consume cacao?  It is not exactly how we think of chocolate today–or even hot chocolate (which is closer to how the Mayans consumed cacao; chocolate bars were only created in the last couple of centuries). We think of hot chocolate today as being enjoyed hot, sweetened, and with milk—but almost none of these things are true of how it was prepared by the Mayans. Mayan “xocolatl”–which means “bitter water” and is part of the source of the word “chocolate”‘s etymological roots–was served lukewarm, spicy, and bitter (Burill).

Here’s a closer examination of what producing Mayan xocolatl entails: according to scholarship (such as Coe and Coe’s The True History of Chocolate (2000)), Mayans would open cacao pods and leave them to ferment over a period of three to six days. In some circumstances, the beans were cooked over a fire, although this was not always the case. Then, after the husks were removed, the Mayans would grind them into a paste using a metate, a ground stone tool used for processing seeds and grains. This paste would then be used in conjunction with other flavoring elements—such as flowers, vanilla, cornmeal, or chilli—and mixed together, back and forth between two vessels at room temperature until they began frothing (Coe and Coe 2000). By transferring the mixture repeatedly between two pots, the flavors would mesh and the top layer would be covered by a thick foam (The Field Museum 2007).  

An image of a metate, a tool used to grind cacao
A YouTube video demonstrating usage of a metate to grind cacao

This is clearly very different from how we currently conceive of today’s hot chocolate. Interestingly, when the Spaniards conquered Mesoamerica, they actually did not like its taste in its original form. Jose de Acosta, a Spanish missionary in Mexico in the 16th century, described consuming cacao as an unpleasant experience:

“Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this chocolate. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that “chili”; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh.” (Exploratorium Magazine 2020).

While we know little about the Mayans, we do know chocolate was incredibly important to them. According to Coe and Coe, in 1996, a tomb in now-Guatemala contained seven large cylindrical containers with hieroglyphs corresponding to cacao. The insides of these vases were sent to anthropological labs where they tested positive for cacao beverages. Moreover, residue analysis from several different Mayan tombs in Mesoamerica demonstrate the pervasiveness of cacao: caffeine and theobromine—both elements largely specific to cacao—were found on various surfaces and in the containers found inside tombs and graves. Most of these also had hieroglyphs (Coe and Coe 2000). The fact that these were in tombs of the wealthy demonstrate how integral they were to society.

Cacao also had religious significance to the Mayans. In fact, the Mayans even had a cacao god called Ek Chuah and developed an annual festival to honor him (Jean 2018). Further, in depictions of religious creation, such as the Fejérváry-Mayer, Codex (seen below), cacao pods and trees are often present.

The Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, an ancient Mayan document that shows cacao pods used in religious rituals.

Thus, the way the Mayans consumed cacao is very different than how we think of hot chocolate today. While both were liquids, Mayan xocolatl did not have milk, it was spicy and bitter rather than sweet, and it was served at room temperature. Moreover, I hope to have shown that not only was it prepared differently, but it was also perceived differently in Mayan culture: it was a significant cultural artifact–so much so that it was brought with people into their tombs–as well as holding significance in religious traditions and beliefs. In a broader sense, studying Mayan xocolatl also demonstrates how food can be an integral lens in understanding cultures of societies.

Works Cited:

Burrill, Amanda. “Drink History: ‘Hot’ Chocolate.” The Epoch Times, 27 Feb. 2019, http://www.theepochtimes.com/drink-history-hot-chocolate_2792570.html.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2000.

“History of Chocolate.” The Field Museum, 2007, archive.fieldmuseum.org/chocolate/history.html.

Jean, Julie St. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica – HeritageDaily – Archaeology News.” Heritage Daily, 7 Feb. 2018, http://www.heritagedaily.com/2018/02/medicinal-and-ritualistic-uses-for-chocolate-in-mesoamerica-2/98809.

Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate and Medicine: Dangerous Liaisons?” Nutrition, vol. 25, no. 11-12, 2009, pp. 1000–1113.

Mark, Joshua J. “Maya Civilization.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 6 July 2012, http://www.ancient.eu/Maya_Civilization/.

“The Sweet Lure of Chocolate.” Exploratorium Magazine, 2020, http://www.exploratorium.edu/exploring/exploring_chocolate/choc_3.html.

The Rich Yet Dark History of Chocolate: The Socioeconomic Implications of Slavery in the Cacao Growing Industry

Child Labor in Côte d’Ivoire: the dark side of chocolate

When the majority of us think about chocolate, our mind races to the sweet taste as we bite into a brownie just out of the oven, or the delicate melting of a Hershey’s kiss on our tongues, or maybe even the memories and feelings the aroma of chocolate invoke in us from special moments past. Chocolate is a seemingly universal sign of love and loss, a way in which we can transcend cultural barriers and be united under a common fondness of the sweet, buttery delicacy we know as chocolate.

However, while chocolate has a rich history dating back to the Olmecs (1500 BCE- 400 BCE), possible ancestors of the Mayans, the lineage of the first cacao beverage to the chocolate we consume today is more bitter than sweet. The story is characterized by the forced labor, slavery, and death of millions of indigenous peoples. In order to fully comprehend the role of slavery in the chocolate industry and the ways in which it has created both social and economic consequences, it is necessary to outline the basics of the plant itself as well as go back to the beginning of the cultivation of cacao to see how it came to be the global phenomenon it is today. 

Cacao beans, and, consequently, chocolate, grow on the tree called theobroma cacao. Grown best in very humid and high-temperature conditions, the geographic centers of diversity for this plant are what is modern Central and South America (Martin, Lecture 1). Large pods grow on the trunks of the tree and contain beans which are then processed to produce cacao “nibs” which are then made into chocolate. First, the seeds are fermented, then dried, after roasted, and finally winnowed. At this point, there is now a cacao liquor (Coe, 1996).

Cacao represented in the Mayan Madrid Codex

Cacao existed centuries before Europeans laid their hands, or taste buds, on it. The Mayans (1500 BCE) considered cacao to be very multifaceted, with evidence that they used it in medicinal, religious, and social contexts. The image above shows how this “food of the gods” was represented in Mayan culture (Madrid Codex), by highlighting the prominence of the good in social life as well as displaying the hieroglyphic for the word kakaw, the source of the Spanish “cacao.” The Aztecs (1200 CE) also played an important role with cacao, one of the biggest being the shift we see in how “the presence of cacao beans—mentioned by the chronicler Diaz del Castillo (1495-1583)—in the stalls of the great market of Tlatelolco, the central market of the city of Mexico Tenochtitlan, seems to indicate a more generalized usage among the population, at least on special occasions” (Orellana et. al. 2011).

The “discovery” of chocolate by Europeans in Mesoamerica created the biggest shifts in terms of intensification of production and the commodification of the object. There was a need for cheap and plentiful labor in order to cultivate and produce chocolate for consumption and profit, thus we see a transition from the prior system of encomienda (first image below), a corrupt labor system under the Spanish Crown in American colonies which “led to extreme demographic collapse and usurpation of indigenous land in Central and South America” (Martin, Lecture 5), to that of African slave labor (second image below). “These slaves were often traded for cacao beans that Portuguese slave ships could then transport to New Spain or re-sell (for a profit) on the black market of Dutch- or British-ruled Caribbean islands” (Orellana et. al. 2011).

