In our American culture, there is no sweet flavor that enjoys the popularity of chocolate. From its use in cakes to ice cream, the sweet and creamy nature of chocolate has become a massive cultural and entrepreneurial phenomenon that is central to our eating habits and socialization. However, the origins of chocolate date back to thousands of years in the Amazonian rainforest where the Cacao plant was first domesticated. Most people are accustomed to its sweet flavor and mildly roasted aftertaste, however, for the Maya and Aztecs, chocolate encompassed a variety of drinks with different flavors that were enjoyed by everyone from commoners to elite rulers like Aztec emperor Moctezuma, who was said to consume more than ten cups of chocolate a day (How Chocolate Works, 25:21). The perception around chocolate in pre-Columbian times included religious, social and medicinal elements that survive to this day in our modern times.
Our obsession with chocolate (Cacao) can be said to be quite extreme, however, for ancient Mesoamerican civilization it encompassed a much broader category of food and rituals. For the Aztecs and Maya, chocolate became central for their relationship with others and fulfilled a religious purpose within its mythology: “ […]the ethnohistorical sources from Central Mexico make clear that many types of chocolate drinks were enjoyed by elites of the Highlands. The Florentine Codex describes the rich variety of chocolate offered to Mexica Aztec rulers, including “green cacao-pods, honeyed chocolate, flowered chocolate, flavored with green vanilla, bright red chocolate, huitztecolli-flavored chocolate, flower-colored chocolate, black chocolate, white chocolate” (McNeil, 184). Chocolate, or its original fruit name Cacao, was treated not only as a comfort sweet drink as we perceive it in our society; they also attributed medicinal, aphrodisiac and even ceremonial purposes to the fruit itself which has a citrus-like flavor.
Initially, South American tribes created a variety of fermented drinks with the Cacao pulp or “chicha” which later evolved into including its bitter seeds or “almendras”. Such drinks became central for socialization and are still enjoyed by most adults in celebratory and everyday settings (depending on the drink). For example, non-alcoholic recipes: “ [they] are made by fermenting the cacao seeds, drying them, optionally toasting them, grinding them, and mixing them with water in a thick, bitter suspension” (McNeil, 140). This drink can be considered the equivalent of our current understanding of coffee; it is often described as refreshing, gives you energy and does not inebriate. The slightly roasted and bitter flavor of chocolate we are accustomed to came to be after years of experimentation with the fruit. Archeological evidence shows that the Maya applied roasting and drying techniques to peppers, squashes and achiote, and such practice was later applied to cacao seeds that eventually developed the roasted and bitter flavor of chocolate as we know it today. “[…] the Classic Maya took their chocolate very seriously and that it was a drink of pleasure as well as political and social importance” (McNeil, 201). Scientists were are able to find the alkaloids Theobromine and Feine which are found cacao products. Such presence in ancient vessels along Maya writings describing “Kakaw” made it possible to infer that Mesoamerican civilizations attributed significant importance to cacao-made drinks and even attributed aphrodisiac properties (Sophie & Michael D. Coe, 31). In addition, ceremonial varieties were also used by the Maya who even had a cacao deity. In her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, Maricel Presilla writes: “We know that chocolate colored with Achiote had the symbolic meaning of a sacrificial victim’s blood, the sacred fluid that was the fuel of the Maya ritual universe” (Presilla, 13). As cacao was sacredly mentioned in the creation story of the Popol Vuh, in which the cacao god ascends from the underworld, it was given sacred properties and therefore used in religious ceremonies.
In modern western tradition, chocolate is socialized slightly different than its Mesoamerican counterparts: chocolate is treated as a comfort food (or a treat) of a rewarding nature without ceremonial purposes. As a result, aggressive marketing campaigns are developed in which chocolate becomes a commodity to show affection or endearment such as Valentine’s Day. In this way, chocolate still plays a role in developing a highly social interaction between members of such societies around the food. In the western world, cacao seeds are usually roasted, milk is added, and sweetened with sugar and the byproduct is not alcoholic. Some Europeans chocolate producers like the Belgian company Godiva Chocolatier make high profits by marketing all varieties of chocolate products (from milk and dark chocolate bars to smoothies and seasonal strawberries that are covered in melted chocolate). Sweet chocolate has become an accessible delicacy that is enjoyed by most members of our society and shows no sigs of slowing down. The cacao plant has become so influential in our society that it has been adapted all over the world to suit each market’s needs. For example, in Mexico, some varieties of spicy chocolate still exist, and in South America, some varieties of sweet chocolate make use of the pulp to add some flavor.
Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
“Princeton Vase, from Nakbe Region.” Princeton Vase, from Nakbe Region.
As I ponder the selections of chocolate available in my local Trader Joe’s , it is important to understand a bit of the history of chocolate that is included in The True the History of Chocolate by Coe & Coe .Cacao, Chocolate originated in Meso-America and is referred to as the “Food of the Gods” consumed by the elite and used in sacrifices to please the gods.
Did you know that unlike money cacao really does grow on the pods and barks of trees.The chocolate trees were scientifically named Theobroma cacao in 1753 by the “great Swedish Naturalist” Linnaeus (1707-78).
Raw Cacao beans don’t taste anything like the chocolate bars we consume. After the cacao beans are harvested the cacao and pulp are fermented once fermentation is complete the beans are laid out to dry in the sun. Once dried the beans are then sorted and roasted. After the beans are roasted they are winnowed and finally the cacao nibs that are used to make chocolate reveal themselves. The cacao nibs are naturally bitter therefore sugar and other ingredients are added when making chocolate to reduce the acidity and bitterness and increase the sweetness.
Sidney Mintz in his book Sweetness and Power reminds us that sugar and sweetness is introduced to us at a very young age , “the first non milk food that a baby is likely to receive in North American hospital is a 5% glucose and water solution used to evaluate its postpartum functioning because newborns tolerate glucose better than water.”(Mintz, 1985) The fondness for sugar influences the chocolate that we consume as “most Americans instinctively go for blends with a high West African cacao content – this is a dominant cacao in some mass-produced brands that most American have eaten since childhood that is naturally identified with full chocolate flavor. Americans gravitate towards very light chocolate.” ( The New Taste of Chocolate, p. 136) Sweetness is a preferred taste from a very young age Cacao and sugar go together sort of like peanut butter and jelly. Alone each tastes okay but together they taste wonderful.
Chocolate has always evoked pleasant happy memories for me. From my childhood I can remember the heavenly aroma of chocolate from the Lowney Chocolate Factory wafting through the air as we walked to school, the anticipation of devouring my grocery store chocolate Easter bunny after Mass and the way the chocolate icing on a Honey Dew Donuts éclair melts in your mouth in an explosion of chocolate mixed with Bavarian cream.
As I matured my love of chocolate did not waver and I stayed loyal to brands like Hersey and Nestle and for special occasions Godiva was the go to brand. Then one day in 1987 a local chocolate shop called Puopolo’s Candies opened nearby. As a big believer in supporting local business I felt that it was my duty to check out the new chocolate shop. It was heaven! The aroma and the wide assortment of chocolate confections was astounding. There wasn’t a Snickers, Milky Way or Kit Kat in the place and it didn’t matter because these chocolates didn’t require brand recognition as one could see, smell and anticipate the chocolate truffles melting smoothly on your tongue while the milk chocolate flavors come to life. I never knew exactly why I came to prefer the chocolate sold at Puopolo’s over Hersey, Nestle or even Godiva, until now.
The big chocolate manufactures like Hershey, Nestle and Godiva appeal to the masses for both taste and price of their products. The chocolate is made in huge factories using industrial equipment. Each batch of chocolate is made to taste exactly the same as the other so that there is no variation of taste, color or texture in the thousands of candy bars that are made each day. Chocolate manufactured in this manner is referred to as industrial chocolate.
Shops like Puopolo’s are known as chocolatiers’ that appeal to people who appreciate and will pay for high quality chocolate . Chocolatiers’ produce chocolate creations on a much smaller scale and create confections in small batches by melting large bars of chocolate.
Another player has come on the scene and companies like Taza chocolate are part of a growing movement of small companies that produce bean to bar products.
The bean to bar companies are conscious of the long history of exploitation in the chocolate industry including children being used as forced labor on cacao plantations. (Off, 2006) The bean to bar companies produce an ethical and sustainable product by controlling all stages of their chocolate making including choosing and grinding their own cacao beans.
