Tag Archives: mesoamerica

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 Holidays: Consumption and Gifting in Socio-Historical Context

The contemporary cacao-chocolate industry benefits greatly from seasonal sales surrounding major American holidays. In the U.S. market, Easter/Passover, Christmas/Hannukah, Halloween, and St. Valentine’s Day see large spikes in candy and chocolate sales. These contemporary patterns of chocolate purchasing and consumption are intimately bound to a broader historical and social context. By exploring associations between chocolate and each of these major candy-selling holidays, I analyze the legacies of colonialism, religious debates, gender stereotypes, and industrialization in modern consumption and gift-giving patterns.

The candy industry is a giant in the U.S. economy. Nielson (2015) reports that candy, including chocolate and non-chocolate products, is the third top-selling category among food and non-alcoholic beverage categories in America with $20.8 billion in sales in 2014. American consumers buy candy year-round, making up the majority of all candy dollar sales (Nielson 2015). However, seasonal candy sales are a fast-growing sector of the candy industry, increasing by 5.8% in 2014 (Nielson 2015). Nearly 20% of all annual candy sales in 2014 occurred during five top-selling holiday weeks (Nielson 2015). These top 5 holiday weeks are, in order of greatest to least candy sales: Easter/Passover, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Pre-Christmas/Hanukkah, and Christmas/Hanukkah (Nielson 2015). During each of these holiday seasons chocolate sales spike along with the sales of all candies. Chocolate is an illustrative example that sheds light on broader changes in consumption and underlying social meanings over time.

Winter Holidays and Hot Chocolate: A Colonial Legacy

The Judeo-Christian winter holidays of Christmas and Hannukah account for two of the top five weeks of all candy sales in the United States. Chocolate is an important part of these holidays. During Hannukah, traditional chocolate coins wrapped in gold and silver foil are gifted to children (Prichep 2014). During Christmas celebrations, people bake chocolate chip cookies for Santa Claus and exchange chocolates as gifts. Throughout the winter holidays, hot chocolate is a special treat. In the following clip from the Polar Express, a children’s Christmas movie, hot chocolate is associated with the Christmas holiday and is depicted as a childhood luxury.

Chocolate as a beverage has a long and complex history that highlights European colonialism. Chocolate is one preparation of the beans from the tree theobroma cacao. Cacao was first domesticated and consumed by Mesoamerican Olmec, Aztec, and Maya peoples (Coe and Coe 1996). For these indigenous Mesoamericans, cacao was a beverage, not a solid bar (Sampeck and Thayn 2017). The most treasured part of the cacao beverage was the foam, which was produced by pouring the beverage on high from one vessel to another and later by mixing with a molinillo (a colonial invention) (Coe and Coe 1996). The image below depicts a Maya woman pouring cacao to create foam as was common practice. Today, we still add foam to our hot chocolate in the form of marshmallows and whipped cream (Coe and Coe 1996, 49; Leissle 2018). Contrary to modern hot chocolate, cacao was sometimes consumed cold by the Mesoamericans (Coe and Coe 1996). Maya and Aztec elites also exchanged cacao as a gift in royal marriages, military victories, holiday ceremonies, and political negotiations (Leissle 2018). The history of chocolate as a beverage and gift extends to the very origins of domesticated cacao.

Image from Late Classic Maya vessel (c. A.D. 750), known as the Princeton Vase. Woman to the far right pours a cacao beverage to create foam.

Hot chocolate came to resemble what we know today through European colonial modification. Spanish colonizers came to refer to all cacao preparations as chocolate because the most profitable cacao-producing region, Izalcos, was known for a specific preparation named “chocolatl” (Sampeck and Thayn 2017, 79). Cacao was introduced to Europe by Spanish colonizers as “chocolate,” a hot beverage. Europeans adapted the traditional cacao beverages to include ingredients that were common in Europe, such as cinnamon, almonds, sugar, and floral elements (Sampeck and Thayn 2017, 85). Chocolate-drinking spread among the European royalty via intermarriage, and material culture developed around chocolate (Coe and Coe 1996). The French elite served chocolate in a silver chocolatiere with porcelain cups and saucers, which can also be seen in the clip from Polar Express (Coe and Coe 1996, 158-9). North American chocolate tastes and recipes most closely resemble the British and European preparations of hot chocolate, transmitted to America during our own colonial period (Sampeck and Thayn 2017, 89). Thus, the story of hot chocolate and its significant place in our own holidays draws heavily on early Mesoamerican rituals and traditions as well as colonial European modifications. The experience of a creamy hot chocolate today is intimately bound to a legacy of colonialism.

Easter, Chocolate, and the Church

The Easter and Passover spring holidays account for the single greatest week of candy sales annually. In the week preceding Easter in 2014 Americans spent $823 million on candy and purchased 146 million pounds of sweets (Fahey 2016). This level of consumption is interesting given the history of chocolate, the Catholic church, and the Lenten season.

In the Catholic religious tradition, the Easter holiday marks the end of Lent, months of fasting and reflection. Upon cacao’s introduction to European society, the Catholic clergy debated whether consuming chocolate beverages broke the fast. Catholic missionaries were active in the colonization and Christianization of indigenous Mesoamericans and had early exposure to cacao. Beginning in 1591 with Juan de Cardenas, militant clergymen argued that, though beverages (as chocolate was in those days) were generally exempt from the fast, chocolate offered substantial nourishment, which would break the fast (Coe and Coe 1996, 149). Debates raged in the clergy for nearly three centuries over the issue of chocolate and the fast, pitting the chocolate-trading Jesuits against the puritanical Dominicans (Coe and Coe 1996, 149). Seven Catholic popes commented on the issue over the years, arguing that consuming chocolate would not break the Lenten fast (Coe and Coe 1996, 150). Perhaps these clerical debates set us down the path of viewing chocolate as a sinful indulgence. Regardless, the heightened consumption of candy and chocolate for the Easter holiday marks the end of the fast and a time for celebratory indulgence. Had the Dominicans won the debate over chocolate and the fast, perhaps we would not see such excessive candy purchases in the week preceding Easter.

St. Valentine’s Day and Gendered Chocolate

Valentine’s Day is yet another major holiday for the chocolate industry. The holiday on which romantic partners gift heart-shaped boxes of chocolates to one another is also part of a broader context. Chocolate in particular is a common gift on Valentine’s Day because of its historical association with fertility. In indigenous Mesoamerican societies, cacao was considered an aphrodisiac and gifted at weddings for fertility (Coe and Coe 1996). The idea of chocolate as an aphrodisiac carried over into European societies and lingers to this day, though it has no factual basis. As Henderson (2015) and Butler (2018) detail, early chocolate companies began marketing their chocolates with romantic imagery, such as heart-shaped boxes and “kisses.” The association between chocolate and Valentine’s Day is a celebration of heterosexual romance that draws on a history of chocolate as an aphrodisiac.

The gifting of chocolates on Valentine’s Day also draws heavily on gender stereotypes. On Valentine’s Day, men are expected to purchase and gift chocolate to women. In the Russell Stover Valentine’s Day commercial below, the intended audience is men, who are instructed to gift chocolate to women for the holiday.

In chocolate advertising and narratives surrounding Valentine’s Day, women are meant to be seduced by the sinfully indulgent chocolate and-by extension-the men who gifted it to them. The following Ferrero Rocher Valentine’s Day commercial depicts a woman who is seduced by the decadent chocolate and subsequently embraces the romantic partner who gifts these chocolates to her. The message is one of chocolate as a tool in heterosexual relationships that men can use to seduce women.

Gender stereotypes in advertisements for Valentine’s Day chocolates are by no means a recent development. Narratives of male gifting of chocolates and female seduction are prevalent throughout past advertisements as well. The Whitman’s Sampler advertisement below is from 1936. In American society, Valentine’s Day chocolates are associated with a long context of heterosexual romance and the trope of the seduced woman.

