Chocolate is a raw or processed food produced from the seed of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. Cacao has been cultivated for at least three millennia in Mexico, Central America and Northern South America. Its earliest documented use is around 1100 BC. The majority of the Mesoamerican people made chocolate beverages, including the Aztecs, who made it into a beverage known as xocolātl, a word meaning “bitter water”. The seeds of the cacao tree have an intense bitter taste, and must be fermented to develop the flavor.
After fermentation, the beans are dried, then cleaned, and then roasted, and the shell is removed to produce cacao nibs. The nibs are then ground to cocoa mass, pure chocolate in rough form. Because this cocoa mass usually is liquefied then molded with or without other ingredients, it is called chocolate liquor. The liquor also may be processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Unsweetened baking chocolate (bitter chocolate) contains primarily cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions. Much of the chocolate consumed today is in the form of sweet chocolate, combining cocoa solids, cocoa butter or other fat, and sugar. Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate that additionally contains milk powder or condensed milk. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, and milk but no cocoa solids.
Cocoa solids contain alkaloids such as theobromine and phenethylamine, which have physiological effects on the body. It has been linked to serotonin levels in the brain. Some research found that chocolate, eaten in moderation, can lower blood pressure. The presence of theobromine renders chocolate toxic to some animals, especially dogs and cats.
Chocolate has become one of the most popular food types and flavors in the world. Chocolate chip cookies have become very common, and very popular, in most parts of Europe and North America. Gifts of chocolate molded into different shapes have become traditional on certain holidays. Chocolate is also used in cold and hot beverages, to produce chocolate milk and hot chocolate.
Cocoa mass was used originally in Mesoamerica both as a beverage and as an ingredient in foods. Chocolate played a special role in both Maya and Aztec royal and religious events. Priests presented cacao seeds as offerings to the deities and served chocolate drinks during sacred ceremonies. All of the areas that were conquered by the Aztecs that grew cacao beans were ordered to pay them as a tax, or as the Aztecs called it, a “tribute”.
The Europeans sweetened and fattened it by adding refined sugar and milk, two ingredients unknown to the Mexicans. By contrast, the Europeans never infused it into their general diet, but have compartmentalized its use to sweets and desserts. In the 19th century, Briton John Cadbury developed an emulsification process to make solid chocolate, creating the modern chocolate bar. Although cocoa is originally from the Americas, today Western Africa produces almost two-thirds of the world’s cocoa, with Côte d’Ivoire growing almost half of it.
Many chocolate manufacturers have created products from chocolate bars to fudge, hoping to attract more consumers with each creation. Hershey and Mars have become the largest manufacturers in the world. Other large manufacturers include Nestlé, Kraft Foods and Lindt.
The Hershey Company, known for their Hershey bar, Hershey’s Kisses and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, is the largest chocolate manufacturer in North America. Mars, Incorporated, one of the largest privately owned U.S. corporations, is a worldwide manufacturer of confectionery and other food products, with US$21 billion in annual sales in 2006. Mars is known for Mars Bar, Milky Way, M&M’s, Twix and Snickers, as well as other confectionery items, such Skittles.
Food conglomerates Nestlé SA and Kraft Foods both have chocolate brands. Nestlé acquired Rowntree’s in 1988 and now market chocolates under their own brand, including Smarties and Kit Kat; Kraft Foods through its 1990 acquisition of Jacobs Suchard, now own Milka and Suchard. In February 2010, Kraft also acquired British-based Cadbury plc, the world’s largest confectionery manufacturer. Cadbury is well known for its Dairy Milk range and Creme Egg; Fry’s, Trebor Basset, the fair-trade brand Green & Black’s also belong to the group.
The chocolate industry, a steadily growing, $50 billion-a-year worldwide business centered on the sale and consumption of chocolate, is prevalent on five out of seven continents. Big Chocolate, as it is also called, is essentially an oligopoly between major international chocolate companies in Europe and the U.S. These U.S. companies, such as Mars and Hershey’s alone, generate $13 billion a year in chocolate sales and account for two-thirds of U.S. manufacturers. However, Europe accounts for 45% of the world’s chocolate revenue.
Chocolate is one of the most popular holiday gifts. Gifts of chocolate molded into different shapes have become traditional on certain holidays: chocolate bunnies and eggs are popular on Easter, chocolate coins on Hanukkah, snowmen and other holiday symbols on Christmas, and chocolate hearts or chocolate in heart-shaped boxes on Valentine’s Day.
The International Chocolate Day is observed on 13 September. On Valentine’s Day, a box of chocolates is traditional, usually presented with flowers and a greeting card. It may be given on other holidays, and birthdays. At Easter, chocolate eggs are traditional. This is a confection made primarily of chocolate, and can either be solid, hollow, or filled with other sweets or fondant. Many confectioners make holiday-specific chocolate candies, usually variants of their standard fare. Hollow chocolate bunnies (Easter) and hollow Santa Claus figures (Christmas) are two examples.
Books and Films
Chocolate has been the center of several successful book and film adaptations. In 1964, Roald Dahl published a children’s novel titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The novel centers on a poor boy named Charlie Bucket who takes a tour through the greatest chocolate factory in the world, owned by Willy Wonka. Two film adaptations of the novel were produced. The first was Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a 1971 film which later became a cult classic. Thirty-four years later, a second film adaptation was produced, titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The 2005 film was very well received by critics and was one of the highest grossing films that year, earning over US$470,000,000 worldwide. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was also recognized at the 78th Academy Awards, where it was nominated for Best Costume Design for Gabriella Pesucci.
Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate), a 1989 love story by novelist Laura Esquivel, was adapted to film in 1992. The plot incorporates magical realism with Mexican cuisine, and the title is adouble entendre in its native language, referring both to a recipe for hot chocolate and to an idiom that is a metaphor for sexual arousal. The film earned 11 Ariel Awards from the Academia Mexicana de Artes y Ciencias Cinematográficas, including Best Picture.
Chocolat, a 1999 novel by Joanne Harris, tells the story of Vianne Rocher, a young mother, whose confections change the lives of the townspeople. The 2000 film adaptation, Chocolat, also proved successful, grossing over US$150,000,000 worldwide, and receiving Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Original Score.
Chocolate also features in a large number of other literary works, often in a role central to the plot such as JoAnna Carl’s Chocoholic Mysteries series and Toby Moore’s Death by Chocolate.