Chocolate-universally one of humans’ favorite confections, it’s appreciated the world over. You can eat it, drink it, or drizzle it over your ice cream. Dark, milk, white chocolate, mixed with nuts, caramel, or any variety of fruit, there’s little that chocolate can’t make better. But have you ever wondered how it’s made? Or where it comes from? How long has chocolate been around? And what’s the difference between white chocolate and regular chocolate? These are all questions I wanted to learn more about for this week’s episode of Facts to Relax: All About Chocolate. I’m Yvonne Page Illustrates and on this channel I research topics I find interesting and share my newfound knowledge with you while drawing a relaxing picture on the screen so we can both fill our heads with new and random facts while we chill out and relax together. So let’s get started learning all about the most beloved treat in the world by settling down into a comfy spot, taking a deep breath in together, and letting it out again slowly.
Chocolate as we know it all starts with a bean- the cacao bean. Cacao trees are small, tropical plants called “Theobroma cacao” that grow in the shade of larger trees. Found in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia, cacao can only be grown in the area that’s about 20% north and 20% south of the equator, a region known as the “cacao belt.” The flowers of the tree grow directly from the trunks and lower branches and once pollinated, will become the cacao fruit which hold the beans inside that are used to make chocolate. Thousands of flowers will bloom on a tree and it’s a good thing there’s so many since only about 3-10% actually go on to become fruit pods. An average tree will yield about 20-30 pods a year, staggering when they ripen so not all pods on a tree can be harvested at the same time, and it takes the entire annual harvest from one tree to make just roughly one pound of chocolate. This can explain why chocolate can be, ounce for ounce, such an expensive product. It take a lot of time, space, and manual labor to grow and harvest the beans. The low flower-to-pod ratio is likely because of how hard the flowers are to pollinate. The tiny white flowers of the cacao tree face downwards and can be difficult to get into but chocolate midge flies are tiny little insects, only one to three millimeters long, which are small enough to get inside and pollinate the cacao flowers so that seed pods can grow. Though cacao flowers don’t have a scent that we may be able to recognize, they have about 75 aroma ingredients to help attract the midge flies and at dawn, just when the flies are most active, the flowers open to fully allow them to get in there and do their jobs. This works well in the rainforest environment where cacao trees naturally grow but not as well on cacao plantations where farmers try to intentionally grow and harvest these chocolatey plants. Since trees aren’t shaded on plantations as well as they would be in the rainforest, the midge flies tend to avoid the areas since they prefer shady and dense rainforests to the sunnier plantations. Additionally, all those aromas wild cacao flowers put out to attract their pollinators? Cultivated cacao flowers have just a fraction of them, making commercially farmed chocolate a much less effective way to try to produce chocolate. But plantations are necessary to produce the amount of chocolate humans now consume. It’s been estimated that people eat, on average, about 11 pounds of chocolate per year. If each tree only produces about one pound per year, that’s more or less 11 trees that needs to be dedicated to each and every human on earth just to keep up with our demand. So that’s a lot of cacao plants that need to be grown and harvested! Now, not to be the bearer of bad news, but this seems like just as good of a time as any to mention that cacao trees are in danger of going extinct within as little as half a century, due to climate change, loss of rainforests, and fungal diseases. If you can’t think of any other reason to try to protect and improve our enviro nment, no more chocolate might be a really, really good one.
Cacao pods are larger than you might imagine, at least they’re larger than I imagined. Bigger than you hand, they’re shaped like a football and covered in a rind that can range between shades of green, brown, yellow, orange, red, and purple. The rinds of the pods can be smooth or wrinkled, depending on the variety. And since, like the flowers, the pods grow straight from the trunk of the tree, rather than from hanging branches, they must be harvested manually so the junction from the stem to the tree isn’t damaged. When you cut the pod open you find a white mass of about 50-60 seeds that together look uncomfortably like a weird alien brain since the seeds are all covered with a gelatinous white pulp. It’s hard to believe it but these are the actual cacao beans that will eventually become chocolate. The fruit at this point neither look nor taste like chocolate though. The white pulp covering the beans is described as sweet and citrusy and the bean inside is mostly bland and a little bitter. As far as looks go, it’s not the most appetizing sight, even after the alien brain has been separated into individual beans. After the fruit is harvested, it must go through an extensive process of fermentation, drying, roasting, and grinding before it’s ready to become a chocolate bar. I’ll link to a few videos in the description below that show, on a small scale, the process of making a bar of chocolate from start to finish, including opening and extracting the fresh beans from the pod. Fermentation, the first step in the process after cracking open a cacao pod, takes about a week and during this time the white pulp around the bean turns into alcohol and then lactic and acetic acid. The process melts the pulp into a liquid and it slowly drains off, leaving just the beans behind. At this point they can be dried, either naturally in the sun, or in drying ovens. This part can take another 5-6 days. Once they’re dried, they look a bit like coffee beans and they’re ready to be packed up and shipped around the world to chocolate makers who will roast and process them in different ways to get the desired effects for their own chocolate creations.
