Tag Archives: mesoamerica

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. 

Influence of the Natural Growth of Cacao on the Development of pre-Columbian Societies

As one partakes in the sugary, delicious flavors of a chocolate bar, occasionally one might wonder about the origin of this sweet treat that has been molded and tailored over the past millennium.  Ironically, this chocolate bar takes its main ingredient from cacao, namely the cacao beans from a cacao tree.  The natural history of the Theobroma cacao tree is a subject that still possesses many different questions, such as the mechanisms of the tree’s pollination or the human influence on its migration from the Amazon Basin to Mesoamerica (Livingston 745).  Despite these questions, the botanical growth of the cacao tree and its migration across Mesoamerica was crucial for the development of Mayan and Aztec civilization.

The origin of Theobroma cacao has been disputed among scholars for decades, with many different ideas of where the birthplace of the cacao tree could have been.  The most popular two choices are between the Amazonia (or Amazon Basin) and northern South America or Central America (Kawa 63).  The cacao tree is a finicky tree; it is produced specifically in a region of the world called the “cocoa belt”, which is defined as the land between 20 degrees North and 20 degrees South of the Equator that hosts the most optimal weather for growing cacao trees (Coe & Coe 19).  The image below shows the main countries where cacao is produced.  Note that these countries all reside along the general region of the cocoa belt, within 20 degrees of the equator.

White highlighted countries mark areas where cacao is mainly grown (Cocoa)

The Theobroma cacao tree naturally exists in the understory of tropical forests, often growing in small clusters (Kawa 63).  Adding on to the finicky nature of Theobroma cacao, the flowers that bloom directly on the surface of the trunk almost exclusively attract a specific type of insect called a midge.  These midges are tiny insects (about 1/10 the size of a fruit fly) that feed on a variety of sources depending on the family name.  In relation to Theobroma cacao, the tiny chocolate midge is virtually the only insect that can pollinate Theobroma cacao naturally (Leissle 26).  Nevertheless, the growth of cacao plantations led to the deforestation of large tracts of natural rainforest land, destroying midge habitats and decaying the amount of cacao crops produced annually (Pollinators).  To prevent this destruction of forest habitats, Pre-Columbians harvested cacao in smaller garden-style portions instead of plantation bases.  Ironically, this smaller scale production most likely led to much higher yields than the industrialized plantation production due to the former’s preservation of midge habitats; the deep tropical forest shade provides the right humidity and temperature for chocolate midges (Coe & Coe 21).

            The botanical nature of the cacao plant was an influential part of the development of Mesoamerican and South American civilizations in the pre-Columbian era.  The Aztec and Mayan societies heavily valued cacao both as a currency and as a religious item.  Again, the origin of cultivation of Theobroma cacao is still unknown, mostly because the South American people in pre-Columbian times were peculiarly interested only in the sweet pulp of the cacao pods, which can be seen in the picture below (Coe & Coe 25). 

Cacao pulp (Raaka)

In modern times, cacao pods are harvested in much the same way as in pre-Columbian times. From the video below, we can see how the cacao is harvested and turned into the chocolate bars that we see on the cashier counters of supermarkets.


Works Cited

“Cocoa Production in a Nutshell.” Make Chocolate Fair!, 7 Oct. 2015, makechocolatefair.org/issues/cocoa-production-nutshell.

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

“International Cocoa Organization.” Growing Cocoa, www.icco.org/about-cocoa/growing-cocoa.html.

Kawa, Nicholas C. “The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao by Allen M. Young.” Culture & Agriculture, vol. 30, no. 1‐2, 2008, pp. 63–64.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Livingston, Katherine. “Other Books of Interest — The Chocolate Tree. A Natural History of Cacao (Smithsonian Nature Books) by Allen M. Young.” Science, vol. 268, no. 5211, 1995, p. 744.

“Pollinators.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/articles/chocolate-midge.htm.

“Raaka – Bourbon Cask-Aged 82% and Repurposed Pod Cacao Juice.” Hey Now, Cacao!, 23 Sept. 2018, heynowcacao.com/2018/09/23/raaka-bourbon-cask-aged-82-and-repurposed-pod-cacao-juice/.

