Tag Archives: money

Beyond the Taste Buds

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?

Fig 1

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?

Fig 2

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-

Fig 3. Anandamide

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?

Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 11.08.32 AM
Vid 1. Dr. Spense

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).

Fig 4. Musical Instruments play in the Chocolate room

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).


pjimage 2
Fig 5. Sensory Tables

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?

Fig 6. Milk and Cookies

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.

Works cited

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.

Image Sources

Feature photo; The Langham Hotel Boston. Web. May 5, 2017  http://www.langhamhotels.com/en/the-langham/boston/dining/chocolate-bar/

Fig 3; General Chemistry Online! “The Bliss Recptor.” Frostburg State University 8/17/2015. Web.  http://antoine.frostburg.edu/chem/senese/101/features/anandamide.shtml.

Vid 1: “Charles Spence: Multisensory Experience and Coffee.” You Tube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVKabsudi1I

Fig. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6; Stoffel, Grant. “Langham Chocolate Bar experience.” April 22, 2017. Langham Hotel, Boston.


What Do You See?

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.

Photo taken by me.

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.

Photo taken by me.

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.

Photo taken by me.

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.

Reddit, posted by user Te1221 in 2014.

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.

Works Cited

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.

Taubes, Gary, and Cristin Kearns Couzens. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” Mother Jones. Nov/Dec. 2012. Web. 04 May 2017. <http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign&gt;.

A Royal Indulgence: The Elite Origins and Introductions of Chocolate

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.

A Mayan lord sits raised above a servant on a platform next to a frothing pot of chocolate, forbidding the servant from touching the container. (Mayan Civilisation)

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).

A Spanish mancerina with a metal tray. Mancerinas were also made with porcelain trays to match the cup. (Tamorlan)

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.

A woman drinks chocolate. Notice her elegant clothing and the chocolate paraphernalia on the tray next to her. (Raimundo)


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.

Salvor. “File:Chocolate-house-london-c1708.jph – Wikimedia Commons”. 2006. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Tamorlan. “File:Macerina-Barcelona-03.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

YouTube. “This Is México – Cacao”. Royal Channel Cancun, 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

When Money Grew on Trees: Cocoa Beans as Currency in Mayan and Aztec Societies

“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.

Works Cited

Berdan, Frances. “Aztecs at Mexicolore.” Mexicolore. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-experts/when-did-the-aztecs-stop-using-cacao-beans-for-money&gt;.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007 [1996]. The True History of Chocolate. pp. 1-105

“CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods.” Albert R. Mann Library. Cornell University. Web. 16 Feb. 2016. http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php

De Maré, Laurie. “A Tasty Currency: Cocoa.” Www.nbbmuseum.be. Museum of the National Bank of Belgium. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.

“Maya Trade and Economy.” Authentic Maya. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <http://www.authenticmaya.com/maya_trade_and_economy.htm&gt;.

“The Maya and the Ka’kau’ (Cacao).” Authentic Maya. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <http://www.authenticmaya.com/cacao.htm&gt;.

Cacao as Currency: The Perils of a Perishable Money

To underscore the ubiquitous permeation of the cacao plant throughout ancient Mesoamericans’ daily life, chocolate scholars consistently remark upon a peculiar application of the plant: the cacao bean’s use as money. Alexander del Mar, a 19th-century economic historian, describes a Mexican empire whose “usual currency… consisted of flat copper pieces and cacao beans”(del Mar, 45). Sophie and Michael Coe describe cacao as a “drink and a currency,” and a “coin of the realm” with which many market and wage transactions were conducted (Coe & Coe, 98-99). Maricel Presilla depicts an Aztec society in the 1500s where “cacao beans had taken on the status of legal money,”(Presilla, 17) and Rene Millon authored a 600-page “Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica” titled When Money Grew on Trees. But is this designation appropriate? Does the ancient use of cacao really qualify as a currency, a type of money?

An academic understanding of money is a proper foundation from which to begin this examination. While modern economic texts describe money as “an officially-issued legal tender” which generally consists of currency and coin, this definition quickly digresses into delineated categories to explain its accessibility and liquidity (Money). The money supply is described in classes from M0 (cash and its close relatives) to M3 (value stored in businesses) (Money Supply). Given the ambiguities and technicalities inherent in this modern financial accounting definition, it feels appropriate to work with a more historic understanding of currency, for which we turn to Classical Greece:

Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Aristotle pronounced the four criteria of money as

1. Having intrinsic value
2. Portable
3. Divisible
4. Durable (Karimzadi, 206)


Cacao trade in ancient Aztec and Mayan societies certainly satisfies some of the above conditions; however, given the Aristotelian definition of money, cacao beans as used in pre-Columbian Central America fall well short of the oft-ascribed label of a currency or money. To illustrate this shortcoming, we test the four conditions in turn upon cacao bean application in Ancient Mesoamerican.

chocolate maya ruler
Mayan elite with chocolate drink

The intrinsic value of cacao beans is the easiest, and most palatable, condition to satisfy. As a well-documented food, cacao beans provided a source of nourishment in Mesoamerica. The bean was a staple from the governing elites to the poorest farmers, reflecting its universally accepted value beyond that of a currency (Presilla, 12-13). Further, in 1502, Ferdinand Columbus (son of Christopher) remarked on the odd reverence with which an indigenous person bent to collect a dropped bean, saying they stooped to pick it up “as if an eye had fallen”(Coe & Coe, 109).