1936 Valentines Day ad--Whitman's Chocolates
1936 Whitman’s Sampler Valentine’s Day Advertisement

Halloween and Industrialized Chocolates

Nielson (2015) reports that candy sales in the week preceding Halloween total $787 million, coming in at the second highest week for candy sales in 2014. Halloween in its modern form centers around pre-packaged, standardized candies, but this was not always the case. Kawash (2010) and Nix (2018) provide a brief history of Halloween and candy. In the early 20th century, candy makers were not targeting Halloween as a candy holiday (Kawash 2010). Trick-or-treating first emerged in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and Halloween handouts were not restricted to candy at this time (Kawash 2010). By the 1950’s candy became an inexpensive and convenient Halloween handout, but candy was not yet the exclusive Halloween treat (Kawash 2010). Candy eventually won out as the face of Halloween handouts in the 1970’s because it was industrialized, standardized, pre-packaged, and safe from tampering (Kawash 2010).

These trends between candy and Halloween closely follow developments in the cacao-chocolate industry. In the early 20th century, the big American chocolate manufacturers were just getting started. At the end of the 19th century, Frank Mars, founder of the Mars chocolate company (creator of M&Ms, Snickers, Mars bars, Milky Ways, etc.), was still watching his mother make homemade candies and sweets in the family kitchen (Brenner 2000, 50). For the first decade of the 20th century, Frank Mars was experimenting with small-scale candy distribution and failing repeatedly (Brenner 2000). By the 1920’s Mars had built a profitable chocolate company, but it wasn’t until his son, Forrest Mars, took control of the company in the 1960’s that Mars, Inc. became a giant in the American chocolate industry. Forrest Mars mechanized the factory, vertically integrated production, and industrialized the production and labor at every level (Brenner 2000).

Hershey’s Chocolate Factory

Similar developments were occurring in the Hershey’s chocolate company. In the first decade of the 20th century, Milton Hershey was building his factory town at Hershey, Pennsylvania (D’Antonio 2006). The first Hershey’s Kiss was manufactured in 1907 (D’Antonio 2006). Milton Hershey industrialized his company by vertically and horizontally integrating production. Hershey’s chocolate factory did it all–from building trains to ship sugar from Cuba to housing workers to sourcing milk from local cows (D’Antonio 2006). This consolidation of Hershey’s supply chain took place over the first half of the 20th century. Hershey’s was the well-integrated and undisputed American national chocolate brand until the mid-20th century when competitors like Mars and Reese’s gained power in the national market (D’Antonio 2006; Brenner 2000).

Mars Halloween Candy

By the time Halloween became a major candy holiday in the 1970’s, the American chocolate industry was dominated by Hershey’s and Mars (Martin 2019). Hershey’s and Mars alone make 84.2% of all snack-sized Halloween candy, with another 15.2% contributed by Nestle (Martin 2019). Internationally, the Big 5 chocolate companies (Hershey’s, Mars, Nestle, Kraft [Cadbury], and Ferrero) dominate the market (Martin 2019). Chocolate manufacturing and distribution is concentrated in an oligopoly of companies. The association of Halloween with pre-packaged, bite-sized candies emerged as these large companies developed and industrialized. Halloween as we know it today is a consequence of the industrialization and integration of the American chocolate industry.

Concluding Thoughts

In analyzing the history of chocolate in each of these major candy-selling holidays, I have uncovered legacies of colonialism, religious debate, gender stereotypes, and industrialization in the modern cacao-chocolate industry. To understand why and how the cacao-chocolate industry operates today, it is important to examine this broader social and historical context. Americans’ holiday favorites of hot chocolate, chocolate bunnies, heart-shaped chocolate boxes, and bite-sized chocolates were all brought to us via interesting legacies in the development of the chocolate industry. Next time you enjoy a foamy hot chocolate or Hershey’s kiss, consider the history of cacao and chocolate from its origins in indigenous Mesoamerica to its modern industrialization and mass marketing.

Works Cited

Amyember. 2010. “Hot Chocolate-The Polar Express.” You-Tube Web site. Retrieved May 2, 2019 (https://youtu.be/5Uuw3JKLO1g).

Brenner, Joel. 2000. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. New York: Broadway Books.

Bruenproductions. 2009. “Russell Stover ‘Women Love Chocolate’ TV Commercial.” You-Tube Web site. Retrieved May 2, 2019 (https://youtu.be/RfViV598c1k).

Butler, Stephanie. 2018. “Celebrating Valentine’s Day with a Box of Chocolates.” History. Retrieved on May 2, 2019 (https://www.history.com/news/celebrating-valentines-day-with-a-box-of-chocolates).

By Late Classic, Maya (‘Codex’ style) – Francis Robicsek: The Maya Book of the Dead. The Ceramic Codex, University of Virginia Art Museum (1981), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8309274

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

Cooper, Scott. 2019. “Ferrero Rocher TV Commercial, ‘Valentine’s Day Has Arrived.'” You-Tube Web site. Retrieved May 2, 2019 (https://youtu.be/JAWCM6xjebE).

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

Fahey, Mark. 2016. “Easter Wins the Candy Battle.” CNBC. Retrieved on May 2, 2019 (https://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/24/easter-wins-the-candy-battle.html).

Henderson, Amy. 2015. “How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life.” Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved on May 2, 2019 (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-chocolate-and-valentines-day-mated-life-180954228/).

Kawash, Samira. 2010. “How Candy and Halloween Became Best Friends.” The Atlantic. Retrieved on May 2, 2019 (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/10/how-candy-and-halloween-became-best-friends/64895/).

Leissle, Kristy. 2018. Cocoa. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Maria. 2010. “1936 Valentines Day ad–Whitman’s Chocolates.” Flickr. (https://flic.kr/p/7zykxu)

Martin, Carla. 2019. “20190313 The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market.” Presented at AAS 119x, March 13, Harvard University. Retrieved May 3, 2019.

Mike G. 2014. “Old Factory Building.” Flickr. Retrieved May 3, 2019 (
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mishagl/14279170335/ ).

Nielson. 2015. “Special Occasions Bring Sweet Sales.” Retrieved May 2, 2019 (https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2015/special-occasions-bring-sweet-sales.html).

Nix, Elizabeth. 2018. “The Haunted History of Halloween Candy.” History. Retrieved on May 2, 2019 (https://www.history.com/news/the-haunted-history-of-halloween-candy).

Pixel1. 2015. Pixabay. Retrieved on May 3, 2019 (
https://pixabay.com/photos/halloween-candy-chocolates-nuts-1014629/ ).

Prichep, Deena. 2014. “Hanukkah History: Those Chocolate Coins Were Once Real Tips.” National Public Radio. Retrieved on May 2, 2019 (https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/12/12/370368642/hanukkah-history-those-chocolate-coins-were-once-real-tips).

Sampeck, Kathryn E. and Jonathan Thayn. 2017. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Pps. 72-99 in Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, edited by S. Schwartzkopf and K.E. Sampeck. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Sugar’s Twist: The Change in Chocolate Consumption


Today, chocolate is a foundational treat in the Western diet. The way in which we consume cacao, the critical fruit in any chocolate creation, has drastically changed overtime. What began as the key ingredient in divine medicinal energizer drinks in Mesoamerica has drastically changed to a sugar-infused, unhealthful dessert in modern society. In turn, treats such as chocolate are seen as villains in modern day obesity problems.

In this project, I seeked to understand the modern chocolate palette and contrast that with more traditional chocolate recipes. Thus, I compared subjects’ reactions to common, modern brands such as Hershey’s with that of a pure 100% cacao bar as well as several recipes between these extremes. I interviewed these subjects to better understand their taste palette. In doing so, I hoped to gain a more concrete understanding of why this shift occurred. To do this, I need to outline the greater history of chocolate and compare that to my own study.

In doing so, I more clearly saw the ties chocolate has to class as certain chocolates are associated with nobility and others are seen as the chocolate of the common man. This class structure has deep historical roots that continue to affect the way we see chocolate today

Chocolate in Mesoamerica

In Mayan, Aztec, and other native american cultures, cacao was a holy fruit. Originating around the equator in the American continent, cacao grows on a tree of the same name. Classical prints suggest that the most common form of chocolate consumption was as a beverage. The oldest known depiction of chocolate consumption is on the Princeton Vase, a work from around 750 A.D (See image above). On the right hand side of this image, we see a women  pouring a chocolaty beverage from one container to the other. We believe this to have been a method for raising the foam, which was considered the most popular part of the beverage (Coe 48).

