How Did Chocolate Become Popular?

Figure 1. Mayan plate showing the preparation of chocolate.

Chocolate is derived from the New World cacao plant. Since the discovery of the New World, the popularity of chocolate has substantially grown. However, the history of chocolate and its consumption go back much further to about four thousand years ago. The forms chocolate has been found in has more recently greatly varied but it has always played an important role to tribes and complex societies. From a ritual product to more every day use, chocolate has greatly also had an impact on the development of the New World in the eyes of European explorers.

Early History

The earliest evidence for the use of the cacao (also cocoa) plant for chocolate derive from the Olmec culture that populated southern Mexico more 3000-4000 years ago. While no direct evidence exists, such as written records, trace chemicals that include theobromine, found in the plant, indicate that some ceramic vessels were used in the preparation or direct consumption of chocolate-derived products. Most likely, this early chocolate was roasted and fermented, where cacao seeds would have been first pulverized and grounded in using a mortar and pestle. In fact, for almost all of chocolate's history, it has been drunk rather than consumed as a solid and often it was an alcoholic beverage (Figure 1).[1]

The Maya are the first to document the consumption and use of chocolate. Like the Olmecs, archaeological and historical evidence indicate that chocolate was consumed as a drink rather than eaten. In fact, Mayan depictions indicate a ritual style consumption and this is suggested by Mayan writings; the cacao plant was later know to Europeans as the plant of the gods. The Aztecs from central Mexico also used cacao and chocolate, where it also became a religiously important drink that had its own association with the god Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent deity who protected and held the knowledge of chocolate. Aztec myth states that the gods became angry when humans learned about chocolate. The Aztecs drank chocolate cold, suggesting some differences from the Maya who liked it mostly as a warm fermented drink. Both warm and cold drinks likely existed. Cacao beans seem to have also been used as a type of currency, traded to purchase other objects as needed. Christopher Columbus, on his fourth trip to the New World, while traveling with Ferdinand his son, encountered the cacao bean in 1502, making him the first European to encounter this plant and learn about chocolate.[2]

European Use

Figure 2. Painting showing the consumption of a liquid chocolate in the morning, a common time and way in which chocolate was consumed in the 18th century.

The arrival of Spanish conquistadors, specifically Hernando Cortés, brought Europeans not only in contact with chocolate, who initially did not like the taste of the drink as it was bitter, but the conquistadors also imported it back to Europe. Chocolate, at this time, did not include sugar so it was usually quite bitter. European tastes were not as accustomed to bitter tastes for foods, resulting in Europeans looking for ways to modify the taste. By the 1590s, chocolate was now mixed with honey, vanilla, and sugar, giving it a much sweeter taste and it became more favorable. With the conquest of South America and later West Indies, and beginning of the establishment of sugarcane plantations, soon the production of sugar combined with chocolate revolutionized European tastes. Chocolate was still consumed as a drink, where it became associated with upper class tastes and the nobility in general by the early 17th century. Sugar consumption now began to increased in parallel with the importation of chocolate. The desire for chocolate and need for sugar, in part for chocolate, helped also to push the demand for slavery in plantations during the 17th and 18th centuries. Interestingly, some members of the church had initially potentially considered chocolate drinks as sinful, where some even drank it to divert themselves from long services. However, this changed as the elite and noblemen supported its consumption. The 17th century was also a time for experimentation with chocolate, including the first known attempt to coat almonds with chocolate. Nevertheless, chocolate mostly remained a drink.[3]

By the second half of the 18th century, with the introduction of industrialization in the UK, the first chocolate factories were being created that used hydraulic machinery. In subsequent decades, entrepreneurs began to experiment with different machinery to facilitate the process of separating cacao butter from cacao seeds and making chocolate not only easier but also with new tastes. The 1730s also began to break the Spanish monopoly, mostly in Central and South America, of cacao, where it was soon spread to other parts of the Americas and Africa for production. Gradually, Africa became the leading producer of cacao, but this took some time to develop. In the colonies in the United States in 1765, in the state of Massachusetts, the first chocolate factory was built (Figure 2).[4]