Changing Flavor Profiles and Forgotten History: An Analysis of Europe’s Affect on Chocolate’s Flavor

There are few items in the world more universally loved than chocolate. No matter where you go chocolate is usually somewhere close by. Through advertisements, word of mouth and the simple smells of the local bakery chocolate has come to encompass society’s everyday life. The substance has been consumed, advertised and mystified to the point that it is closer to universal concept than food. However, as loved as chocolate is, most people forget (or even do not know) chocolate’s origins and original tastes. This is because as chocolate evolved, popular culture has forgotten the original tastes that chocolate once had and enhanced.  A key period in this shift is chocolate’s development from Mesoamerican product to European icon in the 17th century. In an effort to increase popularity and cultivate to European palates the changes made to chocolate stripped away a portion of its original Mesoamerican identity. In analyzing its change in ingredients, recipes and culture, one can see that, chocolate went through an appropriation, brought about by European palates in an effort to make chocolate a European product. This happened to the point that chocolate’s original form and taste became, and still is, barely recognizable as Mesoamerican.

Mesoamerican vs European Recipes

In order to understand the change in chocolate it is important to first understand its origin and original flavor profile. Before colonialism, chocolate had begun to reach its peak popularity within the Aztec empire, being used for a myriad of things, from religion to, celebrations. However, unlike the tastes of the chocolate known today the Mesoamericans flavored their chocolate using the ingredients that naturally grew in their environment like chilis and maize(Martin, Sampeck). This added a fresh taste to the chocolate; one that was also “earthy” and sometimes spicy due to the use of plants and natural ingredients in chocolate recipes. This use of their natural environment can be seen in Mesoamerican recipe’s like Lacandón Sacred Chocolate Drink, a recipe recorded by colonists after their arrival.

Recipe for Lancandon Sacred Chocolate Drink (Coe 63)

The Lancandón Drink recipe shows the Mesoamerican palate to be focused on extracting maximum flavor from the cacao while enhancing such flavor with natural grown herbs and plants and not being intimidated by chocolates innate bitterness This confectionary style is seen not as often in the present days, as large candy companies like Hershey’s and Mars create chocolate that is focused more on sweetness than enjoying the bitterness of cacao.

In comparison, upon arrival to Mesoamerica, most Europeans found the taste of the chocolate to be too bitter and the drink made from it uncomfortably thick and cold (Martin, Sampeck). This was because chocolate was an acquired taste for European palates, which were not used to the flavorings brought by unknown Mesoamerican plants and fruits. The European palate was more tailored towards sugar and spices. While those in Mesoamerica grew to like the Aztec style of chocolate and chocolate drink, in order to make chocolate profitable in Europe, the Mesoamerican flavor profile of chocolate had to be “translated” so that it could be delicious to European palates and compete with also popular newcomers tea and coffee. This prompted them to make changes to the Mesoamerican recipes so that they were more familiar to the European tastes and therefore enjoyable. Such changes can be seen in the modified recipes such as that of Antonio Colmenero De Ledesma.

Recipe for European take on the Mesoamerican chocolate drink (Coe 133-134)

As can be seen in Ledesma’s recipe the European chocolate recipes kept a few of the Mesoamerican originating ingredients, like mecaxochitl, and chilis, but also added sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and hazelnuts. This added the sweetness to the chocolate that is craved by European palates. This recipe also came with an advisory not to drink it cold (as he “Indians” did), as it was thought to cause stomach aches (Coe,134). This ultimately led to the concept of hot chocolate that we know and love today.

Modeling Flavor Profiles

There are several reasons why these ingredients were added. Such spices were the most abundant within Europe, while the original Mesonamerican ingredients were less prevalent. In order to better visualize the difference in flavor profiles between the two groups two histograms can be seen below which separate the main ingredients of European and Mesoamerican chocolate.