The advantage of industrial chocolate for the consumer is that whether you purchase a Hershey bar in Alaska or Massachusetts the wrapper texture, color and taste of the chocolate will be the same. Whereas the smaller manufacturers including chocolatiers and bean to bar, aim to produce small unique batches of products. Cacao beans alone are bitter thus sugar and sometimes other flavorings like vanilla and milk are added to cocoa beans to make the chocolate bars more palatable. The more cacao content in a product the more intense the chocolate flavor which to many tastes bitter.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a local chocolatiers nearby so I set out to my local Trader Joe’s to utilize my new-found knowledge and analyze their chocolate section.
Mintz states ” food choices and eating habits reveal distinctions of age, sex, status , culture and even occupation.” (Sweetness and Power). Trader Joe’s is a slighty upscale, funky progressive full service grocery store who cater to their customers food and need to shop at a socially responsible store. Customers that shop here generally care about where and how the ingredients in their food come from . Trader Joe’s listened to their customers and according to the timeline listed on their website in 1997 they “made a commitment to eliminate artificial trans fats from all private label products (along with artificial flavors, artificial preservatives & GMO ingredients… but that’s old news by now).”
Trader Joe’s shoppers are diverse and span the socio economic scale. They want to feel as if they are being socially and environmentally responsible without spending a lot of cash. They will however spend a bit more for a product if it makes them feel like they are achieving the goals of being a responsible consumer. One such chocolate bar checks all those boxes the Fair Trade Organic Belgium Chocolate Bar is included in the wide selection of chocolate products that are displayed throughout the store. These bars were included in the chocolate bar section located at the back of the store at the end of an aisle near the milk. The majority of the chocolate bars were 3.5 ounces with price points between $1.99 for the Fair Trade Organic Belgium Chocolate bars , $2.99 for a Valrhona dark chocolate bar and for $4.99 you could purchase a milk and almond pound plus bar. There were quite a few chocolate products located in the impulse buy zone at the front of the store including dark chocolate peanut butter cups and chocolate covered almonds for $4.99 each.
As I strolled the isles I noticed some chocolate bars above the seafood section that had pretty and exotic looking labels. Upon closer inspection it is revealed that these are dark chocolate bars made with 70% cacao and delicious fillings like coconut caramel and toffee and walnuts. Along side these bars there was a 65% Dark Cacao bar that is made from single origin fairly traded beans from Ecuador. These chocolate bars highlight the cacao content to entice those that believe the claim that chocolate is good for your heart . However, James Howe advises that the claim that chocolate is heart healthy is not scientifically proven that chocolate consumption alone is the primary element in increasing cardiovascular health. ( Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health, 2012) The artwork depicts nature scenes to enhance the natural allure of these chocolate bars that are priced at just $1.89.
In spite From the lovely artwork and detailed descriptions highlighting the cacao content and country of origin of the beans it is clear from the price points of $1.89 that these are mass marketed industrial made chocolate bars covered in cleverly designed Trader Joe’s wrappers. The wrappers contain all the buzz words and images the consumer wants to see so they feel like they are purchasing socially responsible products. When I questioned the store manager about the private label chocolate bars he did not know what company Trader Joe’s bought the chocolate bars from however he assured me that they were made from the finest organic ingredients yet… only a few chocolate bars are labeled organic or Fair Trade.
The Trader Joe’s Chocolate truffles look decadent on the shiny red background of the package. They even provide directions on how to”taste these delicate truffles”. Trader Joe’s selections so far were on target for their consumers, good cacao content, some organic selections. therefore I was very surprised when the first ingredient listed in the Cocoa Truffles was vegetable oil , the second sugar and finally cocoa powder appears as the third ingredient. This was disappointing as it is not as high quality chocolate product as it appears and not consistent with the prior products viewed.
After reviewing the chocolate bar and other chocolate products at Trader Joe’s I’ve concluded that Trader Joe’s should expand their chocolate selections to include more Fair Trade chocolate products and add a few Bean to Bar and local chocolatiers products to the inventory. It would be a clear statement to Trader Joe’s customers and the chocolate industry that Trader Joe’s cares about ethics and is committed to providing their customers with more Fair Trade, organic and local chocolate products. While the typical Trader Joe’s customer appreciates a bargain , many would be willing to pay more for chocolate if they know that their purchase directly benefits the cacao farmer or the small business person. Trader Joe’s has the opportunity to make a difference in the chocolate industry if they go beyond selling private label chocolate bars and include bean to bar and local chocolate makers.