There are three varieties of cacao that are grown. Criollo is rare and highly coveted for its fragrant bean. This variety grows mainly in Central America and in the Caribbean. Criollo has a deep, complex flavor and is highly coveted by chocolate lovers and experts, but makes up only about 5% of the world’s cacao crop. It’s also the variety that was cultivated by the ancient Mayans who we’ll talk about in a moment. The Forastero is the most commonly found cacao variety. Thick, with a strong chocolate taste, this tree grows mostly in Brazil and Africa. Finally, Trinitario is a cross between Criollo and Forastero. Easily cultivated, with smooth, flavorful beans, the variety originated in Trinidad.
Until recently, it’s been believed that cacao cultivation began in central America, roughly 36-39 hundred years ago. Remains from ground up cacao beans have been found in ancient pots from the Olmec people, who were one of the earliest known civilizations in ancient Mesoamerica, around 13-15 hundred B.C.E. The lack of written history from their civilization makes it impossible for us to know for sure what they were doing with their ground cacao beans but it’s theorized that they likely used them to make a ceremonial drinks and/or as medicine. However, new evidence found on stones and ceramic pieces from Mayo-Chinchipe sites in Ecuador, which is part of the South American Amazon basin suggests that cacao may actually have been used there 5,300 years ago, way before the Olmec civilization. It’s likely that the Mayo-Chinchipes traded with groups along the Pacific coast who then brought the plant to Mesoamerica, spreading it through Columbia, Panama, and eventually landing in southern Mexico where the Olmec people cultivated it.
Regardless of how it got to Mesoamerica, it certainly did get there and the Olmecs passed their love of cacao onto the ancient Mayans, who we have plenty of written history about. Not just written either. For this video, I’m painting a reproduction of a painting found in the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul, which depicts the preparation and drinking of cacao. You see, the ancient Mayans liked to roast their cacao beans and then brew them into hot drinks. The Mayans used these drinks for celebrations, to finalize business transactions, and just for everyday use. In fact, since it was so easily grown in the region that anyone could have a cacao tree in their backyard, in many Mayan households, rich and poor, cacao was consumed with every meal, usually in a thick, frothy beverage that included water, honey, cornmeal, and chili peppers. They would create the froth by pouring the mixture from one pot into another over and over until they had “chocolhaa”, or “bitter water.” At weddings, Mayans would exchange, instead of wedding rings, five cacao beans. The Mayans believed that their god Kukulkan, the “Feathered Serpent,” provided humans with cacao after they were created.
The Aztecs loved cacao too, so much so that they also believed it was a gift from their gods. Although in their version, their god was named Quetzalcoatl and he came down from the sky to give it to them. They also drank it in the form of a frothy beverage-cold or room temperature rather than hot though which they called xocolatl” spelled x-o-c-o-l-a-t-l. Unlike the Mayans however, the Aztecs were unable to grow their own cacao plants due to living in a very arid region, so they had to trade with the Mayans for the beans. Ruler Montezuma II was known to drink gallons of the chocolatey beverages each day for energy and as an aphrodisiac and he also provided it to the military as it was believed to have health benefits that would stimulate them and help them fight. Champurrados, or chocolate atoles, sold by street vendors in southern Mexico today are very similar to the ancient drinks with the signature foam on the top. The drinks are described as being much stronger and more complex tasting than simply eating a chocolate bar, probably because less processing has been done to the cacao.