By the 1820, new machines were invented that separated cacao solids and butter. Soon, cacao powder was produced. Chocolate now became more mass produced. The German chocolate manufacturer, still producing chocolates today, also established its first factories and helped to bring chocolate to a larger market, although it was still a product for the upper classes. Finally, in 1848, the realization was made that adding cacao butter, sugar, and cacao liquor allowed the creation of what would be edible, solid chocolate, which proved to be a revolutionizing moment for chocolate consumption that allowed it to become a more diverse food product.[5]

More Recent Use

The late 19th century continued to see improvements in machines that made the taste and quality of chocolate better, as it allowed creamy and rich chocolate to be made that left no aftertaste. With the increasing popularity of chocolate, the rise of fraudulent chocolate or imitation products emerged. European countries soon moved to create food standards and guidelines that protected chocolate and its quality so that imitation products could not be falsely advertised. At the same time, prices of cacao began to drop dramatically in the 1890s and 1900s. This now meant that chocolate could be purchased by a much wider middle class. Production also began to shift away from the New World and production of cacao increased in Asia and Africa in particular. This helped to depress the price of cacao for growers, but enabled it to be a mass consumptive product at even greater levels.[6]

In the 1910s, many of the well known European brands began to be established, including Godiva, La Maison du Chocolat, Fauchon in France, Lindt, Suchard, and Sprüngli. The Nestlé family had already been established by the 1860s. In 1912, praline was invented and became one of the latest crazes of chocolate. In the 1930s, improvements in the preservation of chocolate also now allowed it to be included in other foods so that chocolate pastes and other chocolate derived products could be more easily mixed with other food items after they were transported to other regions.[7]

Today, Western Africa produces about 2/3 of the the world's cacao. The price of chocolate has been relatively volatile in recent times, as world politics influences the trade in cacao. Unfortunately, this has also meant that modern day slavery has often been associated with cacao production, as low prices have sometimes created or instigated farmers to use forced labor or not pay their workers.[8]


Chocolate, even in its earliest history, was a product of great desire that was considered, as the name implies, the food of the gods. The Maya and Aztec saw it as a warm or cold drink, often drunk as alcoholic beverage that was bitter in taste but also it was associated with religious ceremony. With the conquest of the New World, the Spanish brought cacao back to the Old World. For a time, the Spanish even dominated the production of cacao and, therefore, chocolate production. Mixing cacao with honey and sugar made chocolate a more desired product in Europe. Soon, with the backing of the elite and nobles in Europe, chocolate became a highly valued drink. It was only in the early 19th century did chocolate become easier to produce and by the mid-19th century it finally could be produced in a solid form. By the late 19th century, chocolate became a mass consumption item that spread to all classes. Many well known brands soon developed by the early 20th century. Innovations in preservation helped chocolate to be used in a variety of foods and products. While chocolate's importance is undisputed among foods around the world, the basic cacao beans used have now mostly grown in volatile West Africa. This has, unfortunately, at times, led to difficult production circumstances and even modern slavery.


  1. For more on the history of the cacao plant, see: McNeil, C. L. (2006). Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a cultural history of cacao. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. Retrieved from
  2. For more on the consumption of chocolate by the Maya and Aztecs, as well as its ritual connections, see: Frydenborg, K. (2015). Chocolate: sweet science and dark secrets of the world’s favorite treat. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  3. For more on the early history of chocolate consumption in Europe, see: Grivetti, L., & Shapiro, H.-Y. (Eds.). (2009). Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley.
  4. For more on the industrialization of chocolate, see: La Boone, J. A. (2006). Around the World of Food: Adventures in Culinary History. New York: iUniverse, Inc, pg. 83.
  5. For more on the science of production of chocolate in the early 19th century, see: Beckett, S. T. (2008). The Science of Chocolate (2nd ed). Cambridge, UK: RSC Publishing, pg. 46.
  6. For more on the history of cacao in the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Clarence-Smith, W. G. (2000). Cocoa and chocolate, 1765-1914. London ; New York: Routledge.
  7. For more on the major chocolate brands, see: Cadbury, D. (2011). Chocolate wars: the 150-year rivalry between the world’s greatest chocolate makers. New York: PublicAffairs.
  8. For more on recent cacao production and its shift to Africa, see: Ryan, O. (2012). Chocolate nations: living and dying for cocoa in West Africa.


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