If you want to make an effort to consume Fair Trade organic chocolate the key is read the labels or find your local chocolate shop , either bean to bar or chocolatiers you won’t be disappointed.
Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
“Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12.1 (2012): 43-52. Web.
The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ed. Maricel E. Presilla. New York: Ten Speed, 2009. 61-94. Print.
Carol Off, Bitter Chocolate: the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet.2006. The New Press. print.
Although added sugars make up about 13 percent of the typical American’s caloric intake, the prevalence of sugary foods and drinks in the human diet is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history (Ervin). In fact, around 150 years ago, around 85 percent of Englishmen lived on a diet of a single starch supplemented by a small selection of other foods and lived with the constant threat of hunger (Mintz 13). The increase in sugar supply from the British colonies to England beginning in the mid 17th century gave the nation a taste for sugar, caused sugar consumption to explode, meal preparation time to decrease drastically and allowed for women to more easily enter the workforce.
Human beings have always had an innate taste for sweetness, which was satisfied by products other than sugar cane and sugar beets before their introduction to the masses (Allsop 513). Before sugar plantation proprietors began to heavily import their products from the New World back to Europe, the English people consumed honey as a means to thwart their craving for sweetness (Counihan 92). Honey was so popular that the intake level of this sweetener, “at various times during history may well have rivaled our current consumption of refined sugar” (Allsop 513). Thus, sugar was not always a major component in the typical British diet, but was transplanted into the diet by first making its way into the preferences of the wealthy and elite.
While honey was the ubiquitous sweetener before the 18th century, those in power sought the status of gaining access, paying high prices and displaying sugar in their homes, a process subsequently emulated by those in lower classes, eventually making sugar an essential good of the entire population (Mintz 154). Sugar began to infiltrate the ranks of the common man as prices fell 70 percent between 1645 and 1680 C.E., giving rise to a nation fueled by simple sugars (Mintz 160). The demand for sugar was high, and the plantation owners in the British colonies artificially created this demand with their continuous influx of supply. Although prices fluctuated throughout the 18th century, the driving demand of those back in England kept production levels on the rise, and expanded the regions where sugar was grown (Mintz 160). According to Mintz, “the popularization of sucrose, barely begun in 1650, brought some of it into the hands of even the very poor within a century; then between 1750 and 1850, it…became a necessity” (Mintz 161). In other words, as the common man sought the luxury of sugar originally reserved for the elite, those in charge of production used this opportunity to deliver their product to individuals from every walk of life within society.
The increases in the supply and the decreases in price of sugar during both the 17th and 19th centuries led to subsequent increases in the number of ways sugar was consumed in England. Throughout the history of western cuisine, those with money tended to eat protein-rich foods like meat, fish and poultry (Mintz 193). These foods took a great deal of time to prepare and were not calorically dense (Mintz 193). Sucrose, on the other hand, was extremely high in calories and required little to no preparation. Sweetened preserves, for example, did not spoil easily and were considered pleasing to children’s tastes (Mintz 130). This increased the appeal of sugar as a food, especially for the working classes, who had little time to eat in their industrial society and sought foods with a high energy–to–cost ratio (Mintz 130). Because of this shorter preparation time, women, traditionally in charge of cooking for their household, could then enter the labor force and provide financially for their families (Mintz 130). This coincided with the advent of industrial technologies and an increased demand for female workers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Sugar offered a cheap and satisfying meal to the British people, without the need to sacrifice hours of time during the cooking process.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.
Counihan, Carole and Penny Van Esterik, eds. Food and Cuisine. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013. Print.
Ervin, R. Bethene and Cynthia L. Ogden. “Consumption of Added Sugars Among U.S. Adults, 2005-2010”. CDC, May 2013. Web. 12 March 2015.
Allsop, Karen A. and Janette Brand Miller. “Honey Revisited: a reappraisal of honey in preindustrial diets”. British Journal of Nutrition (1996): 513-520. Web. 12 March 2015.