History of Chocolate (2023)

The history of chocolate, and its creation from the beans of the cacao tree, can be traced to the ancient Maya, and even earlier to the ancient Olmecs of southern Mexico. The word “chocolate” may conjure up images of sweet candy bars and luscious truffles, but the confections of today bears little resemblance to the chocolate of the past: Throughout much of its history, chocolate was a bitter beverage, not a sweet, rich-tasting treat. But after it became popular in the courts of Europe and the streets of colonial America, chocolate soon evolved into the universally loved commodity it is today.

Who Invented Chocolate?

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. The beans are dried and roasted to create cocoa beans.

It’s 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, the stimulant compound found in chocolate and tea.

It’s thought 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.

Mayan Chocolate

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

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


The Aztecs took chocolate admiration to another level. They believed cacao was given to them by their gods. Like the Maya, 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, which they called xocolatl, was mostly an upper-class extravagance, although the lower classes enjoyed it occasionally at weddings or other celebrations.

Perhaps the most notorious Aztec chocolate lover of all was the Aztec ruler Montezuma II who allegedly drank gallons of xocolatl each day for energy and as an aphrodisiac. It’s also said he reserved some of his cacao beans for his military.

(Video) The history of chocolate - Deanna Pucciarelli

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 the beans back to Spain with him 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 chocolate 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 respective countries.

Soon, chocolate mania spread throughout Europe. With the high demand for chocolate came chocolate plantations, which were worked by thousands of enslaved people.

But European palates weren’t satisfied with the traditional Aztec chocolate drink recipe. They made their own varieties of hot chocolate with cane sugar, cinnamon and other common spices and flavorings.

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Soon, fashionable chocolate houses for the wealthy cropped up throughout London, Amsterdam and other European cities.

Chocolate in the American Colonies

Chocolate arrived in Florida on a Spanish ship in 1641, and it’s thought the first American chocolate house opened in Boston in 1682. 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. (Chocolate was also provided as rations to soldiers during World War II.)

Cacao Powder

When chocolate first came on the scene in Europe, it was a luxury only the rich could enjoy. But in 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten discovered a way to treat cacao beans with alkaline salts to make a powdered chocolate that was easier to mix with water.

The process became known as “Dutch processing” and the chocolate produced called cacao powder or “Dutch cocoa.”

Van Houten supposedly also invented the cocoa press, although some reports state his father invented the machine. The cocoa press separated cocoa butter from roasted cocoa beans to inexpensively and easily make cocoa powder, which was used to create a wide variety of delicious chocolate products.

Both Dutch processing and the chocolate press helped make chocolate affordable for everyone. It also opened the door for chocolate to be mass-produced.

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

Nestlé Chocolate Bars

For much of the 19th century, chocolate was enjoyed as a beverage; 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.

(Video) Chocolate: A short but sweet history | Edible Histories Episode 3 | BBC Ideas

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 Nestlé—together they created the Nestlé Company and brought milk chocolate to the mass market.

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 chocolate 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 and Hershey were mass-producing a variety of chocolate confections to meet the growing demand for the sweet treat.

Chocolate Today

Most modern chocolate is highly-refined and mass-produced, although some chocolatiers still make their chocolate creations by hand and keep the ingredients as pure as possible. Chocolate is available to drink, but is more often enjoyed as an edible confection or in desserts and baked goods.

While your average chocolate bar isn’t considered healthy, dark chocolate has earned its place as a heart-healthy, antioxidant-rich treat.

Fair-Trade Chocolate

Modern-day chocolate production comes at a cost. As many cocoa farmers struggle to make ends meet, some turn to low-wage workers or slavery (sometimes acquired through child trafficking) to stay competitive. To expand cacao plantations, many companies are destroying rainforests, particularly in West Africa.

This has prompted grassroots efforts for large chocolate companies to reconsider how they get their cocoa supply and its environmental impact. It’s also resulted in appeals for more fair-trade chocolate which is created in a more ethical and sustainable way.


A Brief History of Chocolate. Smithsonian.com.
Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry. The Food Empowerment Project.
Chocolate-Making Conch. The National Museum of American History.
Chocolate Use in Early Aztec Cultures. International Cocoa Association.
History of Chocolate: Chocolate in the Colonies. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
The Bittersweet History of Chocolate. Time.
What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. Smithsonian.com.
Bittersweet: chocolate's impact on the environment. World Wildlife Federation


Who first invented chocolate? ›

The Olmec, one of the earliest civilizations in Latin America, were the first to turn the cacao plant into chocolate. They drank an ancient chocolate drink during rituals and used it as medicine. Centuries later, the Mayans praised chocolate as the drink of the gods.

When was chocolate first invented? ›

What Is the Birthplace of Chocolate? 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.

