Where Does Chocolate Come From?

UPDATED ON JULY 1, 2021
BY JOSH ROTHSTEIN

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Did you know that chocolate grows on trees? Imagine telling this to your child, with eyes of bewilderment - that something so sweet and yummy can be grown on a tree! Yet unlike sweet fruits like cherries, apples, or oranges, the cacao bean must go through a long, transformative process before it becomes the yummy chocolate bar you’ll find at your local store. So, where does chocolate come from? How is it grown? What is the history of chocolate and how did it become so popular? Let us start with the cacao tree, or Theobroma cacao as it’s known to botanists.

Where did the cacao tree originate from?

Theobroma cacao is native to Central and South America. The tree bears fruit on its trunk and branches. These fruits resemble football-shaped pods. Each pod contains about 40 seeds, or cacao beans. These beans are then fermented and roasted, before it is turned into cacao powder.

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The ancient Olmec (one of the earliest civilizations in Latin America) first cultivated the cacao tree, beginning over 4,000 years ago. Though, these early Mesoamerican natives didn’t turn them into the sweet, solid chocolate we know and love today. Instead, they would mix-up ground cocoa beans with cornmeal and chili peppers, which was used to make a beverage called “xocolatl”. This was not the yummy cup of “hot chocolate” you’re probably thinking of – this drink was very bitter to the taste. It would be used in ancient ritual ceremonies as well as a type of medicine.

These ancient civilizations believed that chocolate was a divine gift from above. Interestingly, the Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao literally translates into “food of the gods.”

Where did the term “chocolate” come from?

Etymologists have linked the origins of the word chocolate to the Pipils of El Salvador, who, like the Aztecs made a drink called “chocolātl”. Early Spaniards who visited the region heard the word and took it home to Europe with them. The name has persisted throughout the centuries.

The fruit of the cacao tree was so important to these ancient civilizations that it was accepted as a currency. According to a 16th century Aztec document, one cacao bean could be used to purchase a tamale, while 100 beans could get you a good turkey hen.

How did chocolate become popular in the modern world?

Early Spanish explorers, like Hernándo Cortés brought the Central American chocolate drink back with them to Europe, sometime around the mid-1500’s. The bitter taste was too much for their tastes, so they began mixing cocoa with honey or cane sugar. This made chocolate consumption in Europe explode. New world merchants and missionaries began to bring back the cocoa bean en masse. By the 1620’s, the chocolate plant had become one of the hottest commodities, with millions of pounds being imported to the continent each year. The drink was initially sought-after by dignitaries and elites, but the general public was about to get their first taste.

By the 1800’s and the invention of the steam engine, chocolate products were being produced on a much larger scale. By this time the average citizen could afford their own chocolate powder. A Dutch chemist Van Houten, figured out how to separate the cocoa butter (fat) from the plant and mixing the remaining powder with alkaline salts to cut down the bitter, acidic taste.

Joseph S. Fry & Sons created the world’s first chocolate bar in 1847, but this early chocolate bar would probably not be palatable to us today. It more closely resembled a robust, earthy dark chocolate. In the 1860’s a company called Cadbury was selling boxes of chocolate candies. Richard Cadbury was the first to sell chocolates in heart-shaped boxes for Valentine’s Day, thus fortifying the inseparable relationship between Valentine’s, love and chocolate. In 1875, Swiss inventor Daniel Peter, teamed-up with his neighbor, Henry Nestlé to combine cocoa with powdered milk to make the world’s first milk chocolate.

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Chocolate manufacturing’s explosion in the United States

Milton Hershey founded his first confectionary business in 1886 – but it wasn’t chocolate! The Lancaster Caramel Company was sold, shortly after Hershey attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He was so amazed by the German chocolate manufacturing machinery on display there that he was convinced that caramels were just a fad and chocolate was here to stay. The Hershey Chocolate Company sold their first Hershey Bar in 1900. Though this bar was originally only available in Pennsylvania, it became widely-available across the US by 1906.

During WWI, the US army had distributed chocolate bars to our troops and for many, this was their first time eating chocolate. It turns out, Americans absolutely loved chocolate! Around the time the war ended, milk chocolate was being combined with various other ingredients, like nougat (Toblerone, 1908), nuts (Goo Goo Cluster, 1912) and cookie wafers (Kit Kat, 1935). These desirable, high-quality treats were irresistible to people of all ages back then. All of these classic “retro candies” we listed above are still being sold in droves to this day!

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How is chocolate grown, harvested and processed in the modern age?

Though the cocoa tree is native to Central and South America, today about 70% of the world’s cacao comes from Africa. The tree itself is fairly fragile, so you cannot climb on them to get to the fruit. Harvesters will typically stand on the ground below the trees with a long stick with a machete on the end to cut down the cacao pods. These are then opened very carefully as to not damage the seeds inside.

Since the seeds of the cacao tree have a bitter taste, they must first be fermented. After the fermentation process, the beans are dried, cleaned and then roasted. The shells are then removed to produce cacao nibs, which are then processed to separate the cocoa butter and the chocolate liquor, (not the alcoholic kind). This liquid is then mixed with milk and sugar to add flavor. Finally, the concoction is sent into molds to create the chocolate bars we all know and love to this day.

But what about white chocolate?

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Funny story: white chocolate is technically not a chocolate at all! Though it is made with cocoa butter, it contains none of the chocolate solids that make chocolate… well, chocolate! That doesn’t stop us from loving it though! It hasn’t stopped pastry chef, cook book author and white chocolate enthusiast David Lebowitz either:

"We still call hamburgers by that name, even though they are not made of ham, and milkshakes actually aren't shaken these days, but blended. So I think it's okay to group white chocolate in with the rest of the variety of things made from cacao beans, since they all have the same base."