A Brief History of Chocolate

Over the course of its history, chocolate has gone from a sacred beverage to a sweet treat.
Over the course of its history, chocolate has gone from a sacred beverage to a sweet treat. / Dmitr1ch/iStock via Getty Images Plus

In 2017, two members of a Russian crime syndicate in the United States were charged with the transport and sale of 10,000 pounds of “stolen chocolate confections.” The indictment didn’t mention whether the thieves took a few bites for themselves, but if they did have a sweet tooth they’d hardly be alone: Napoleon Bonaparte was a fan of chocolate, which was said to be his drink of choice when working late. Thomas Jefferson fell in love with it while serving as minister to France, and proclaimed that it might soon be more popular than tea or coffee. And though she probably never said “let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette was known to enjoy hot chocolate, which was served at the Palace of Versailles.

Chocolate’s worldwide popularity streak has lasted centuries, but it wasn’t always the sweet, easily accessible treat we know today. So what is chocolate, and how did it transform from sacred beverage to sweet snack?

Getting Chocolate from Cacao

Every chocolate product starts with the cacao tree. The plants were originally native to the Americas, but today they’re grown worldwide, primarily in tropical regions. The fruits of cacao trees are called pods; one pod is roughly the size of a football, and it contains around 40 almond-sized cacao beans—which are actually seeds.

When fermented and roasted, cacao beans develop a rich, complex flavor. They’re the key to making chocolate taste chocolatey. The word cacao, by the way, usually refers to the plant and its seeds before they’re processed, while chocolate describes products made from processed cacao beans. And if you’re wondering what the difference between cacao and cocoa is, there really isn’t one. Both versions of the plant name are technically correct, but in modern usage, cacao is increasingly applied to things closer to the plant while cocoa is used for the more processed stages.

There’s some debate over who first decided to turn raw cacao beans into processed chocolate. One long-standing theory posits that humans were first drawn to the pulp of the cacao pod, which they used to make an alcoholic beverage. The oldest evidence we have for the consumption of cacao products comes from 5000 years ago in what is now Ecuador.

At some point, chocolate migrated north: Evidence of cacao residue has been found in vessels from the Olmec people, in what is now southern Mexico. It’s still unclear if this cacao was the result of beer-like fermented beverages made from cacao pods or some kind of chocolate that would be more recognizable to us today.

According to art and hieroglyphs from Central America and southern Mexico, chocolate was a big part of Maya culture. It didn’t look or taste anything like a Hershey’s bar, though. Back then, chocolate was sipped rather than eaten, and to make these chocolate drinks, the Maya harvested beans from cacao pods and fermented them.

Fermentation is basically controlled rot. Microorganisms like yeast and bacteria break down the organic substances in food, changing the taste on a biochemical level without making the food go bad. Fermentation also generates heat, and when a pile of cacao beans ferments, it can exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This heat is essential in developing chocolate’s signature flavor and aroma. It unlocks flavor compounds we associate with chocolate and activates enzymes that mellow the cacao beans’ natural bitterness. It’s also what kills the germ, or embyro, in the middle of a bean that would cause it to sprout, and dissolves any leftover pulp from the cacao pod surrounding the beans.

After they’re fermented for several days, cacao beans are dried, roasted, shelled, and ground into a paste called chocolate liquor. Roasting is an important step. It creates new flavor compounds and concentrates other flavors that were already there. It also burns off acetic acid, a natural byproduct of fermentation that can give chocolate an undesirable, vinegary flavor.

Chocolate Beverages and Cacao Currency

These early steps in the chocolate-making process haven’t changed much over the centuries. The main difference in the Maya preparation came after the beans were processed. Instead of using the ground cacao beans to make candy or desserts, they mixed the paste with water, cornmeal, and spices like chili peppers to make a thick, savory beverage. By pouring the liquid from one container to another a few times, they were able to give it a frothy head, which was a big part of the drink’s appeal.

Chocolate was especially popular among elite members of society. It was enjoyed by Maya rulers, and cacao beans and chocolate paraphernalia have been found in royal tombs. Priests drank chocolate and used it in religious ceremonies. Cacao was considered a gift from the gods, and it was featured in Maya weddings, where the bride and groom would exchange sips of the beverage to seal their union. After important transactions were agreed to, the two parties would share a drink of chocolate to make it official.

The Aztecs, who dominated central Mexico from around 1300 to 1521, were just as enamored with chocolate. They used cacao beans as currency. One bean was worth a tamale, while 100 beans were enough to get you a quality female turkey.

Chocolate played a role in Aztec religious ceremonies, too. In their book The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe mention a Spanish chronicler who wrote that sacrifice victims who weren’t in the mood to participate in the ritual dances leading up to their deaths were given chocolate—mixed with the blood from previous human sacrifices—to boost their spirits.

According to Aztec legend, the emperor Montezuma II (who, incidentally, is increasingly referred to as Moctezuma in English because it more closely resembles the original Aztec) was rumored to have drunk a gallon of chocolate a day, but he didn’t just like it for the taste. Chocolate was believed to be an aphrodisiac, and he purportedly binged the drink to fuel his affairs.

Chocolate never lost its romantic reputation, but the scientific evidence for its amorous abilities is actually pretty limited. It contains the compounds tryptophan and phenylethylamine, and tryptophan does help the body make serotonin, which is associated with feelings of happiness and well-being. Phenylethylamine releases dopamine, otherwise known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Tryptophan and phenylethylamine may qualify as aphrodisiacs, but there probably aren’t enough of them in cacao beans to produce any noticeable effects.

