Currency is the most influential object or idea to ever grace humanity. Wars have been fought, people have been killed, and important decisions have been made all because of money. Whether we realize it or not, money impacts our everyday life, and a lot of the decisions we make are based upon money or the potential to acquire more. The concept of currency hasn’t really changed throughout history, but the medium in which we exchange has. Back in the time of Mesoamerica money quite literally grew on trees, instead of the paper currency we use today, Mesoamericans used cacao beans as currency. Using cacao beans as currency really signified just how important cacao was to the Mesoamericans, and was also an excellent medium of currency for them .
Mesoamericans trading cacao beans (Cartwright)
Cacao was a staple for mesoamerican life and was used daily. At the time of the early Mayan’s, cacao beans weren’t exactly used how they are today, instead they were still bitter since the Mayan’s didn’t have the best roasting techniques, but still, recipes consisted of an abundance of cacao. As time went on though, cacao gained much more of a cultural significance. Cacao became a sign of prestige, gained social importance, used during religious rituals and social gatherings, and much more. And even to this day, some Mayans and Spaniard grow chocolate as a cultural practice or as a family tradition. (Garthwaite)
Mayan marriage ceremony based around cacao (Mexicolore)
Cacao had been thought of by the Mayan’s as a “Food of the gods” and that it was found in the mountains by the gods and passed down to the humans after creation. In the early stages of chocolate, liquid chocolate drinks were only consumed by the elite and rich, and wasn’t like how it is today. Instead, chocolate drinks were spicy and sultry, as they were also mixed with an arrangement of spices (Jean). Other uses of cacao included medicinal uses. With a major ingredient in cacao being caffeine, the mayans used this in many different ways, soldiers would even consume cacao before battle to get more energy.
All of these factors contributed to the importance of cacao to the Mayans, making it an even better option of currency. Because of the already high cultural significance, it was an easy decision to add even more significance by also making it a currency.
The interesting part of cacao to me is how it was used as currency. Some may think it to be crazy how something you could grow in your backyard could be used as currency, but for the Aztecs and Mayans, it proved to be a pretty effective system. To be a good currency, there are three big factors: durability, convenience, and distinctiveness. Cacao beans embody all three of these characteristics, and paired with their already highly touted nature, they made for the perfect currency. Cacao beans are relatively small, easy to carry, have a smoothly rounded shape, and are distinguishable from other common beans (Sampek). In order to be used as currency, the object needs to be relatively rare or precious in order for it to be desirable and of want (Maré), which characterizes cacao beans perfectly. Keep in mind, Cacao serves a function moreso as a means of trade rather than a standard value of money.
How a Cacao bean looks and its uses (Lecture slide)
Although this may have seemed like you could have infinite money by planting an infinite amount of trees, that notion was wrong. In fact, Cacao needs to be grown under the right circumstances in order to grow successfully. Cacao trees are actually pretty picky in that they need the right amount of shade, water, and just the right soil in order to sustain life. And even under all of these conditions, it takes several years until the tree even begins to produce the cacao, which means a lot of labor has to be put in before you can begin to even see any earnings. (Sampek)
There were some flaws with cacao. Like modern day money, cacao was sometimes counterfeited. People would counterfeit cacao by emptying out the inside contents of the bean, then fill it up with mud to the appropriate weight (Maré). But with some disadvantages came many advantages, and cacao doubled as a currency as well as a staple in mesoamerican culture and cuisine.
Cacao played many roles in mesoamerican life from food, to medicine, being a social icon, to currency. No matter how you want to look at it, cacao defined mesoamerica and arguably was the biggest contributing factor to the culture back then. The use of cacao as currency showed just how significant it was in mesoamerican life, and also proved to be a great medium of exchange.
When I asked a large internet population for words they associated with chocolate, they delivered a slew of responses: sweet, dark, craving, decadent, happiness, disgusting. Despite over 75 replies, only one included the mention of currency or money.
However, for hundreds of years currency was one of the primary uses for cacao beans, the staple from which chocolate is made. From trading cacao for farm animals, services, and street food to representing vast sums of wealth held by those in power, cacao beans were the primary medium of exchange in Mesoamerica—a system that prevailed for centuries after the first European colonizers moved to the Americas. While we certainly don’t use cacao beans directly as money anymore, this lesser-known use of cacao has persisted in society for centuries after the last cacao bean was used as coinage. Indeed, when we broaden our definition of currency, the monetary value of chocolate endures throughout the history of cacao in the post-Columbian world.
In ancient Mesoamerica, cacao held a place of utmost honor. In Aztec and Mayan societies, it had three main uses: as a drink, as a religious symbol, and as currency. In this essay, we will be focusing primarily on its use as a currency. As Sophie and Michael Coe state in their book, The True History of Chocolate, “Cacao beans were employed as ready cash and to buy small items used in housekeeping” (Coe & Coe, 59).
These beans were, literally, used as coins in a definite system of money.
So ingrained was the use of cacao beans as money, that there were people within these societies who became experts at making counterfeit cacao beans. Overall, this was a complex and well-defined system of currency using cacao beans, rather than metal, as legal tender. It is, in all regards, the first documented case of cacao as currency.
Before analyzing the use of cacao as currency in the modern world, we must also define exactly what currency is. According to Merriam Webster dictionary, currency is “something (such as coins, treasury notes, and banknotes) that is in circulation as a medium of exchange.” The use of cacao beans in Aztec and Mayan society fits this definition concretely. People used beans as coinage, and for each bean, there was a specific value attached. But in order to investigate the use of cacao as currency in our modern world, we must broaden our definition of currency past physical money. Instead, currency can be more generally defined as anything used transactionally as a medium of exchange.
With this definition in mind, we can now investigate how cacao was used transactionally in recent history. One prevalent case of chocolate as currency occurred not long after cacao was introduced to Europe. As goods increased their flow between Europe and the Americas, Spanish royalty began to serve chocolate as a drink to showcase an exotic good from their land overseas. This tradition quickly spread amongst other royal families in Italy, France, and Britain through marriage and other political and social interactions. Before long, chocolate became the European nobility’s most fashionable drink. In this way, the nobility of 17th century Europe was trading chocolate in exchange for social reputation. This came as a cost to them financially, as cacao needed to be sourced from the Americas in an era when this necessitated a grueling and dangerous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. But to have chocolate gave them social standing, much as a fashionable dress or necklace would. In this way, chocolate was used as a social currency for Europe’s nobility of the 17th century: chocolate in exchange for reputation.
