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Changing Opinions of Cacao and Chocolate Through History

The crackdown on sugar and high-calorie foods garnered a lot of media attention in 2010 with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and the proposed ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks in New York and it brought a public health crisis into the spotlight. Chocolate as we know it today is itself an example of a sugary food with high caloric content common in the diets of many Americans. Dark chocolate, which often tastes bitter because it has higher cacao content and less sugar, contains an average of 14 grams of sugar per ounce (USDA). That said, most candy bars that contain chocolate far exceed that amount. Although a number of research studies conducted in the last two decades have highlighted potential health benefits of chocolate consumption (specifically dark chocolate), chocolate is often referred to as a “guilty pleasure” and it is seen in the public eye as something unhealthy associated with weight gain. We know that this was not the case throughout much of history, when cacao and chocolate were considered healthy and, in a few societies, as medicine. I find this shift in public opinion interesting and believe it to be a direct result of the democratization of chocolate and its high sugar content. By winding back the clock and analyzing changing perceptions of cacao and chocolate in different areas of the world with a focus on health, we can better understand when and why this transition happened.

Mesoamerican attitudes towards cacao (c. 600 C.E. – 1500 C.E.)

People in Central America and Mexico during the height of the Mayan and Aztec empires used cacao as an offering in healing rituals, to ensure successful travel, and during social unions such as banquets, baptisms, burials, weddings, and ceremonies to confirm the legitimacy of dynasties (Martin and Sampeck 39). The importance of cacao and its link to the gods can be found in the Dresden Codex, a Mayan book and the oldest surviving from the Americas, where “gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe and Coe 42). In addition, cacao had several medicinal uses, including help with indigestion, inflammation, and fertility. Other applications of medicinal cacao used for afflictions can be found in Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams (18th century manuscripts recopied from ancient codices). Cacao was also prepared as a beverage using distinctive tools such as the molinillo, the steep-sided cup, and the spouted pot and ingredients including chile, custard apple, maize, achiote, and more ingredients specific to colonial Mesoamerica (Martin and Sampeck 42). Notably, the amount of sugar was much lower and the list of ingredients is wildly different from that of modern-day chocolate.

This colorized image is a representation of a drawing found in the Dresden Codex. It depicts the Opossum God carrying the Rain God on his back with a caption that reads “cacao is his food.” Interestingly, the scientific name for cacao, Theobroma Cacao, literally means “food of the gods.”

French attitudes towards chocolate (c. 1600 C.E. – 1800 C.E.)

Chocolate was likely introduced in France from Spain as a drug by Alphonse de Richelieu, who, as we learned in class, believed it could be used as a medicine for his spleen. Prevailing theories in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe credited chocolate as being “a generally nutritious, energizing, fortifying beverage” that was also “credited as being an antidepressant, an aphrodisiac, a laxative, an agent to strengthen the heart, liver, and lungs, and a treatment for hemorrhoids” (Cather Studies 285). By 1690, chocolate was a regular offering at Louis XIV’s court at Versailles and was popular among the aristocracy (Coe and Coe 157-60). There were, of course, conflicting opinions about chocolate and its merits, but nonetheless a culture developed around it among the wealthy such that when Thomas Jefferson assumed the role of Minister to France in 1785, he wrote the following in a letter to John Adams from Paris:

Chocolate. [T]his article when ready made, and also the [c]acao becomes so soon rancid, and the difficulties of getting it fresh have been so great in America that it’s use has spread but little … by getting it good in quality, and cheap in price, the superiority of the article both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea & coffee in America which it has in Spain.”

RC (MHi: Adams Family Papers). PoC (DLC). Published in PTJ, 9:62–3.
The mancerina, pictured above, originated in Paris and was used to serve chocolate drinks. It is a testament to the chocolate culture that flourished among the nobility in France in the 1690s.

American attitudes towards chocolate (c. 1700 C.E. – 1950 C.E.)

Chocolate, although very rare at the time, had made its way into what would later become the state of Massachusetts, and more specifically onto Judge Samuel Sewall’s breakfast plate, by the year 1697. George Washington was apparently fond of chocolate, and “…connections to the drink have been attributed to patriot luminaries like Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, [and] Thomas Jefferson” (Laiskonis). Notably, however, chocolate was provided to the troops in the French and Indian War. Six pounds of chocolate was offered to each officer by Benjamin Franklin, who “…saw chocolate as a compact, energizing, and tasty food that could be easily carried and boosted morale” (National Geographic Partners 20). By 1800, chocolate was affordable for most colonists (while it was still an expensive drink reserved for the nobility in France) because they (the colonists) imported cacao beans directly from the Caribbean rather than buying them from the British to evade the cost of taxes (National Geographic Partners 18). The cost was further brought down with the rise of mechanization and changes in transportation. Chocolate went from being consumed primarily as a drink to a solid with the development of new techniques, namely pressing and tempering, and became less gritty with the invention of the conch in 1879. Major chocolate companies like Hershey’s, Nestlé, Mars, Cadbury, and Lindt became so successful by standardizing their recipes, scaling up their operations, investing in effective marketing techniques, extending the shelf life of their products, and eventually gaining control of the supply chain. Hershey’s and Nestlé also reaped the benefits of war by providing chocolate for U.S. army rations during WWII (Jacobson). Up until about 1945, therefore, chocolate was still viewed largely the same as it had been by Benjamin Franklin two centuries prior. The idea that chocolate could restore one’s strength, on the other hand, went all the way back to the Maya.