From 1500 to 1900, 10-15 million enslaved African people were transported across the Atlantic, to the Caribbean predominately, into chattel slavery, a system in which people are treated as the personal property of the owner and bought and sold as a commodity. But those are just the ones who survived. For every 100 who reached the colonies, 40 others died in the brutal transport known as the “Middle Passage.” This practice of taking Africans from their land for free labor resulted in the demise of the population of Africa in half by the year 1800 (Martin, Lecture 5).  

Cacao and sugar are two very interconnected goods, intertwined through shared deep and disturbing histories. This allows us to draw on the workings of other experts, such as Sydney Mintz in his book “Sweetness and Power” to understand cacao and the sociopolitical economic factors in play better. For example, he writes, “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of the system was sugar” (Mintz, 1985).

It is important that we are conscientious of the fact that, every time we bite into the sweet chocolate we so know and love, it is traced with the dark history of pain, greed, and destruction of human lives. Equally important, if not even more urgent, is that we acknowledge the child labor and forced labor still present today in many cacao growing regions of the world and that we don’t become complacent within this capitalistic system which prioritizes profits over human life. 

The video embedded below is a segment from an investigation by 16×9 entitled “Child Labor: The Dark Side of Chocolate.” The clip illustrates the crushing poverty and endemic use of child labor in Ghana while highlighting the importance of fair trade and holding corporations accountable for finding ethical sources of cacao beans for their chocolate products. 

This video goes to show, we must unwrap the pretty gold foil that covers the bitter, dark reality of chocolate and work to mitigate the historical injustices present in the industry as well as be mindful of the ways in which we, as consumers, can act today to improve the conditions in the future. Whether this is buying only fair trade chocolate or advocating for chocolate mega-companies to do better, we have the power to change the narrative, or maybe recipe, in this case, to a sweeter one. 

Maybe it’s time we view chocolate not as a guilty pleasure because it breaks your latest diet or because its taste is so sweet it seems sinful. But instead, because, with every bite we take, we are helping support an industry not only created through the exploitation of indigenous and African people, but that is still sustained even today, in 2020, by this type of unjust labor system.

If we ever want to be able to enjoy a chocolate chip cookie without a pang of guilt for the crimes against humanity committed, we must work to create a more equitable chocolate industry. We can eat dark chocolate, but not without acknowledging the dark history of the socioeconomic reverberations of slavery which still continue in many forms today. 

Works Cited

Children Sold to Plantation Owners Form Part of Worldwide Supply Chains in the Making of Chocolate. SomeOfUs.org.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food” Lecture, Cambridge, MA, 2020.

Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe, “The True History of Chocolate” (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996)

Madrid Codex: “Chaak  [The Mayan rain deity] and Lady Earth are given their cacao.”

Margarita de Orellana et. al., “Chocolate: Cultivation and Culture in pre-Hispanic Mexico,” in Artes de México 103 (2011): 65-80.

Martin, Carla. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal” Lecture, Cambridge, MA, 2020.

Spanish conquistadors torturing Native Americans. Print Collector/Getty Images

West Africans transported to the coast to be sold into slavery. Wikimedia Commons.

Mintz, Sidney W. “Sweetness and Power” 1985
[16x9onglobal]. (2012, August 13). Child Labour: The Dark Side of Chocolate. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXWFXeIZY9g

Historical Parallels in European Sugar and Mesoamerican Cacao Consumption

Chocolate as we know it contains two core ingredients: cacao and sugar. Their flavors are drastically different, one of which is astringent and bitter, and one of which is sweet. Though processing, mixing, and tasting, these two ingredients have become inseparable in our minds. Just as the two seemingly unrelated crops have come together in taste, the historical narrative of how they became so widespread and loved in the world have interesting parallels, and likewise have come together through their role of symbolism, medicine, and how they both are powered by slavery. 


The earliest recorded history of cacao that survives today are from the Popol Vuh and the Dresden Codex. The Popol Vuh, translated as “the book of the people”, refers to cacao frequently, indicating cacao’s strong presence, and the Dresden Codex similarly often refers to cacao, usually in the form Mayan gods consuming it. The containers for cacao beverages were richly decorated with important scenes, which further demonstrates the significance of cacao.

The Opossum god is carrying the Rain God on his back, with the text “cacao is his food” in the Dresden Codex

The significance of cacao within Mayan civilization also extends to marriage rituals and rites of death. In the latter, cacao was dyed red to symbolize blood, and allowed the soul to be energized for its journey to the underworld.

The symbolic role of cacao is not limited to the Mayans, but was also prevalent among the Aztecs. Bernadino de Sahagun, a Franciscan friar, documented the Aztec court life. He described cacao as an elite food, where cacao beverages were consumed primarily by the elite or warriors. Similarly, they also saw cacao to be ritualistically significant, often using cacao as offerings to deities. 

As sugar was gaining popularity among the rich in Europe, it was often used as a form of decoration. It became a trend to make sculpted artwork with sugar to display for guests. This was a way to provide attractive food and, like Mayan and Aztec elites, to show off their status (Mintz, 88). In such events, the hosts and guests would then work their way through eating these sculptures. Though there is no outright “ritualistic” view of sugar, these events were, in a way, a ritual performed by those with money. However, instead of worshipping a higher being, sugar was used to celebrate what people valued: power. Sugar and cacao both came to take on greater meaning than just their physical value, and were a way of showing power, and for the Mayans and Aztecs, a way of honoring the gods they worshipped. 


According to archaeological evidence, both the ancient Mayans and Aztecs had medicinal uses for cacao. It was used to treat ailments related to digestion, as an anaesthetic, and for anti-inflammatory purposes. This is most explicitly shown in the Aztec Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams, where cacao is depicted with unhealthy bodies with various diseases as a medicine. Since illness was usually attributed to the gods, precious cacao was thought to be a suitable treatment for skin issues, fevers, poison, lung problems, and more. 

Images of unhealthy bodies

As sugar became more widely available in Europe, it too took on a medicinal role. It was used to break fevers, coughs, and treat stomach disease. Even during the Black Death, sugar was proposed as a remedy. Some have suggested that sugar as a medicine may have come from the idea of crushing precious stones of privilege; similar to cacao in Mesoamerica, people in Europe are consuming something precious as a way of treating their ailments. (Mintz 99)

It is especially interesting to note that today’s society paints sugar as “bad”, because of the chronic health issues that stem from eating too much sugar. Whereas cacao, or dark chocolate, has become increasingly touted as “healthy”, as it contains antioxidants, and is used as an aphrodisiac. While it doesn’t hold the same value as a medicine today, it is fascinating to see how sugar and cacao have gone from both being “medicinal” to complete opposites of each other.


The rise and spread of cacao and sugar allows the developed world today to enjoy chocolate bars, cakes, and more, but with it came the rise in slavery. For cacao, it began with the encomienda system, instituted by the Spanish upon the native populations in the Americas. The natives were coerced into producing cacao for the Spanish, but because of harsh working conditions, the native population was no longer enough to sustain production. This led to forced labor by African slaves from the Transatlantic slave trade. (Coe and Coe, 110) As it’s popularity in Europe rose, where nobles began to take to the flavor, so did slavery. 

