A gift for the gods. A symbol of wealth and luxury. An economic livelihood. Chocolate will engage your senses and reveal facets of this sumptuous sweet that you've never thought about before. You'll explore the plant, the products, and the culture of chocolate through the lenses of science, history, and popular culture.
> Tropical Rainforest: Enter a lush, tropical rainforest and examine a replica of a cacao tree with its seed pods, the source of chocolate. Learn about the complex ecosystem that supports the healthy growth of this remarkable plant.
> The Ancient Maya: See how scientists traced the origins of chocolate consumption to the ancient Maya, who are the first people known to turn the bitter seeds into a spicy drink for use in royal and religious ceremonies.
> The Aztec: Explore an interactive Aztec marketplace, where valuable cacao seeds were used as money, to learn the purchasing power of a handful of beans.
> Chocolate Comes to Europe: The Spanish conquest of the Americas introduced chocolate to Europe. Learn what happened when chocolate first met sugar.
> Chocolate Manufacturing: Take a look at the sweet side of the Industrial Revolution�the steady stream of new inventions and creative advertising that brought chocolate bars to the masses.
> Chocolate in the Global Market: Explore the relationship between growing, selling, and consuming cacao and trace its ups and downs in the world market.
> Cacao Growers: Learn where and how cacao is grown today and find out what farmers are doing to preserve their crops, their income, and the rainforest.
> Chocolate Today: Find out how people around the world use and enjoy chocolate today, through cooking, eating, and celebrating. Learn about the myths and realities of chocolate's effect on health.
Born in the Ancient World
Most likely, cacao was first domesticated by the Olmec, in the humid lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast, between about 1800 and 300 BCE.
The first conclusive evidence we have of chocolate consumption dates from the Classic Period of the Ancient Maya of Mexico and Central America (200-900 CE). The Maya made it into a spicy drink that they used in ceremonies and traded to people who couldn’t grow their own.
The Aztec, between the 13th and 16th centuries, were among those who had to trade for cacao. To them, chocolate was a luxury, a drink for warriors and nobility, used in rituals and ceremonies. They also used cacao seeds as money; in fact, the seeds were so valuable that dishonest merchants are believed to have made counterfeits.
Some scholars think the Aztec called their chocolate chocolatl. But others think that was a Spanish invention, based on the Aztec word cacahuatl ("bitter water") or the Mayan chocol haa ("hot water").
Chocolate meets European culture
In the 16th century, the Spanish, searching for gold in the New World, instead found cacao. Finding the drink bitter, they mixed it with sugar and kept their discovery secret from the rest of Europe for nearly a century.
The first English chocolate house opened in 1657. Before long, the English, Dutch, and French were so enamored with chocolate, they set out to colonize cacao-growing lands of their own. The chocolate trade was thus built on a system of forced labor and slavery of Meso-American and African people.
By 1700, there were nearly 2,000 chocolate houses (like today’s coffee shops) in London alone. They soon evolved into men’s social clubs, hotbeds of gambling and political activity.
In 18th-century Italy, chocolate was the preferred drink of the Cardinals; they even had it brought in while they were electing a new Pope. Chocolate was also rumored to have disguised a poison that killed Pope Clement XIV in 1774.
While the Aztec – and the Europeans, at first – used chocolate only as a drink, in the late 17th and 18th centuries the adventurous Italians pushed it to new culinary heights. They began experimenting with chocolate as a flavoring in everything from soup to polenta; they even dipped liver in chocolate and then fried it.
Mass-produced in the industrial world
The technology of processing cacao scarcely changed from the Maya to the late 18th century. Then new inventions made it possible to produce chocolate for the masses:
1776 A Frenchman named Doret invents a hydraulic machine to grind cacao seeds into a paste. Not long afterwards, it is replaced by the steam engine, making it even easier to produce large amounts of chocolate.
1828 A Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten, invents the cocoa press, which extracts cocoa butter from chocolate, leaving the powder we call cocoa. This makes chocolate both more consistent and cheaper to produce.
1847 Fry and Sons Company of Bristol, England, introduces the first solid eating chocolate. The family – who, like several of the early chocolate dynasties, were Quakers – also boycotted cacao from parts of the world where working conditions resembled slavery.