It is impossible to discuss chocolate as a social currency without considering the tradition of Valentine’s Day in modern society. A heart-shaped box of chocolate is considered the quintessential Valentine’s day gift, a declaration of love packaged in a shiny red heart. Countless chocolate ads such as this one, appearing in Times Magazine on Feb. 9th, 1962, broadcast the same message: give chocolate to receive love.
So deeply rooted in our society is the notion that chocolate can buy love that in the world, approximately $1.7 billion is spent on chocolate—and the majority is spent by men (Zayas, Pandey, & Tabak, 1) .
By looking at Valentine’s Day chocolate through the lens of social currency, it is evident how the use of chocolate as currency has prevailed through today.
From the roasted cacao beans of ancient Mesoamerica to the drinking chocolate of European nobility and the heart-shaped chocolate boxes of today’s world, cacao has thoroughly ingrained itself into the fabric of human trade. Whether it be a social or physical currency, there’s no denying that people are willing to trade chocolate for other intangible goods.
1: From my Instagram page (not cited further to maintain anonymity)
“The True History of Chocolate.” The True History of Chocolate, by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, Thames and Hudson, 2019.
Zayas, et al. “Red Roses and Gift Chocolates Are Judged More Positively in the U.S. Near Valentine’s Day: Evidence of Naturally Occurring Cultural Priming.” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers, 24 Feb. 2017, doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00355.
Imagine a world that uses chocolate as currency. It is safe to say that this world would quickly run into some economic and sanitation problems. Interestingly, chocolate happens to be made of a former, rather successful method of currency, Cacao seeds. Today, cacao seeds are most often cultivated and consumed as a comestible, namely chocolate, which is a preparation of roasted and smashed Cacao seeds. Chocolate has become an extremely popular delicacy of the modern world; however, for the ancient Maya and Aztecs, cacao was rarely consumed as an edible treat because it had more socially pertinent uses. In these two ancient civilizations, cacao production was perhaps the greatest indicator of wealth, which ultimately contributed heavily to the downfall of one of them.
For thousands of years in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, Cacao was one of the most treasured and versatile goods. In fact, the ancient Maya, one of the oldest recognized civilizations in the Americas, relied so heavily on the production of Cacao vessels that some historians believe the loss of the valued good led to the downfall of the powerful civilization (Learn 1). Cacao seeds were an effective item choice for currency because they are light, portable, durable, and usually are homogeneous in size and color. In fact, one of the first European accounts of cacao praised the usefulness and practicality of utilizing the good as currency (Martin-Sampeck 4).
Many historians falsely credit the Spaniards with the development of cacao as currency because the ancient civilizations of pre-Columbian mesoamerica implemented cacao seeds as coins in their monetary system not long before contact with Spain. We know this is not true because before the first European accounts of cacao as a comestible, there were records of the cacao as money and as an intrical part of the Mesoamerican monetary system (Martin-Sampeck 4). In another source called “Cacao Money”, Karen Sampeck writes that people objects that work well as money are “durable”, “distinctive”, and are a “convenient size” (Sampeck 1). Cacao seeds fit all of these said conditions, which led some people, like Peter Martyr to declare cacao as a superior form of money to any European coinage. This was a bold claim by Martyr because it contradicts the Eurocentric and often racist view held by many at that time that the Europeans were the most advanced, superior group of people.
Cacao became officially recognized by Europe as a form of currency in 1555, when one spanish real was equated to 140 cacao beans (Maré 1). The Aztecs, who viewed cacao as a gift from their god of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl, never adopted cacao into their monetary system, but cacao was almost comparable to gold in the fact that the accumulation of cacao meant guaranteed wealth and prosperity (Sampeck 1). Although cacao production was a vital part of both the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the Aztecs had control over the most prolific cacao growing zones in Mesoamerica (Sampeck 6). Cacao is an exacting plant that needs a perfect combination of shade, rainfall and soil to grow properly, so it is believed that the Maya eventually began to exhaust their limited cacao supply.
As you can see in the map above, the cacao heartlands in the Maya territory were few and relatively small in size. A few bad months of weather had the capability of halting cacao production for the entire civilization, which would cause an economic collapse. The Ancient Maya civilization likely did collapse because of their economic overemphasis on cacao, but the connection between cacao and wealth continues even today. This is because Europeans were enamored by the monetary value of cacao before they fell in love with the taste. After the fall of the Maya civilization, cacao was being exported to every major European nation. Cacao made people rich in ancient times because it was money itself, but cacao’s versatility is continuing to generate wealth in today’s society in the form of cocoa butter products, cocoa powder, cacao bean fertilizer, and of course, chocolate (Singh-Cook 2).
Cacao may not have been the best choice as a form of currency, but there is no doubt that the ancient construct of cacao as an economic necessity in Mesoamerica has a lasting influence today. For example, Belgium relies heavily on their chocolate production to generate wealth for their country through tourism and consumption. Countries like Belgium would not be able to produce cacao products on such a large scale without the emphasis and esteemed value that was placed upon cacao as money by the pre-Columbian Mesoamericans.
Chocolate is everywhere. It fills grocery store shelves, gifts, cookbooks, and desserts, even expanding to vinegars and cosmetics. A simple taste of the sweet candy is enough for anyone to decipher why we go crazy for it. It makes sense that businesses would capitalize off of this love, filling stores with variations of flavorings, textures, and purities of chocolate. By rule of supply and demand, the excessive options for chocolate are simply filling our greedy demands, right? However, it was not actually a pure love for the flavor that prompted chocolate’s global expansion, but rather the economic greed of colonizers and businesses.
Chocolate was not a flavor we all inherently liked. In the 1500’s, cacao, the base ingredient of chocolate, was a cause of disgust to many Europeans in their first encounter (Leissle 23). As colonizers entered the New World, cacao already had a strong presence and meaning to natives. The Mayas and Aztecs revered chocolate for religious, traditional, and health purposes (Leissle 28). As such, the powerful, foreign colonizers often encountered the beans as currency, beverages, and ritualistic symbols when dealing with the native rulers. However, those who stayed did not immediately understand the natives’ deep respect for the crop. Girolamo Benzo remarked that chocolate “‘seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity. I was in this country for more than a year, and never wanted to taste it’” (Coe & Coe 110). This initial distaste for chocolate was not uncommon, and allowed the crop to be passed up for consumption for many years. As seen in the unequal cocoa consumption displayed below, even today, chocolate is not universally loved.