The transatlantic slave trade visualized in 2 minutes

Sugar began independent of cacao, but it’s eventual tie to cacao and tea later served to intensify the use of slavery. The history of sugar production is deeply rooted in history since the 1300s (Mintz, 29). As a result of rising popularity, there was a demand increased production of sugar in Europe. The Portugese and and Spanish set their sights on the Atlantic islands, and created powerful sugar industries built on slave labor. 

They supplied most of Europe with their sugar. Later, England’s colonization of Barbados in 1627 began a shift in English tastes (Mintz, 37). From 1750 to 1850, sugar in the UK began to become less of a luxury and more of a necessity, and they had begun to import Portugese sugar to keep up with demands (Mintz, 148). Simultaneously, slaves were constantly being imported for labor. 

Although they began separated, sugar and cacao have been historically together in their narratives in both their uses and production, and, in the modern day, their consumption. While cacao and sugar no longer hold the same symbolic or medicinal value as they did before, slavery in the production of both is still a pressing issue today, and we must consider where we put our money. Haute cuisine in particular, where producers are marketing the flavor rather than the production, should focus more on how they can use sugar and cacao to promote more ethical consumption. (Martin and Sampeck, 53)

Works Cited

Bouie, Jamelle. “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes”, uploaded by Slate on 12, Aug 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKo-_Xxfywk

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

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in modern History. New York, Penguin Books, 1986

Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York, Thames and Hudson, 1996.

The Ritual Uses of Chocolate

            For 16th-century Mesoamericans, specifically Mayans on the Yucatán peninsula, chocolate played a substantial part in rituals and ceremonies including baptism and marriages. However, that was not the only way that Mayans incorporated chocolate into their lives. Before Europeans arrived and co-opted cacao for their own use and benefit, “cacao became the small coin in a monetizing economy” in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.[1]Cacao beans, or “happie money” as Milanese chronicler Peter Martyr termed it because it “groweth upon trees,” was exchanged for work and other goods like turkey hens, avocados, and tomatoes.[2]Now, the only time chocolate is used as a currency is when children trade chocolate bars for Skittles after a night of trick-or-treating. 

[1]Carla D. Martin and Kathryn E. Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” Socio.Hu, no. special issue 3 (2015): 40, https://doi.org/10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

[2]Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate(London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2019), 99.

This image shows the contents of an Aztec tribute collected from Soconusco. Much of the tribute was collected in cacao beans, shown here in sacks next to the jaguar skins.  Codex Mendoza (c. 1541) “CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods,” Cornell University Albert R. Mann Library, accessed March 8, 2020, http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php

Like cacao is no longer used as currency today, chocolate is not a part of baptisms, and is only a part of a marriage if a couple decides to have chocolate cake at their reception. However, the involvement of chocolate in Mayan ceremonies and rituals was a big part of what chocolate meant to Mayans.[3]Chocolate was not just consumed for enjoyment during these practices; it was assigned a certain spiritual meaning, a meaning which was lost when Europeans arrived and made the presence and cultivation of cacao as well as the making of chocolate in Mesoamerica more associated with trade and wealth than ritual.

            Mayans used cacao to “connect with the divine and distinguish themselves” in their rituals, including in their baptismal rite.[4]Bishop Landa, a Spanish Franciscan priest and bishop who lived amongst, learned about—and tortured—16th-century Mayans, included a description of this baptismal rite in his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán.[5]Having a baptismal rite at all was surprising to the Christian Landa because he had observed that the Mayans were pagan, but he observed nonetheless. What he observed was an intricate ceremony. The priest was “gorgeously arrayed,” the children were “gathered together inside a cord held by four elderly men representing the Chacs (rain men),” and the children were all anointed by the noble conducting the ceremony.[6]This liquid was made up of “certain flowers and of cacao pounded and dissolved in virgin water.”[7]Though it was a custom to drink chocolate, especially amongst wealthy or noble Mayans, the cacao used in the baptismal rite was not meant to be consumed at all. Its use here was simply spiritual and ritualistic. 

            The ethnohistory of Mayan civilizations show that cacao and chocolate were also used in Mayan betrothal and marriage ceremonies.[8]Coe and Coe’s A True History of Chocolateexplains that “when a Quiché Maya king was looking for a wife, his messenger was given… a vessel of beaten chocolate,” and at wedding banquets, a popular activity was chokola’jwhich means “drink chocolate together.”[9]The photo below, an illustration found in the Codex Nuttall, a pre-Columbian document containing native pictography, shows King 8 Deer, the groom, pointing to a cup of chocolate in the hands of his bride, Princess 13 Serpent.[10]The chocolate in the drawing is frothing, clearly beaten like Coe’s description mentions. Both Coe’s explanation of a Quiché Maya king and the Codex Nuttall illustration point to the use of drinking chocolate in Mayan wedding festivities. 

[3]Coe and Coe, 61.

[4]Coe and Coe, 61.

[5]“Codex Nuttall,” accessed March 8, 2020, https://library.si.edu/donate/adopt-a-book/codex-nuttall.

[6]Coe and Coe, 60.

[7]Kathryn E. Sampeck and Jonathan Thayn, “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism,” in Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, First edition. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017), 92.

[8]“Diego de Landa | Spanish Bishop,” in Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed March 8, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Diego-de-Landa; Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 60.

[9]Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 60.

[10]Coe and Coe, 60.

A groom points to a cup of chocolate in his bride’s hands in AD 1051. Found in the Codex Nuttall. Ed Whelan, “Failed Crops Caused Economic Crash for Mayan Chocolate Currency,” Text, accessed March 8, 2020, https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/crops-economic-crash-mayan-chocolate-currency-0010285.

Eric Thompson’s “Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Reports on the Chol Maya,” published in a 1938 edition of American Anthropologist, noted that “the form of the marriage is: the bride gives the bridegroom a small stool… and also gives him five grains of cacao, and says to him ‘These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband.’”[11]Cacao beans themselves, before being ground into chocolate liquor, were also, evidently, a part of Mayan marriage rituals. Although this use of cacao was more associated with currency because it resembles a dowry, it is also related to the betrothal process and therefore is ritualistic in nature. 

            Once Europeans arrived in Mesoamerica, they coopted the cultivation of cacao for trade purposes and chocolate became more and more separate from its original, spiritual state. When the Spanish first arrived to Mesoamerica, though, they “did not alter chocolate to the predilections of their palate,” and instead “sought to re-create the indigenous chocolate experience in America and in Europe.”[12]Early European chocolate recipes had similar flavor profiles as Mesoamerican ones, but with some added ingredients “acquired through trade or produced in Europe,” and Europeans embraced the native tools of chocolate beverage making, recreating them in copper and silver instead of wood.[13]However, as wealth from cacao cultivation grew, European began to be interested in chocolate as a drink “not because it was a curious food or drink, but because it was an engine of commerce.”[14]This idea of cacao and chocolate being an engine of commerce was reinforced when Europeans started to enslave Africans for cacao cultivation, a shift meant to bring in more profit in response to the shortage of native labor due to disease. At that point, “a new foodways regime that was predicated upon capitalism” was created.[15]Due to this strong association of chocolate and commerce, the association of chocolate and ritual diminished and mostly disappeared for producers as well as consumers. 