The Aztecs even used cacao beans as currency and valued them more highly than gold. Ancient ledgers show that a chicken egg was worth two cacao beans, a large tomato or tamal cost one, and the price of a small rabbit ran for about thirty beans. Since cacao couldn’t be grown by the Aztecs, the beans were all the more valuable and xocolatl” (was mostly enjoyed by the wealthy or soldiers alone, with lower classes only being able to splurge on it for weddings or other worthy celebrations. If a commoner did drink a chocolate beverage, it was considered scandalous. This makes sense if you think about it since if you were poor and had a few hard-earned cacao beans, you’d probably want to spend them on more hearty foods rather than waste them in a drink. But, like today, a wealthy person probably had so many cacao beans that consuming them as a beverage would be far less painful for them to bear. Also, like today, where there’s money, there was bound to be some corruption and counterfeiters would make fake cacao beans out of wax, amaranth dough, amaranth is a small grain by the way, or even avocado pits, broken into little pieces, shaped into beans, covered in real cacao hulls and shells, and mixed in with actual cacao beans to hide them, at least until some rich person tried to make their beloved drink and found out they were duds.
The significance of the Aztec’s use of cacao as currency should be noted because had that not been the case, it’s possible we may not have chocolate now. Because, as you probably know, the Spanish, led by Hernan Cortes, came along and effectively conquered the Aztec empire…to put it as nicely as possible because we’re trying to relax here. When Cortes first met the Aztecs, he was searching for gold, but they offered him cacao instead. Though he didn’t appreciate it at the time, the bean did begin to make its way back to Spain with the conquistadors at some point during the 16th century, and by the late 1500s, the Spanish court really started to love the stuff. Since the Aztec’s pronunciation of xocolatl” was very similar to the Spanish slang “ca-ca” used to refer to poop, the Spanish decided to combine the Mayan word “chocol” with the Nahuatl word for water “atl” until eventually it turned into the word “chocolate.” Spain officially began importing cacao in 1585 and around the same time other European countries also started discovering chocolate on their voyages to the Americas. A general love for all things chocolate, whether as drinks sweetened with cinnamon, sugar, and other spices instead of chile peppers, or as chocolate pastas and lasagnas like they made in Italy, spread throughout the European continent, causing a huge boom in the demand for the cultivation of the cacao plant, which led to the creation of plantations and enslaving and forcing people to farm the plantations for free. Since Native American populations like the Aztecs had fallen drastically due to the invasions from Europe, with numbers as low as 10% of what they had once been, the Europeans took it upon themselves to start importing African people to Mesoamerica to farm the new plantations instead. Side note, this importation of African people into central and southern South America, now overrun by white people, is why so many Latin American people today have a mix of African, indigenous, and European DNA. This is also why skin tones and languages from the area can vary so widely.
But before we get too far into the next chapter of chocolate history, I want to take a moment to note one even lesser known part of the cacao-beverage story that I found in my research. Even before the European invasions and importation of slaves, indigenous people in Jamaica also grew their own cacao plants and made their own sacred drinks from the fruit. It’s believed that thousands of years ago early indigenous Venezuelans traveled up the Caribbean island chain and into Jamaica, carrying the beans with them. Those early inhabitants who made the island their home, called themselves the Arwaks or Tainos and were using cacao long before Columbus discovered the island and destroyed their civilization, once again, in a futile search for gold. In fact, chocolate milk even comes from Jamaica. According to experts, the islanders made a hot beverage from shavings of freshly harvested cacao, boiled with milk and cinnamon, though conflicting claims by Irish botanist, Sir Hans Sloane state that it was he who invented the milky mixture on a trip to Jamaica in order to make their cocoa drink more palatable to his tastes. Whether he thought up the idea or whether native Jamaicans were already using milk themselves in their drinks I can’t definitively say but either way, the invention was born on the island of Jamaica and in the 1700s it was brought back to England by Sloane where he patented it and the chocolate milk was marketed for years as a sort of medicine.
Now, back in Europe, chocolate remained roughly the same as it had been for centuries-that is to say, a beverage. During the Napoleonic wars, however, Europe was essentially cut off from its chocolate suppliers and they began turning to coffee and tea as hot beverages instead. So in order for chocolate to make a comeback when the trade routes opened back up, some big changes needed to be made to the product in order to make it competitive in the European market. This would begin the golden age of chocolate, which would introduce us to new chocolate processing innovations and several familiar names in in the industry that we still recognize today-Hershey, Lindt, Cadbury, and Nestle, among others. It all began in 1828, when Dutch chemist Coenraad Jahannes Van Houten created the first cocoa press. It was a cheap and relatively easy way to extract cocoa butter from the bean, allowing the remains to be ground down into a fine powder. In 1850, Joseph Fry added some of the extracted cocoa butter back into the cocoa powder and solid chocolate bars were created. In 1875, a Swiss chocolatier named Daniel Peter, after eight years of experimenting, created milk chocolate by combining dehydrated, powdered milk with the pure dark chocolate. In 1879, Charles Lindt developed the process of conching, which evenly distributes cocoa butter into the chocolate and further polishes the cacao powder particles, creating a chocolate that is super smooth and easier to mass produce. Now it was time to make this new confection famous!