The portability of the cacao bean is another evident property. Each cacao pod produces
“30-40 almond-shaped seeds” which, after fermentation and roasting, lend themselves well to travel and trade (Coe & Coe, 21). Cacao beans fulfilled this role of money to such extent that Aztec rulers included 200 loads of the seeds as part of their bi-annual tax collection, as illustrated in the sixteenth-century Codice Medoza record below.

Codice Medoza, illustrating bi-annual taxes due

Regarding the third property of currency, divisibility, cacao beans begin to stray from Aristotle’s definition. This property deals primarily with the orderly fractional and multiplicative qualities of a currency, such that one nickel can be broken into 5 pennies and 5 pennies can be exchanged for another nickel. While cacao beans are quite easily broken apart and formed into nibs, the edible portion, they are nearly impossible to reform (Coe & Coe, 22).

The final Aristotelian property of money, durability, is where cacao beans lose historians’ claim of a viable currency. Durability implies a reasonable longevity of the traded object. Aristotle described this attribute of money “as a guarantor of exchange for the future” (Karimzadi, 206). Good money allows its holder to forego present consumption for the implicit promise of higher consumption at a later date. Because cacao beans have a shelf life of six to nine months (depending on storage), they lose their nutritional value rapidly over time, along with their extended economic value (Paretts). It would be rather unwise to attempt to build wealth by amassing cacao beans. Therefore cacao beans, at best, only temporarily satisfy the durability requirement.

Ignoring the literal “farming out” of coinage (a role typically closely managed by the central state) necessary when using an organic substance as a unit of exchange, cacao beans do not satisfy the Aristotelian definition of money or currency. Therefore, anthropologists should consider modifying their claims of its use as such, instead referring to cacao bean exchange as, at times, “like money” or “as a means of exchange.” Having only fully satisfied two of the four conditions necessary, this adjustment is a minor correction that can satisfy all tastes.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print. 33, 98-99

Del Mar, Alexander. The History of Money in America; from the Earliest times to the Establishment of the Constitution. New York: B. Franklin, 1899. Print. 45

Karimzadi, Shahzavar. Money and Its Origins. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print. 206

Millon, René Francis. When Money Grew on Trees a Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica. 1955. Print.

“Money Definition | Investopedia.” Investopedia. Investopedia, LLC, 24 Nov. 2003. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

“Money Supply Definition | Investopedia.” Investopedia. Investopedia, LLC, 24 Nov. 2003. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Paretts, Susan. “Storage & Shelf Life of Raw Cacao Beans.” EHow. Demand Media, Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print. 17

“Advertisers are selling us something else besides consumer goods: they are selling us ourselves”

The evolution of chocolate production changed the way in which chocolate was available and advertised to the public. Historically, chocolate was known as a luxury item, only available to the elite, the rich, or those with connections to the trade. In the late 19th century, chocolate shifted from being provided in liquid form to a solid candy. As competition between chocolate confectioners increased, their outreach to attract customers shifted as well. The earliest known chocolate promotions were posters, sometimes detailed illustrations that took advantage of new advancements in lithography, graphic arts, and commercial advertising (Grivetti, p. 193).

chocolat ideal hot-chocolate

Members of the chocolate history group at the University of California, Davis spent two years searching and finding over 500 chocolate advertisements from 11 countries, during this period. In their synopses of the advertisements, similar themes repeat throughout:

  • Incorporation of children – especially young girls and infants (of both genders) – holding chocolate bars, playing games with chocolate, being mischievous
  • Most adults within the advertisements were women, either a mother or caretaker.
  • The mother-child relationship was highlighted: the mother was giving or receiving chocolate from a child, or having a ‘moment’ (drinking hot chocolate together) with their child
  • Most adults (primarily women) were portrayed as being from a higher socio-economic class
  • The health, energy, joyful benefits of consuming chocolate
  • Incorporating a sense of nationalism or romanticism in chocolate – people were portrayed in their traditional dress or courtship scenes included chocolate (Grivetti, pp. 193-198)

200 years later and the messaging in chocolate advertising is still the same. Again, as the narrative of chocolate – its history – has evolved, so have the connotations around its production, promotion, and purchase. Ellen Moore states it succinctly:

“The examination of chocolate companies’ advertisements allows a glimpse into how different identities – including gender, ethnic, and national – can be constructed through a consumption of chocolate. The stereotypes presented for the consumer through advertisements serve to reinforce cultural notions of ethnically homogenous British and U.S. national identity [while also concealing] the realities of chocolate production in Africa and Central America. The consumption of chocolate is thus almost exclusively associated with whiteness, while production is largely associated with exotic “Others”’ (Rubin, p. 67).

