Today, chocolate is a foundational treat in the Western diet. The way in which we consume cacao, the critical fruit in any chocolate creation, has drastically changed overtime. What began as the key ingredient in divine medicinal energizer drinks in Mesoamerica has drastically changed to a sugar-infused, unhealthful dessert in modern society. In turn, treats such as chocolate are seen as villains in modern day obesity problems.
In this project, I seeked to understand the modern chocolate palette and contrast that with more traditional chocolate recipes. Thus, I compared subjects’ reactions to common, modern brands such as Hershey’s with that of a pure 100% cacao bar as well as several recipes between these extremes. I interviewed these subjects to better understand their taste palette. In doing so, I hoped to gain a more concrete understanding of why this shift occurred. To do this, I need to outline the greater history of chocolate and compare that to my own study.
In doing so, I more clearly saw the ties chocolate has to class as certain chocolates are associated with nobility and others are seen as the chocolate of the common man. This class structure has deep historical roots that continue to affect the way we see chocolate today
Chocolate in Mesoamerica
In Mayan, Aztec, and other native american cultures, cacao was a holy fruit. Originating around the equator in the American continent, cacao grows on a tree of the same name. Classical prints suggest that the most common form of chocolate consumption was as a beverage. The oldest known depiction of chocolate consumption is on the Princeton Vase, a work from around 750 A.D (See image above). On the right hand side of this image, we see a women pouring a chocolaty beverage from one container to the other. We believe this to have been a method for raising the foam, which was considered the most popular part of the beverage (Coe 48).
It should be noted, however, that it would be quite simple minded to believe that these people consumed chocolate in a singular way. As modern chefs have the skill to craft a plethora of dishes from a few simple ingredients, mesoamerican chocolatiers too had the ability to prepare numerous chocolate treats including beverages, porridges, and powders (Coe 48).
These cultures mixed in several savory flavors with their chocolate such as chilli, maize, and ceiba (Coe 86). This is very different, however, from the sweet, sugary treats we often associate with chocolate today. During our tasting session, we served some chocolate options with little to no added sugar. When we served a pure 100% cacao bar, there was instant disgust. The subjects compared the taste to that of a branch or chalk. One subject went so far as to claim that, if served in another context, she would never associate the flavor with that of chocolate. That is, counterintuitively, she doesn’t recognize cacao, pure chocolate, as chocolate at all.
Additionally, we served a Taza chocolate that was 87% cacao. Taza tends to market themselves as traditional mesoamerican chocolate. Similarly, there was some disgust amongst the subjects. They were disappointed by the lack of intensity of flavor and the limited sweetness. One subject commented that she feels like she doesn’t like the chocolate because she is uncultured. This mindset reflects the common notion that artisanal chocolate are for high-class “chocolate snobs.” To a certain degree, this idea matches the structure of mesoamerican chocolate culture. In Aztec culture, for example, chocolate was typically saved for warriors and the nobility. It was difficult and expensive for lay people to consume the treat (Coe 75). In other words, chocolate was only for the elite members of society.
Introduction in Europe – Sugar
When the conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century, europeans were introduced to cacao for the first time and witnessed the local chocolate customs. Soon after, the product was introduced to Europe itself and was immediately sought after due to the exotic nature of the product. This was during the Baroque period in Europe and it was in the iconically extravagant baroque mansions where the product was first enjoyed in Europe. As was the case in Mesoamerica, only the elite could afford chocolate. Thus, chocolate was immediately associated with the gilded and marble halls that defined the period. Undoubtedly, this created a strong connection between chocolate consumption and nobility.
At first, it was consumed in very similar ways as in Mesoamerica, as a warm beverage with some mix of spices to enliven the flavors. One of those spices was sugar. Sugar was first introduced to Europe around the 12th century. For the first few centuries, it was thought of as a spice (Mintz 79). Sugar was inaccessible to most and even the wealthiest needed to carefully ration the expensive product. Humans, however, have a powerful natural liking for sugar. Thus, it was used to sweeten other bitter food groups. Included in this list of foods that europeans mixed with sugar was chocolate. The introduction of foreign products such as tea, chocolate, and coffee increased the demand for sugar in Europe.
The opportunists across the Atlantic in the New World hoped to take advantage of this demand. Sugar production, however, was very labor intensive. Tragically, the chosen solution for this dilemma was one of human existence’s greatest crimes: slavery. The inception of the triangle slave trade brought African slaves to the new world to do hard physical labor (See the map to the left for details). This free labor allowed europeans to produce sugar and other goods more affordably and to a greater quantity.
With greater sugar supply, the price of sugar plummeted to an accessible price in Europe. By the turn of the 17th century, sugar could be consumed by all people and in greater quantities (Mintz 86). In turn, when europeans used sugar as a sweetener for other foods such as chocolate, they would use it in much greater quantity. For example, in a Spanish chocolate recipe from 1644, for 100 cacao beans, ½ a pound of sugar was added (Coe 133). Thus, sugar was clearly not a sprinkled on spice anymore, but an essential element in a chocolate recipe.