Mosoamerican Chocolate Flavor Profile (Martin, Sampeck)
European Chocolate Flavor Profile (Martin, Sampeck)

In comparing these two charts, the only similar ingredients between the two is sugar, which was used in a much larger amount by the Europeans. The Mesoamerican flavor profile features ingredients native to Central America like achiote, a natural food coloring grown in Central America, and xochinacatzli, a highly sought-after flower that is known for its unique spicy odor and taste (Schwattzkopf, Sanpeck 83).  An interesting point in the comparison of these two charts is the addition of milk in chocolate as the Mesoamericans did not have access to it before the arrival of the Europeans. This addition is a good example of the Europeans changing the ingredients in order to fit their palates and entice the European market. This translation from Mesoamerican to European palates is not the sole factor in the wandering away from the Mesoamaerican origin. However, over time the translation for European palates became a transition of chocolate being seen as a Mesoamerican substance to a European substance, leading to the subversion of the Mesoamerican flavor profile and ultimately, after colonization of North America by Europe, the type of chocolate we see today.

Chocolate company branded using Mesoamerican culture

Importance of Noting Change

This is why the initial difference in flavor profiles is important. It is necessary to understand because the walk away from Mesoamerican ingredients in the 17th century was the beginning of a pattern of people innovating chocolate but failing to remember its origins. This can even be seen today as presently chocolate still mostly models its European modifications but has also added its own modifications. An increase in sugar, preservatives and flavors like mint and caramel, push chocolate even further away from its origins. Today most organizations brand Chocolate that uses Mesoamerican flavors as Aztec or Mayan, not to harken back to the origins of the substance, but to increase its mystic attractiveness (figure above). This is done instead of recognizing that these Mesoamerican tastes were the original methods of chocolate consumption. The idea is not to analyze a single historical context but notice a continuous pattern of society forgetting the origins of the products/events that are around them. While such arguments may not be as dire as other current world problems it is important that we develop a habit of correcting history and giving credit where credit is due to the individuals and groups of people who have contribute to the society we enjoy so much today.


Coe, S. (2007). The true history of chocolate (Revised [and updated ed.]. ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson. Print

Sampeck Katheryn & Jonathan, Thayn, “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” (2017) pp. 72-99. Web.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” 2016 pp. 37-60. Web.

Image Credits

Coe, S. (2007). The true history of chocolate (Revised [and updated ed.]. ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson. Print.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” 2016 pp. 37-60. Web.


Chocolate Madness: Is it a Health Hazard or Healthy Snack?

Why is there a misconception surrounding chocolate today?

Since its introduction in the sixteenth century, chocolate has been a controversial topic in society. It has been labeled as the cause of adult acne to an “unbelievable” treat that can “help you live longer” and “lose weight” (Vox 2015). These conflicting ideologies  date back to the Aztec empire and their use of cacao as both a religious ritual and medicine. Throughout time the usage of cacao, more commonly consumed today as chocolate, has shifted from a religious medicine to a indulgent treat. Whether or not that treat is considered healthy depends entirely as to what is being consumed. The reality is that the chocolate society consumes today is very different from the Aztec recipe. This is largely in part to the European influence on cacao, the growth of a new market, and the high demand for sweeter flavors.

What is chocolate?

While most chocolate is commonly associated with brand name companies such as Hershey’s, chocolate in Mesoamerica had a different purpose and taste. Chocolate is the product of cacao, its original form, which has a bitter taste. Not only was it used as a “source of currency” and mostly “reserved for the nobility,” but it was also part of the “Mexica healing system” (Dilinger et al 2059S). In fact, cacao was thought to “soothe stomach problems…reduce fevers…and promote strength before military or sexual conquests” (Wilson 158). This is reflected in the image on the left (Figure 1). This vessel depicts a battle scene that was most likely given as a political gift and served chocolate as a drink.

When chocolate was introduced to Europe during the seventeenth century, the medicinal properties of cacao were still widely accepted. Many physicians claimed that chocolate had the power to “sure patients suffering from fever and infirmities  of the liver” (Wilson 9937). Some even stated that “in great quantities” chocolate was “beneficial for the ailments of the chest” and “good for the stomach if drunk in small quantities” (Wilson 9937).