Where did chocolate originate from? ›

The history of chocolate, and its creation from the beans of the cacao tree, can be traced to the ancient Maya, and even earlier to the ancient Olmecs of southern Mexico.

What was chocolate originally called? ›

Etymologists trace the origin of the word "chocolate" to the Aztec word "xocoatl," which referred to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans. The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, means "food of the gods."

How old is the oldest piece of chocolate? ›

World's oldest chocolate was made 5300 years ago—in a South American rainforest | Science | AAAS.

How did chocolate get its name? ›

The word "chocolate" is traced back to the Aztec word "xocoatl," and the name for the cacao plant, Theobroma cacao, means "food of the gods." But before chocolate became the sweet worldwide phenomenon we know today, Mesoamerican cultures made bitter drinks with the cacao bean.

What are the 4 types of chocolate? ›

Different Types of Chocolate. There are four types of chocolate: dark, milk, white, and ruby. Chocolate comes from the seeds, or nibs, of the cacao tree. They are roasted and ground to produce a paste called chocolate liquor.

What country eats most chocolate? ›

Switzerland is renowned for its exceptional chocolate. From all of those prism-shaped Toblerone bars in airport duty free shops across the world to the more local Cailler and Frey varieties, it comes as little surprise that Swiss people consume the most chocolate per capita of any country worldwide.

When did chocolate slavery start? ›

The first cocoa house in England house opened in London in 1657. Cocoa beans were shipped to Europe from New Spain (Mexico), Ecuador and Venezuela. By the late 17th century, the labour force had shifted to mainly enslaved Africans.

Where did chocolate slavery start? ›

The first Europeans to make chocolate where the Spanish in their Central and South American colonies. Since the process of picking and processing the cacao was very labor intensive the Spaniards relied on several different forms of slave labor.

Why was chocolate only for the rich? ›

Adopting the Mesoamerican chocolate drink as their own, the Spanish were the first to sweeten the drink with cane sugar and cinnamon. However, the delicacy was only available to royalty and the elite, because the chocolate was at that time considered a symbol of luxury, power, and wealth.

Who first brought chocolate to America? ›

900-1200 A.D. Drinking chocolate comes to North America

Archaeologists working in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon have found remnants of cacao in 1,000-year-old vase fragments that were once used by the Anasazi people. About 1,000 Anasazis lived in the Chaco Canyon settlement.

How was chocolate first discovered? ›

The Maya Empire

Archeological findings show that the Maya people invented the warm chocolate beverage that was widely consumed in Mesoamerica and built the first cocoa plantations. Recent discoveries confirmed that they were also the first to eat chocolate as food.

Why was chocolate kept a secret for 100 years? ›

1565: The first record of how the cocoa drink is prepared was found in the notes of Benzoni, an explorer working for the Spanish army. The Spanish kept this secret from the rest of the world, with the hope they could keep their monopoly on the cocoa trade.

Which came first vanilla or chocolate? ›

Truth is many people get confused when they answer this question. Why? Because they think vanilla (due to its white color) is the basis for all other flavors. However, according to historical evidence, chocolate was the flavor invented first!

What is the oldest food still edible? ›

The Oldest Edible Food Still Found Today: Honey

The oldest edible food in the world is honey, found in a tomb in Ancient Egypt. It's around 3,000 years old and hasn't spoiled due to the honey's antimicrobial properties.

What is the world's oldest edible food? ›

Chinese bone soup

An archaeologist with an animal bone soup that dates back some 2,400 years.

What is the oldest food on earth? ›

It is called millet noodles that were documented in China around 4000 years ago and were discovered at the Lajia archaeological site along the Yellow River.

What are 3 facts about chocolate? ›

Fun Facts About Chocolate
  • It takes 400 cocoa beans to make one pound of chocolate.
  • Each cacao tree produces approximately 2,500 beans.
  • Research to date supports that chocolate can be enjoyed as part of a balanced, heart-healthy diet and lifestyle.

Who originated Death by chocolate? ›

Russ: I used to live in central Virginia, which gave me the opportunity (more than once!) to sample what's considered the original Death by Chocolate dessert, invented by Marcel Desaulniers at The Trellis in Williamsburg back in the 1980s.

What is the rarest chocolate? ›

The rarest of chocolates
  • This rare cacao bean was rediscovered in a small cacao field in northern Peru after being considered extinct for more than a century. ...
  • The Gran Nativo Blanco bean or the Great White is like none other. ...
  • Fortunately, we just got our hands on the new harvest!

What is the most popular chocolate in the world? ›

The Most Popular Chocolate In The World
  • Cadbury. Dairy Milk.
  • Mars. Bar.
  • Cadbury. Caramilk.
  • Lindt. Excellence. Bar.
  • Tony's. Chocolonely. Milk. Chocolate.
  • Other.

