If I had to pick one item as the most universally popular food, I come across it would be chocolate so it’s hardly surprising that there is a World Chocolate Day! I don’t feel we need a day to universally come together to appreciate the wonders of chocolate as I am sure many people do that most days!
Chocolate like many foods does, however, have a very interesting and bitter-sweet history! Let’s take a whistle stop tour!
Chocolate all starts with the cacao bean from the tree - Theobromo Cacao (translating as food of the gods). In fact, the Aztecs believed that cacao was gifted from a feathered serpent god they called Quetzalcoatl. ‘chocolate’ was unique to South America for many centuries with records dating back to 1900 BCE showing that cacao beans were prepared, ground and mixed to be served as a drink (but very different to the chocolate drink we are used to today).
Like many foods’ chocolate was used as a currency with a rough financial translation looking like this;
To buy an Avocado = 1 cacao bean
To buy a Rabbit = 10 cacao beans
To buy a Slave = 100 cacao beans
Chocolate and the Slave Trade
Note the transaction of a person, this relates to the uncomfortable history of how the slave trade built many industries, chocolate included. This, like the use of slaves in the sugar industry started as the demand for chocolate grew across Europe from the 1600’s. Initially chocolate was limited to those who could afford it as it was a very expensive commodity, Kings and Queens around Europe enjoyed the bitter beverage (though had started to add vanilla and sugar to suit their palate) and it was even given to the military as payment for service in battle!
As demand grew and more people began to discover chocolate, production became more of an issue as to satisfy the European demand, not only cacao beans were needed but sugar too. This was hard physical labour, backbreaking work in tremendous heat. The shameful part of history is that this work fell to the slaves. Ships were sent to West Africa to collect people to work the plantations, but not to work for pay or to have a choice in the matter. A horrifying statistic from the National Archives is this;
“At the height of the trade in the 18th century British ships carried more Africans than those of any other maritime nation. It is estimated that these ships transported over 3.1 million Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas. Approximately 2.7 million arrived – the others died during the notorious Middle Passage”.
They were collected as slaves and forced to work. Sadly, as we all know this went on for some time until Britain abolished slavery throughout the British Empire with the Slave Trade Act 1807 (though any ships in transit containing people were permitted to carry on trading).
During the 18th century chocolate production changed to become more ‘technical’ with Coenraad Van Houten from Amsterdam inventing the cacao press to separate the fat from the bean and leave a powder, he then added milk to transform the taste to something more like the taste today. This led to the first mass-production of chocolate and as some might say, the democratisation of chocolate!
By 1847 in the UK, J.S Fry & Sons added sugar and set into moulds – the chocolate bar was born!!
Even though we all know that chocolate is full of sugar the early images of industrialised chocolate all seemed to promote good health! Using images of the Swiss Alps and of lashings of milk!
The history of the chocolate bar we recognise today is brutal, we cannot change the history but we should remember it and learn from it. Sadly, despite it being 2023 the issue of slavery in chocolate production has not gone away. There are numerous initiatives around the world to abolish modern-day slavery in food production. Chocolate is a hugely popular industry and your buying decisions do matter, please look for logos such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ certification etc. There are many sources of information to help you make informed buying decisions in relation to your chocolate consumption: -
Should you need any inspiration to influence your chocolate buying, there are currently around 2.3 million children working in the cocoa fields of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire. Choosing ethical producers will help to protect them from this along with supporting farmers and our environment.
Source – Slave Free Chocolate
Fun facts about chocolate
It is understood that English traders’ mis-spelt cacao and the name cocoa stuck with us!
The word chocolate is derived from the Mayan word for hot ‘chocol’ and the Aztec word for water ‘Atl’ put them together and you have chocolate (sort of!) Remember the Aztecs drank it hot and would have called it Cacahautl (Cacao Water)
To make a pound of solid chocolate, you’ll need around 400 cacao beans!
If you’re used to going wine tasting, you will be familiar with the flavour compounds, wine has approx. 200 whereas chocolate has over 600 making it quite a complex flavour to savour!
White chocolate is not actually chocolate at all!
The biggest bar of chocolate ever made was by Thornton’s weighing in at 5800kg to celebrate their 100th birthday!!
North America consumes 50% of the chocolate produced
Death by chocolate! There was an alleged Nazi plot to assassinate Sir Winston Churchill with a bar of exploding chocolate!
Early Years Nutrition Consultant
Food & Health Writer
Presenter on Early Years TV Food