[11]J. Thompson, “Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Reports on the Chol Maya,” American Anthropologist40 (1938): 584–604 quoted in Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate(London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2019), 61.

[12]Marcy Norton, “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics,” The American Historical Review111, no. 3 (2006): 660, https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.111.3.660.

[13]Martin and Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” 42–43.

[14]Martin and Sampeck, 44.

[15]Martin and Sampeck, 45.

            Although our relationship with chocolate has strayed from Mesoamericans’ original ritualistic and spiritual associations, in large part due to the capitalistic hunger of early European settlers of the Mesoamerican region, there has been a recent movement to return to Mayan ceremonial uses. With a simple YouTube search, one can find many people, usually white women, explaining their experiences with what they call “cacao ceremonies.” In the video linked here, Ksenia Avdulova describes to her audience of 3.8K subscribers, and anyone else who googles “cacao ceremony,” how to “make ceremonial cacao at home and make it really a ritual that helps you connect with your heart that nourishes you not just physically but also energetically.”[16]

[16]WHAT IS CACAO CEREMONY | How To Create A Cacao Ritual, accessed March 10, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cG7bzsuGII0.

On the word “energetically,” Avdulova does spirit fingers and blows at the camera, seemingly trying to pass some kind of energy to her viewers, and includes a very stereotypically “tribal”-sounding music in the background to accompany these motions. Avdulova does not combine crushed cacao beans and flowers to anoint children or chokola’j with family members at a wedding feast, but instead uses a blender to blend “ceremonial cacao” with sea salt and cayenne to drink hot in the morning while holding her “favorite crystal” or “lighting sage.”[17]Though her idea of chocolate as ritual is very different and distanced from Mayan rituals, and is definitely cultural appropriation on some level, Avdulova, and many other people, are rediscovering the original ritualistic and spiritual meaning of cacao that started in 16th-century Mesoamerica that we as a society had strayed from long ago. 

[17]WHAT IS CACAO CEREMONY | How To Create A Cacao Ritual.


“CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods.” Cornell University Albert R. Mann Library. Accessed 

March 8, 2020. http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php

“Codex Nuttall.” Accessed March 8, 2020. https://library.si.edu/donate/adopt-a-book/codex-nuttall.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2019.

“Diego de Landa | Spanish Bishop.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed March 8, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Diego-de-Landa.

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

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review111, no. 3 (2006): 660–691. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.111.3.660.

Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” In Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, First edition., 72–95. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.

Thompson, J. “Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Reports on the Chol Maya.” American Anthropologist40 (1938): 584–604.

WHAT IS CACAO CEREMONY | How To Create A Cacao Ritual. Accessed March 10, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cG7bzsuGII0.

Whelan, Ed. “Failed Crops Caused Economic Crash for Mayan Chocolate Currency.” Text. Accessed March 8, 2020. https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/crops-economic-crash-mayan-chocolate-currency-0010285.

How the Evolution of Chocolate's Form Transcended Socioeconomic Divides

Chocolate’s Evolution

Walking into an average American supermarket, one would be able to find chocolate in several different aisles of the store. There may be chocolate croissants in the pastry section, solid chocolate bars in the candy area, and chocolate milk in the drink aisle. Cacao now takes on a multitude of forms and is widely accessible by people from across the globe and across socioeconomic classes. However, cacao used to only be affordable for elite circles and royalty and was simply served as a chocolate beverage.

Chocolate popularity has been able to spread from elite Europeans to broader audiences across social classes due to the changing form of chocolate. Cacao has been consumed in a variety of ways, ranging from as a liquid to as powder to as a solid block, and tracing the evolution of how the cacao bean has been used and taken shape over time can help illuminate how the ingredient has transcended socioeconomic divides.

Liquid Form

Cacao had its origin in Mesoamerica as a fine crafted drink; the beverage was mostly enjoyed by the nobility during the times of Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations. The liquid form of cacao was believed to have been consumed by the gods and thus was a sacred product in every aspect of elite Mayan culture. The drink was manually processed and typically flavored with ingredients native to the region, such as vanilla and achiote (Coe and Coe 61). The Mayan served cacao beverages at feasts as a display of wealth and power and even incorporated it into negotiations and political pacts (Leissle 30). Similarly, this elite drink was reserved solely for the nobility in the hierarchical Aztec society but served cold rather than hot (Coe and Coe 84). Cacao beans, consumed solely as a beverage among the Aztecs, were ground into a powder, mixed with water, and then poured from one vessel into another to obtain the sought after foamy texture (Coe and Coe 98). 

By 1519, European colonizers such as Hernán Cortés were introduced to cacao and exploited its potential for consumption by introducing it to Spanish royalty. Although the Spanish incorporated different spices such as sugar and cinnamon into the drink, the chocolate beverage remained a sign of luxury that only those with wealth and power could afford (Klein). The popular beverage soon spread to the elite families in France and England and in 1657, the first chocolate house opened in England. These houses provided the English elites with a place to discuss the most controversial political issues of the day and socialize over a cup of hot chocolate. To further establish the drink as exclusive to the upper class, the Europeans drank their chocolate from ornate dishes made from precious materials that are comparable to the embellished ceramic vessels that the Mayan and Aztec rulers had utilized. 

Vessels for cocoa / Съдове за какао
Mayan cacao drinking vessels
gilded two-handled chocolate beakers (1717 to 1720)
European gilded two-handled chocolate beakers
(From 1717 to 1720)

Powder Form

By the 18th century, chocolate was widely regarded as a luxurious good and it wasn’t until the early 19th century with the onset of the Industrial Revolution that it became accessible to the lower classes. In 1828, a Dutch chemist invented a cocoa press that revolutionized the way that Europe was able to produce and consume chocolate. The Van Houten press squeezed out the cocoa butter from roasted cacao beans, leaving behind a dry compact cake that could be pulverized into a fine powder that became known as “Dutch cocoa” (Coe and Coe 234). Such a separation allowed for the individual sale of cocoa powder on a mass scale and an improvement in chocolate’s consistency. The powder was incorporated into liquids to create a much cheaper version of the aristocrats’ chocolate beverage and gained popularity as a confectionary ingredient in a variety of other common recipes (Klein). The invention of the cocoa press and other mass production equipment during the Industrial Revolution thus greatly expanded the use of chocolate and significantly cut production costs to make it available to people across socioeconomic classes.