It should be noted, however, that it would be quite simple minded to believe that these people consumed chocolate in a singular way. As modern chefs have the skill to craft a plethora of dishes from a few simple ingredients, mesoamerican chocolatiers too had the ability to prepare numerous chocolate treats including beverages, porridges, and powders (Coe 48).

These cultures mixed in several savory flavors with their chocolate such as chilli, maize, and ceiba (Coe 86). This is very different, however, from the sweet, sugary treats we often associate with chocolate today. During our tasting session, we served some chocolate options with little to no added sugar. When we served a pure 100% cacao bar, there was instant disgust. The subjects compared the taste to that of a branch or chalk. One subject went so far as to claim that, if served in another context, she would never associate the flavor with that of chocolate. That is, counterintuitively, she doesn’t recognize cacao, pure chocolate, as chocolate at all.

Additionally, we served a Taza chocolate that was 87% cacao. Taza tends to market themselves as traditional mesoamerican chocolate. Similarly, there was some disgust amongst the subjects. They were disappointed by the lack of intensity of flavor and the limited sweetness. One subject commented that she feels like she doesn’t like the chocolate because she is uncultured. This mindset reflects the common notion that artisanal chocolate are for high-class “chocolate snobs.” To a certain degree, this idea matches the structure of mesoamerican chocolate culture. In Aztec culture, for example, chocolate was typically saved for warriors and the nobility. It was difficult and expensive for lay people to consume the treat (Coe 75). In other words, chocolate was only for the elite members of society.

Introduction in Europe – Sugar

When the conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century, europeans were introduced to cacao for the first time and witnessed the local chocolate customs. Soon after, the product was introduced to Europe itself and was immediately sought after due to the exotic nature of the product. This was during the Baroque period in Europe and it was in the iconically extravagant baroque mansions where the product was first enjoyed in Europe. As was the case in Mesoamerica, only the elite could afford chocolate. Thus, chocolate was immediately associated with the gilded and marble halls that defined the period. Undoubtedly, this created a strong connection between chocolate consumption and nobility.

At first, it was consumed in very similar ways as in Mesoamerica, as a warm beverage with some mix of spices to enliven the flavors. One of those spices was sugar. Sugar was first introduced to Europe around the 12th century. For the first few centuries, it was thought of as a spice (Mintz 79). Sugar was inaccessible to most and even the wealthiest needed to carefully ration the expensive product. Humans, however, have a powerful natural liking for sugar. Thus, it was used to sweeten other bitter food groups. Included in this list of foods that europeans mixed with sugar was chocolate. The introduction of foreign products such as tea, chocolate, and coffee increased the demand for sugar in Europe.

The opportunists across the Atlantic in the New World hoped to take advantage of this demand. Sugar production, however, was very labor intensive. Tragically, the chosen solution for this dilemma was one of human existence’s greatest crimes: slavery. The inception of the triangle slave trade brought African slaves to the new world to do hard physical labor (See the map to the left for details). This free labor allowed europeans to produce sugar and other goods more affordably and to a greater quantity.

With greater sugar supply, the price of sugar plummeted to an accessible price in Europe. By the turn of the 17th century, sugar could be consumed by all people and in greater quantities (Mintz 86). In turn, when europeans used sugar as a sweetener for other foods such as chocolate, they would use it in much greater quantity. For example, in a Spanish chocolate recipe from 1644, for 100 cacao beans, ½ a pound of sugar was added (Coe 133). Thus, sugar was clearly not a sprinkled on spice anymore, but an essential element in a chocolate recipe.

In addition, the increased production of cacao and sugar changed the image of class associated with chocolate. Once the prices dropped so that it was more accessible, it was no longer a luxury reserved for the few.

During our chocolate tasting, we had bars such Cote d’Or that we conjectured are similar to the flavors enjoyed in Europe during 17-19th centuries. Relative to the bars with more cacao content, this bar was quite popular. The students appreciated the sweetness and the mix of flavors. One subject even said that, relative to the Taza bar, he felt this type of chocolate was “more accessible.”

Rise of Big Chocolate

The chocolate industry transformed during the industrial revolution when mavericks like Forrest Mars and M.S. Hershey created their brands. With distinctly sweet recipes and crisp business models, they created the chocolate giants we know today.

Hershey and his partners experimented with various chocolate recipes. They soon came to their perfect solution when they added a ton of milk and sugar. It created a smooth, creamy chocolate that melted in one’s mouth. It had a bite similar to that of “al dente” pasta (D’Antonio 107). This iconic chocolate bar exploded into a sensation. In the process, however, they ran into the issue of collecting all the ingredients and relying on others for some of the processing. To alleviate this dilemma, Hershey sought to vertically integrate the industry. That is, he attempted to control as many of the processes himself as possible. For example, when he had issues getting a consistent source of milk, he founded his own dairy farm so that he could control that supply chain. He did this by founding a town dedicated to his brand — Hershey, PA (D’Antonio 115).

The natural appeal of chocolate gave the industry an inherent public relations advantage and the idea of a perfect little town dedicated to chocolate resonated with many progressives. Hershey easily sold this idea to the public and they ate it up. He was going to make the ultimate chocolate dream come true (D’Antonio 116). Everything about Hershey screamed a people’s brand — it was chocolate for everyone. Their product was sweet, creamy, and affordable and still to this day, people can’t get enough.

This popularity was matched in our study. Upon blindly trying a piece, one subject simply exclaimed, “This is dat good s**t.” The cheapest bar in our collection was also perhaps the most well-liked. Some subjects suggested that it reminded them of their childhood. Thus, big chocolate brands benefit from an exponential path to success. That is, as many people have eaten a Hershey bar before, they are more likely to enjoy it again in the future as it will remind them of positive memories. Thus, a sweeping step in the market of young children creates a set of loyal lifetime customers.

Along these lines, it’s interesting to compare the methods of marketing of a big chocolate brand like Hershey’s against earlier chocolate cultures and modern, high-class chocolatiers. Both of the latter chocolates were targeted to the upper class and aimed to sell a degree of nobility. Hershey on the other hand has a simple branding that is designed for everyone. We see that in one of the original design for their brand that can be seen below. The notions of class that preceded Hershey both in mesoamerica and Europe have evaporated with their affordable, delicious chocolate.

Health Concerns

With brands like Hershey drastically increasing the amount of sugar in a typical chocolate bar, the health concerns around chocolate changed as well. Today, the health concerns around big chocolate are well-advertised, but that fact wasn’t always so clear. In fact, in 17th century Europe, sugar was used as a medicine. Upon sugar’s arrival in Europe, some scholars alluded to classical Islamic texts which raved about the medicinal purposes of sugar (Mintz 96). The stimulant became a standard sight at apothecaries across Europe and some even believed it was a type of panacea (Mintz 101).

For years, researches struggled to undoubtedly prove the negative effects of sugar. For years, big sugar was able to swerve criticisms and even would go as far as claim that sugar helped people lose weight (Taubes 2). Because there was not a consensus about the negative effects of sugar, big sugar companies did not need to cover anything up. Instead, they simply needed to maintain this level of uncertainty (3). With large PR schemes, these companies wanted to maintain the notion that sugar was safe for consumption (6).

Eventually, however, as we know today, the truth did come out: sugar can cause conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Regardless, americans and other people around the world continue to eat the sweetener in great quantity (See figure on the left). Because of this, obesity has risen concurrently. In our little study, we saw that people typically enjoy a good deal of sugar in their chocolate. When I asked the subjects to rank our six chocolates, there was a strong correlation between enjoyability and sugar content.


The way in which chocolate has been prepared and consumed has drastically changed overtime. Notably, today, we use a lot more sugar to prepare chocolate. Thus, people today recognize chocolate for the creamy and sweet flavors of milk and sugar.

On a positive note, these changes broke down the class structure associated with chocolate. No longer is chocolate reserved for the wealthiest and most noble. People of all ages, classes, and genders love and enjoy the treat.

