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Chocolate’s Sweet History: From Elite Treat to Food for the Masses

January 22, 2021 in History

By Christopher Klein

Originally consumed as a bitter drink, it was prized as both an aphrodisiac and an energy booster.

Mankind’s love affair with chocolate stretches back more than five millennia. Produced from the seeds of tropical cacao trees native to the rainforests of Central and South America, chocolate was long considered the “food of the gods,” and later, a delicacy for the elite. But for most of its history, it was actually consumed as a bitter beverage rather than the sweet, edible treat it has become worldwide.

What Is the Birthplace of Chocolate?

Mayan cacao drink

Archaeologists have discovered the earliest traces of cacao in pottery used by the ancient Mayo-Chinchipe culture 5,300 years ago in the upper Amazon region of Ecuador. Chocolate played an important political, spiritual and economic role in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, which ground roasted cacao beans into a paste that they mixed with water, vanilla, chili peppers and other spices to brew a frothy chocolate drink.

Ancient Mesoamericans believed chocolate was an energy booster and aphrodisiac with mystical and medicinal qualities. The Mayans, who considered cacao a gift from the gods, used chocolate for sacred ceremonies and funeral offerings. Wealthy Mayans drank foaming chocolate drinks, while commoners consumed chocolate in a cold porridge-like dish.

As people of the Aztec empire spread across Mesoamerica in the 1400s, they too began to prize cacao. Since they couldn’t grow it in the dry highlands of central Mexico, they traded with the Mayans for the beans, which they even used as currency. (In the 1500s, Aztecs could purchase a turkey hen or a hare for 100 beans.) By one account, the 16th-century Aztec ruler Moctezuma II drank 50 cups of chocolate a day out of a golden goblet to increase his libido.

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Spaniards Introduce Chocolate to Europe’s Elite

Chocolate arrived in Europe during the 1500s, likely brought by both Spanish friars and conquistadors who had traveled to the Americas. Although the Spanish sweetened the bitter drink with cane sugar and cinnamon, one thing remained unchanged: Chocolate reigned as a delectable symbol of luxury, wealth and power—an expensive import sipped by royal lips, and affordable only to Spanish elites.

Chocolate’s popularity eventually spread to other European courts, where aristocrats consumed it as a magic elixir with health benefits. To slake their growing thirst …read more


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