5 stage cocoa press
Houten’s mechanized hydraulic press
Cocoa Press (3)
The resulting cocoa press cake

Solid Form

While cocoa powder was able to mix with water and sugar to create relatively less expensive chocolate drinks and treats, cocoa butter (the other product of the cocoa press) was also able to make chocolate more affordable for the masses. The cocoa butter was initially discarded and amounted to thirty percent wastage (Chrystal and Dickinson); Joseph Fry & Sons recognized that something productive had to be done and manufactured the first chocolate bar in 1847 by returning some of the cocoa butter to their chocolate drink mix to create a paste that could be moulded (Coe and Coe 241). In 1879, Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine which further lowered the cost of producing chocolate goods; the machine refined and mixed together cocoa powder, cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and dried milk to create a solid chocolate bar that was less expensive and had a smoother texture than that made by Fry & Sons (Presilla 29). When the conching technique was integrated into factory assembly lines during the Industrial Revolution, chocolate bars were able to be produced more affordably on a mass scale, expanding the international accessibility of chocolate. The key ingredient to cheap production was sugar. According to Sidney Mintz, author of Sweetness and Power, sugar developed in parallel to chocolate in that it was a rarity in the 1600s, a luxury by the mid-1700s, and ultimately a staple in Western diet by the mid-1800s (Mintz 78). As the increase in slave labor lowered the price of sugar in the 19th century, the ingredient made its way into more recipes, particularly into chocolate bar recipes as sugar is less expensive than cocoa. 

With this new form of solid chocolate, people have been able to consider different ways to make the bar even more affordable. Milton Hersey had experimented extensively with remaking solid chocolate and found that adding a considerable amount of condensed sweetened skim milk to the mixture could create chocolate with a longer shelf life and smoother texture; his relatively cheaper chemical mixture of ingredients was instrumental in delivering chocolate to even more people (D’Antonio 108). Mars was inspired by Hersey’s innovative approach to the chocolate formula and created the Milky Way bar (which uses Hersey’s chocolate) to create a nougat that was similar in taste to but much less expensive than traditional chocolate bars (Brenner 54-55). Both Hersey and Mars were thus able to innovate upon traditional solid chocolate formulas to bring down costs and share chocolate with the masses.

Process of grinding and conching cocoa 
Hershey's Mr. Goodbar POP, ca.1930
Hershey Chocolate’s Mr. Goodbar advertisement from 1930. It was sold to the masses for cheap prices.


Chocolate has undergone many transformations since its origin as a cacao bean. It began in the liquid form as a type of frothy beverage exclusively for the elite in Mesoamerica and Europe. As the Industrial Revolution took place, new inventions allowed chocolate to transform into a powder that could be made in bulk and used as a confectionary ingredient among the masses. Technological inventions in the years after then reconstructed chocolate into the form of a solid and chocolate makers have continued to develop new recipes and techniques for creating solid chocolate that tastes better and costs less to produce. As such, as chocolate has evolved over time to take different forms, so has its consumer base to mirror the growing popularity and accessibility of the good. From liquid to solid and from royal courts to supermarkets, the evolution of how chocolate can be consumed has allowed it to transcend socioeconomic divides.

Works Cited:

Brenner, Joël G. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World on Hershey and Mars. Broadway Books, 2000.

Chrystal, Paul and Joe Dickinson. History of Chocolate in York. South Yorkshire: Remember When, 2012.

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

D’Antonio, Michael D. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

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

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2001.

Multimedia Sources:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/mitko/2213221302/in/photolist-4nzme3-t8L5T-GSvSxv-BSJzZ4-7iwD3k-a5vdvS-j3aNNG-26pYAVs-6aorW7-4nzkzY-j3aLVT-4nvgbB-j38Vgd-4nzjh3-j3ePJw-pghG36-xYeyQ provided the image of the Mayan cacao drinking vessels

https://www.flickr.com/photos/sftrajan/16293258758/in/photolist-tMAaHr-tMp1d6-urBfGu-VJyyts-bWDP85-uJhJuB-tMgBdo-4aBRiv-urKCcC-tMhhcW-tMnaRi-urKL4a-W4RTe7-urDRkW-oompvs-4aMTii-oEzRn1-2cRp1pC-2bCcUyv-xfKVbn-bXuK5J-2aahmmQ-eCkRku-WejGdW-WbLGim-VZki5E-WbLH4j-wXGBeB-xfKVG2-VZkiyq-WbLHEu-2btCvR6-dXsMVL-2bLBtTT-f1Ub3W-wwLTDg-eY2KwR-boKNqs-Nu7Sit-koY1Jd-qPMdbs-7k2sd9-adsFfm-GSk8RS-aT4r6M-icT7jy-9n6wNw-ysp2vh-yGGmQ7-MugYKm provided the image of the European chocolate beakers

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dghchocolatier/8432942639/in/photolist-dRc33K-aQEuPp-dzBtoe-8QXVCB-8R5tLt-di1Wck-xgzo3D-2hv7qhL-eioLo4-659C43-2gWtJg7-6RTBXR-JLP7WU-9pwbPc-9zwaZ2-2irFRt2-rQ1TmC-6rc4zA-69aQa7-4zMFyG-ascr4Y-ascqqQ-dRFFwx-8R1YbN-a1MCpc-8369Q2-3S4Xbf-c7H78U-c7B8uj-23wynFg-23NUdrN-GKU6cu-ascenu-p6rqxG-FeC2ST-24TEHmP-pnVFHg-24TEJSV-24TG5Et-228KTDS-6obUYx-24TEHZx-228KTu3-FeBUwR-FeBTLn-GKU6xj-24PYoGd-24TG4Pk-24TG8DK-228KTpU provided the image of Houten’s mechanized hydraulic press

https://www.flickr.com/photos/136051124@N02/36268614934/in/photolist-XfW8D9-YwJHuX-9V2qVT-nQES2-RBfPzK-2g3BcFM-fSmgjw-x4YpZ-aecxqE-9VDeoP-9QwfyD-8UNJBB-7h8Kay-2hbsRMs-9u7AQ-R6xSsM-8kK6vc-bruxVr-ipVbCC-abNDZd-wjy6iY-8uUhCQ-eiQWPD-bn3EZ2-2f9wnFo-rDjXyo-5RJ7Vs-kPEf-aR9Ysp-2efU1cb-aYSB9r-7MGoe1-awK3b7-9VVHno-7EGXvk-aYiMop-942MEu-7h5md8-CANmYy-7LNXzM-228WC7S-rGij2E-95Rc3E-228WBYf-23aUwXL-9DfBam-4h1RdE-LKBnf7-956DrY-4aorzE provided the image of the cocoa press cake

https://youtu.be/Sg7d7dqZ01U provided the video of cocoa being ground and conched

https://www.flickr.com/photos/26307193@N02/4680253654/in/photolist-88zwmw-88zwuU-88whJ2-73YZfn-VZH83L-baSsQB-88whBg-BVwVF1-88whBK-88whGx-Kandtg-x8pj2Y-aqc6QH-9AdkNM-9CiNVk-9CkjMS-9Ag3EC-cENXtu-nQdpd-9Ad6ax-QLq7uG-JidGHe-QfGZ1S-27F7yWt-qKfz2f-8H2Rac-bVdWPA-2axhNCv-a1TWhV-4yfBa2-6yYHyS-5Bqc7k-rrBZS5-NG5KzV-N4xKwU-BdfckK-9AdknT-9Ad5W2-9sXJWM-2bZrHao-HNpaJo-27gGuzL-9AfZ8f-Z5DRNs-22Wyd5n-VRQjXr-9Agi6G-TDy8AU-9AdkyM-9Ad6dV provided the image of Mr. Goodbar’s advertisement from 1930

Chocolate and Sugar: Medicinal Roots and Evolution to Kitchen Staples

When we think of chocolate and sugar, the first words that usually pop into our heads are ones like “sweetness”, “indulgence”, and “love”. However, rarely do we ever think about them in the context of medicine, but the historical associations of chocolate and sugar with healing disease are critical in understanding their popularity in the modern era. Examining the history of chocolate and sugar as medicinal substances shows that the European obsession with perceived therapeutic qualities of both allowed for their popularization and eventual exploitative systems that persist to present day. The versatility of chocolate and sugar allowed it to remain widely sought after in Europe and led to their natural development into staple commodities.