While this may be difficult for us to comprehend today, a taste of a more traditional chocolate drink would shock our modern expectations. Chocolate was not always the sweet solid bar that we know, and love, today. It was originally served as a bitter drink without sugar and mixed with a variety of ingredients like corn and chile (Harp). Europeans did not get used to or accept cacao’s flavor, rather they made it more palatable using sugar and spices, like cinnamon and anise seed, that they were more accustomed to (Coe & Coe 115). The need for other flavors to make chocolate palatable is emphasized by the fact that it did not universally spread to all countries it was exposed to. Countries that increased their sugar production and consumption, namely Britain and the US, also saw rises in chocolate consumption, while countries, like France, who did not adjust their diet towards sugar saw little to no rise (Presentation 3). Due to this distaste for traditional cacao, it would make sense for Europeans to disregard it altogether. However, the process of making it more palatable displays a desire to consume it, an active effort, rather than an inherent liking. This suggests alternative motives to value the crop.
One such motive that is often suggested follows a belief that it was the chemical stimulation of cacao that transformed it into an addictive substance which drove people’s desires to make it more palatable and continue production and consumption. However, while it does contain caffeine, there is nowhere near a high enough level to truly affect us, especially compared to tea and coffee. There is a level of the weaker stimulant theobromine, however again the effects of this would be too weak to explain the craze of chocolate from an addictive standpoint (Leissle 28). Instead of anything physically inherent to chocolate, it was the social and economic value that catalyzed its global spread.
While colonizers did not initially understand the natives’ reverence of the chocolate drink, its monetary presence cemented its importance and initiated a greedy drive to dominate its market. Cacao beans were a form of currency in Aztec and Maya civilization. A currency that the Spanish quickly adapted to and learned to use to their advantage.
As a currency, cacao beans quickly became important to the Spanish government as a resource to exploit in their new territories. This resulted in “a group of people who had never seen or heard of it before… drive its trade” (Leissle 34). To Europeans, the value of cacao began solely as a monetary commodity. This resulted in the Spanish Encomienda system which taxed a certain amount of tribute and labor from the local people, mostly in the form of cacao cultivation. “The Spanish very quickly realised that they could profit from growing and trading cocoa. When they colonised Mexico, they started exporting this drink to Europe, but added sugar to it to make it more to the liking of the Europeans… It gained immediate popularity with the Spanish Court and was in turn savoured by the European élite” (“Museum of the National Bank of Belgium”). As desire for chocolate grew, its price quickly shot up and colonizing powers in Europe became intent on joining the market. As seen below, prices and value of cocoa rose disproportionately to its production level, making it a very economically valuable commodity.
The spread to the common population was similarly driven by economic incentives. With a new product to market, businesses utilized imagery of the wealthy enjoying the deletable sweet to infuse the idea of wealth with their new product to the illiterate masses (Leissle 38). Furthermore, once the hydraulic press was capable of separating the expensive fats from the chocolate liqueur to form cocoa powder, chocolate was integrated into the average kitchen to spread the new product. The spread of chocolate domestically was instigated in the 19th -20th century by “enterprising housekeeping and cooking educators who partnered with industry in the name of ‘domestic science.’ … Walter Baker & Company demonstrated chocolate making with their equipment and offered free samples to visitors. In an attempt to encourage the use of their chocolate in cooking, they also provided free copies of Maria Parloa’s ‘Choice Receipts,’ a recipe brochure with suggestions on how to use chocolate and cocoa in home kitchens” (Martin). This entrepreneurial partnership defines the roots of the creation of a new economic market companies have monopolized on ever since. Four of the five leading chocolate producers, which create over half the chocolate in the world, have been around for over a hundred years. These companies saw a chance to open a new market, dug out their areas, and took every chance to acquire potential competition and monopolize the market (Leissle 75). To this day, the current market is controlled by the original players who first figured out how to turn a currency into a dietary staple. The inherent economic basis of chocolate instigated and continues to drive its expansion into our diet, homes, and pockets.
Martin, Carla. “Brownies.” US History Scene, ushistoryscene.com/article/brownies/. “Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.” A Tasty Currency: Cocoa – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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
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.
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 &
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.
Maya Lord Sits before an Individual with a Container of Frothed
Chocolate.” Wikimedia Commons,
Carrying a Cacao Pod.” Wikimedia
Paying with a one hundred dollar bill in any store will prompt cashiers to raise their eyebrows. Yet, their skepticism is not unfounded. According to the United States Department of Treasury, approximately $70 million counterfeit dollars currently circulate the market (Wilber). While people remain hyperaware about the current proliferation of counterfeit currency, this practice is not new. One form of imitation currency evolved during the Post Classic Period (1300-1500) in Mesoamerica, a reign known as the Aztec empire. During this time, the Aztecs witnessed the spread of counterfeit currency — their highly prized cacao beans.
The number of cacao beans a person possessed during the Aztec empire determined their social status. People used cacao to purchase commodities such as turkey hens, pay employees wages, and host social climbing parties (Coe 99). Since cacao became a difficult commodity to obtain in large amounts and grow quickly, Aztec cacao distributors began faking cacao beans (Coe 100). As cacao galvanized followers across the world over time, major cacao production companies started faking all aspects of cacao from chocolate bar filler ingredients to brand labels.
Despite public denouncement of counterfeit culture throughout history, cacao counterfeit culture has never truly gone away. The idea of counterfeit cacao, which has evolved into counterfeit chocolate, has prevailed in society due to scanty regulation and created more consumer health risks.
The Beginnings of Deception in the Aztec Empire
Pre-Conquest Mesoamericans exalted huge amounts of cacao beans. Instead of calculating cacao value by weight or bulk, merchants assessed cacao value by counting beans (Coe 81). Key leaders such as Texcoco’s Nezahualcoyotl and Tenochtitlan’s Motecuhuzoma adopted this mindset when they stashed millions of beans in their vaults and graves to preserve their wealth (Coe 82). Due to the overwhelming potential of of commodities, the Aztecs began creating and refining fake cacao bean production.
Anthropologist Joel Palka, who investigated archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala, unearthed the widespread use of clay cacao beans. (Garthwaite). In an interview with The Smithsonian, Palka suggests that these beans may have passed through the market as a real currency or even substituted for cacao during rituals. As the Aztec’s main currency, billions of cacao beans circulated the market. Most certainly, cacao counterfeit currency reached the wealthy who possessed millions of beans. Since it would be impossible for the wealthy to throw out all fakes among millions of cacao beans, this suggests counterfeit cacao culture existed and proliferated.
Creating a Fake Currency
Even with billions of cacao beans exchanges, Aztec cacao sellers took great measures to disguise their fake cacao. According to Bernard Sahagun, a Spaniard documenting Aztec lives, cacao sellers processed fakes using hot ashes, chalk, and a generous coating of amaranth dough, wax, or avocado pits (Coe 100). To further camouflage their counterfeit cacao, sellers mixed the fake cacao with pure Theobroma cacao beans. Other cacao deception experts exploited empty shells by filling the insides with mud (De Maré).