On a darker note, the increased sugar content in chocolatey treats have contributed to the health defects caused by too much sugar consumption. In the 20th century, we saw a steep increase in obesity and that effect has a direct link link to sugar consumption.

Regardless of how you interpret this trend, you cannot refute the claim that we consume and see chocolate in a drastically different way than how it was when it was first introduced to europeans. These drastic changes walked foot by foot with the increase in sugar’s role in both chocolate consumption and our daily diets as a whole.

Works Cited

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

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey. Simon & Schuster 2006.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power.. Penguin Books, 1985.

Taubus, Gary and Kearns Couzens, Kristin. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Lies.” Mother Jones.  November/December 2012.

From Cultural to Commercial: Cocoa’s Geopolitical Transformation

Molded by years of exposure to masterfully crafted marketing campaigns, average consumer knowledge of cacao [or cocoa] is limited to its function as an ingredient and source from which their beloved chocolate is derived. There is much more to the birth, rise, and spread of Theobroma cacao.

The following seeks to explain how a culturally significant crop among early civilizations dating back to 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013) transformed from a highly treasured ingredient and social currency cultivated within a fairly limited zone to a globally produced and traded commodity: a highly reformulated, mass-produced, and readily available confectionery product.

This journey traces cacao back to its genetic and cultural beginnings where it was religious and cultural fixture among early civilizations; how exploration and migration played into the geographical expansion of its cultivation and rise in popularity as a food; role in accelerating industrialization; and transformation from a social currency and treasured ingredient to a heavily traded commodity and mass manufactured consumer product.

Genetic and Cultural Beginnings

From births and burials, recipes and rituals, cacao’s cultural origins are linked to Mesoamerica (present day Mexico through Central America), where its social and religious significance among the Olmec dates back to 1500 to 400 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013). The rise of Maya and Aztec civilizations gave way for cacao’s evolution utility and proliferation as a consumable.

Cacao’s Role in Society and Religion

Evidenced by archeologic discoveries, translated texts, and scientific testing, several vessels and writings have been unearthed, clarifying and validating cacao’s significance, religious ties, and early application as a currency.

Mayan and Aztec civilization associated cacao with the gods. As such, they were believed to enrich and afford protections during and after life, playing a central role in offerings and rituals (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Ceramic vessels similar to those pictured here which date back to 455 to 465 CE were found in burial tombs at Río Azul (Martin, 2019). Further testing confirmed positive traces of caffeine and theobromine—two of cacao’s alkaloid signatures (Martin, 2019).

Dating back to 455 to 465 CE, “funerary vessels” similar to those pictured here were discovered in tombs at Río Azul. As testing revealed traces of caffeine and theobromine, two of cacao’s signature alkaloids, this further supported evidence of cacao’s religious significance (Martin, 2019).

As a food or drink, cacao took many forms. Popular among the Maya and Aztec, “cacahuatl” was a frothy preparation often transferred from one vessel to another and served cold (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Described by Coe and Coe in The True History of Chocolate and drawn by Diane Griffiths Peck, this illustration provides a glimpse into one of many Maya and Aztec cacao preparation and serving methods.
Of the 15 discovered, translated, and still intact, the Dresden Codex contains the aforementioned Mayan hieroglyphic depiction of cacao being consumed by gods and used in rituals (Martin, 2019). Other major works include the Popol Vuh or “Book of Counsel” is a colonial document later translated by Friar Francisco Ximénez that reveals the importance of cacao among early civilizations.

Exploration and Migration: Changes in Cultivation and Consumption

By definition, explorers were bound to make new discoveries and learn from their experience. Capturing the innocent confusion and eye-opening experience (only to be realized years later), the following briefly details just how one explorer mistakenly thought that cacao beans were almonds.”

Mistaken for Almonds: When recounting observations from his 1502 landing at Guanaja, one of many landmasses that make up the Bay Islands archipelago, Ferdinand Columbus, one of Christopher Columbus’ sons wrote about cherished “almonds” that traded hands similarly to how currency would pass between customers and merchants (Coe and Coe, 2013). It was not until years later after multiple interpretations and sources concluded that what he presumed to be almonds were in fact cacao beans.

As it came to be more widely known, not far from where Ferdidnad landed, throughout the Rio Ceniza Valley (present day coast of El Salvador), cacao was an increasingly popular form of currency being produced and traded in record volume—something . In time, this led to further learnings about the “Nahua counting system” and subsequent adoption of cacao as payment for “protection” by Spanish conquistadors.

Generally relegated to tropical climates falling 10-15 degrees north and south of equator, is was inevitable that cacao would make its way around the world. So as people moved, and culture spread, so too did the cacao, as a crop, currency, and curiosity, ultimately leading to its introduction to new geographies, and paving the way for new industries and traditions around the world (Martin, 2019).

New Formulations and Complementary Ingredients

As ingredients such as vanilla, chili, and many others traveled around the world, pairings and formulations rapidly evolved. Marking a major development and informing direction for the confectionery side as we know it today, sugar was introduced to Europe around 1100 CE and chocolate followed shortly thereafter in 1500 CE (Martin, 2019).

Cacao’s Role in Accelerating Industrialization and Expanding its Place in Society

While cacao consumption continued to be reserved for certain classes during its journey around the world, increasingly sophisticated processing methods streamlined productions, regulation eventually brought its price down, and despite medical and religious challenges to its place in society, cacao products were increasingly available to a grander population.

By the 1600 and 1700s, advances in processing continued to align with rising and more diverse consumption habits. Of course, by this time, the separation between “producing” and “processing” countries (read: colonies vs. industrialized nations) was increasingly clear.

So while cultivation and production spread across Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa to meet demand, industry began to take shape on the consumer side as well with the emergence of social gathering halls or “Chocolate Houses” in Britain, France, Spain, the United States, and other “industrialized” nations who had transitioned to managing the cacao’s trade as a commodity and processing for various food and beverage applications. It was not until Rudolphe Lindt’s invention of the conche in 1879, an advancement that bolstered flavor and feel (among other things), and set the stage for quality, processing, and mass production to take off (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Illustrated above, the matete, grinder, and conche are examples of what cacao processing tools were used by early civilizations (and are still used in the same or similar forms today) and evolved or industrialized processing equipment employed today (Martin, 2019).

From early civilizations to present day, cacao’s role in society, cultural significance, availability and consumption have evolved tremendously. However, its mystique and association as something special are still true to this day—just as they were in different and more elaborate forms among early civilizations. Perhaps this condensed history will give pause and reason for the average consumer to think beyond commercialization of cacao, cocoa, or chocolate, and value and validate its history and claims made by brands to improve global understanding, perception, and consumer habits.

Works Cited

  • Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
  • Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, Vol. 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.
  • Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
  • Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018

Media Cited

  • Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past”. Nawatl Scholar. January 1, 1970. Accessed March 15, 2019. http://nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.
  • Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes”. Lynne Olver 2000. March 1, 2015. Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html.
  • Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “Map of Mesoamerica.” Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.famsi.org/maps/.
  • Río Azul [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Wikimedia Commons. File:Popol vuh.jpg. (January 16, 2015). Retrieved February 17, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Popol_vuh.jpg&oldid=146695431.
  • Matete [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Grinder [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Conche [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

Lectures Cited

  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 13, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 20, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

The Humble Origins of Chocolate: Conquest and Complicity

What images does the word “chocolate” call up for you? Many would imagine a perfectly portioned bar of milk chocolate in the fashion of Hershey or Cadbury, other a mousse, yet others a steaming cup of hot cocoa– “chocolate” is absolutely an overdetermined word. It describes a flavor, various pastries and food goods, a scent, sometimes colors, and even specific products, like chocolate bonbons or bars. English borrows the word from Spanish, and Spanish borrows the word from either Maya (chokola’j) and, supposedly, Nahuatl (the mysterious xocoatl)—its exact origins are unclear. (Martin, Lecture, 6 February 2019; Lara, pp. 238; Coe & Coe, pp. 33, 118-19) The etymological history of chocolate, the very first thing one might look at when glancing at a dictionary entry for the word, is from the beginning inextricable from its bloody cultural roots in the conquest of the “New” World by the Spaniards and, later, slavery and colonization in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

Figure 1. The history of chocolate
Deanna Pucciarelli
sponsored by TED Ed

This transfiguration of indigenous words for cacao was instigated by a series of early encounters between indigenous peoples in Latin America and European colonizers. Cultural exchanges of this kind occurred in the arenas of trade, food, and religion. Because of the language barrier, many things were based on observations and experiences of, at first, Spaniards, then other Europeans, leading to many misunderstandings that go beyond the confusion of the origins of the word “chocolate.” Europeans did not initially understand the appeal of the bean, finding it bitter, strange, and even “obnoxious.” (Coe & Coe, pp. 109-10).

