History of Chocolate


In celebration of the upcoming World Chocolate Day, our team at Gastro_IC decided to write a little blog about history of chocolate, world’s favorite treat. World Chocolate Day supposedly marks the day when chocolate was first brought to Europe in 1550s and has been observed since 2009 globally. An important day considering how approximately 1 billion people eat chocolate every day and the organic chocolate market  that values around $886 million worldwide.

The history of chocolate began in Mesoamerica. Fermented beverages made from chocolate date back to 450 B.C. The Aztecs believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom, and the seeds once had so much value that they were used as a form of currency. Originally prepared only as a drink, chocolate was served as a bitter liquid, mixed with spices or corn puree. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac and to give the drinker strength. Today, such drinks are also known as “Chilate” and are made by locals in the South of Mexico. After its arrival to Europe in the 16th century, sugar was added to it and it became popular throughout society, first among the ruling classes and then among the common people. In the 20th century, chocolate was considered essential in the rations of United States soldiers during war.

Chocolate is made from the fruit of cacao trees, which are native to Central and South America. The fruits are called pods and each pod contains around 40 cacao beans. It’s  still unclear exactly when cacao came on the scene or who invented it. According to Hayes Lavis, cultural arts curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, ancient Olmec pots and vessels from around 1500 B.C. were discovered with traces of theobromine, a stimulant compound found in chocolate and tea. It’s thought that the Olmecs used cacao to create a ceremonial drink. However, since they kept no written history, opinions differ on if they used cacao beans in their concoctions or just the pulp of the cacao pod.

Cacao bean

Mayan Chocolate

The Olmecs undoubtedly passed their cacao knowledge on to the Central American Mayans who not only consumed chocolate but also revered it. The Mayan written history mentions chocolate drinks being used in celebrations and to finalize important transactions.

Despite chocolate’s importance in Mayan culture, it wasn’t reserved for the wealthy and powerful but readily available to almost everyone. In many Mayan households, chocolate was enjoyed with every meal. It was thick and frothy and often combined with chili peppers, honey or water.

Palace walls from the May era
Palace walls from the May era

Aztecs chocolate

The Aztecs took chocolate admiration to another level. They believed cacao was given to them by their gods. Like the Mayans, they enjoyed the caffeinated kick of hot or cold, spiced chocolate beverages in ornate containers, but they also used cacao beans as currency to buy food and other goods. In Aztec culture, cacao beans were considered more valuable than gold. Aztec chocolate was mostly an upper-class extravagance, although the lower classes enjoyed it occasionally at weddings and other celebrations. Perhaps the most notorious Aztec chocolate lover of all was the mighty Aztec ruler Montezuma II who supposedly drank gallons of chocolate each day for energy and as an aphrodisiac. It’s also said he reserved some of his cacao beans for his military.

An Aztec woman generates foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another in the Codex Tudela

Spanish Hot Chocolate

There are conflicting reports about when chocolate arrived in Europe, although it’s agreed it first arrived in Spain. One story says Christopher Columbus discovered cacao beans after intercepting a trade ship on a journey to America and brought them back to Spain in 1502. Another tale states Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was introduced to chocolate by the Aztecs of Montezuma’s court. After returning to Spain, cacao beans in tow, he supposedly kept his chocolate knowledge a well-guarded secret. A third story claims that friars who presented Guatemalan Mayans to Philip II of Spain in 1544 also brought cacao beans along as a gift. No matter how chocolate got to Spain, by the late 1500s it was a much-loved indulgence by the Spanish court and Spain began importing it in 1585. As other European countries such as Italy and France visited parts of Central America, they also learned about cacao and brought chocolate back to their countries. Soon, chocolate mania spread throughout Europe. With the high demand for chocolate came chocolate plantations on which thousands of slaves worked. European palates weren’t satisfied with the traditional Aztec chocolate drink recipe so they made their own varieties of hot chocolate with cane sugar, cinnamon and other common spices and flavorings.


Spanish hot chocolate
3500 year evolution

Chocolate in the American Colonies

Chocolate arrived in Florida in 1641 on a Spanish ship. It’s thought  that the first American chocolate house was opened in 1682, in Boston. By 1773, cocoa beans were a major American colony import and chocolate was enjoyed by people of all classes. During the Revolutionary War, chocolate was provided to the military as rations and sometimes given to soldiers as payment instead of money. It was also provided as rations to soldiers during World War II.

Chocolate in America
3500 year evolution

Nestle Chocolate Bars

For much of the 19th century, chocolate was enjoyed as a beverage where milk was often added instead of water. In 1847, British chocolatier J.S. Fry and Sons created the first chocolate bar molded from a paste made of sugar, chocolate liquor and cocoa butter.

Newspapers articles about Nestle and Peter’s chocolate

Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter is generally credited for adding dried milk powder to chocolate to create milk chocolate in 1876 but it wasn’t until several years later that he worked with his friend Henri Nestle, created the Nestle Company and brought milk chocolate to the mass market.

Daniel Peter

Chocolate had come a long way during the 19th century, but it was still hard and difficult to chew. In 1879, another Swiss chocolatier, Rudolf Lindt, invented the conch machine which mixed and aerated chocolate giving it a smooth, melt-in-your-mouth consistency that blended well with other ingredients. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, family chocolate companies such as Cadbury, Mars, Nestle and Hershey were mass-producing a variety of chocolate confections to meet the growing demand for the sweet treat.

Cudbury company
Employees in Cudbury company
Cudbury today

Chocolate Today

Most modern chocolate is highly-refined and mass-produced, although some chocolatiers still make their own chocolate creations by hand and keep the ingredients as pure as possible. Chocolate is still available as a drink, but is more often enjoyed as an edible confection or in desserts and baked goods. While milk chocolate bar isn’t considered healthy, dark chocolate has earned its place as a heart-healthy, antioxidant-rich treat.