What is the most popular chocolate of all time? ›

Top-selling chocolates and sweets. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are the No. 1 selling candy brand in the United States, consisting of white fudge, milk, or dark chocolate cups filled with peanut butter. They were invented by H.B. Reese after he founded the H.B. Reese Candy Company in 1923.

Who eats more chocolate male or female? ›

Women have been reported to have more cravings for chocolate and are more likely to choose chocolate as a “comfort food” compared to men [29]. In this study, females were found to be significantly more likely to consume dark chocolate and in smaller servings.

Where is the most delicious chocolate in the world? ›

Switzerland. Switzerland has, hands down, some of the world's best chocolate. Swiss chocolate is usually high-quality milk chocolate, with a silky smooth texture. Many people credit the delicious taste of Swiss chocolate to the high-quality milk they use from local Alpine cows.

Who eats the least chocolate? ›

Neighboring Germany is also high up on the list with 5.7 kilograms per capita, while Americans are estimated to eat 9 kilograms of chocolate per year on average. At the other end of the scale, India and China have considerably lower per-capita consumption at 1.0 and 0.2 kilograms, respectively, according to Statista.

What chocolate is not made by slaves? ›

An estimated 1.56 million children work in cocoa production in West African nations Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire – where around 70% of the world's cocoa beans are grown. Eradicating child labour is also fundamental to disruptor brand Tony's Chocolonely, which prides itself on producing 100% slave-free chocolate.

Does slavery still exist in the chocolate industry? ›

Both children and adults are enslaved on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. A study found that in Ghana, 23% of surveyed cocoa laborers reported having performed work without compensation.

What foods came from slavery? ›

Since the 17th century, when Africans were forced into slavery in the New World, they and their descendants have had a profound impact on what Americans grow and eat. Watermelon, okra, yams, black-eyed peas and some peppers are all indigenous to Africa.

Who invented chocolate and when was it invented? ›

There are many theories about how chocolate came to be, but the one that is most commonly accepted is that it was first discovered by the ancient Mayans. The Mayans and the Aztecs accidentally found chocolate thousands of years ago, and they used it in a bitter liquid form.

Did the Spanish invent chocolate? ›

The Spanish Explorers first brought chocolate to Europe over 500 years ago! The Spanish were the first ones who mixed the bitter cocoa with sugar, thus modifying a bitter Mayan drink into the delicious and sweet hot chocolate drink as we know today.

Did the Aztecs invent chocolate? ›

Aztec people were not the first to discover and cultivate this magical fruit. The credit for that belongs to earlier Mesoamerican civilizations. But, their empire was dominant and their passion for the cacao bean was unprecedented. The value of chocolate as a commodity reached new heights under the Aztec Empire.

What was chocolate first used for? ›

The Mexica 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.

Who brought chocolate to Mexico? ›

The history of the chocolate can be traced all the way back to the ancient Mayans and even earlier, to Olmecs of southern Mexico. It all began here, in Mesoamerica, where the cacao tree is native and has perfect growing conditions.

Did Italians invent chocolate? ›

Many people think that chocolates originated in Italy, but even though they have been making chocolate for centuries, this isn't the truth. Aztecs and Mayan cultures made the first chocolate. The cocoa bean was first discovered in 1492 in the Americas and then imported to Europe.

Did the Native Americans make chocolate? ›

In its long legacy, chocolate has been one of the most valuable and sought-after delicacies across the globe. Its origins stretch back thousands of years to the early Mesoamerican cultures of North, Central and South America, where the cacao tree is native.

Did Native Americans use chocolate? ›

Today the beans of the cacao fruit are known as the source of chocolate, but throughout Mesoamerica in pre-Colonial times the cacao bean was so valuable it was used as a form of currency. The indigenous peoples in the region ground the cacao beans and added water in order to make a drink that stimulated and refreshed.

Why did the Mayans love chocolate? ›

The Mayans and the Aztecs believed (and perhaps some people still do) that chocolate was a gift from the gods. The Aztecs in particular revered the drink - they gave it to victorious warriors after battle, would use it during religious rituals, and even used cacao beans as currency.

Did the Egyptians invent chocolate? ›

Ancient Egyptians were the first candy makers recorded by history. They mixed fruits, nuts and honey. In ancient India, candy makers used sugar cane. Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao, a tropical tree cultivated by the Mayans of Central America and the Aztecs of Mexico.

Did ancient Egyptians eat chocolate? ›

Ancient Egyptians also thought highly of chocolate, believing it had strong medicinal properties. They allegedly drank cocoa mixed with honey for energy before acting upon their desires—and they didn't even have espresso machines!


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