There are a million reasons to love chocolate, and most of them have to do with how it tastes. But as “chocolate educator” Alexandra Leaf says, chocolate is “the best-known food that nobody knows anything about.” Well, we’re here to fix that today. If you’ve ever wondered when chocolate was invented or how it got to be so popular, get ready for those answers and more.
As if you needed any more reason to be obsessed with the world’s favorite sweet treat, here are ten little-known facts about the history of chocolate.
1. Just how much chocolate does the world eat?
According to the World Cocoa Foundation, people consume 3 million tons of cocoa beans every year – and most of it gets eaten in Europe and the United States alone. The country that gets the prize for most chocolate consumption worldwide, though? That would be Switzerland, at nearly 20 pounds per capita per year (!), followed by Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Sweden.
2. About the name…
Ever wondered what the difference is between “cacao” and “cocoa”? Basically, they’re the same thing – they both refer to the plant that gives us chocolate. But if you want to get more specific, cocoa is more often used to describe powdered chocolate, while cacao usually refers to cacao trees and the fruit – called cacao pods – that produce the seeds, or beans, that eventually turn into chocolate.
3. World Chocolate Day is July 7…
but that’s not the only chocolate holiday, so don’t worry if you missed it this time around. International Chocolate Day is on September 13; the National Confectioners Association’s National Chocolate Day is on October 28; and, the entire month of February is National Chocolate Lovers’ Month.
The inspiration behind the July holiday specifically is what’s reported to the anniversary of chocolate’s introduction to the European market in 1550.
4. So when was chocolate invented?
Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Cacao – the tree that gives us chocolate – is native to Central and South America, and chocolate has a rich history in those regions. But not as the sweet treat we think of today.
Chocolate in pre-Columbian societies was virtually always consumed as a bitter fermented drink by wealthy elites, used for religious and ceremonial purposes like weddings. It was usually mixed with regional spices like peppers and dried flowers, the vestiges of which you can still find in traditional chocolate-based Mexican foods like mole.
It wasn’t until the Spanish conquistadors made contact with the Aztecs, then brought chocolate back to Europe, that the addition of cane sugar and honey created something like the hot chocolate we drink today. And it wasn’t until the 19th century that solid chocolate was invented, when the advent of steam power led to the creation of a specialized hydraulic press that made mass production of chocolate possible.
Today, the cultivation of cacao has expanded beyond Latin America, particularly to African countries like the Ivory Coast. The lengthy drying and fermentation process of the beans happens on cacao farms before the beans are further processed in factories by some of the world’s top chocolate producers.
5. Chocolate was used as money…
…in several pre-Columbian Latin American societies. There is evidence from 1541 that the Aztecs collected regular tributes from cacao-producing regions of Mexico, and citizens could exchange certain quantities of cacao beans for things like turkey eggs, avocados, and tomatoes.
6. Chocolate has also been consumed for health reasons.
In his records from 1519, after trying chocolate as prepared by the Aztecs, Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes wrote that chocolate “builds up resistance and fights fatigue” and that a cup of it “permits a man to walk for a whole day without food”. Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, European elites consumed liquid chocolate as a mildly stimulating “drug.”
Today, there’s still plenty of scientific evidence that chocolate can boost your mood, improve focus and memory, and even protect your heart with its antioxidant properties.
7. The genus name Theobroma cacao means “food of the gods”…
…which seems pretty appropriate! The story goes that when Carl Linnaeus gave this name to the cacao tree in 1735, he may have been inspired by Spanish conquistador writings about the Mayan and Aztec beliefs that chocolate was a gift from the gods. There are even 8th-century Mayan carvings of an ancient cacao god.
8. You can overdose on chocolate.
That’s right – chocolate poisoning is a rare but real thing. Figures vary, but some claim that eating 40 Hershey bars in a row would release enough of the toxin theobromine — the same chemical that makes chocolate dangerous for dogs — into your body to kill you. (Others are a little more generous, claiming you could go up to 85 full-size chocolate bars.)
Small amounts of theobromine are also contained in tea and cola beverages. Although, like with chocolate, you’d have to consume a LOT before it gets lethal.
9. Chocolate has been to war more than once.
Chocolate was sometimes included in soldiers’ rations in place of money during the American Revolutionary War. Later, during World War II, the Hershey Company produced a special high-calorie chocolate bar. It was designed to withstand extreme conditions to include in American soldiers’ rations. They reportedly tasted only “a little better than a boiled potato.”
10. Melt-in-your-mouth? Exactly.
The melting point of chocolate is lower than the average human body temperature, falling at around 86 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why it’s so easy to get smudges of melted chocolate on your hands — especially while munching on those M&Ms or chocolate chips, even if it’s not a hot day. Chocolate is also notoriously temperamental when it comes to melting and cooling. So, it pays to know how to properly store your chocolate if you don’t plan on eating it all in one sitting (we wouldn’t judge!).
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