The advertisement below was created for the 2012 Super Bowl. It takes a unique perspective on the ‘other’ as it involves an interaction between people of white/European descent and an anthropomorphic entity – a piece of candy that has been given human characteristics. The traditional, stereotypical tropes around femininity and chocolate, as well as the racial disparity, are all more subtly apparent:

Ms. Brown, is the M&M ‘spokescandy’ highlighted under the tagline “not your average chocolate”.  This was her introduction. Until 2012, the only ‘female spokescandy’ was Miss Green, whose persona is vastly different. Miss Green is characterized as sensual and seductive, from her movements, to her voice, to the promotions in which she is seen. In contrast, Ms. Brown, titled the “Chief Chocolate Officer”, is portrayed as intelligent, well-spoken, and successful. Her appearance differs as well. Ms. Brown wears glasses and comfortable, what would be referred to in the business world as ‘no-nonsense’ heels. Her voice and persona seem to command respect.  The conversation she is having with her girlfriends at the party, before being interrupted, references a meeting with a head of State.

Ms. Brown, M&M Miss Green M&M

However, this promotion still slips into the stereotypical trends prevalent in chocolate advertising and societal gender dysfunctions. Before she is interrupted, the story that Ms. Brown is sharing highlights gender stereotypes around women’s place in business. Ms. Brown is heard saying “Mr. Prime Minister (PM), I’m flattered that you love chocolate, but I’m here strictly in a professional manner.” This infers that the PM was not focused on their business meeting but in making (sexual) advances to Ms. Brown; possibly because she is female or because – as we see a moment later from men at the party – he also assumed that she was ‘naked’.  This is similar to the harassment that women regularly receive in the workplace; further there is an allusion to the sexualization of an anthropomorphic being.

The interruption also implies the childishness of these men. They are snickering because of Ms. Browns supposed nudity. It is an oblique reference to the ‘sinful’ pleasure associated with chocolate, a fascination with the exotic, and the associations of sex already incorporated into chocolate mythology (Robertson, p. 68). However, in a crisp, condescending tone she acknowledges their assumption and corrects them. Then Red, a male M&M arrives, sees Ms. Brown, and removes his ‘clothing’. The ad ends with the song “Sexy and I Know It” playing, Red dancing, and Ms. Brown disgustedly looking on. Though the song is Red’s anthem and he too plays into the immature male persona; the advert and the chocolate promoted, is still a gendered product. While Ms. Brown is portrayed as a ‘modern, business woman’ this, and most advertisements, clearly imply the subjectivity of a female consumer. Women have been recognized as the gate-keepers of chocolate – the primary purchaser for themselves and their families, as well as the primary consumer (Cooper, 2004) so the advertising must strongly appeal to women. It is interesting that in this advert, that role has been fulfilled wholesale – our ‘woman’ is more than a purchaser or consumer, she is chocolate. Ms. Brown has become the ultimate ideal.

Further, this advert alludes to Moore’s earlier presumption that the primary identity of the chocolate consumer is white. Ms. Brown’s friends are white; in the background of the club, all of the attendees are white. Ms. Brown and Red are the only ‘beings of color’ at the event. This is a clear ethnic distinction and it can be assumed that this active construction of an ethnically homogenous chocolate consumer, is partially based within the history of chocolate and its early consumption by rich, white Europeans. Finally, in their appearance, from the figure flattering clothing to their jewelry, it can be assumed that their (her, her girlfriends and background people) socioeconomic background could be higher than middle class. The background music and ‘party atmosphere’ are more upscale and relaxed than the strobe lights and pounding music of a night club.

Sidney Mintz shares that “food choices and eating habits reveal distinctions of age, sex, status, culture, and even occupation” (Mintz, p. 3). These distinctions can be uniquely noted in this advertisement. They can also be turned on their head, as shown below:

This ‘twist’ on the M&M advertisement still acknowledges the atmosphere of friends getting together, but the norms have changed. The immaturity is missing; they are all of an age, enjoying their time together – eating, talking, possibly listening to a story. The friends are all mixed (gender and ethnicity) groups of (what could be) varying socioeconomic backgrounds. The new tagline ‘how do you eat your M&Ms?’ replaces ‘not your average chocolate’ to highlight the communal experience of enjoying M&Ms, instead of focusing on an anthropomorphic piece of candy with feminine characteristics that is possibly nude and unexpectedly intelligent.