Chocolate's European Debut

The word chocolate originated in Mesoamerica. Like the Aztecs and Maya, the Pipil people of what is today El Salvador brewed drinks from cacao beans, and they called these beverages chocola-tl. It’s thought that when the first Spaniards to visit the region heard the word, they basically kept it. The name still persists today, largely unchanged from its original language.

A number of European explorers, from Christopher Columbus to Hernan Cortes, have been credited with bringing chocolate back home after traveling to the Americas. But the first chocolate to land in Europe may not have come from a famous explorer at all. Some historians say Spanish missionaries were instrumental in getting cacao across the Atlantic. Upon returning from an overseas trip, Catholic friars presented a group of Maya dignitaries to the court of Prince Philip in 1544. The Maya brought with them gifts from the New World, including chocolate. This offering marks the first recorded evidence of chocolate in Spain.

Soon enough, chocolate spread to the rest of Europe, where it underwent its next big transformation. The drink was too bitter for European palates, so people started adding more sweeteners to the mix. Different countries added their own spices—the Spanish liked cinnamon and vanilla in their chocolate, while the French flavored their chocolate with cloves.

In Europe, as in Mesoamerica, chocolate was mostly enjoyed by the upper classes. In 17th century Britain, a pound of chocolate cost 15 shillings, which was about 10 days' worth of wages for a skilled tradesman. In 1657, London opened its first chocolate house, a place where men could gather to gamble, do business, and discuss politics over a nice cup of cocoa.

Cadbury Versus Fry

Chocolate was already a global success story by the 19th century, but it might never have become the nearly ubiquitous treat we know today if it wasn’t for a Dutch chemist named Coenraad Johannes van Houten. In 1828, he discovered that by removing some of the fat, or cocoa butter, from chocolate liquor and treating it with alkaline salt, he could turn the ingredient into a new kind of powder. Alkaline substances are basically the opposite of acidic substances; adding the alkaline salts to chocolate created a product that had a more mellow, earthier taste. If you see natural cocoa powder and Dutch-process cocoa powder next to each other at the grocery store, know that the natural stuff will generally be more acidic than van Houten’s “Dutch” version.

Dutch cocoa powder was easier to mix with water than ground-up beans, but the invention had implications far beyond that. His work eventually helped give us the first modern chocolate bars. A British candy maker named J.S. Fry & Sons created solid chocolate in 1847 after mixing melted cocoa butter back into cocoa powder and letting it harden. If you’re not familiar with his company J. S. Fry & Sons, you’ve likely heard of Cadbury, which pioneered the heart-shaped chocolate box in the 1860s.

In the 1900s, the two companies worked together to import South American cacao beans to England, but the Cadburys eventually made a series of deals with farmers to cut their partner-rivals out of the supply chain. This led to some good old-fashioned Chocolate Beef: In his book, Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, Mort Rosenblum tells the story of Cecil Fry’s funeral at Westminster Abbey. When Fry’s widow saw the patriarch of the Cadbury family file into the ceremony late, she apparently rose to her feet and shouted, “Get out, Devil.”

From Nestlé to Hershey

Swiss chemist Henri Nestlé created a powdered milk product in the mid-19th century, which a countryman by the name of Daniel Peter decided to add to chocolate. This was the debut of a new product called milk chocolate.

Today, the FDA defines milk chocolate as having at least 10 percent chocolate liquor and 12 percent milk solids. These standards are far from universal; in Europe, milk chocolate must contain at least 25 percent dry cocoa solids and 14 percent dry milk solids. (When it comes to white chocolate, on the other hand, the only product derived from cacao beans is cocoa butter. There’s some debate over whether it should be considered chocolate at all.)

The company many Americans associate with chocolate today didn’t arrive on the scene until fairly recently. Milton Hershey got his start in the candy business selling caramels, not chocolate bars. The entrepreneur fell in love with chocolate at the 1893 World’s Fair. He was so impressed by Germany’s chocolate production display that he bought their machinery when the exposition was over and started making chocolate professionally the next year. An early slogan for Hershey’s was “Our Milk Chocolates are highly nutritious, easily digested, and far more sustaining than meat.”

In 1900, Milton sold his caramel business for $1 million and fully devoted himself to the Hershey Chocolate Company. The company got so big that Milton Hershey built an entire town for his employees to live in. Now, people can visit Hershey, Pennsylvania, to enjoy candy-themed rides at Hersheypark, see how chocolate is made at Hershey’s Chocolate World, or take a bath in real chocolate at the Hotel Hershey.

Please Give Us S'more

The differences in cocoa content might lead some international readers to turn their noses up at a Hershey’s bar, but try one in a s’more and then thank the U.S. of A. and the Girl Scouts of America, who published what is debatably the first known recipe for “Some Mores” in the 1927 guidebook “Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts.” And be thankful that it's not worse: Back in 2007, a group of lobbyists sought to change the FDA’s definition of chocolate to allow for the removal of cocoa butter entirely, in exchange for more affordable, accessible alternatives like vegetable oils.

It seems this effort failed, so you can rest assured: The next time a pair of former-Soviet-bloc gangsters steal a few tons of chocolate here in the United States, cocoa butter will be part of the haul.