Despite the similarities in uses, the medicinal value of chocolate in Europe did differ from the Mesoamerican usage. The “Mexica” valued religion and even “perceived cacao to be an intoxicating food,” mirroring many critics in the modern day who claim chocolate is “addictive” (Dilinger et al 2095S)(Vox 2015). In contrast, European society in the seventeenth century did not view chocolate as a dangerous or “intoxicating food.” This was mostly a result of the persuasive techniques physicians used to convince the public of “chocolate’s perceived benefits” by reporting “cases of seemingly respectable witnesses” (Wilson 158). Thus, with the ideology of chocolate being both a tasty and “healthy” option, the demand began to increase, paving the way for a new market.

The Transition from Medicine to Commodity

With an increase in demand, a new industry was born. Chocolatiers began to experiment with new recipes, which is how milk chocolate was born. Cacao was then associated with milk and given new health benefits as a “good-tasting restorative drink high in both proteins and carbohydrates” (Wilson 159). As a result, chocolate was “truly prized” and led to the development of a new market (Lippi 9938). However, in order to meet the rising demand, chocolatiers also had to create recipes that would “replace cocoa with other low-cost ingredients that offered the same aspect” (Lippi 9939). This led to a decrease in the amount of cacao used in chocolate and an increase in the amount of added sugars, milk and other products.

So… Is chocolate healthy or a health hazard?

With a decrease in the amount of cacao, came a decrease in the health benefits. The “high sugar content” was thus associated with “obesity, tooth decay, and gum disease” which is why chocolate has become such a controversial snack today (Wilson 9939). The reality is that chocolate is not the main culprit for this sudden decrease in health value. On the contrary, sugar and all of the added ingredients are responsible. The cacao bean, in its raw form, has flavanols which are high in antioxidants. These micronutrients  are what serve as mood boosters, improved cognitive performance, and even a small decrease in cardiovascular disease (Vox 2015). However, it is important to note that these effects only increase if the percentage of cacao within a chocolate bar is high, as well. According to YouTuber and chocolatier, Alyssia Sheikh, a bar or 100% cacao is “disgusting” but healthy (Mind Over Munch 2016). In her video, listed below, she highlights several differences between chocolates with varying cacao percentages. In her conclusion, she defines chocolate as both a healthy snack and a potential health hazard. The higher cocoa percentage is equal to more fat and less sugar. While this fat is “healthier,” consuming large quantities will prove to be just as unhealthy as consuming a chocolate bar made up of less cocoa and more sugar (Mind Over Munch 2016). In other words, chocolate, in any recipe, can be dangerous if you consume too much and healthy if you consume just the right amount. At the end, the risk is entirely up to the consumer and it is one that millions are willing to take.

Scholarly Sources

Dillinger, T L, et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 130, no. 8S Suppl, 2000, pp. 2057S–72S.

Lippi, Donatella. “Sin and Pleasure: the History of Chocolate in Medicine.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, vol. 63, no. 45, 2015, pp. 9936–41.

Wilson, Philip. “The Art of Medicine: Centuries of Seeking Chocolate’s Medicinal Benefits.” The Lancet, vol. 376, no. 9736, 2010, pp. 158–9.

Multimedia Sources

Mind Over Munch. “Is Dark Chocolate Healthy? Misconceptions, benefits & more! FAN REQUESTED!– Mind Over Munch.” YouTube, 24 Mar. 2016, https://youtu.be/iEhAHGk6DXM

Vox. “The Chocolate Science Hype Machine.” YouTube, 25 Jan. 2015, https://youtu.be/_Ch5CIOB9AE


Health effects of Chocolate [Photograph found in Creative Commons, Mikael Häggström]. (2015, June). Retrieved March 13, 2019, from, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Health_effects_of_chocolate_(raster).png

Mayan chocolate vessel with battle scene[Photograph found in Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland]. (2019, January). Retrieved March 13, 2019, from, https://archive.org/details/clevelandart-2012.32-vessel-with-battle-s