As more settlers came from Spain to the Americas, creolization1 – occurred not only in terms of race and language, but also in terms of chocolate. The Spaniards acquired a taste for cacao only after sweetening it, heating it, and adding flavors such as cinnamon and anise. This was a departure from the Maya and Aztec ways of consuming cacao, as a cold, frothy, and usually unsweetened beverage commonly flavored with corn, chili peppers, or achiote. (Coe & Coe, pp. 115) While creolization created the rich blend of cultures still present today in Latin America, the more the Spanish desired cacao the further it was distanced from its original cultural position in the area, until it became the commodity it is today.

Cacao was deeply entrenched in the sociocultural fabric of Mayan society, specifically, and, through trade and agriculture, became important to other Mesoamerican societies, like the Aztecs, as well. The plant is thought to have been cultivated by Mesoamerican peoples as early as 1400 BCE. (Leissle, pp. 30) Its consumption indicated high social and political status, and was often a feature of important negotiations and ceremonies. The beans were also used as currency— the money that grew on trees. The cacao tree had strong ties to the Underworld and to death, showing up in both funeral rites and sacrifices.

Figure 2. Map of Mesoamerica

Early European interactions with the indigenous peoples of the Americas resulted in the exotification of indigenous peoples and cultures which extends in many ways to modern, Western perceptions of chocolate. As cacao made it to Europe, Catholics questioned whether the drink made by the Mesoamericans would be a “violation of pre-Communion or Lenten fasts.” (Leissle, pp. 35) It was also consumed in coffee and chocolate houses, important sites for the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas in the 17th century. Then came bar chocolate, a massively popular commodity even today. And, now, with megacorporations controlling chocolate production, the origins of cacao as a revered plant in Mesoamerica could not seem further away. Yet, the Western attraction to the mysterious “other” persists.

Though the modern consumer may not even recognize chocolate as is was originally consumed by Mesoamericans, the way that the industry sells chocolate inadvertently perpetuates the legacy of colonialism. This occurs not only in terms of continued exploitation of the peoples in previously colonized regions through labor practices and control of the market, but also in terms of the language we use to sell and describe chocolate.

Figure 3. Screenshot of Godiva Chocolatiers website
Figure 4. Mayan glyph for cacao – kakaw or kakau

Here, Godiva, a Belgian chocolate company puts its spin on the origins of chocolate. “The Mayans of Central America are believed to be the first to discover cocoa as early as 900 AD,” they say. Note the use of the word cocoa, an Anglicization of cacao which comes from the Mayan kakau. (see Figure 3) There is no mention of the Olmecs, thought to be the first to cultivate cacao, or other Mesoamerican cultures to whom the cacao tree was so important. “They learned that the beans inside the cocoa pods could be harvested and made into a liquid that would become a treasured Mayan treat,” it continues— all of the uses of cacao in Mayan society and its associations with life, death, and the gods, glossed over as consumers are introduced to cacao as a “treasured Mayan treat.”

Godiva is only one of many companies which capitalize on the exotification of the indigeneity of chocolate. These misrepresentations are dangerous to extant cultures in Latin America as well as being caricatures of the ancient Aztec and Maya peoples. While it would be difficult if not impossible to imagine a world without chocolate as we know it today, in all its pre-packaged and artisan forms, complicity with the systems of domination that gave the modern consumer access to it as a product is, however easy a trap to fall into, inexcusable.

1 an effect of colonization involving the cultural mixture of people of Indigenous American, West African and European descent

Works Cited

Maya and Aztec Chocolate Recipes: Authenticity and Origins

A quick search online for “Mesoamerican chocolate recipe” yields a plethora of interesting search results. Recipes range from “Mayan Chocolate Pudding,” a dark chocolate pudding flavored with habanero pepper, allspice, and cinnamon, to “Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate” which starts off with a typical recipe for hot chocolate but then calls for the fiery addition of chili, cinnamon, and the Mexican spirit Mezcal. A recipe for “Mayan Chocolate Truffles,” described as “dark chocolate truffles with some kick,” contains vanilla, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and coffee liqueur, and are then coated with everything from toasted coconut to ground almonds and even candy melts. Digging deeper, one can even find a video tutorial for Montezuma’s own recipe, which instructs the viewer to mix all the ingredients for hot chocolate together using a blender.


Pictured: Mayan Chocolate Truffles. Would the Maya have prepared similar confections?

While we can appreciate that these modern recipes acknowledge the historical origins of cacao, how closely do they actually resemble the cacao preparations from the Maya and Aztec cultures?

Cacao in the Classic Maya civilization

Cacao was a beverage enjoyed mostly by the nobility during this time. Believed to have been consumed by the gods, it was considered to be a sacred product and played a valuable role in almost every aspect of elite Maya culture. Events such as fertility rites, marriage rituals, and rituals of burial and death were toasted or celebrated with a ceremony of cacao drinking. Serving cacao beverages at feasts were displays of wealth and power, and it was used in negotiations and even political pacts (Leissle 30). It was also believed to have medicinal and healing effects so was often incorporated in healing rituals. Warriors consumed it as a stimulant as it was believed to imbue the warrior with invincible, protective powers. Cacao beans were so valuable that they were used as currency across Mesoamerica, often harvested by commoners who would pay tribute to rulers in beans (Leissle 30). Commoners were also the ones who prepared the cacao beverages for the elite, so there was certainly a class difference between those who produced cacao and those who consumed and enjoyed it.

While many recipes may have existed, customized by the flair of the individual preparing it, cacao was consumed solely as a beverage. Methods of processing the cacao pods were entirely manual and without the tools and machinery that would arrive centuries later with the Industrial Revolution, cacao could not be transformed into the bars or confections that we recognize as chocolate today. Instead, the cacao beans were roasted and ground into a paste and combined with ground maize and hot water. Then the concoction was poured from above from one vessel into another in order to create a foam, which was considered to be the most sacred part of the drink (Coe 48). This drink was typically flavored with ingredients native to the region such as vanilla and achiote, a native spice that imparts a red or orange color (Coe 61-62).

Cacao in the Aztec civilization

In Aztec culture, the cacao beverage was consumed similarly but usually served cold rather than hot (Coe 84). The cacao beans were ground into a powder and mixed with water, then poured from one vessel to another in order to achieve the prized foam. The Aztecs took many more liberties than the Maya when it came to flavoring this drink. Like the Maya, the Aztecs often mixed in ground maize, vanilla, “ear flower,” and achiote, but other flavorings included dried chili powder, allspice, and honey (Coe 86-87). “Ear flower,” a flower that was dried and ground into a powder was a very popular chocolate flavoring that tasted of black pepper possibly with notes of nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon (Coe 88). Another plant that was used was “string flower,” a plant related to black pepper that may have imparted a tarragon or anise flavor to chocolate. Other plants include magnolia flowers and the rose-scented “popcorn flower” (Coe 93-94).

Similar to the customs of the Maya culture, this elite drink was reserved solely for the nobility in the highly stratified Aztec society. As cacao beans were valuable currency, money that literally grew on trees, the drink was strictly consumed by the elite class. Interestingly, warriors were permitted cacao and were even given military rations of cacao ground and pressed into pellets or wafers (perhaps a precursor to the modern-day chocolate bar), signifying their importance and prominence in the Aztec culture (Coe 98).

So how accurate are the modern recipes?

Revisiting the modern recipes found online today, it is highly unlikely that Montezuma himself prepared his own cacao beverage (much less with the use of a electric blender!) as it was usually the commoners who prepared the sacred drink for the nobility.