1868 Richard Cadbury introduces the first box of chocolates – and later, the first Valentine’s Day candy box.
1870’s In Switzerland, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé develop the world’s first milk chocolate bar, using Nestlé’s creation, powdered milk. That same year, Rodolphe Lindt invents a machine that churns the paste squeezed from cacao seeds into a smooth blend, giving chocolate a new, mellow texture.
1893 Pennsylvania confectioner Milton S. Hershey discovers chocolate processing equipment at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (where The Field Museum also got its start!). He buys the machinery, builds a chocolate factory and town in the hills of southern Pennsylvania, and soon becomes "the Henry Ford of chocolate makers."
Refined and carried wherever humankind may travel
1926-27, The New York Cocoa Exchange, Inc. is established.
By 1930, there are nearly 40,000 different kinds of chocolate in the U.S.
During World War II, nearly all the chocolate produced in the U.S. is earmarked for the military. After the war, Hershey's received the Army-Navy E award for civilian contribution to victory. Today, U.S. Army D-rations include three 4-ounce chocolate bars.
1982 Chocolate goes into space on the U.S. space shuttle Columbia.
2011 Chocolate; The Exhibition Comes to Anaheim, CA
Did You Know?
About the cacao tree
The seed pods of the cacao tree grow not on its branches but directly on the trunk.
Each pod is about the size of a pineapple and holds thirty to fifty seeds – enough to make about seven milk chocolate or two dark chocolate bars.
Cacao flowers are pollinated by midges, tiny flies that live in the rotting leaves and other debris that fall to the forest floor at the base of the tree. Those midges have the fastest wingbeats in the world: 1,000 times per second!
Cacao trees today are endangered by natural threats, such as the witch’s broom fungus and other diseases and pests. Along with the rest of the rainforest, they’re also threatened by lumber companies, which harvest the taller trees that shelter the cacao and help maintain the population of midges.
Cacao seeds are not sweet. They contain the chemicals caffeine and theobromine, which give them a bitter taste.
The scientific name of the cacao tree, Theobroma, means "food of the gods."
Cacao is not related to the coconut palm or to the coca plant, the source of cocaine.
Africa is now the source of more than half the world’s cacao, while Mexico today provides only 1.5 percent.
Chocolate as food and medicine
It takes 4 cacao seeds to make 1 ounce of milk chocolate, and 12 seeds to make 1 ounce of dark chocolate.
Although we tend to think of chocolate as a solid today, for 90% of its history it was consumed in liquid form.
Some of the earliest European cocoa-makers were apothecaries seeking medicinal uses of the plant.
Cacao seeds contain significant amounts of naturally occurring flavonoids, substances also found in red wine, green tea, and fruits and vegetables; flavonoids are connected with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
On the other hand, chocolate carries a heavy load of saturated fats and calories; there are much healthier ways to get the same benefits.
Chocolate contains two stimulants also found in coffee – caffeine and theobromine – but in relatively small amounts. Fifty M&Ms, for example, have about as much caffeine as a cup of decaffeinated coffee.
Who eats chocolate?
Not Africans. A great deal of chocolate is grown in Africa, but mostly for export.
Not a lot of Asians. Although chocolate’s popularity is growing in China and Japan, there’s still comparatively little chocolate culture in Asia. The Chinese, for example, eat only one bar of chocolate for every 1,000 eaten by the British.
Mexicans consume chocolate more as a traditional drink and a spice than as a candy. They use it to make the wonderful sauce called mole, and offer chocolate drinks at wedding ceremonies and birthday parties.
Americans for sure…an average of 12 pounds per person per year. In 2001, that came to a total of 3 billion pounds. (Americans spend $13.1 billion a year on chocolate.)
Definitely Europeans! As far back as the late 1700s, the people of Madrid, Spain consumed nearly 12 million pounds of chocolate a year. Today, 16 of the 20 leading per-capita chocolate-consuming countries are in Europe, with Switzerland leading the pack. (The U.S., as of 1998, was #9.)
For the love of chocolate…the chocolate of love
Does chocolate stimulate the libido? Chemists can’t prove it, but popular culture is reluctant to give up the belief....
> As far back as the 1000 CE, frothy chocolate drinks were exchanged at weddings in Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and parts of Central America).
> Casanova is said to have eaten chocolate to enhance his love-making.
> The Marquis de Sade also was passionate about chocolate, and had his wife send it to him in prison.
> Why else do Americans exchange chocolate on Valentine’s Day?