The history of chocolate

The World Cocoa Foundation estimates that the number of people who currently depend on chocolate for their livelihood is about 50 million

Chocolate. The mere word is capable of invoking a passionate response in many people.


This passion isn't new. There's evidence of chocolate that dates back at least 3,000 years, and even back then it was a highly sought-after goodie (and this was waaaaay before the invention of Toblerone).

Chocolate is made of solids from the cocoa bean, derived from the cacao tree, and a rich source of flavanol antioxidants. It also contains alkaloids with long names like theobromine and phenethylamine, which affect serotonin levels in the brain. And since serotonin is one of our principal mood-enhancers, this is why chocolate is capable of making us feel so darn happy.

But don't share your chocolate with your pets. The theobromine makes chocolate toxic to cats and dogs as they metabolize it much slower than we do. The fat and sugar can also cause life-threatening pancreatitis. Two years ago a neighbourhood dog park in Toronto, Canada, was temporarily closed when pieces of chocolate were found scattered throughout the park.

Although it originated in Central and South America, the majority of the world's cocoa today is produced in western Africa, with Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) accounting for 30% of it. The World Cocoa Foundation estimates that the number of people who currently depend on chocolate for their livelihood is about 50 million. A lot of this is with the use of child labour.

For a long time after its discovery, chocolate only existed as a liquid. It was an extremely popular beverage with both the Mayans and the Aztecs. The Aztecs in particular couldn't get enough of it, but they weren't able to grow cacao themselves as their climate was too dry. So for a while, people who lived under Aztec rule were able to pay their taxes in cocoa beans. Yes, that's right, folks, there was a time in human history when chocolate was actually used as currency! How cool is that?

Chocolate has a naturally bitter flavour, and we can thank the Spanish for the sweet varieties we enjoy today. They were the first Europeans to discover its joys and delights. In the early 16th century, Christopher Columbus brought some back from a trip to the Americas as part of his carry-on luggage, and the Spanish were quickly hooked. Then they started sweetening it by adding sugars and honeys. Even the word "chocolate" is courtesy of those sweet-toothed Spaniards. Ole!

The other big revolution in the history of chocolate occurred in 1875 when Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter added powdered milk to the substance, creating the world's first milk chocolate. The Swiss have long had a special relationship with chocolate, even today consuming more of it than anyone else on the planet, which is pretty impressive for a country with a population of only eight million.

There's also the controversial matter of white chocolate. This is a mixture of cocoa butter and milk solids, but since it doesn't contain any cocoa solids, many chocolate hardliners don't consider it to be chocolate at all. One can only guess at the possible conflicting views amongst staff at TAFE NSW's various chocolate-making courses.

Clearly the passions surrounding chocolate are deep and enduring. Something to ponder on, perhaps, next time you're indulging yourself. Because like so many things in life, chocolate has a light and a dark side. The question is; which one do you prefer?