However, our modern interpretations of these ancient recipes may not have been entirely inaccurate. Of course, the Maya and the Aztecs were not concocting puddings and truffles with their prized cacao. And since sugar only arrived post-Columbian conquest, if the cacao beverages were sweetened it was primarily with honey. The spices in these modern recipes such as chili pepper, allspice, vanilla are not inaccurate as they were all native ingredients utilized during that time period.


Pictured: A modern recipe for Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate with Mezcal and garnished with a cinnamon stick 

The only curious ingredient that seems to be included in every modern recipe is cinnamon. Cinnamon was not native to the Mesoamerican region and therefore perhaps never encountered by the Maya or the Aztecs. Its inclusion then, while inaccurate, speaks more to our imagination of these ancient beverages. After all, “ear flower” reportedly hinted at notes of nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon. So while we may not be able to easily achieve the exact flavors of this ancient sacred beverage, at least in the United States, we can at least use our imagination.


Works Cited

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

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Lopez-Alt, Kenji J. “Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate with Chili, Cinnamon, and Mezcal Recipe.” Serious Eats, http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2012/02/spicy-aztec-hot-chocolate-with-chili-cinnamon-mezcal-recipe.html. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Mayan Chocolate Pudding.” Food & Wine, January 2013, http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/mayan-chocolate-pudding. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Mayan Chocolate Truffles.” Tasty Kitchen, 9 March 2012, tastykitchen.com/blog/2012/03/mayan-chocolate-truffles. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Montezuma’s Chocolate Drink, Recipe Rewind, S1E5.” Youtube, uploaded by Recipe Rewind, 28 Sept. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWhorrHUItE.

Cacao as Part of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Society

While the essential process of turning pods of the Theobroma cacao, or cacao tree, into edible forms of chocolate has remained largely unchanged over the last several thousand years, its earliest/original cultural significance has largely been lost or ignored in favor of an emphasis on individual enjoyment and commercial expansion.  As Carla Martin and Kathryn Sampeck reflect in “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” cacao has a “Potent history of ritual, cosmological, and high-status associations.”

Through various accounts, as well as the discovery of ancient artifacts and the more recent translations of glyphs found on Classic-period vessels, we can enjoy a more authentic understanding of what cacao meant to the people who brought it into existence.  Chocolate is such an incredibly important part of our world today, it is hard to imagine a society without it. We owe it to these early civilizations to pay respectful attention to the importance chocolate played in their own societies and how it permeated every aspect of their cultures during the pre-Conquest era.

Cacao held value in myriad ways for the people of pre-Conquest Mesoamerica, and therefore it was present in almost every aspect of society.  It was also of great importance at every level of society, from the lowest classes to royalty and even in their views the celestial world and the afterlife.  

One use of cacao that affected all aspects of society was as coinage.  It can be difficult in at this point in time to imagine using a perishable commodity such as chocolate as currency, but it was indeed a valuable staple of the Mesoamerican economical system.  While some have argued that the Spanish introduced the concept of using cacao as a form of currency, we can see from Colonial era documentary information that the indigenous communities were already using it in this way upon their arrival.  One of the first accounts of this “coin of the realm” was written by Peter Martyr, an early observer of the Aztec society. In one of his passages from his De Orbe Novo, he writes “ But it is very needful to heare what happie money they use, for they have money, which I call happy, because for the greedie desire and gaping to attaine the same, the bowelles of the earth are not rent a sunder, nor through the ravening greediness of covetous men, nor terrour of warres assayling, it returneth to the dennes and caves of the mother earth, as golden, or silver money doth. For this groweth upon trees.”

In terms of the purchasing power of cacao beans (or more accurately, the seeds of the cacao pod), there are varying reports. However, according to a Nahuatl document in 1545 documenting prices in Tlaxcala, one cacao bean held the equivalent value of one large tomato or one tamale.  Three beans would buy you an avocado, 30 would buy you a small rabbit, and 100 full beans (or alternatively 120 shrunken beans) would buy you one good turkey hen.

Naturally, cacao was also used as a consumable good in pre-Colonial Mesoamerica, but it was consumed largely as a drink rather than a food.  According to Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, “during nine tenths of its long history, chocolate was drunk, not eaten.” Evidence of this can be found in many artifacts discovered in that region, including the Princeton Vase below.  This example of Maya “codex style” ceramic art depicts a woman pouring a chocolate beverage from one vessel into another for the Merchant God. It is the earliest known depiction of a chocolate beverage being frothed and served. Cacao was often combined with corn in beverages to give it more sustenance, and it was also used in recipes to add flavor to other foods.

Beyond the serving of cacao as a pleasurable beverage or food, it was also believed by the Mesoamericans to have medicinal qualities.  It was used to treat digestive issues, coughs, and other sicknesses, and it was used as an anaesthetic, an anti-inflammatory aid, and as a cure for struggles such as breast milk production and kidney stones.  According to the Florentine Codex, an early collaboration between Aztec and Spanish ethnographers, cacao beans were used in combination with other ingredients to treat a range of physical and psychological issues, from fatigue to anemia. Cacao was also believed to provide strength and energy, so soldiers would often drink it before battle, and depictions of warriors carrying cacao beans into war can be found on many of the artifacts from that era.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who documented the Spanish conquest extensively, relayed the use of cacao beverages by the Aztecsfor “success with women.”  We now know that chocolate contains the compound phenylethylamne, which the brain produces when they experience attraction, confirming the Aztec belief in the connection between chocolate and romance.  

Cacao had a large role in community rituals and traditions as well.  Cacao beans were used as dowry payments, and cacao beverages were served during betrothal and marriage ceremonies.  One such marriage ritual, “tac haa,” involved inviting the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to discuss the marriage and serving him a chocolate drink.

Similarly, cacao was present in the death rituals of the Mesoamerican era as well.  Images and glyphs depicting cacao in its various forms – pods, beans, beverages, etc. – are seen in many depictions of burial ceremonies, and for those who could afford it, the dead were even buried with cacao vessels filled with the chocolate beverage, to give their souls strength and energy in the afterlife.

Other examples of cacao as part of the societal fabric is how it was used to depict class and hierarchy.  For example, we see portrayals in paintings and carvings of members of royal families emerging from the ground as cacao trees.  This was done as a way of legitimating their royal blood and status. The cacao trees, or theobroma cacao, were considered sacred, referred to also as “world trees” or “first trees.”  In their mythologies, dieties were often born of trees or transformed into trees; the roots extended down to the underworld, the trunk represented the contemporary world, and the leaves or shoots reached up into the heavens.  In essence, the cacao tree served as a metastructure of the heavens.

As we have seen here, cacao in its various forms played a very potent role throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.  It served as a social “glue,” binding the peoples of each region together through common rituals and customs, and doing social “work,” in a vastly expanded yet somehow way when compared to our own contemporary concept of “chocolate.”  

Works Cited:

Bernardino de Sahagun, Fray. Florentine Codex, General History of the Things of New Spain, Book X. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1955.

Coe, Sophie D, and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Edgar, Blake. “The Power of Chocolate.” Archaeology Magazine, 2010, archive.archaeology.org/1011/abstracts/chocolate.html.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe. The Social Meaning of Food. Socio.HU, 2015.

Wolfe, David and Holdstock, Sharon. Naked Chocolate: The Astonishing Truth About the World’s Greatest Food. North Atlantic Books, 2005.

Drinking Money: Cacao as Currency in Mesoamerica

Nowadays the first thought that comes to mind when we think about cacao is chocolate, the sweet dessert that is easily attainable and can be enjoyed by all. Cacao had a very different meaning in Mesoamerica, it was consumed as a drink by the elite during religious rituals and banquets, it was highly valuable as it was also used for religious offerings and gift exchanges. It’s no surprise that thanks to its connection to the elite and its exclusivity, cacao beans were eventually used as currency throughout Mesoamerica.

Cacao Beans

European encounters

The first European encounter with cacao as currency happened in 1502 when Columbus and his son Ferdinand, during his fourth voyage to the Americas, captured a Maya trading canoe (Coe and Coe 107-108).  This vessel contained a number of goods valuable to the Maya, including what Ferdinand Columbus called “almonds”, he noticed their value but didn’t understand their importance (Leissle 32). He wrote, “They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe and Coe 108-109). Cortes on the other hand, was quick to realize cacao’s importance and use it to his advantage “to buy things, and to pay the wages of their native laborers” (Coe and Coe 93).