The focus is more gender neutral, as no one member of a photo can be immediately sexualized and previous stereotypes of class, race, and national identity within an audience have been set aside. Finally, the song emphasizes the idea of “being friends” and not being “sexy and knowing it”.


Cooper, Glenda. Women and Chocolate: Simply Made for Each Other. New York Times. 13 March 2004. Web. 09 April 2015. < http://www.cacao-chocolate.com/choclove/women.html >

Grivetti, Louise E. and Shapiro, Howard-Yana. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Hoboken. 2009. Print.

History timeline. Mars Company Website. History. N.D. Web. 10 April 2015. < http://www.mars.com/global/about-mars/history.aspx >

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York. Penguin Press. 1985. Print.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester University Press. 2010. Print.

Rubin, Lawrence C. Food for Thought: Essays on Eating and Culture. McFarland and Company Publishers. 2008. Print.

Multimedia resources:  

BestCodTrolls. M&Ms Super Bowl Commercial 2012 – I’m Sexy and I Know It. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 05 February 2012. Web. 8 April 2015. < https://youtu.be/Pc7BnT5X1tw >

Character photos. Ms. Brown and Miss Green. M&M. N.D. Web. 10 April 2015. < http://www.mms.com/#character >

Mucha, Alphonse. Chocolat Ideal, 1897. Web. 10 April 2015. < http://www.artnet.com/artists/alphonse-mucha/chocolat-ideal-a-fDVy2jZnfv6prLHLQxw8jg2 >

Nyree1luv. Friends: A Chocolate Production. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 10 April 2015. Web. 10 April 2015. < https://youtu.be/voUcekR2kfA >

Vintage 19th century French poster. Chocolat Delespaul-havez. N.D. Web. 10 April 2015 < http://www.museumoutlets.com/vintage-french-posters/chocolat-delespaul-havez-vintage-french-advertising-poster >

Chocolate Ads and the Opacity of the Chocolate Supply Chain

Most chocolate advertisements today focus so much on consumers and sales that they ignore the important social issues that complicate chocolate production.  One such neglected issue, is the opacity and inequality of the chocolate supply chain which enables child labor and exploitation.  Since large chocolate companies have the power, means, and platform to make an impact, they could, and arguably should, be using some of their advertisements to advocate for transparency in the chocolate supply chain.  In doing this, they would be able to raise awareness of this important issue.  In addition, chocolate companies should also commit more money to solving this problem.  These strategies will not only reveal and fix discrepancies in the chocolate supply chain, but will also encourage the general public to be more ethical consumers.

One promotion that could have been used to make such a statement was the wildly popular “Cadbury Eyebrows” commercial that aired in 2009 (Figure 1 below).

In the commercial, viewers witness two young children in nice clothing about to take a school photo.  Then suddenly, the boy plays a tune, and the children start eyebrow dancing.  The video reveals children letting loose and enjoying the moment.  A probable intention of this advertisement is to show that chocolate brings people joy and to encourage children to ask for chocolate.  Although this commercial was well received by the public and makes people laugh, when looked at critically, the ad is irrelevant to chocolate, is overly fixated on consumer entertainment, and demonstrates the opaqueness of the chocolate supply chain.

The fact that the ad isn’t even about chocolate and spends a whole minute entertaining consumers is somewhat troubling.  It implies that chocolate companies may be only focusing their attention on the consumer part of the supply chain rather than making sure there is equality and transparency in the entire chocolate supply chain.  As a matter of fact, studies have shown that there are worrisome issues within the supply chain, but the opacity of the chain makes many consumers and even chocolate companies unaware that these problems exist.  One example is the exploitation of children in the initial stages of chocolate production.  In a 2009 Tulane University study, it was revealed that over 500,000 children working on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana “worked in breach of the ILO guidelines and national laws on minimum age and hours” (Ryan, 49).  Furthermore, many of these children were exposed to dangerous conditions and over half reported having an injury (Ryan, 49).  This study reveals that child labor is rampant on cocoa plantations, and most consumers are unaware of it due to the obscurity of the supply chain.

It is important to note that Cadbury has addressed the issues of opacity and exploitative labor in the past and was somewhat successful (Satre, 13-32).  Continuing this mission would make the company look responsible and help them attract socially conscious consumers.  Furthermore, if Cadbury took a public position on these matters, it would enlighten consumers simply because “most people who eat chocolate don’t know where it comes from” (Off, 8).  As a profitable company, Cadbury could also invest money to improve the equality and clarity of the chocolate supply chain.  In general, all large chocolate companies should fund causes that would positively affect the supply chain because “the amounts of money [that could eradicate issues in the supply chain] are not large in comparison to the worldwide profits they make” (Ryan, 44).