In addition, the increased production of cacao and sugar changed the image of class associated with chocolate. Once the prices dropped so that it was more accessible, it was no longer a luxury reserved for the few.
During our chocolate tasting, we had bars such Cote d’Or that we conjectured are similar to the flavors enjoyed in Europe during 17-19th centuries. Relative to the bars with more cacao content, this bar was quite popular. The students appreciated the sweetness and the mix of flavors. One subject even said that, relative to the Taza bar, he felt this type of chocolate was “more accessible.”
Rise of Big Chocolate
The chocolate industry transformed during the industrial revolution when mavericks like Forrest Mars and M.S. Hershey created their brands. With distinctly sweet recipes and crisp business models, they created the chocolate giants we know today.
Hershey and his partners experimented with various chocolate recipes. They soon came to their perfect solution when they added a ton of milk and sugar. It created a smooth, creamy chocolate that melted in one’s mouth. It had a bite similar to that of “al dente” pasta (D’Antonio 107). This iconic chocolate bar exploded into a sensation. In the process, however, they ran into the issue of collecting all the ingredients and relying on others for some of the processing. To alleviate this dilemma, Hershey sought to vertically integrate the industry. That is, he attempted to control as many of the processes himself as possible. For example, when he had issues getting a consistent source of milk, he founded his own dairy farm so that he could control that supply chain. He did this by founding a town dedicated to his brand — Hershey, PA (D’Antonio 115).
The natural appeal of chocolate gave the industry an inherent public relations advantage and the idea of a perfect little town dedicated to chocolate resonated with many progressives. Hershey easily sold this idea to the public and they ate it up. He was going to make the ultimate chocolate dream come true (D’Antonio 116). Everything about Hershey screamed a people’s brand — it was chocolate for everyone. Their product was sweet, creamy, and affordable and still to this day, people can’t get enough.
This popularity was matched in our study. Upon blindly trying a piece, one subject simply exclaimed, “This is dat good s**t.” The cheapest bar in our collection was also perhaps the most well-liked. Some subjects suggested that it reminded them of their childhood. Thus, big chocolate brands benefit from an exponential path to success. That is, as many people have eaten a Hershey bar before, they are more likely to enjoy it again in the future as it will remind them of positive memories. Thus, a sweeping step in the market of young children creates a set of loyal lifetime customers.
Along these lines, it’s interesting to compare the methods of marketing of a big chocolate brand like Hershey’s against earlier chocolate cultures and modern, high-class chocolatiers. Both of the latter chocolates were targeted to the upper class and aimed to sell a degree of nobility. Hershey on the other hand has a simple branding that is designed for everyone. We see that in one of the original design for their brand that can be seen below. The notions of class that preceded Hershey both in mesoamerica and Europe have evaporated with their affordable, delicious chocolate.
With brands like Hershey drastically increasing the amount of sugar in a typical chocolate bar, the health concerns around chocolate changed as well. Today, the health concerns around big chocolate are well-advertised, but that fact wasn’t always so clear. In fact, in 17th century Europe, sugar was used as a medicine. Upon sugar’s arrival in Europe, some scholars alluded to classical Islamic texts which raved about the medicinal purposes of sugar (Mintz 96). The stimulant became a standard sight at apothecaries across Europe and some even believed it was a type of panacea (Mintz 101).
For years, researches struggled to undoubtedly prove the negative effects of sugar. For years, big sugar was able to swerve criticisms and even would go as far as claim that sugar helped people lose weight (Taubes 2). Because there was not a consensus about the negative effects of sugar, big sugar companies did not need to cover anything up. Instead, they simply needed to maintain this level of uncertainty (3). With large PR schemes, these companies wanted to maintain the notion that sugar was safe for consumption (6).
Eventually, however, as we know today, the truth did come out: sugar can cause conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Regardless, americans and other people around the world continue to eat the sweetener in great quantity (See figure on the left). Because of this, obesity has risen concurrently. In our little study, we saw that people typically enjoy a good deal of sugar in their chocolate. When I asked the subjects to rank our six chocolates, there was a strong correlation between enjoyability and sugar content.
The way in which chocolate has been prepared and consumed has drastically changed overtime. Notably, today, we use a lot more sugar to prepare chocolate. Thus, people today recognize chocolate for the creamy and sweet flavors of milk and sugar.
On a positive note, these changes broke down the class structure associated with chocolate. No longer is chocolate reserved for the wealthiest and most noble. People of all ages, classes, and genders love and enjoy the treat.
On a darker note, the increased sugar content in chocolatey treats have contributed to the health defects caused by too much sugar consumption. In the 20th century, we saw a steep increase in obesity and that effect has a direct link link to sugar consumption.
Regardless of how you interpret this trend, you cannot refute the claim that we consume and see chocolate in a drastically different way than how it was when it was first introduced to europeans. These drastic changes walked foot by foot with the increase in sugar’s role in both chocolate consumption and our daily diets as a whole.
Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 1996.
D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey. Simon & Schuster 2006.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power.. Penguin Books, 1985.
Taubus, Gary and Kearns Couzens, Kristin. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Lies.” Mother Jones. November/December 2012.