Aztec man carrying a cacao pod

From Drink to Currency

Cacao wasn’t initially thought of as money, its beans were used to create a frothy drink we call chocolate. This beverage was produced and consumed by both the Mayan and the Aztec elites, becoming a marker for high social status (Baron 211). “The drinking of chocolate was confined to the Aztec elite – to the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long-distance merchants and to the warriors” (Coe and Coe 89-90). It was served during marriage ceremonies, religious rituals and feasts, and used as valuable gifts to exchange during feasts, as tributes to form diplomatic alliances and as dowries (Reents-Budet 220). What transitioned cacao’s role as a drink to money was its use as tribute payments demanded by polities from their subordinates, “facilitating their use as a store of value for future transactions” (Baron 214).

A possible Maya lord sits before an individual with a container of frothed chocolate

Cacao as Currency

The cacao bean possessed several qualities that made it possible for it to become money in Mesoamerica: it had great value due to its use by the elite and during religious rituals, it was also “portable, relatively durable, divisible, recognizable, and somewhat difficult to counterfeit” (Gasco 225). Yet cacao beans are perishable, they could be only stored for a year before they spoiled, forcing owners to spend it or drink it before it became devalued, therefore preventing inflation (Baron 219).  

Those who possessed cacao beans could spend them on material and immaterial commodities. They could be used to pay work service, to purchase freedom from forced labor, and to pay taxes or service obligations (Reents-Budet 220). They could also be used to purchase goods, for example: a turkey hen for 100 full cacao beans, a turkey cock for 200 full cacao beans, a hare for 100 cacao beans, an avocado for 3 cacao beans, a tomato for 1 cacao bean, a tamale for 1 cacao bean (Coe and Coe 93-94).

Aztec tribute list demanding 200 loads of cacao beans
Folio 47r of the Codex Mendoza

Even though this money grew on trees, these trees were found only in specific areas within Mesoamerica, so beans were either demanded as tribute by rulers or transported by long-distance merchants to markets.  In the case of the Aztec, long distance merchants were called pochteca, they were part of the elite class since they were considered warriors, “they were often armed, they traveled through very dangerous lands to reach their markets, and often fought pitched battles with hostile foreign groups” (Coe and Coe 92). There were several pochteca guilds whose membership was hereditary, rising in rank within a guild involved hosting a banquet where chocolate made from beans from their storehouses would be served (Coe and Coe 91-92).

The royalty had storehouses where they kept a massive amount of cacao beans they collected as tributes from their people. Famously, Moctezuma’s warehouse stored 960,000,000 beans (Coe and Coe 82). These beans were used to finance war, pay salaries, trade with other empires, and maintain government institutions (Baron 214).  

Pochtecas with their freight,
Illustration from the Florentine Codex


Cacao had a dual purpose in Mesoamerica, a social and an economic one. Cacao beans were used to create a beverage that was consumed during social and religious occasions by the elite. At the same time, it served as currency demanded as tribute and exchanged for goods.

Even though cacao was used as money, it continued to be consumed during social events, which maintained its value and importance. Because of this dualism, we could say that the members of the elite were drinking their own money when consuming chocolate.

Works Cited:

Baron, Joanne P. “Making Money in Mesoamerica: Currency Production and Procurement in the Classic Maya Financial System.” Economic Anthropology, vol. 5, no. 2, 2018, pp. 210–223.

Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Gasco, Janine. “Cacao and Commerce in Late Postclassic Xoconochco.” Rethinking the Aztec Economy, edited by Deborah Nichols, Frances Berdan, Michael Smith, University of Arizona Press, 2017, pp. 221-247.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. 1st ed., Polity, 2018.

Reents-Budet, Doreen. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2006, pp. 202-223.

Multimedia Sources

“A Possible Maya Lord Sits before an Individual with a Container of Frothed Chocolate.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayan_people_and_chocolate.jpg.

“Aztec Man Carrying a Cacao Pod.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aztec._Man_Carrying_a_Cacao_Pod,_1440-1521.jpg.

“Codex Mendoza Folio 47r.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Mendoza_folio_47r.jpg.

“Illustration from the Florentine Codex, Late 16th Century.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pochtecas_con_su_carga.jpg.

Symens, Isai. “Cacao Beans.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao_beans.jpg.

The Relationship Between Cacao Beverages and Ritual in Ancient Mesoamerica

It is no secret that cacao beverages were utilized extensively throughout Ancient Mesoamerica. The Maya were most famously known for using cacao and cacao beverages for a variety of different societal and cultural uses, as well as economic and trade uses. However, this essay will explore the exact known origins of cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica, as well as their relationship to ancient rituals and then end by discussing their context within more modern-day rituals within what used to be the Mesoamerican region.

The Origins of Cacao Beverages in Ancient Mesoamerica

            Before the relationship between cacao beverages and rituals in ancient Mesoamerica can be examined and discussed, the origins of these beverages within the region must first be explained. That is, how cacao beverages came about and rose to social, cultural, and ritual prominence within ancient Mesoamerican societies. It is not exactly known to researchers, anthropologists, and scientists how Theobroma, which are a genus of flowering plants that include the type of cacao present in ancient Mesoamerica, arrived in the region. That is, “all wild relatives of domesticated Theobroma are native to northern Amazonian South America, although cacao was not cultivated there in pre-Columbian times…” (Henderson et. al. 18937). Thus, “whether cacao arrived in Mesoamerica through human agency or whether the natural range of Theobroma once extended through Central America is a controversial issue” (Henderson et. al. 18937). However, the best way in which to approach the issue of determining the specific origin of cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica is through the scientific examination of artifacts that were used to make, store, and present cacao beverages. However, this process is very difficult due to the fact that, “the process of cacao preparation destroys the pods and seeds, making recovery of macrobotanical remains rare” (Henderson et. al. 18937). However, scientists can determine the ancient presence of cacao beverage by chemically analyzing pottery artifacts for the remanence of Theobroma. Through this chemical analysis, the origins have cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica has been determined through the analysis of sherds of vessels from Puerto Escondido in what is now Honduras. That is, chemical analyses of residues extracted from pottery vessels from Puerto Escondido show that cacao beverages were being made there before 1000 B.C., extending the confirmed use of cacao back at least 500 years (Henderson et. al. 18937). Thus, “the preparation, serving, and consumption of cacao beverages in the Early Formative period at Puerto Escondido is the earliest documented context for what became a central dimension of social life in Mesoamerica” (Henderson et. al. 18937).

Bodega Brown bottle from northern Honduras. This vessel is of the same type and form as samples found at Puerto Escondido (Henderson et. al. 18938)

Cacao Beverages and Rituals in Ancient Mesoamerica

           The vast importance of cacao beverages in ancient Mesoamerican societies is well-documented and well-known. However, one of the most important uses of these beverages was to facilitate rituals. That is, following the use of cacao beverages in the Early Formative period at Puerto Escondido, cacao beverages continued to be an essential component of important social ceremonies and ritual events throughout Mesoamerica over the past two and a half millennia (Henderson et. al. 18937). Furthermore, “from 1000 B.C. to the sixteenth century, kakaw [the Mayan word for ‘cacao’] drinks remained a primary component of social and political events among the indigenous peoples of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and as far south as Nicaragua and Costa Rica, its consumption crossing nearly all socioeconomic and political boundaries” (McNeil 206). These cacao beverages were utilized in various important rituals within ancient Mesoamerican societies. More specifically, cacao and cacao beverages were primary objects of exchanges between social groups, marking betrothal, marriage, and children’s life cycle rituals (McNeil 151). Although these particular ritual events were extremely important within these societies, cacao beverages held their most significant role within the facilitation of ritual feasts and communal eating. These beverages’ importance to ritual feasting within ancient Mesoamerica can be confirmed by portrayals on vessels of palace feasts wherein cylinder vases brimming with frothy cacao are offered by attendant women or sit next to the host and close at hand to the gathered guests (McNeil 211). The connection between cacao beverages and the rituals of feasting and communal eating is extremely important because feasting has been linked to emergent sociopolitical complexity in discussions of, “political strategies available to would-be local leaders in societies in which social stratification was not institutionalized” (Joyce and Henderson 650). Feasting allowed local leaders to establish obligations from people who would not otherwise have owed emergent leaders anything (Joyce and Henderson 650). Thus, the feasting system not only created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation, but it also was an essential mechanism wielded by Mesoamerica’s ruling elites (McNeil 209). And the essential role that cacao beverages played within this vastly important ritual of feasting acts as a case study depicting the inextricable link between cacao beverages and rituals in ancient Mesoamerican societies.