This Nestlé advert from 1942 proclaims that “Chocolate is a fighting food!” It describes specific attributes of the chocolate and plays on American patriotism during wartime. Chocolate has been implicated in the nation’s war efforts since before the American Revolution.


So, what caused the change in public opinion of chocolate after 1950? I believe that it was a combination of wide availability of chocolate back at home after WWII and the heavy advertising that chocolate companies did during the war. Additionally, our lives today are significantly more sedentary, and we consume more food/calories now than before. I would argue that all these factors shifted the focus from the benefits of chocolate to its sugar content as we became more aware of the grip of high calorie foods on our diet. It seems that tide is turning now, with research supporting some potential health benefits of chocolate.  

Works / References Cited

Belluz, Julia. Silhouette eating a bar of chocolate. Vox, 20 August 2018, www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/10/18/15995478/chocolate-health-benefits- heart-disease.

Cather Studies. “Willa Cather: A Writer’s Worlds; Vol. 8 of Cather Studies.” University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The True History of Chocolate.” Thames & Hudson, 28 June 2013.

Jacobson, Sean. “”Chocolate is a Fighting Food!” – Chocolate bars in the Second World War.” National Museum of American History (Behring Center), 24 October 2016, https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/chocolate-bars-second-world-war

Jefferson, Thomas. Extract of letter to John Adams. Massachusetts Historical Society of Boston, 27 Nov. 1785, tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1789

Laiskonis, Michael. “In Search of Chocolate in Old New York City.” Institute of Culinary Education, 19 August 2016, www.ice.edu/blog/search-chocolate-old-new-york

Mancerina dish from the Royal Factory of Alcora. Museo Nacional de Ceramica y Artes, 18th century, artsandculture.google.com/asset/mancerina-dish-from-the-royal-factory-of-alcora/lwF_ttm8ODc2Sg.  

Mars, Inc. and National Geographic Partners. “Great Moments in World History: Global Stories Where Chocolate Sparked Discovery, Innovation, and Imagination.” Mars, 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/pdf/chocolate-ed-guide.pdf

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.bu, DoI: 10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37

Opossum God Carrying Rain God. The Possomery, members.peak.org/~jeremy/possomery/

United States Department of Agriculture. “Chocolate, dark, 45- 59% cacao solids.” 1 April 2019, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170271/nutrients

Wilbur, Lawrence. “Nestlé’s advertisement; “Chocolate is a fighting food.”.” World War II Advertisements – 1942. WCSU Archives, 9 July 2019, archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/show/4576

The Elite World of Chocolate: Cultural Significance in Early Europe

Across time and space, from the Aztec Empire to Baroque Europe, chocolate has been associated with upper class culture. While chocolate was first introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century as a medicine with strong curative powers, it evolved into an elite drink during the grandiose Baroque Age. Chocolate was popularized throughout Europe and came to occupy a distinctive place within upper class society because of the complex material and social culture that the aristocracy and nobility created around it.

“It was during the Baroque Age that the beverage [chocolate] made its major journeys, and it was in the Baroque palaces and mansions of the wealthy and powerful that it was elaborated and consumed.” – The True History of Chocolate (Coe and Coe 125)

Europeans crafted specialized objects to enhance the quality and presentation of chocolate. By creating intricate paraphernalia and drinking processes, they elevated the consumption of chocolate to elite ritual ceremony. The development of objects including chocolate pots, cups, and saucers for the preparation and serving of chocolate in Baroque Europe indicate the extent to which the consumption of chocolate was a show of extravagance. The Spanish, Italians, and French developed their own varieties of specialty chocolate-pots in copper, gold, and silver, such as the one in the image below, (Coe and Coe 156) for the stirring, frothing, and serving of chocolate.

Chocolatiére (1774), made of silver and amarath wood

Particularly in France, these chocolatières were prized by the nobility, and the Dauphin Louis XIV himself received chocolatières as gifts from foreign guests, such as the King Narai of Siam in 1686. A body of literature surrounding the correct usage of chocolatières and other objects involved in the chocolate consumption process emerged, and the French debated chocolatière design in cookbooks and culinary treatises. For example, an issue of contention was whether there should be a hole in the chocolatière lid, to allow for the passing of the handle of the moulinet, used to stir the liquid chocolate, or if the lid should not be pierced, as with a caffetière, to avoid the “cumbersome” opening and closing of the pot with a moulinet passing through it (Grivetti and Shapiro 91).

With an elaborate material culture surrounding it, chocolate emerged as a fundamental element of royal and high society across countries including Italy, France, England, and Spain. Chocolate was served at public functions and levees at royal courts across Europe, such as Versailles (Coe and Coe 156).