Figure 2. “Response” Ad

In response to the “Cadbury Eyebrows” commercial, another advertisement was created to demonstrate how chocolate advertising can be used to make a powerful statement, reveal that opaqueness in the supply chain exists, and highlight that “there is a vast gulf between the [people] who eat chocolate and those who work their whole lives to produce it” (Off, 8) (Figure 2 above).  In the “response” ad, two girls delighting in their Easter basket filled with chocolate confections are contrasted with an African child carrying a basket of cacao pods.  The distinction seems clear: the girls are happy and anticipating the wonderful taste of chocolate while the African child seems malnourished and unhappy. When looking at the ad from left to right, a viewer would at first feel good, but then upon seeing the boy would reflect on the true costs of chocolate.  Therefore, this ad’s intention is to reveal that while chocolate is a tasty treat and it is not necessarily wrong to consume it, there are social issues that need to be addressed.  The ad also encourages people to question and reject companies that utilize harmful child labor because “child labor is not so sweet”.

Another interesting aspect of this “response” ad is that the photo of the African child may not be truly reflective of the supply chain and child labor.  As an image from Google search, the photo of the African child could very well be a boy gathering some cocoa fruit on the family farm instead of an exploited child laborer.  Therefore, in the context of the ad, this photo can not only be used to expose the inequality between consumers and producers, but also highlights the point that there is little transparency in the supply chain by the fact that we don’t really know how to identify child labor.

Overall, the “Cadbury Eyebrows” commercial falls within the larger trend of advertising in which companies focus too much on consumers and overlook the opaqueness and inequalities of the chocolate supply chain.  The “response” ad is meant to serve as an example of what an impactful ad could look like and further reveals that there is a lack of transparency in the chocolate supply chain.  The “response” ad rebels against advertising trends, raises awareness, promotes equality between consumers and producers, and encourages action.  If more chocolate advertisements emulated the “response” ad and chocolate companies used their influence and money to highlight some of the exploitative practices in chocolate production, hidden inequities in the supply chain such as child labor could gradually be reduced (Ryan, 61).

If you are interested in seeing another ad that makes a statement similar to that of the “response” ad” see Figure 3 at this link: http://www.treadkindly.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/free-trade.jpg

Works Cited:

Off, Carol. Bitter chocolate: Investigating the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2006. 2-8.

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate nations: Living and dying for cocoa in West Africa. Zed books, 2011. 44-61.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on trial: Slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Ohio University Press, 2005. 13-32.

Figures Cited:

Figure 1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVblWq3tDwY (Accessed April 6, 2015)

Figure 2. (left) https://smartypots.wordpress.com/tag/science-laboratory/ (Accessed April 6, 2015) (right) http://thefrogblog.org.uk/2010/06/12/eradicating-child-labour-how-rainforest-alliance-certification-can-help/ (Accessed April 6, 2015)

Figure 3. http://www.treadkindly.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/free-trade.jpg (Accessed April 9, 2015)

Changes in Britain’s Use of Sugar and Potential Causes

Only the very rich could afford sugar when it was adapted into the British culture. By the 1500s, royalty used it in edible art-figures or “subtleties” displayed or given to guests at feasts as a show of wealth and power (Mintz 1986:88). Sugar had also been adopted as a spice and as a medicine; these uses faded over time. However, its use as a preservative and as a food increased especially after tea, coffee, and chocolate were made available in the 1600s. The wealthiest initially controlled the use of sugar, but as it declined in price, other classes adapted its use to their life circumstances; choices concerning sugar were influenced largely by status, wealth, or necessity.

Sugar spread to rich gentry and middle-classes, who feigned greater status by copying the wealthiest in their use of sugar as food and décor. This happened because the British West Indies and Jamaica provided more sugar and the price fell by seventy percent between 1645 and 1680 allowing four times more sugar to be consumed in England (Mintz 1986:107&160). Wealthy groups, such as prosperous merchants, wanted to make the appearance of status beyond their income level. For instance, they created subtleties using pasteboard foundations (Mintz 1986:93). Coffee houses serving coffee, chocolate, and tea, began opening in the 1650s and were frequented by the wealthier groups (Mintz 1986:111-117). Sugar was craved by all classes. It is hypothesized that the British had acquired an earlier taste for sweet drinks because they had prepared malted grain ale and honey mead for centuries (Mintz 1986:136-137). Copying the tradition of “the tea” enjoyed by aristocracy, the middle-classes created their own tea tradition with a light lunch, and lower middle-classes created a late afternoon tea time (Mintz 1986:141-142). Traditions were adapted to fit the lifestyle of different income groups in other ways as well. For instance, by 1747 the middle-classes were making homey versions of subtleties they called “jumballs” (Mintz 1986:93), viewed here:


The modification saved sugar making this middle-class version less expensive. Because the use of sugar no longer represented highest status, sugar subtleties were replaced by the rich with new rarities such as porcelains, similar to this:


At this point, sugar had become predominantly a food and preservative, making its way into expensive products. For instance, by the 1830s high priced preserved fruits were marketed (Goody 2013:76). Overall, as sugar came within reach of each class it was adapted to their lifestyle and used to the extent of affordability.