In 1861, Richard Cadbury of Cadbury chocolates introduced the first box of chocolates. Soon he even began making heart shaped boxes of chocolate, effectively creating Valentine’s day as we now know it. Through marketing, Cadbury played on people’s emotions when it came to chocolate, equating his company’s chocolate to love, purity, innocence, and youthfulness. Perhaps ironic to us now-a-days since we know that milk chocolate is actually less healthy than dark chocolate, but back then manufacturers began to really push the “milk” part of their chocolates since milk was known to be healthy and therefore milk chocolate could be claimed to help make children grow big and strong! The irony doesn’t end there though since food manufacturers at the time were notorious for adulterating their products and over half the chocolate products in the late 1800s contained non-food fillers like ground up bricks and lead. During the 1920s-1940s, most of the chocolate bars we know and love today like Snickers, Kit Kats, Mounds, Almond Joy, and more were invented. Now-a-days new chocolately confections are created all the time but they hardly ever are able to break into the market at the same level as the classics we’ve all known and grown up with for generations.
Most chocolate we eat these days originates from cacao trees grown in West Africa. When slavery ended in the Americas, chocolate manufacturers needed to find new ways to maintain a cheap supply of cacao so instead of cutting profits and paying fair wages, they just moved their plantations overseas. Ghana and the Ivory Coast now supply between 50 and 70% of the world’s cacao. This is not without problems because even today slave labor and child slavery are still very much a part of the chocolate production process in West Africa. To fight back against this, Fair Trade chocolate has entered the market. This chocolate tends to be more expensive but promises humane labor practices and fair wages for the farmers growing the cacao. You can find the Fair Trade logo on chocolate bars that are produced this way.
Research has shown that chocolate can not only improve moods, but also cognitive performance. It also may help lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol, and even a person’s risk of heart failure. It naturally contains caffeine so it can boost energy levels but also, may cause a mild dependence, which is why it’s not too farfetched to believe people who say they’re addicted to chocolate! Along with caffeine, the yummy taste can create feelings of pleasure, and love. Chocolate has also been found by researchers to contain a cannabinoid similar to what’s found in marijuana…don’t worry though, you’d need to eat about twenty-five pounds of chocolate at once to feel any sort of high though and it’s not showing up on any drug tests! Interestingly enough, however, white chocolate, which has been stripped of cocoa solids, doesn’t seem to have any of the same effects, good or bad, of regular chocolate. In fact, if we want to get really technical, white chocolate is only kind of chocolate. It contains at least 20% cocoa fat like the cocoa butter extracted during processing but the rest is sweeteners, dairy, spices, flavoring, and other ingredients. No actual cocoa powder makes its way back into white chocolate, which can explain its sickeningly sweet, mostly flavorless taste.
Chocolate holidays include July 7-Chocolate day, marking when chocolate was first brought to Europe on July 7, 1550, National Milk Chocolate Day on July 28, International Chocolate Day on September 13, and if you want to really niche down your celebrations, November 7 is National Bittersweet Chocolate with Almonds Day.
Finally, it may be good to know that technically chocolate, or at least the plant it grows on, is a vegetable. The cacao tree is a member of the same family that okra comes from. However, like if you batter and deep fry your okra, you may cancel out the health benefits of eating the vegetable, the processing that cacao goes through to become chocolate negates us from ever being able to claim that our Hershey kisses are any sort of health food.
On that sweet note, we’re now at the end of this episode of Facts to Relax. Hopefully you’re on your way to having some super sweet dreams if you’re listening to this at bedtime and if it’s not your bedtime, well you may be feeling the urge right now to pop out and pick up a bit of chocolate to munch on. I know I will be! But don’t forget, check for the fair trade label on your bar of chocolate if you can afford to buy it like that, but no judgement from me if you can’t. Hopefully this episode will be a good reminder to at least be grateful for the time, effort, and labor that goes into making the chocolate that’s so easy to scarf down in a matter of seconds! As always, thanks you so much for joining me here today to learn something new and color with me and I hope to see you here again soon for another episode of Facts to Relax! Bye.
❁❁ SOURCES & RESOURCES ❁❁
- Making Chocolate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bwhyD7RPVw
- A really in depth video about making chocolate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cFhx_myB0Q
- Tasting History with Max Miller Aztec Chocolate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaYPEvDuo1I