The many methods used to deceive buyers presented risks, such as exposure and banishment, but documentation of this practice makes counterfeiting seem universal at the time and for the most part, unchallenged by leadership (De Maré). While people no longer use cacao as a currency, the same counterfeiting ethos has not been lost in society. In fact, this cynical practice of counterfeiting still pervades the chocolate market and can drastically affect consumers’ health. This is now chocolate adulteration.
Counterfeit Cacao Becomes Adulterated Chocolate
In Europe, it is common to see adulteration in the production phase. Since nineteenth century France, producers have replaced cocoa butter with egg yolks or mutton and added alkali to artificially darken chocolate (Coe 243). More recently, the 2005 European government allowed chocolate producers to add any sugar to chocolate along with 40% chocolate filler and still label it chocolate, despite chocolate purists’ outcry (Bolenz). Unsurprisingly, producers then selected cheaper fillers such as lactose Helianthus tuberosus flour, pea and oat fibers, and potato starches (Bolenz).
During a similar time, government leaders accused several companies, including Cadbury and Hershey, of adulterating cacao butter (Squicciarini). Now companies can avoid this public humiliation by rebranding products. Labeling products “chocolate flavored” in order to distract the consumer from the product’s true cacao percentage is considered legal (Bolenz). Since these corporations control a large percentage of the chocolate distribution chain, customers have a limited sense of what chocolate tastes like without additional fillers. The popularity of chocolate adulteration, exemplified by the participation of two big five companies, shows how chocolate fraud endures during modern times.
Counterfeiting becomes especially visible when malicious producers employ flashy brand names to attract consumers. During Lunar New Year in 2017, the French government discovered a Chinese company that plagiarized Ferrero and Mars stickers to pass off their fake chocolate as legitimate (Yu). Unfortunately, many people probably purchased and consumed the counterfeit candies containing chemicals or larvae before then (Yu). While governments may punish counterfeit chocolate, the proliferation of fake chocolate, from fake branding to adulterated ingredients, persists and poses significant risks to consumers.
Evidence of counterfeit cacao dates back to the Aztec empire, but the practice remains rampant today. With the advent of new counterfeiting practices, the consumer now faces potential health risks. Only when more people start learning about cacao and chocolate counterfeiting, demand recipe transparency from companies, and pressure leaders to regulate and dismantle unethical companies will consumers learn to savor the taste of pure, unadulterated chocolate.
Bolenz, S., Amtsberg, K. and Schäpe, R. (2006), The broader usage of sugars and fillers in milk chocolate made possible by the new EC cocoa directive. International Journal of Food Science & Technology, 41: 45-55.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.
Lunch time on a Saturday seems like as good of a time as any for an all-you-can-eat, opulent Chocolate Buffet. At the request of my pregnant wife and her pregnant friend, I was summoned to the Chocolate Room to indulge. After talking about the Chocolate Room for weeks, we met up with the other couple for a visit to the Boston Langham Hotel where the event would be hosted. When we arrived, we tipped the valet, tended to our reservations, and didn’t so much as flitch at the forty-five-dollar charge to attend the Chocolate Room. Exceeding already-high expectations, it was worth every penny. While dollar-chocolate at the local convenience store is mere feet from home, why would any couple be compelled to spend over one-hundred dollars just to experience a room of chocolate?
While it is clear that chocolate varies in taste and quality, the experience chocolate warrants, and the experience that Langham creates, set a high value on the entire experience. It is worth exploring to what extent the gustatory perception plays in the social behavior around chocolate. The Chocolate Room experience invoked questions that I will use to probe at the value of the experience. This will help to understand whether the taste of chocolate, or the social and human experience, is a more powerful determining factor in assessing the value of chocolate. Ultimately, we will find that while the pleasantry of taste is what allows us to enjoy it so much, it is not always what compels us to enjoy it so much. When taste is paired with the experience of chocolate, it greatly influences a person’s love for the flavor of chocolate.
Love for chocolate: Natural vs. conditioned?
Is the human affinity for chocolate innate and then discovered in each person, or is it truly socially conditioned? On the topic of the development of food preferences in general, and not just chocolate, psychologist Jamie Hale explains what preferences are pre-programmed, or innate in humans. Hale explains that sweet, savory, and salty substances are innately preferred, whereas bitter and many sour substances are innately rejected (Jamie Hale). However, Hale further explains that “these innate tendencies can be modified by pre- and postnatal experiences.” This means that while taste, a component of flavor, is detected by the olfactory system, it is also strongly influenced by early exposure and learning beginning in utero and continuing during early infant milk feedings (Jamie Hale). In a close study of child consumption, it was found that eighty-six percent of two to three-year-old American children consume some type of sweetened beverage or dessert in a day (Alison K. Ventura). These early experiences set the stage for later food choices and are important in establishing life-long food habits. While this is true, it cannot be ignored that flavors are enjoyed or not enjoyed by natural compulsions as well. In regards specifically to chocolate, studies show that multiple characteristics of chocolate, including sugar, cocoa and the drug–like effects experienced, play a role in the desire to consume chocolate (Nasser et al.) It is thought to be a combination of both early exposure and a naturally tendency to enjoy all that chocolate offers that ultimately shapes behaviors around chocolate. However, this understanding of a human affinity for chocolate does little to explain why chocolate is consumed as a treat.
Why is chocolate a dessert?
When we looked around the chocolate room, there is more than just chocolate desserts. Although the vast majority of the treats are chocolate, there are also many other sweets. So, why when are so many chocolate centric? The obvious observation about chocolate is that desserts are often times thought of as a treat. We reward ourselves with something that we deserve. Often times toward the end of the day we may convince ourselves that “we’ve earned this”. Treats are pleasant and something we look forward to. The less obvious observation is that chocolate is a pleasantry beyond just taste. For more reasons that we will continue to explore, chocolate makes us feel good emotionally. According to psychology Doctor Susan Albers, we crave chocolate for the feeling that it gives us. She described in Psychology Today that it “Taste good. It smells good. It feels good when it melts on our tongue. And all of those ‘feelings’ are the result of our brain releasing chemicals in response to each chocolate experience” (Albers). As we learned, all these perceptions are part of the flavor of chocolate. A common thing happens when we feel good; our body release chemicals. The experience of eating chocolate results in feel good neurotransmitters (mainly dopamine) being released in particular brain regions (frontal lobe, hippocampus and hypothalamus) (Albers). If we are rewarding ourselves with a dessert what would a better way be than to do so with chocolate.
Am I getting a daily dose of dope with my chocolate?