Sugar’s potential to create wealth was noticed by sugar brokers and others. For instance, sugar broker George R. Porter, believed that the poor would consume much more sugar if they could afford it (Mintz 1986:174). Policies protecting West Indian planters that had kept sugar prices high were rescinded, allowing sugar prices to fall sharply after 1850 to free trade levels (Mintz 1986:177&148). Lower income classes were able to afford sugar. Coffee public houses were opened in the1870s by temperance societies to help people resist alcohol at pubs (Goody 2013:79). The timing of this would also have encouraged sugar consumption through tea. As larger amounts of sugar arrived, poor people who worked in factories bought sugar in place of other foods (Mintz 1986:118). Profits were increased by selling sugar at lower prices to all classes including the poor. These profits allowed manufacturing growth, larger bank deposits, more business loans, and other benefits to the upper classes (Mintz 1986:148). The poor bought high-calorie food that gave them energy to keep working in low-waged jobs. However, this does not mean the poor wanted to eat sugar more than other foods.

The poor were hungry and had to make choices out of necessity in using their small factory income. For instance, making bread at home had been traditional, as shown here:


However, it would have been difficult to keep making bread and also keep long factory working hours. Women and children working, cooking fuel costs, and exhaustion pushed families to begin buying bread (Mintz 1986:130). The little meat available was given predominantly to the father out of a feeling of moral duty to support his more strenuous labor (Mintz 1986:144). This rationing of time and food shows that the poor chose sugar out of necessity. After 1870, bread and jam became a very important food to the poor (Mintz 1986:129). It was a staple food in daily life either purchased or made, as seen here:


The poor assimilated tea and jam into routine and special occasions, as had higher income groups, but they intensified its use out of necessity to avoid hunger. It was a cheap, less nutritious, more convenient source of energy and became traditionalized into culture.

Overall, sugar consumption transitioned down through income classes as it became less expensive and changed in use according to the circumstances of differing classes; choices were made based largely on status, wealth, or necessity. Approaching the 1900’s, sugar consumption evolved with more prepared foods flavored and preserved with sugar and packaged for convenience (Mintz 1986:147). For instance, canned condensed milk used in Britain since the mid-1800s (Goody 2013:77) was sweetened and sold as a popular creamer (Mintz 1986:143). By the 1890s, cereals were invented (Goody 2013:80), which encouraged sugar use. Popularized by jam, biscuits also changed through time and mass production techniques, making them and other sugar products widely available (Goody 2013:74). By 1900, sugar was contributing about one sixth of all calories consumed in England, weighted toward the working class (Mintz 1986:149). Clearly, the use of sugar changed over time, becoming more widespread, diversified, and intensified as it transitioned from the wealthiest to the poorest.

References Cited

Goody, Jack. (2013) [1982]. Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.

  1. 72-88. Book.

Kandler, Johann Joachim. Meissenvanda. Circa 1750. Porcelain. Meissen Porcelain Factory

V&A Museum. Meissen, Germany. commons.wikimedia.org. Web. 8, Mar. 2015.


Makovsky, Vladimir. Vladimir Makovsky – Making Jam. 1876. Oil painting on canvas.

commons.wikimedia.org. Web. 8, Mar. 2015.


Mintz, Sidney W. (1986) [1985]. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin Group. Book.

Mitchell, S. Buttermilk Jumbles. 7, Dec. 2007. Photograph. commons.wikimedia.org.

Web. 8, Mar. 2015. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Buttermilk_jumbles.jpg.

Walker, George. Yorkshire Woman Making Oat Cakes. 1813. Two dimensional art. New York

Public Library’s Rare Books Division Digital Library. commons.wikimedia.org.

Web. 8, Mar. 2015.


Slavery Then, Slavery Now: History Repeats for Big Chocolate

In 1879, Cadbury Brothers, Limited chocolate company shunned the stereotype of cold, inhumane industrialized factories and instead built a village for its employees complete with sanitized working conditions, childhood education, dental and medical care, and worker housing. Through publicizing these amenities and the Cadbury family’s Quaker roots, the chocolate company projected an image of ethical, idealistic management. That was before anyone looked beneath the wrapper. Analyzing the historical challenges to Cadbury’s business ethics reveals the origins of a supposedly concerned chocolatier and the hardships he endured to ensure fair business practices over the entire production cycle of his chocolates. Studying these trials and the changes they inspired raises concerns over chocolate producers’ main motivations and whether modern day consumer and corporate ethics have evolved.

Cadbury’s “factory in a garden” village served as an idealistic response to cold, impersonal factories of the time. It’s inauguration served as a symbol of Cadbury’s dedication to employee wellness, at least in England.
Cadbury’s “factory in a garden” village served as an idealistic response to cold, impersonal factories of the time. It’s inauguration served as a symbol of Cadbury’s dedication to employee wellness, at least in England.