Social gatherings offered individuals the opportunity to display their collection of objects relating to chocolate as well as their innovative methods of chocolate preparation. Esteemed recipes came to be associated with particular places, such as Francesco Redi’s jasmine chocolate at the Tuscan Court (Coe and Coe 143). These recipes were time-consuming and complex, requiring ingredients unavailable to most individuals. Redi’s chocolate, for example, required ten days to prepare and 250 jasmine flowers per kilogram of cocoa nibs a day for each of these ten days.


The Family of the Duke of Penthievre or The Cup of Chocolate (1768) shows a noble family drinking chocolate in a salon, illustrating the type of individuals who consumed chocolate in Baroque Europe.

The upper bourgeoisie class also consumed chocolate in increasing amounts. In England, chocolate was served in traditional coffee-houses, which functioned as important social institutions within English society, by the mid seventeenth century (Coe and Coe, 167).

Chocolate consumption flourished in Baroque Europe because of the extensive material and social culture that developed around it. The luxury item grew in popularity not simply because of its taste or perceived medicinal qualities, but because it offered the European upper class an opportunity to construct a set of customs and social practices around its consumption. Indeed, chocolate became a symbol of wealth, and a vehicle by which one could exhibit his or her privilege. Chocolate was expensive to begin with, and the construction of an extravagant world around chocolate made it even more inaccessible to the lower classes.


Ultimately, mass production technologies transformed chocolate from an elite privilege into a European staple food. However, even today, chocolate remains linked to notions of opulence and luxury.


Works Cited

Charpentier, Jean Baptiste. The Penthievre Family or The Cup of Chocolate, 1768. Digital image. PBS Learning Media. Web.

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

Grivetti, Louis, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009. Print.

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

Van Cauwenbergh, Joseph-Théodore. Chocolate Pot. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. Mar. 2012. Web.

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.

Chocolate & Luxury

Cacao beans, and the products that descend from them, were all highly valued in the early societies of Mesoamerica.  The beans were considered so precious that even Ferdinand Columbus, viewing with his foreign eyes how reverently they were treated, was able to understand their importance on some level.  He explained in a written account that cacao beans, which he referred to as “almonds,” were so valuable to the Maya people he was observing that “when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe & Coe 109).

A person holding cacao beans, which were precious to Maya and Aztec peoples as both a currency and as the source of chocolate

The diligence he observed in the Maya people’s behavior was likely due in large part to their use of cacao beans as currency – though just an “almond” with mysterious value to Columbus, the beans had great extrinsic value in Mayan society.  Beyond their implication of wealth when accumulated as currency, cacao beans had an even greater implication of wealth in the luxury and status symbol that was one of their products: chocolate.  “The common folk, the needy did not drink it” (Coe & Coe 101); rather, its consumption was limited to that of the elite classes of both Mayan and Aztec society.  It was a very rare occasion when those outside of the elite minority were able to enjoy chocolate drinks – one such rarity was when “Aztec sacrifice victims who felt too melancholy to join in ritual dancing before their death” were given chocolate lightly flavored with blood of preceding victims (“A Brief History of Chocolate”).  Later in Aztec history, chocolate was even referenced as a symbol of luxury in the poetry and songs the royalty and nobility devoted themselves to creating (Coe & Coe 104).

Chocolate was also a luxury item when first introduced to Europe.  Initially, the good was available only to Europe’s upper classes, prompting the creation of luxury items like the Spanish mancerina and the French chocolatiere to facilitate the consumption of the nobility.  The mancerina was used to prevent spillage of chocolate drink at royal and noble parties, where it was often consumed, and the chocolatiere, typically made from precious materials like silver, facilitated the process of making chocolate beverages with its frothing mechanism.  Chocolate was often served at public functions of Louis XIV at Versailles (Coe & Coe 156), considered by history to be one of the most extravagant rulers of European history living in one of the most extravagant of places to exist even to this day.

Over time, the extravagance and luxury that chocolate and other products of the cacao plant represented faded into a commonplace tradition of the masses.  Cheaper than tea after the advent of mass production of chocolate, hot chocolate was often served alongside coffee in places like England.

An English coffeehouse where chocolate drinks were likely sold alongside coffee, and where British politicians would chat about the politics of the day

As the two Mesoamerican societies progressed, chocolate and cacao beans became much more accessible to the average Mayan or Aztec, giving rise to the popular tradition of making chocolate drinks like champurrado that have persisted in popularity into modern day Mexican culture.

Though the exclusivity of access once associated with the products of the cacao plant changed, what didn’t was the luxurious feeling of consuming it: from Europe to Mesoamerica, chocolate maintained its classification as a special consumption good.  Embodied first in exclusivity and then later in tradition, the special, luxurious feeling associated with chocolate has yet to fade.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1996. Print.

Benson, Amanda. “A Brief History of Chocolate.”Smithsonian Magazine. 1 Mar 2008: n. page. Print. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/?page=1&gt;.