Chocolate was commonly used for therapeutic purposes in its early days of consumption
(Source: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/healers-once-prescribed-chocolate-aspirin-180954189/)

Mesoamerican societies such as the Mayans, Olmecs, and Aztecs all consumed cacao and it had great value as medicine. Helen Thompson of the Smithsonian Magazine explains that Mayan “patients consumed a cacao-based concoction to treat skin rashes, fever and seizures” following ceremonial chants. A translated version of a Mayan ceremonial chant with mention of cacao can be found here: http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/grammar/section32.html. She also details how Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagún noted that the Aztecs “brewed a drink from cacao and silk cotton tree bark (Castilla elastica) to treat infections,” another indication that cacao was popular in medicinal contexts. As Europeans began to encounter Mesoamerican civilization, there was great fascination with the medicinal properties of cacao. Thompson uses the example of a Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma who in 1631 writes that cacao “provokes urine, cures the stone, and expels poison, and preserves from all infection disease” (Thompson 2015). Spanish physician Agustin Farfán in his book, Tratado breve de medicina y de todas las enfermedades que a cada passo se ofrecen describes the use of cacao as medicine, and this served as an influential piece of work for European cacao consumption (Martin 2020, Lecture 3). Similar accounts can be consistently found throughout European writings about cacao and the Aztec civilization. To those living in Europe without having direct contact with the people preparing and consuming cacao, the only source of information about cacao was through these writings.

Agustín Farfán’s “Tratado breve de medicina y de todas las enfermedades que a cada passo se ofrecen
Source: (https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/exvotos/guidesespanol.html)

Upon arrival in Europe, cacao was viewed and used as a therapeutic food modeling the practices of the Aztecs. Michael and Sophie Coe write that the to the Spanish, cacao was “a drug, medicine, in the humoral system to which they all adhered” (Coe and Coe 2013, 126). The prevailing medical science of the day was Galen’s humoral theory that posited that the four humors had qualities of being hot, cold, wet, or dry. Substances were treated similarly, and cacao was argued to have cold and dry qualities that could help to treat hot diseases (Lippi 2013). This medical association of cacao was critical to its longevity in Europe that allowed it to develop into a common food and kitchen staple. As cacao persisted around European society, there was more time for experimentation and creation of recipes that slowly allowed for the transition from cacao as medicine to cacao as food. As people began to discover chocolate recipes that were highly palatable and marketable, the focus shifted to making it something accessible to all of European society. It has now grown to become an important cultural symbol for sweetness and delicacy, and an incredibly profitable market that has little association with medical properties. However, if not for the initial medical applications of cacao, it is difficult to envision that cacao would have been around long enough for it to evolve into what it has become.

The story of sugar’s introduction into European societies is similar. Mintz explains that one of sugar’s primary uses in its early days in Europe was as a medicine and says that, “white sugar was commonly prescribed in medicines, and combinations of white foods at times enjoyed a popularity out of all proportion to their therapeutic efficacy” (Mintz 1985, 87). This use as a medicine was not serendipitous, but rather a replication of African and Arabic practices. Mintz details how sugar’s “medical utility had already been firmly established by physicians of the time…and it entered slowly into European medical practice via Arab pharmacology” (Mintz 1985, 80). Though sugar was also being used as a spice and as a sweetener, it was not the only ingredient that was prevalent at the time. In fact, Mintz highlights that for a long time, sugar was a commodity only enjoyed by the wealthy and elite of society. Given this information, one must question whether sugar could have stayed as relevant and popular if not for the fact that it was perceived to have medicinal properties. The common prescription of sugar as a medicine allowed it to permeate through the upper class, and it became a critical ingredient in recipes. Both cacao and sugar underwent progressions from rare, highly prized medical commodities to common culinary staples that we cannot envision society without.

The great irony here is that modern research has shown excessive consumption of chocolate and sugar can have serious health consequences. Studies have shown that sugar is a key contributor to and a risk factor for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (Harvard Health Publishing 2017). Doctors and health professionals generally call for a reduction in sugar and chocolate intake, but 17th and 18th century Europeans would be shocked at the transformation in the perception of cacao and sugar for health. The popularity of chocolate and sugar in contemporary society has blossomed to the point that the evidence for negative health consequences will not be a driving force for its demise if it were to ever come. It is important to recognize, though, that the perceived therapeutic effect of both foods was critical in their popularization. Along with it came the consequences of exploitative practices, and as consumers today, we must question if the apparent health benefits of food outweigh the potential abuses that may come with its production and consumption.

Excessive sugar consumption can have serious health consequences
(Source: https://www.deltadentalco.com/sugarydrinks.aspx)

References/Works Cited

Bolles, David, and Alejandra Bolles. “A Grammar of the Yucatecan Mayan Language.” Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Inc. Accessed March 7, 2020. http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/grammar/section32.htm.

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

Harvard Health Publishing. “The Sweet Danger of Sugar.” Harvard Health, May 2017. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar.

Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food.” Nutrients. MDPI, May 14, 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3708337/.

Martin, Carla. “Lecture 3: Chcocolate Expansion.” Lecture 3: Chcocolate Expansion. February 12, 2020.

“Milagros De Todos Los Días: A Principios Guías Médicas En La Nueva España.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health, July 17, 2013. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/exvotos/guidesespanol.html.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York, NY: Viking, 1985.

“Sugary Drinks Can Harm Your Health.” Sugary Drinks & Oral Health | Delta Dental of Colorado. Accessed March 7, 2020. https://www.deltadentalco.com/sugarydrinks.aspx.

Thompson, Helen. “Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, February 12, 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/healers-once-prescribed-chocolate-aspirin-180954189/.

A Mestizo Tradition in Cacao: The Introduction and Incorporation of Molinillos

The history of chocolate mirrors the history of mestizaje from Mesoamerica to modern-day Mexico and Central America, with the contemporary product serving as the result of both Mesoamerican and Spanish influences. Even the production of authentic, ancient, or traditional Mesoamerican cacao beverages and chocolate are infused with post-colonial influences, from the addition of new ingredients to entirely new techniques for crafting chocolate. Of these, the introduction of the molinillo, now considered a staple component in crafting traditional Mexican chocolate, represents the culmination of indigenous and Spanish techniques.

Pre-Conquest Mesoamerican Chocolate

Cacao was harvested and consumed as early as the Olmec civilization, with cacao originating from their word for currency, ka-ka-w [1]. The Mayans adopted cacao into their respective civilization–for consumption, as legal tender, and for rituals.

