The story of chocolate is a "rich" tale indeed. It involves aristocracy and slavery, innovation and coincidence. Pivotal roles were played by both Christopher Columbus and Hernando Cortéz. We will describe how extremely bitter cacao beans are transformed into one of the world's most sought after flavors and tell chocolate stories such as the rise the luxury chocolate industry in Switzerland and the origins of the Hershey company.

Key Lecture Points

  • The history of chocolate is a reflection of the cultures that consume it. Chocolate was used for centuries by Mesoamerican cultures. The Olmec, Mayan and Aztecs all incorporated the ground seeds from the cacao tree pods as part of their rituals.
  • After the Spaniards conquered and colonized the chocolate growing regions in the Americas, they began to use chocolate themselves and to grow it as a means of their enrichment. Eventually, the cultivation and consumption of chocolate spread to other European lands and colonies around the globe. Today, most chocolate is produced, not in the Americas, but in Africa.
  • While chocolate consumption was typically reserved for the religious and political elite (both in ancient and more recent times), the Industrial Revolution opened up opportunities for chocolate for the masses, setting the stage for mass production of chocolate by companies that still dominate the market: Mars, Cadbury, Nestle, and Hershey.
  • Long hailed for its restorative properties, scientific studies now show that chocolate is actually good for you. This is driving the chocolate market toward consumption of chocolate that is higher in cacao content than the mass-produced chocolate that still dominates the market.
  • Chocolate is a booming business worth an estimated $110 billion but it depends on cocoa that is grown by some of the poorest people in the world.  As demand for chocolate grows, especially in emerging markets, some analysts warn of a coming shortage of cocoa because of the poverty of the cocao farmers that forces them to shift to more lucrative crops and aged and diseased trees that the farmers cannot afford to replace.  This creates a compelling business case for the global chocolate companies to create sustainability programs to improve the farmers’ lives and thus insure a steady source of cocoa.

Exploration Questions

  • The chocolate industry has been dominated by a few closely held family businesses. What is it about chocolate that created this phenomenon?
  • Describe the health benefits of chocolate. How much of this benefit do you think is physical or psychological?
  • What are the current issues impacting the chocolate industry?

Reflective Questions

  • If you were in the military do you remember the chocolate bars in K rations and C rations? Giving out Hershey bars while overseas?
  • We all have our favorite candy bar from childhood. What was yours?

More to Explore

  • Smithsonian Magazine history of chocolate Click here
  • Mars' Sustainable Cocoa Initiative Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Bourin, Jeanne, John Feltwell, Natalie Bailleux. The Book of Chocolate.  Fammarion-Pere Castor, 2015. 200 pages.  This book is extensively illustrated and provides an overview of how cacao is grown, the history of chocolate and chocolate recipes.
    Click here to order
  • Brenner, Joel Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. Random House. 1999. 366 pages. This book tells the story of the lives of Forrest Mars and Milton Hershey and the companies they built.
    Click here to order
  • Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe.  The True History of Chocolate.  Thames & Hudson, 2013.  280 pages.  The authors draw on botany, archaeology and culinary history to tell the history of chocolate.
    Click here to order