Late Classic period Maya painted vase whose palace scene depicts an aristocratic meeting and feasting event during which tamales are served in a large plate, and a painted ceramic vessel is brimming with foamy cacao beverage (McNeil 211)

Mesoamerican Cacao Beverages and Rituals in a Modern Context

            Along with the vastly important case study of the ritual of feasting, cacao beverages have been, and continue to be, an essential aspect of religious rituals within Mesoamerica. Within the modern context, cacao beverages are still utilized by the Ch’orti’ Maya who live in eastern Guatemala near the Classic period Maya site of Copan in western Honduras (McNeil 384). That is, the Ch’orti’ make and consume cacao beverages during their Rain Ceremonies, which occur during the end of April and into the beginning of May. The Rain Ceremonies are rooted in ancient Mayan culture and the rituals performed during the ceremony are done so that the rain gods may be worshipped (McNeil 384-386). Cacao beverages, along with fermented and alcoholic maize beverages, are consumed throughout the rituals of the Rain Ceremonies (McNeil 390-392). Thus, the Ch’orti’ provide a modern example of the inextricable relationship between cacao beverages and rituals within Mesoamerica.

Chocolate is poured from a guacal into a jícaran containing hot chilate (a Ch’orti’ ritual maize drink) in Quetzaltepeque, Guatemala (McNeil 391)


Works Cited

Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao           Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 48, 2007,          pp. 18937–18940.

Joyce, Rosemary A., and John S. Henderson. “From Feasting to Cuisine: Implications of             Archaeological Research in an Early Honduran Village.” American Anthropologist, vol.             109, no. 4, 2007, pp. 642–653.

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica : a Cultural History of Cacao. University Press             of Florida, 2006.

A Natural History of Cacao: From Bitter and Sweet to Monetary Value

When examining the natural and botanical history of cacao, its origins, uses and significance throughout time need to be evaluated.  Although this is will primarily highlight the history of cacao, chocolate will also have some focus as it has become the dominant use of cacao in today’s world.  Looking at the cacao bean, the origins start in South America and it will have a vital role in trade from 1500 AD onward as it evolves into the chocolate as most know it know today.  As discussed in class, it has been viewed in lights that are both good and bad and the same continues today.  To say chocolate is the end destination for cacao is nearsighted in a historical sense considering its original uses and only recent centuries developments have brought us to the modern use of cacao.

            When beginning the history of Cacao, we find ourselves in South America.  According to the work of Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn Sampeck, a “number of archaeological and linguistic analyses indicate that people domesticated Theobroma species first in the Americas, probably lowland South America” (Sampeck 76).  The general consensus is that cacao was first cultivated here, but it was not until it made its way north to Mesoamerica where its true rise to prominence began.  Despite the difficulty in cultivating it due to its fickle nature, Cacao was more broadly used and “came into its own once it reached Mesoamerica” (Martin 39).  As a result of this cultivation and the value of the bean, those in Mesoamerica who could grow it were considered wealthy, “where money literally grew on trees” (Sampeck 76).  Cacao’s use in bitter flavored drinks was common in Mesoamerica, but it was this monetary value that was most important in the Americas.  When looking at its history from a big picture standpoint, the value derived by the cultures of the Aztec and Maya are integral to the history of the fruit.  By the time of the Spanish arrival to Mesoamerica, cacao was in use as a currency and a symbol of “ritual and high-status” (Martin 40).  Upon the European discovery, it was the pecuniary nature of cacao that was originally desired, and not the culinary uses of the bean. 

            Due to a currency crisis in Europe in the sixteenth century, cacao was appealing as a currency when Europeans realized its value to the Mesoamericans.  Martin writes, “Cacao as a commodity money was taken on enthusiastically by Europeans, with the Crown quickly adopting cacao as legal tender for transactions” (Martin 41).  When cacao was used as a food in Europe, it did not carry over its Mesoamerican flavorings of traditional bitterness.  Sampeck and Schwartzkopf find the following about European flavoring for cacao: “The lack of corn, combined with the much greater variety of pungent floral and citrus-flavored ingredients as well as nuts, is decidedly different from the American flavor profile” (Sampeck 85).  In terms, of the importance of the history of cacao, it is the Europeans who really give way to what we know cacao for today (chocolate).  Driven by both the availability of flavors and desired tastes, these stronger and less bitter ingredients began to highlight the sweeter contrast that can be made with the bitterness of the cacao bean.  As industrialization began to take off, the availability of chocolate did as well.  Greater production and availability gave way to many of the trends that we still see today in the world of chocolate and cacao. 

            When assessing cacao’s importance in the modern world, it is impossible to ignore the chocolate market.  That said, there is still ongoing research on the plant itself as farmers look to increase yields and protect against diseases.  Considering its modern history, both should be considered.  As observed previously, although Mesoamerica was at the heart of cacao’s origins, it is in Europe where cacao consumption gradually transformed from bitter drink to the sweeter chocolate that it is known for today.  It is no surprise then, that Europe is the biggest processor of cacao (60% of the world) and the largest consumer per capita (50%), yet Africa provides most of the cacao for these producers and consumers (Martin 50).  Due to chocolate’s popularity, it is no surprise that it seems to be the only use for cacao today.  That said, there is still research to be done in an effort to design better crops.  The common, long held understanding about cacao was that there were three genetic clusters: criollo, forastero and trinitario.  However, recent research suggests that this is not the case.  Through statistics, Motamayor et al. were able to show that there are in fact 10 major groups of germplasm in cacao beans (Motamayor 2008).  With the continuing research into cacao, there will be ways to better innovate and grow the product given the land restrictions and potential diseases.  Although chocolate appears to be where the history of cacao is in present day, there are still other important things being done.

            In examining the history of cacao, there are three significant areas that come to mind. First, its cultivation and domestication in Mesoamerica where it developed as a bitter drink and gained intrinsic value.  Upon European colonization, the fruit made its way to Europe where two distinct developments occurred.  First, stronger and more pungent flavors were added which would eventually yield the chocolate we know today.  The second is the industrialization which allowed for cacao to be more accessible and no longer only a commodity of the wealthy.  Finally, in today’s world, chocolate seems to be the endgame for cacao, but scientific research shows that there is still work to be done in regard to our knowledge of cacao.  While still holding value as a luxury type of good, modern industrialization has given access to cacao for almost anyone who desires it.    

Works Cited

“The Cocoa: Fino De Aroma.”  Graphic.  Chocolate. SAVIC Services, 2019.  Web.  15 March     2019. 

“A Concise History of Chocolate.”  Timeline.  C-Spot.  C-Spot, 2008.  Web.  12 March 2019. 

Carla Martin and Kathryn Sampeck.  “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.”  The Social            Meaning of Food.  Socio.HU, 16 June 2015.  Web.  12 March 2019. 

Juan Motamayor, Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace de Silva a Mota, Rey Loor, David Kuhn, J.    Steven Brown and Raymond Schnell.  “Geographic and Genetic Population             Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree.”  Plos One.  Plos.  1 October 2008.       Web. 12 March 2019. 

“Figure 1.”  Graph.  Plos One.  Plos, 1 October 2008.  Web.  12 March 2019. 

Pucciarelli, Deanna.  “The History of Chocolate.”  YouTube.  YouTube, 16 March 2017.  Web.    12 March 2019. 

Kathryn Sampeck and Stacey Schwartzkopf.  Chapter 3.  Substance and Seduction: Ingested        Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.       72-95.  Web. 12 March 2015.