Cacao was essential for social, physical, and spiritual well-being, regarded for its medicinal, spiritual, and aphrodisiac qualities. The Mayan would prepare the batidos and other hot chocolate beverages from the ground cacao pulps. They were also used for arranging marriages, with the term tac haa, “to serve chocolate,” commonly used to describe the discussions in which they would determine marriages while drinking chocolate. Mixtec went a step further, using “cacao” as a phrase for royal marriage [2]. For the Aztecs, only the elites and wealthy consumed it because it couldn’t grow in Mexico, so they had to transport it 900 miles on their back [3].

Aztec sculpture holding a cacao pod.

Early pre-Columbian religious references to cacao are also prevalent in both Mayan and Aztec artifacts, with the Popol Vuh ascribing cacao with godly qualities and the Dresden Codex featuring cacao throughout, including consumption by the gods [4]. Likewise, in the Madrid Codex, Aztecs believed that cacao beans were the physical manifestation of Quetzalcoatl [5]. Other religious depictions included:

  • Cacao in fertility rites, with Ixchel and the rain god exchanging cacao.
  • Cacao tree depictions of royal bloodlines, with deities emerging from cacao trees with pods and flowers to symbolize their royal blood [6].

Figure: Aztec statue holding a cacao pod.

“Chocolate for the body; foam for the soul.”

Meredith Dreiss, Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods [7]

The foam produced was of special religious importance, with the foam seen as the most sacred part of the drink [8]. With this reverence toward the froth, the molinillo, as the instrument used to facilitate easier production of the froth, would also be revered and would become deeply intertwined in the chocolate-making process.

Molinillo in Mesoamerica? The Spanish Arrive

Many would expect that the Mayans and Aztecs used molinillos, since they are now regarded as crucial instruments when crafting authentic traditional chocolate beverages, but in fact, the molinillo was most likely introduced by the Spanish, possibly during the 16th century. While it is true that pre-Columbian texts mentioned turtle/tortoise shell stirring spoons and stirrers, there were no mentions of molinillos in pre-Columbian texts. Moreover, it was noticeably absent from the first Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary in 1571 [9].

Some of the possible confusion could stem from anachronistic depictions of the molinillo, such as the one below:

 “The artist has misunderstood the use of the metate [curved cacao grinding stone], and has mistakenly included the post-Conquest molinillo. (From J. Ogilby, America, London, 1671.) 

Instead, they used “small, hemispherical bowls” as drinking and mixing vessels, made with materials ranging from ceramics, to decorated calabash gourds (Crescentia cujete tree), to gold (huei tlatoani). Foam was created by pouring chocolate repeatedly between drinking vessels to produce the foam [10].

Left: 6-9th century Mayan ceramic vessel, Guatemala  | right: 7-8th century Mayan ceramic vessel, Mexico
Mayan woman producing foam via pouring technique

It wasn’t until 1780, when Jesuit Francesco Saverio Clavigero, mentioned the molinillo but not the traditional method of pouring the beverage to produce foam [11].

Molinillo: The Basics

The molinillo, a kitchen tool used to froth hot chocolate beverages, is a carved, handcrafted wooden stick, with a slender handle at one end and a knob at the other [12]. Its name is derived from its circular shape and its motion when used for producing foam resembling that of a molino (windmill) [13]. Each molinillo is unique and varies in size depending on the amount of beverage to be produced. The first iterations involved a simple ball or square at the end of a long handle. However, these soon were adapted to better facilitate frothing. Modern molinillos are crafted from a single block of wood, forming a slender wooden “whisk” with a long tapered handle and a carved knob with rings and other movable parts on the other end [14].

Each molinillo is unique, and the basic design can be flourished with details such as colored accents or ivory pieces, as well as square tops instead of rounded [15].

Molinillo with Color Accents
Molinillo with Squarish Top

Using a Molinillo

Frothing hot chocolate beverages with a molinillo is straightforward. Simply put, the slender handle is gripped between the palms, which are then rubbed together to rotate the carved knob back and forth. This motion grinds the chocolate discs used for the beverages against the pestle bottom of the drinking vessel [16], allowing the beverage to froth within a few minutes.

A Mexican Cook, “Using A Molinillo to Make Hot Chocolate.”

The motion is so simple, in fact, that the molinillo frothing process is even a popular rhyme among Mexican children and their teachers:

Bate, bate, chocolate,
tu nariz de cacahuate.
Uno, dos, tres, CHO!
Uno, dos, tres, CO!
Uno, dos, tres, LA!
Uno, dos, tres, TE!
Chocolate, chocolate!
Bate, bate, chocolate!
Bate, bate, bate, bate,
Bate, bate, CHOCOLATE![17]

Bate = Stir or whip
tu nariz de cacahuate = roughly "your peanut nose"
Uno, dos, tres = One, two, three

Crafting Molinillos

“Molinillo and chocolate depend on each other–one cannot exist without the other. “

Molinillos are carved from a single piece of wood rotating on an axis. Typically soft wood from trees like the aile mexicano (Alnus acuminata ssp. glabrata) are used for carving because they are odorless and flavorless as to not impact the flavor of the chocolate. The black sections of the molinillo are not painted; rather, the friction from the velocity of the wood spinning on the axis of the machine burns the wood a darker color, which the crafter then polishes. Once the base is completed with all the large grooves, all the smaller notch carvings (helpful for circulating the milk to increase frothiness) are completed by hand [18].

Molinillo Tradicional [Making a Molinillo from Wood]

Each molinillo is unique, and the basic design can be flourished with details such as colored accents or ivory pieces:

Artisanal Molinillo Crafting

For molinillo artisans in areas popular for their chocolate, such as 3rd generation crafter Jesus Torres Gomez, carving molinillos, among other wooden kitchen utensils, is both a skill and an artform, passed down for over 100 years as they continue to modify and perfect their craftsmanship. While he uses a motor to facilitate the rotation of the wood piece, all the carvings are completed by hand. He produces 3 types of molinillos:

  • Criollo, for making the foam for chocolate atole in the central valleys.
  • For making the foam for hot chocolate.
  • More elaborate item to serve as a decorative souvenir for tourists in Oaxaca (not meant to be used).

Similar to the more extravagant uses of chocolate and chocolate-producing equipment in Mesoamerica, these items are often also used for special events, including weddings and quinceañeras (coming of age celebration for 15th birthday) [19].

Jesus Torres Gomez, “Artesano de Molinillos”

Modern-Day Molinillos and “Authentic Recipes”

Contemporary molinillos serve more as a nostalgic artifact than a necessary tool for the average chocolate beverage consumer. For champurrado–traditional Mexican chocolate-based atole– and hot chocolate, recipes available online often include many modifications to traditional recipes, incorporating many ingredients not available to pre-Columbian Mesoamericans. For the thicker champurrado, they are often flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, anise, nutmeg, cloves, and other spices, as well as grated piloncillo (raw, undefined sugar cane)[20].

Likewise, they often include milk instead of water, and they are frothed with whisks or spoons. For “authentic Mexican hot chocolate” recipes, chocolate beverages are not strictly based on traditional Mayan or Aztec chocolate recipes; similar to the effect of molinillos on chocolate crafting, they combine indigenous and Spanish influences. However, molinillos are still incorporated into more traditional recipes, particularly Oaxacan hot chocolate, which uses water instead of milk and is whisked with a molinillo [21].