It was originally thought that chocolate contained compounds that could activate this dopamine system directly (like cigarettes and cocaine do) (Albers). Chocolate does contain theobromine, caffeine, fat and sugar. Theobromine can increase heart rate and bring about feelings of arousal. Caffeine can make us feel awake and increase our ability to work and focus. Fat and sugar are preferred food sources for humans because they are calorie dense. However, experiments in which the components of chocolate were separated out indicated that just ingesting the chemicals in chocolate without the mouth-feel and taste does not decrease craving for more chocolate (Albers). This means that our bodies have a desire for the entire chocolate experience, and not just one chemical that is in chocolate.
What is chemically unique about chocolate?
In the chocolate Room, the effect chocolate had on our body, mood and emotions was evident. Starting with a chocolate crape with chocolate sauce, fruits and chocolate rum, my pallet was primed for more chocolate. We continued to explore the room in search for the next treat. After each sitting and each plate consumed, our joy and excitement continued to build for our next treat. We each shared a common affinity for chocolate. Chocolate’s effect on our body goes beyond the tongue. It enticed sense beyond taste and has a positive effect on our emotions. Chocolate transcends the senses and takes over inhibition. What seems like an insatiable desire for chocolate gradually transitioned to a glucose high, and feelings of stimulation. The joy’s of chocolate were compared to kissing in a study by psychologist David Lewis. The study found that letting chocolate dissolve slowly in your mouth produces as big an increase in brain activity and heart rate as a passionate kiss—but the effects of the chocolate last four times longer (BBC). Researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California say chocolate also contains a feel-
good chemical called anandamide, which is found naturally in the brain, and is similar to another one called anandamide THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) found in marijuana (Woodford). Its name comes from ananda, the Sanskrit word for “bliss”(Senese) (Fig3). Blissful is exactly how I would to describe the experience in the Chocolate room. I must have been experiencing ananda.
If chocolate transcends taste, what other senses could be enticed?
In an effort to recognize that the experience of chocolate extends beyond the taste buds, the Langham was certain to maintain an elevated experience for each of the senses. According to Dr. Carla Martin of Harvard University, the “sound of the environment and of the food and beverage itself has been known to impact the experience of flavor” (Martin). This idea of a multisensory environment encompasses elements that entice all the senses. Dr. Charles Spence from the Crossmodal Laboratory at Oxford University explains that the flavor experience for anything from coffee and wine to seafood and chocolate can be altered when careful attention is given to the texture, temperature, feel and esthetics of the mugs, chinaware and silverware, and chairs, as well as the lighting in the room, the sound of the environment, and the context of how the food is being presented (Spense) (Vid 1). The senses come together in a way that change the flavor. The multisensory environment prepared by the Langham was replete with elements to arouse all the senses including fine utensils, live musical string instruments, all compound to add to the ambiance (fig 4).
After being seated, we were immediately introduced to the layout of the room and explained that the room was segmented into the bodily senses. They have items prepared at separate tables to stimulate sight, sounds, touch, taste, and sent. Treats from the sight table we perfectly plated, meticulously garnished, and delicately placed with care. Desserts prepared for the smell table were chosen for their strong and pleasant aromatic properties such as Grilled Pineapple with chocolate beads, Orange Mouse, Milk chocolate Creamoux with Candied Violet and Rosewater Pana Cotta. Choices on the Sound table included items that audibly contributed to the experience, such as milk chocolate lined rice crispy treats, a crisp milk chocolate crème brulee, and some silent but delicious tarts topped with a fresh crisp strawberry. The touch table sought to tickle my fingers with tactile treats such as a chocolate bubble tapioca, chocolate mini waffle cones, chocolate cake pops, and Black Forest Triffle, rich red velvet cake with a light and airy whipped topping. The Taste table was curated to entice by pairing either rich and creamy or strong and dark chocolate with bold flavors such as cinnamon, spices, and citrus offerings. Not to be omitted, at the center of the room was a glorious fountain of chocolate ready to accept a dip from fruits and confectionaries such as pineapples or marshmallows (of course that included chocolate marshmallows).
Notes on culture:
Looking around the room, it was a joy to know that many more people than we were enjoying this multisensory experience. While all our senses were enticed by each offering, it was an experience that seemed universally enjoyed by people from all cultures. At the Langham, as a destination hotel in a major city, international travelers seeking a reprieve from their journey all found comfort in the room alike. Asian, Hispanic, African and European people, all speaking their own languages, found commonality in their human affinity for chocolate. This universal love of chocolate not only transcends the taste buds and has a multifaceted effect on the body, but transcends race, gender, age and culture as a universally beloved delicacy thanks to transcontinental trade and migration hundreds of years ago. So ubiquitous is the love for chocolate, I’ve often found that it is expected that I enjoy chocolate. Is this projection cast on everyone by everyone? That expectation would seem to be projected onto all those aforementioned classes and ages. This universal love would seem to have no issue contending with the idea that chocolate is simply conditioned and is not an innate trait.
Would sugar alone have the same effect?
To support this idea that the love for chocolate is innate, Dr. Albers reminds her readers that you probably did not have to learn to like chocolate. She explains that “the sensory experience is enjoyed on an innate, biological level, but it is likely that you received chocolate as a treat, reward, or for holidays, especially if you are American” (Albers). This reward based consumption can often times contribute to it being a comfort food. This association alone can bring someone into a better mood, even before the chemical effects of sugar set in. While the thoughts of sugar can allow someone to feel good, the distinct flavors of chocolate also hold a unique ability to socially and psychologically associate with a positive experience in someone’s life. This reinforces the idea that the popularity of chocolate in desserts is no coincidence or due to a lack of alternatives, but rather to meet the demands of human desire.
Socially we have come to think of chocolate as a food that is comforting and can bring us into a better mood. The nature of chocolate candy being a sweet desirable stimulant is more attractive with sugar, but not because of sugar. Sugar alone can often times have an adverse effect on mood and can often times act as a depressant. In a study on the effects of sugar, David Sack explains that “the roller coaster of high blood sugar followed by a crash may accentuate the symptoms of mood disorders” (Sack). His research has tied heavy sugar consumption to an increased risk of depression, even worse in people with schizophrenia. One theory is that sugar suppresses activity of a hormone called BDNF that is already fairly low in individuals with depression and schizophrenia (Sack). Humans love for chocolate has historically persisted without the additive of sugar. Consider the ancient Mayan Cacao beverage prepared and a hot coffee-like drink made from the cacao bean and simple spices alone. This was a beloved Beverage of the God’s long before the refinement of sugar (Coe and Coe).
Sweet Treats room vs Chocolate room: why chocolate?