Despite Cadbury’s marketing of morality, chocolate historian Emma Robertson  contends that the, “perceptions of…Cadbury and Fry as ‘enlightened,’ ‘model firms’ may be held in tension with the imperial and colonial origin of key factors of production such as sugar and cacao…. The buying and selling of cocoa for use in ‘British-made’ products …was thus clearly conducted under the inequalities of colonial rule and its consequences.”[1] Indeed, while Cadbury advertised morality, it purchased cacao harvested by poorly treated laborers in Sao Tome and Principe.

A ceramic marker for Richard Cadbury of the Cadbury Brothers Limited chocolate brand. The Cadbury family relied on their Quaker ethics to guide business and employee relationships.
A ceramic marker for Richard Cadbury of the Cadbury Brothers Limited chocolate brand. The Cadbury family relied on their Quaker ethics to guide business and employee relationships.


Historian Catherine Higgs frames William Cadbury as an anti-slavery man who went to Sao Tome and Principe to prove the reality of inhumane treatment occurring on cacao farms but who was made practically powerless by political and business rivals. During one trip, Cadbury reported that, “workers enjoyed excellent treatment on many estates” [2] but insisted, “that their death rates were too high and that the recruiting methods in Angola bordered on slave trading.”[3] How workers could have “excellent treatment” and yet a “too high” death rate conveys that Cadbury wanted to be factual in his reporting but political in his cause. Effectively, his report could be read to mean that all is not well, but well enough that he can keep buying from the plantations.

Cadbury’s rival newspaper, The Standard, libeled the company by insisting Cadbury was not investing in the plantations they sourced. Since Cadbury’s trips occurred at the same time as the libel lawsuit, it is unclear whether his trips were motivated by genuine concern or a pressure to uphold public relations. Considering the rivalry between Cadbury’s newspaper and The Standard, the harsh convictions seem more intended to tarnish the reputation of Cadbury than to champion fair labor practices. The jury sided in Cadbury’s favor and rewarded him less than a penny in damages. In this way, they communicated: “We agree that you were libeled. But you were also busted for buying inhumanely produced materials, so you do not deserve to profit from this suit.”

Cadbury’s findings of unfavorable conditions evoked hatred from Portuguese royalty who believed Cadbury’s motivation was to instigate a boycott of Portuguese cacao producers in favor of Britain’s Gold Coast producers. Indeed, as soon as Gold Coast cacao trees reached production age, Cadbury boycotted Sao Tome cacao and switched sources to mainland Africa. He attempted to stay in Portugal’s good graces by not publically releasing his findings. This supports a conclusion that Cadbury’s actions were politically or PR-inspired all along. He simply needed to be seen caring about the workers’ conditions not actually changing them.

Sadly, the history of slavery in cacao plantations has repeated itself. According to Higgs, today’s chocolate production in Cote D’Ivoire regularly involves child slavery. [4] Big Chocolate has ignored these findings or not responded compassionately. During Cadbury’s campaign, the Marquis of Vale Flor defended Portugal’s humanitarian record dismissing Cadbury’s photos as “fakes” and could have been, “taken in any part of the black Continent, even in London.”[5] When current US chocolate manufacturers saw reports of child labor on the plantations they sourced, they “expressed shock” and insisted, “that they had nothing to do with the practice” before concluding that the production chain was “outside of their control.”[6] When asked for a solution to these injustices, one cacao dealer suggested, “People should eat more chocolate instead of boycotting it so that farmers in Africa can make more money and poverty in West Africa will be eradicated.” [7] Another cocoa industry expert explained the “hazardous working conditions for children are just part of the culture of those countries.”[8]

This modern image references unaddressed child slavery issues on cacao plantations that persist today. Unfair labor practices on cacao plantations were brought to Europeans’ attention by Cadbury’s writings and sponsored reports from Sao Tome and Principe. Despite Cadbury’s protest of Sao Tome and Principe cacao production, chocolate producers simply sourced from other African countries where unfair labor was only less cruel or less publicized. Hence, the practice continues today.
This modern image references unaddressed child slavery issues on cacao plantations that persist today. Unfair labor practices on cacao plantations were brought to Europeans’ attention by Cadbury’s writings and sponsored reports from Sao Tome and Principe. Despite Cadbury’s protest of Sao Tome and Principe cacao production, chocolate producers simply sourced from other African countries where unfair labor was only less cruel or less publicized. Hence, the practice continues today.

Today, the vast majority of cacao is grown a continent away and marketed as a final product made “just down the street” by patriotic, moralistic chocolate corporations. Studying the history of Cadbury’s ethical challenges in Africa raises modern questions of who should bear the burden to relieve cacao farmers’ hardships. Should governments set—and enforce—standards so that all cacao buyers are required to play along? Is it the chocolate corporations who must self-enforce? Or should consumers be to blame for their unwillingness to pay more money for chocolate bars that could give companies a higher profit margin with which they could afford more expensive beans produced by farmers who can pay higher wages and live above subsistence level? Seen from any of these angles, beloved desserts produced in unfair conditions will always taste bittersweet.