  • [1] Khan, Gulnaz. “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making.”
  • [2] Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’”
  • [3] Festa, Jessica. “Sweet Guatemala: A Look At The Country’s Mayan Chocolate History And Modern Experiences.”
  • [4] Martin, Carla D.
  • [5] De la Fuente del Moral, Fatima.
  • [6] Martin, Carla D.
  • [7] Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods.
  • [8] Martin, Carla D.
  • [9] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate.
  • [10] ibid
  • [11] ibid
  • [12] Edwards, Owen. “A Historic Kitchen Utensil Captures What It Takes to Make Hot Chocolate From Scratch.”
  • [13] CORTV. Jesús Torres Gómez artesano en molinillos.
  • [14] Bowman, Barbara. “Molinillo – Mexican Chocolate Whisk (Stirrer).”
  • [15] ibid
  • [16] “Molinillo: Hot Cocoa Frother | Mexico, Wooden Stick, Traditional Hot Chocolate Grinder, Frothing Stick, Molinillos.” UncommonGoods.
  • [17] Fain, Lisa. “Mexican Hot Chocolate and a Molinillo.”
  • [18] Cocinando con Rita. Molinillo Tradicional.
  • [19] CORTV.
  • [20] Rodriguez, Vianncy. “How to Make Champurrado.”
  • [21] “How to Make Authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate.” A Side of Sweet.

Works Cited

Multimedia Cited

———. Molinillo with Squarish Top. Gourmet Sleuth, Molinillo – Mexican Chocolate Whisk (Stirrer). Accessed May 16, 2019. https://www.gourmetsleuth.com/images/default-source/articles/molinillo-3.jpg?sfvrsn=2.

Chocolate: From Sheep Droppings to American Staple

Chocolate is arguably the most versatile candy in the United States. From cakes to brownies to fondues, Americans consume chocolate in a multitude of ways. Not only is chocolate extremely versatile, it is one of the most popular forms of candy in America. According to internal sales data examined by candystore.com, last year almost half (eleven to be exact) of the top 25 candies sold on Halloween in the United States were some form of chocolate. (Daily Meal 2018) However, this wasn’t always the case. English-speaking Europeans weren’t very impressed by cocoa beans upon first meeting. In fact, the first English and Dutch sailors to discover cocoa beans on a Spanish treasure ship threw them overboard, confusing the beans with sheep droppings. (Cadbury) So how did chocolate make the transition from sheep droppings to a staple American delicacy that is easily available to anyone? Let’s take a look at its long journey.

Cocoa beans are home to Central and South America, and is speculated to have been a central part of Olmec culture since as far back as 1500 B.C.. (History 2018) The Olmecs passed their knowledge of chocolate on to the Mayans, who primarily used it in drinks to make something most similar to what we know today as hot chocolate. Although cocoa was a central part of Mayan culture, it was available to pretty much everyone in society. The rich and the poor were able to enjoy hot chocolate as a delicacy. However, the Aztecs saw chocolate in a completely different light. To them chocolate was a gift from their gods and was only available to the lower class at celebrations like weddings. Because it came from the gods, chocolate was believed to have divine properties and was used in the most Sacred rituals in Aztec society such as birth, death, marriage and sacrifice. Chocolate was regarded so highly in the culture that Aztec ruler Montezuma II drank gallons of chocolate a day as an energy boost and an aphrodisiac, and also kept cocoa beans reserved for the military should they ever go to war. In Aztec culture, cocoa beans were more valuable than gold, and it is speculated that many European countries were first introduced to chocolate by the Aztecs.

There are differing stories about how and when chocolate first arrived in Europe, however most agree that chocolate arrived in Spain first. The Spanish took the Mayan recipe and added some of their own spices like cinnamon and cane sugar. Soon after arrival, hot chocolate became a popular commodity, and by 1585, Spain was importing chocolate into its ports.  As its popularity continued to soar in Spain, simultaneously other European countries were visiting parts of Central America and bringing cocoa beans back to their individual countries. By the 17th century, chocolate was a popular drink throughout much of Europe, though it was reserved for the upper class. Similar to the Mayans and Aztecs, Europeans believed chocolate had medicinal, nutritional and even aphrodisiac properties. Chocolate would remain exclusive to the upper-class until the late 1700s when the steam engine made mass production possible. As imperialism spread to the Americas, chocolate went with it. Chocolate arrived in the British colony Florida in the late 1690s and by 1773 it was available to all people in the American colonies. Like the Aztecs, Americans believed that chocolate was beneficial in war, and thus soldiers were rationed chocolate in the Revolutionary War. In fact, chocolate was so highly regarded, that it was often given to soldiers instead of actual wages.

There were a number of different factors that led to chocolate being able to be mass-produced at an affordable price, and in the different forms that we are familiar with today.  First and foremost, Imperialism played a major role in the spread of chocolate. As European countries attempted to conquer the Americas and spread their influence across the world, they came in contact with chocolate. Some historians believe that Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was the first to  discover chocolate when the Aztecs mistook him for a deity and welcomed him with a big feast where they served him large amounts of chocolate. (History 2018) This allowed him to bring the beans back to Spain, and aid in the spread of chocolate across Europe. A major breakthrough occurred in 1828 when a Dutch chemist discovered a way to make chocolate powder. (Fiegl 2008) His discovery paved the way for solid chocolate and the many different forms of chocolate that we are familiar with today. Later in the 1800s companies in Europe and America began making and selling different forms of chocolate candies. For the first time, chocolate became available to consume in different forms to everyone in society.  Another breakthrough, and perhaps most important was the creation of the steam engine. Before the steam engine, the process of creating chocolate was still very remedia, and hadn’t improved much from the formula used by the Aztecs. Before the introduction of the steam engine, grinding cacao beans into chocolate was a grueling process done by hand. It was inefficient to say the least. However, the steam engine allowed chocolate makers to make much larger quantities of chocolate. Joseph Storrs Fry was the first to buy a steam engine for chocolate production, and his success inspired others to do the same. (Coe and Coe 2013) As more people began streamlining their chocolate process, the price of chocolate also fell, which allowed all classes of people to enjoy it.  

Works Cited:

The Daily Meal, 2018. The 25 Most Popular Halloween Candies in America. https://www.thedailymeal.com/holidays/most-popular-halloween-candies-america-gallery

History.com, 2018. History of Chocolate.


Fiegl, A., 2008. A Brief History of Chocolate


Coe, Sophie D., Coe, Michael D., 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London. Image Citations:

Mostafa, H., 2016., Chocolate And Children’s Teeth And Gums https://www.gumsaver.co.uk/chocolate-and-childrens-teeth-and-gums/

World Kids, 2017., A Sweet (and not so sweet) History  


Johns, A., Spych, B., Kompler, C., Caruthers, D., Caruthers, D., & Green, R. (n.d.). James Watts Steam Engine, 2018. 18th Century Canvas Print https://fineartamerica.com/featured/james-watts-steam-engine-18th-century-dave-king–dorling-kindersley–science-museum-london.html?product=canvas-print