Is chocolate necessary in order to invoke this described response? As unique as chocolate is, it is one of many foods that can do what it does. While we were presented with bountiful chocolate offerings, the chocolate-less pastries couldn’t escape notice. While tarts, a glass of milk, tapioca pudding, cotton candy, strawberry shortcake, cream puffs, and even popcorn stood out from the chocolate theme, they had a role in contributing to the overall experience. After all, what good would chocolate cookies be without milk? We were told by the server these alternative treats, devoid of all chocolate as they were, allowed a reprieve from a chocolate over-load, while the salty popcorn offered a “pallet reset” that would allow us to extend our chocolate consumption further. We were advised that if we were to slow down and desire an extra boost to be able to continue, grab a hand full of popcorn to be able to carry on.
If the room was only full of options deplete of chocolate offerings, the experience would have lacked appeal. Whether socially conditioned or innate, the human affinity for chocolate could not be accessed and leveraged as a draw for people to enjoy the room. While the ladies were excited to invite us men to the Chocolate room, and we were glad to accept the invitation, the we men would likely have attended a “Sweet Treats” room with less enthusiasm than a Chocolate Room”. Was the fact the two pregnant women invited their male husbands a fulfillment of the gender based stereotype of women craving chocolate? As Thrilled as the women were to invite the men, it was no more a womanly compulsion than a gender natural human desire.
Our chemically motivated, socially reinforced desire, evident in all cultures, was satisfied in the Chocolate Room. Visiting the Boston Langham was an opportunity to satisfy and explore our most natural desire for the experience of chocolate flavor. The extent gustatory perception played in our social behavior around chocolate was the satisfaction of the craving for the taste of chocolate, but it did not address our deepest yearning for the full flavor experience that we craved. The social and human experience played the most powerful role in our enjoyment. Taste and flavor; experience and gustatory joy, are the ultimate pairing for chocolate.
Albers, Susan. “Why Do We Crave Chocolate So Much?” Psychology Today Feb 11, 2014. Web. May 5 2017.
Alison K. Ventura, Julie A. Mennella. “Innate and Learned Preferences for Sweet Taste During Childhood.” Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care, , Vol.14(4), pp.379-84 Vol.14.(4) (July 2011): pp.379-84. Print.
BBC. “Chocolate ‘Better Than Kissing’.” BBC News 2007. Web. 5/10/17 2017.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third edition. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.
Jamie Hale, M.S. “The Development of Food Preferences.” Web.
Martin, Carla. “Lecture 12: Psychology, Terroir, and Taste.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 19 April 2017. Lecture.
Nasser, Jennifer A., et al. “Psychoactive Effects of Tasting Chocolate and Desire for More Chocolate.” Physiology & Behavior 104.1 (2011): 117-21. Print.
Sack, David. “4 Ways Sugar Could Be Harming Your Mental Health.” 2013. Web.
Senese, Fred. “The Bliss Recptor.” Frostburg State University 8/17/2015. Web.
Spense, Charles. “Charles Spence: Multisensory Experience and Coffee.” You Tube. Oxford University May 27, 2014. Web. May 10 2017.
Woodford, CHris. “The Science of Chocolate.” ExplainThatStuff 2016. Web. 5/10/17 2017.
Chocolate seems to permeate our lives. It saturates the grocery shelves during the holiday seasons and appears on our television screens. It is a true constant in our rapidly-changing world. Because our modern world is always developing, how has chocolate maintained permanent-product status? The easy answer is: sugar. Several hundred years ago when sugar first emerged onto the European food scene, it was a new and exciting ingredient from Mesoamerica that served many uses. It began as an expensive superfluous supplement to the natural European diet, but after two centuries, sugar had become a staple to the English diet and essential to the rest of Europe (Prof. Martin Lecture). This kind of integration was not isolated to sugar. Chocolate made the journey from a fancy, elite delicacy to a common household item… or so it seems. As this article of fun facts reveals, Modern day “Americans consume 2.8 billion pounds of chocolate each year, or over 11 pounds per person” which is much more than the average for Europeans. I argue that although statistics show that the common person consumes great amounts of chocolate, it still retains its original status as a highbrow item despite its price. This is best showcased by the chocolate sections at CVS.
There are a couple of different places to find chocolate at CVS, each with their own chief marketing purpose. The first is in the candy aisle. Here you can find the label “bagged chocolate” and see an assortment of chocolate from big, well-known companies like Hershey, Reese’s, etc. They all have seemingly endless variations of dark, milk, and white chocolate, sometimes mixed with peanut butter, nuts, or other embellishments. As you walk into the aisle, the sheer amount of options is overwhelming. The range of your selection makes them all seem to blend together. It is even hard to read each label individually because your eye is constantly being drawn elsewhere by cartoon images and bright colors. Eventually, you just go with what you know. This is either a run-of-the-mill choice like plain milk chocolate or something slightly more niche like salted caramel dark chocolate. In the case of a more niche preference, you will likely already know its position in the aisle because it does not change. Never at eye-level, your bag of salted caramel dark chocolate is eternally juxtaposed to the bag of mint milk chocolate, both sold by the same company. At any given CVS, they will sometimes be on a high level but more often than not, they will be off to the side. This particular bag of chocolate will reside at shin-level so you have to bend down to pick it up. It never goes on sale. But your friend has a slightly different experience. You see, she is a big fan of Hershey’s Dark Chocolate, no almonds or other extras. She needs two bags because finals are coming up and she stress eats when she feels bloated. She turns into the candy aisle, finds the sign indicating the chocolate, and walks right up to inspect her choices. She does not have to look for long. As she glances to the side, her eyes find the Hershey’s label and her brain immediately recognizes the color. She grabs two bags since there is a sale that applies to this type of chocolate (second bag is 50% off!) and you both head to the front of the store to pay.
Now let’s say that you and your friend prefer the finer things in life. Pretend that there has been a tragic epidemic and every chocolatier in your immediate vicinity has been destroyed. This leaves CVS as your only option for buying chocolate. The two of you cannot eat “commoners chocolate,” whatever that means (you and your friend are chocolate-snobs) so you head to the “Premium Chocolates” stand that CVS has on display. There is a notable absence of plastic bags and cartoon labels, no bright colors that remind you of late Halloween nights. The characteristics of this section that stand out to you are the highbrow-looking packaging, lack of “Big Chocolate” name brands (or so you think), and the fact that the vast majority of the packaging features some sort of picture of smooth chocolate.
Because you and your friend prefer everyone to know the percentage of cocoa that your chocolate is, you grab a package from eye-level that advertises “85% Cocoa” in big, bold letters beneath the word “Excellence” written in a super fancy script font. This chocolate is slightly pricier than the chocolate in other areas of CVS so you and your friend agree to split the bag. Then you both head to the counter to pay.