[1] Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. 2010. Pg 7.

[2] Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. 2012. Pg 141.

[3] Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. 2012. Pg 141.

[4] Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. 2012. Pg 135.

[5] Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. 2012. Pg 155.

[6] Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. 2008. Pg 140.

[7]Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. 2008. Pg 153.

[8]Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. 2008. Pg 153.

Mass Commoditization of one of the World’s Most Difficult to Grow Crops

It sometimes seems like the world just can’t get enough chocolate.  We eat it plain, add all sorts of interesting things like raisins, chilies, and caramel to it, and even form it into the shape of a rabbit around Easter time.  From the omnipresent Hershey’s to small boutique chocolatiers, this global food phenomenon relies on the tiny seeds of the cacao tree. Yet the cultivation of this crop does not mirror the ease with which people can consume the finished product.  Growing cacao is incredibly difficult work that’s done almost completely by hand, and international demand has had a significant impact on the types of cacao that are grown.  As a result, cacao has become a commoditized monocrop, endangering both its heritage and its future.

In order to grow cacao, you first need a region of the world where temperatures will sit between 60-95 degrees.  You then need to find some land where this picky plant will be shaded from the sun, preferably underneath a banana tree.  Next, you must make sure that the cacao tree has enough moisture, but that monsoons don’t flood it.   When you add in the manual labor, subjective and objective knowledge necessary to grow this crop, and possible 50% losses due to disease, you may finally end up with a viable product that is ready to be processed (Martin, February 18th).  Once the cacao pods are harvested from the tree they must be cracked open, where the insides are scooped out and left to ferment for several days in order to remove the pulp from the seeds (Martin, February 18th).  Next, they are left out in the sun to dry.

Séchage du cacao - Coopérative Konafcoop, Cameroun (2011)

As seen in the picture, these seeds are sometimes placed right next to roads or other less than sanitary locations, meaning that consuming cacao beans raw isn’t quite the best idea.  Finally, the beans must be roasted and winnowed to remove the shells (Martin, February 18th).  Once this last step is complete, the leftover nibs can then be further processed into several different final forms.

Even though this process is incredibly labor intensive, demand for cacao hasn’t decreased.  Major chocolate producers simply looked for a way to get the greatest amount of product for the lowest cost.  As a result, there is a clear split between two different types of cacao.  The first is fine cacao.  This classification is mostly made from Criollo and Trinitario varieties of the plant, which produce a lower yield and are more susceptible to disease.  In return however, they have a much higher quality of flavor and as a result sell for higher prices.  Today fine cacao accounts for only 5-7% of product grown, whereas it used to be up to 50% of worldwide production up until the 1900s (Martin, February 18th).  The second classification is bulk cacao, which dominates current production with 93-95% market share.  These are usually Forastero varieties, are more disease resistant, have higher yields, and sell at a much lower rate.  However, the lack of fine flavor and sometimes even the presence of bad taste accompany the bottom-basement pricing associated with this classification (Martin, February 18th).

The need for massive amounts of product at commodity pricing creates some interesting labor implications.  In the first video linked below, a cacao farmer is asked what the cacao beans are used for.  He doesn’t know, and after being told that it’s turned into chocolate, he tries a piece for the first time in his entire life.  He is absolutely thrilled with it, and runs off to share it with the people he works with.  Due to the desire for cheap chocolate, this cacao producer doesn’t have the spare money to try the final version of the product that he labors over.  In contrast, the second video showcases a Fair Trade farmer.  He is able to skip selling to a broker, and can actually thrive on growing cacao instead of just surviving.  The difference is night and day, and perfectly illustrates how labor practices directly influence the quality of life for these growers.

The demand for chocolate will never go away.  However, the way we think about and source cacao beans will have to change if we wish to continue consuming this heavenly treat.  While there are about nine primary strains of cacao, the push towards low pricing means that one particular style is used for its commercial qualities (Martin, February 18th).  This allows knowledge about how to grow the other strains to slowly fade away into history, erasing the cultural ties of the strains along with it.  All that is left is a legacy of profit seeking.  Furthermore, a monocrop culture becomes unsustainable in the long run, relying more and more on pesticides and fertilizers, putting the entire production at risk of a single vulnerability (Wikipedia). In order to protect its past as well as its future, it is important to maintain cacao diversity and to fully support the farmers growing it all over the world.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The True History of Chocolate. London, Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Martin, Carla. AAAS 119x Lecture 7: Sugar and Cacao.  Conducted February 18, 2015.

“Monocropping.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2015. &lt;https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monocropping&gt;.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Random House LLC, 2009.