In both situations, you have to pass the “impulse buy” test. As you wait in line to pay, you are surrounded by shelves of mini-sized candy. It is a slue of small packaging, with candy, gum, donuts, and chocolate all mixed together. The gum is at the top because it is the easiest to justify in a situation where you need to freshen up your breath. Directly below the gum are four entire shelves of candy, mostly chocolate. This is a departure from the fancy marketing you saw earlier. It is a return to the “Big Chocolate” name brands like Hershey. In contrast to the chocolate aisle, this chocolate is being sold in much smaller quantities. Its small size and location in the store point to a popular marketing ploy that stores like to use, especially in America. In America, we are very susceptible to the “impulse buy.” It is very easy to justify buying a small chocolate candy bar on your way out of CVS than buying a whole bag. Even further, these candies are not at adult-eye level but they are positioned perfectly to draw the attention of any child who walks past them. You, however, are not a child. You wait your turn and pay for your chocolate at the cash register. Then you leave CVS, concluding your shopping experience.
These elaborate scenarios showcase various ways that chocolate plays a part in our everyday lives. For instance, the way that companies choose to visually represent their chocolate speaks to how we perceive chocolate. The “Premium Chocolates” section is a perfect example of this. In “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics”, Mary Norton discusses how sociologists and cultural historians “have eschewed biological or economic determinism and instead theorize taste as socially constructed” (Norton, 663). She uses Mintz’ work on sugar’s development “from a medicinal additive to a luxury good among the upper classes” to complement his argument that “sugar ‘embodied the social position of the wealthy and powerful.’ He points to ‘sugar’s usefulness as a mark of rank—to validate one’s social position. To elevate others, or to define them as inferior.’” (Norton/Mintz). This seems antiquated to us in modern day but it really holds true to society’s perception of chocolate. If you take into account the countless ads like this one that present chocolate as a luxury item that should be desired, then it becomes easier to see why presenting their product as “Premium Chocolates” is an effective marketing tactic used by Lindt and Ghirardelli in CVS.
Looking at this commercial, the first thing to notice is the incredible CGI they have used to recreate Audrey Hepburn, an icon of class and elegance. There is classic music playing in the background. Audrey Hepburn leaves the public transport bus and makes the transition into a handsome man’s car where he proceeds to act as her chauffeur as she eats chocolate in the backseat. This is a very clear way of associating chocolate with a certain lavish lifestyle that mirrors the purpose of the upscale display at CVS. This demonstrates how chocolate is still thought of as a luxury good despite its frequency.
Similarly, you can discern the intended audience from the location and price of the chocolate. In the chocolate aisle and the section right before the cash register, the position of the chocolate can reveal many things. If it is at eye-level for an adult, odds are that product is very popular. An example of this is the Hershey’s chocolate staple: plain dark chocolate. If the product is more particular, it is likely that it will be on a different shelf in order to make room for the standard products. One exception to this rule is when products are placed at the eye-level of children. Today, ads everywhere target kids because they want to create costumers for life. This has various ethical complications, not the least of which are explored in the article “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies” by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens. Their article describes the way sugar’s detrimental effects on public health were covered up by greedy corporations. Along the way, scientific research has found that “sugar and its nearly chemically identical cousin, HFCS, may very well cause diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, and that these chronic conditions would be far less prevalent if we significantly dialed back our consumption of added sugars” (Taubes). The ethical complications arise when the companies knowlingly advertised their product that contained unhealthy ingredients without making the public fully aware of their effects. There is also research that links the overconsumption of sucrose and HFCS to obesity and type 2 diabetes, both of which disproportionately affect young people. Ad campaigns like this one from Cadbury target young people in an effort to foster a relationship between the child and the brand so that as an adult, their potential purchasing power increases because of their trained loyalty to the specific company.
The ad works likes a commercial to kids for kids. The use of children and upbeat music to advertise chocolate is a convincing strategy to associate chocolate with fun. This targeting of children as consumers is demonstrated in stores like CVS where chocolate is placed in the perfect position for children to recognize them from ads on television and the internet.
Chocolate might seem like a normal treat that you indulge in after a difficult day, but if you look deeper into your own perception of chocolate, you will learn that it is integral to multiple societal structures. Not only can you see from the different placements of chocolate in CVS that it is associated with elitism and opulence, but it is also incredibly gendered. This post on reddit.com by user Te1221 establishes the subconscious connection between chocolate and women.
The caption is “CVS boosted chocolate sales this year” which implies that its location next to female hygienic products would help it sell more. The suggestion that women on their period are more likely to buy chocolate is widely spread idea. This is just a small example of how chocolate can really represent institutions within our society like gender (like power through its elitism).
Just from looking at chocolate placement in a CVS in Harvard Square, you can begin to understand its intrinsic nature. Chocolate is a symbol of delicacy, power, femininity, and sinfulness (both in relation to physical health and sexually). All you need to do is look.
Norton, Marcy. 2006. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111 (3): 660-691
Mintz, Sidney W. “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History” (New York, 1985), 140, 139, 153, 166–167.
Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Lecture, Harvard University, Cambridge, Feb. 15, 2017.
Hundreds of years before Cadbury, Hershey and the like transformed chocolate into a mass-produced and affordable dietary staple, chocolate was a royal indulgence. Reserved for the most prestigious social classes in Mesoamerica, sumptuary laws in New World governed who was able to consume it and, according to some accounts, consumption of chocolate without sanction by commoners was punishable by death (Presilla, 18). The value and reverence the Aztecs had for chocolate made a strong impression on early travelers, who readily shared the frothed-beverage with their commissioners in the Old World, making the ruling elite of the 16th century among the first Europeans to regularly imbibe.
Elite Origins in Mesoamerica
Chemical analysis has allowed researchers to place chocolate over 38 centuries back, although not much is known about the drinking habits of early cultures such as the Olmecs and Mayans (Coe, location 464-578). The only surviving written evidence for classic Mayan use of cacao has been found on elegantly painted and carved cylindrical vases and vessels in the tombs and graves of the elite (Coe, location 578). Some of these excavated vases are externally marked with Mayan hieroglyphs denoting cacao, and internally bear chemical traces of alkaloids found in cacao and dark rims on the interior that suggest the contents were once liquid (Coe, location 625). There is not enough evidence to concretely conclude that chocolate was chiefly drunken by the ruling class, but the inclusion of chocolate provisions for the afterlife of the elite suggests Mayans placed a high level importance on the drink.
Much more is known of the chocolate consumption habits of the Aztecs than the Mayans. Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (c. 1398-1469 AD) issued a series of laws stating that “he who does not go to war, be he son of a king, may not wear cotton, feathers or flowers, nor may he smoke, or drink cacao” (Coe, location 1372). Only members of the royal house, the lords and nobility, long-distance merchants who endured dangerous lands and battles with foreign groups, and warriors were allowed to drink chocolate in Aztec society (Coe, location 1324). In Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, Sahagún describes how stringently this hierarchical framework for chocolate consumption was followed by the Aztecs; cacao was very valuable and rare, and was proverbially referred to as “Yollotli eztli”, or the “price of blood and of heart”, because if people of the working class drank it without permit, it would cost them their life (“si alguno de los populares lo bebía, costábale la vide si sin licencia lo bebían”) (Moreno, 500).
Chocolate’s link to luxury and power in Aztec culture is further enforced with the cacao bean’s role in the economy. The Aztecs used cacao beans as currency: a rabbit cost about ten beans (Coe, location 832). When the elite drank chocolate, they were quite literally drinking money. This did not go unacknowledged by the Europeans, who quickly realized that cacao was as valuable to this group of people as gold and gems (Presilla, 18). Watch this video to learn a little more about cacao beans in Aztec culture and the introduction of chocolate to Europeans (Youtube).
Royal Introductions in Europe
In 1544, chocolate made its first documented European appearance in Spain. Dominican friars brought Mayan nobles to the courts of Prince Philip, who presented some of the wonders of the New World to the king: quetzal feathers, painted gourds, and containers of beaten chocolate (Presilla, 24). Forty years later in 1585, the first official cacao bean shipment reached Seville from Veracruz (Coe, location 1848).
The Spanish altered the chocolate recipe slightly – preferring it hot as opposed to cold, as the Aztecs had taken it. The Aztecs would add ingredients they were familiar with such as vanilla, herbs, flower petals, and honey, and the Spanish did the same with sugar, cinnamon, hazelnut, anise, and almonds (Presilla). The Spanish sipped it out of mancerinas, a plate or saucer with a ring in the middle to hold a small cup and prevent it from slipping, rather than jícaras. One thing that didn’t change, however, was the elite ties of chocolate; making and drinking chocolate “involved special pains and paraphernalia” (Presilla, 25).
During the 17th century, chocolate spread throughout Europe. It was highly valued as an exotic, tasty alternative as well as a health-promoting drug and was treated differently than other foods. During the reign of Charles III of Spain, chocolate was sent directly to the “royal keeper of jewels” rather than the kitchen (Presilla, 32). France mimicked Spain’s royal consumption of chocolate, reserving it strictly for the aristocracy while England allowed it to hit the free market (Coe, location 2412). Any Englishman or woman was able to consume it so long as they had enough money to pay for it.
Castriocto, Alessandro. “File:João V – Duque de Lafões.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. 1720. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Kindle edition.
Mayan civilisation. “File:Mayan People and Chocolate.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.
Moreno, Wigberto Jiménez and Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España: Libros I, II, III, y IV. Linkgua digital, 1938. Online.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.
Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta. “File:Raimundo Madrazo – Hot Chocolate.jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.
“Oh, blessed money which yieldeth sweete and profitable drinke for mankinde, and preserveth the possessors thereof free from the hellish pestilence of avarice because it cannot be long kept hid underground”
-Peter Martyr, an early observer of the Aztec society
In today’s society, chocolate is regarded as strictly a consumer good – a beloved, but perishable commodity whose value is primarily derived from its rich and indulgent taste. Aside from gold-foil covered chocolate coins enjoyed as festive treats, there are hardly any instances in which chocolate can be thought to resemble a currency. But for ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, chocolate, specifically the cocoa bean, also held commercial value and was widely accepted in barter. The use of cocoa as a store of value and the traction it gained as a currency that persisted even into colonial times truly speaks to the importance of cacao in these early civilizations. The widespread use of cocoa beans as money and its eventual acceptance by the Spanish, who were at first off-put by the bitter cacao taste, show that cacao’s value was widespread, deep-seated and far-reaching in Central America. It had permeated so many levels of these early societies – religiously, culturally, and even economically.
A Maya glyph of a cloth bag “xiquipilli’ that kept 8,000 cacao beans, a standard measure of unit of currency.
While the Olmecs were the likely the first civilization to consumer cacao, the use of cocoa beans as commodity money began with the Maya (“The True History of Chocolate”). Cacao, originating from the Maya word “Ka’kau”, held great religious, commercial, and even medicinal value for the Maya. Unsurprisingly, the valuable commodity would naturally come to be used to barter for other commodities such as food, clothes, gems and even slaves. They were also exchanged for luxury goods and rare items such as jade, obsidian, and ceremonial feathers (“The Maya and the Ka’kau’ (Cacao)”). Maya farmers would strap baskets attached with Mecapal (a type of band for securing basket to forehead), full of cacao beans on their backs or use canoes to transport the beans for trade. Wealthy merchants would travel as far as Teotihuacan with porters, pack animals, and/or wheeled carts (“Maya Trade and Economy”).
The map above illustrates Mesoamerican commerce routes as well as flow of goods production. The concept of money via the bartering of cacao beans gave rise to a new social class: the merchants. This had tremendous impact on the political structure of the ancient Maya communities as it allowed for wealth and resources to enter the hands of individuals other than the traditional political elites (“Maya Trade and Economy”). In a sense, cacao helped bring about this redistribution of wealth and power.
When the Aztecs became the most advanced nation in Central America and overtook the Maya, they naturally adopted cocoa beans as a currency as well. The use of cacao currency persisted as a widespread form of money beyond the Aztec times through the Spanish Conquest, Colonial period, and far into the 19th century. In fact, by the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1545, cacao beans outranked gold dust as the primary currency in Mesoamerica. Around 24 years after the Spanish Conquest in, cacao beans were used to set market prices in Tlaxcalla (“Aztecs at Mexicolore”). By 1555, a fixed exchange rate was established in a decree, establishing the value of the cocoa beans at a ratio of 140 beans to one Spanish real (“A Tasty Currency: Cocoa”). Even in the mid-1850s, cacao beans were still observed as being used for small-change.
[Codex Kingsborough, British Museum] This graphic depicts the tribute tax the Spanish collected from the Aztec was in form of bags of cacao beans.
Although cacao beans would certainly not be a practical form of currency today, meeting just some of the 7 modern characteristics of money (durability, portability, divisibility, uniformity, limited supply, and acceptability), it made for an exceptionally well-received form of money during the Mayan and Aztecs empires. The use of cacao beans exemplified how markets in early civilizations flourished using commodity currencies. The widespread recognition of cocoa as a viable form of money in the Aztec empire really speaks to the amount of value they placed on this commodity.