History of Chocolate: Why is it the Food of the Gods?

cocoa powder and chocolate on marble background

Cocoa Powder and Chocolate. Image: Wikipedia

History of Chocolate: Why Is It The Food of the Gods?

On World Chocolate Day

Chocolate comes from the cacao seed, which is roasted and ground from the kernel. While its taste might be considered heavenly…


Why is chocolate called the “food of the gods”? Is it the celestial texture, the velvety tongue feel, the beatific brilliance of its taste, the divine melt-on-your-tongue sumptuousness?



  • What’s In A Name
  • Why Now? Chocolate Holidays
  • Better Living Through Chemistry
  • History: Chocolate Across 3 Continents
  • My Favorite Chocolates
  • Ultimate Divine Taste
  • Fabulous Fun Facts About Chocolate


What’s In A Name

The scientific answer is a bit more prosaic. The Latin name of the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao, or “food of the gods,” though it wasn’t named such until the 18th century by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. The cacao tree is in the same family as the cola tree, or Cola acuminata. (What would you think about “Chocolate Coke”?). There’s even a chocolate store in Seattle called “Theo Chocolate.”


Why Now? Chocolate Holidays

It’s World Chocolate Day, or just Chocolate Day (not to be confused with International Chocolate Day, which is on September 13.) It was established in 2009.

There’s more:

  • July 7 is also National Chocolate Day in the U.K. The day marks when chocolate was first brought to Europe by Cortez on July 7, 1550. Some credit Christopher Columbus with this feat in 1504
  • October 28 is National Chocolate Day
  • November 7 is National Bittersweet Chocolate with Almonds Day
  • February 9 is India Chocolate Day, celebrated every year as a part of the Valentine’s Week celebrations in India

There is also National Milk Chocolate Day, National White Chocolate Day, and National Cocoa Day. The chocolate industry is worth approximately $110 billion per year.


Better Living Through Chemistry

Here are some reasons why chocolate is so irresistible:

  • Chocolate is the only edible substance to melt around 93° F, just below body temperature, causing it to melt quickly on your tongue
  • Cacao is full of a natural stimulant that offers a gentler, longer-lasting energy than coffee (I rarely take coffee without chocolate). It produces the effects of a mild antidepressant by increasing serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain. Plus, it can bolster the immune system and strengthen your brain and bones!
  • One hundred grams of chocolate contains 660 mg of phenylethylamine (C6H5(CH2)2NH2), a stimulant similar to the body’s own dopamine and adrenaline. Phenylethylamine raises blood pressure and heart rate, heightening sensation and blood glucose levels. In fact, it is identical to a hormone produced by the brain when a person feels infatuated — which could explain why chocolate is connected to Valentine’s Day when Americans buy 58 million pounds of chocolate. But more chocolate is sold in the U.S. during Easter than on any other holiday. Over a third of seasonal chocolate confectionery sales are done at Easter. U.S. consumers eat about three billion kilograms of chocolate confectionery annually.
  • Chocolate contains tryptophan, which makes us very happy. Tryptophan – also found in turkeys – affects endorphin levels in the brain and increases serotonin, causing a sense of euphoria.
  • Darker chocolates can have as much caffeine as a can of Coca-Cola. (What do you think about “Chocolate Coke?”)


A Taste To Die For

  • The same 100 grams of chocolate contain 5 milligrams of methylxanthine and 160 milligrams of theobromine, both caffeine-like stimulants. When taken in large quantities, these stimulants can induce nausea and vomiting – a good reason to limit your Valentine’s Day nibbling to a few chocolates, or at least milk chocolate, which is less dangerous (which is what I prefer.) A 175-pound person could die from 12.5 lbs of unsweetened dark chocolate or 88 lbs of milk chocolate (another reason to choose milk chocolate.)
  • Don’t give the rest to your dog, though. Theobromine is toxic to dogs, and one ounce of chocolate could kill a 10-pound canine.


History: Chocolate Across Three Continents

World Chocolate Day Timeline

World Chocolate Day Timeline. Image: National Today


Chocolate: Born in the USA?

Not quite. With apologies to Bruce Springsteen, it was born in America, specifically in Mesoamerica.

Chocolate was important in Central America as early as 300 A.D., when cacao was first domesticated during the Mayan civilization. Both the Mayans and Aztecs regarded chocolate as a potent aphrodisiac.

The word “chocolate” comes via the Spanish from the Aztec xocolatl, which means “bitter water” and helps explain how they consumed it as a drink with chili peppers and allspice, sometimes chilled with snow. They imported their chocolate into central Mexico, where it was so valued that it was used as a form of currency, with 100 beans worth the price of a slave.


First to Spain

During what was later called the Colombian Exchange, Christopher Columbus returned from the New World and presented in Barcelona some cocoa beans to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, his financial sponsors. On Columbus’ first voyage to “America,” he saw cacao beans used as coins among the Guanache Indians but did not realize they were consumed as food. On his fourth voyage in 1502 to present-day Nicaragua, he learned that cocoa was used as currency and had been used for tribute to the Aztecs by conquered tribes. At the time, the Spanish court did not pay much attention to the almond-shaped dark brown beans, which they mistook as nuts.


Raw Cacao

Raw Cacao. Image: Wikipedia


It took another explorer from Spain about thirty years later, Hernando Cortez, to make the critical realization. He and his men were fascinated by Emperor Montezuma’s custom of drinking ‘xocalatl‘, made from crushed cocoa beans and cold water, whisked together. This bitter, unsweetened chocolate was consumed several times daily (some say as many as 50) from special gold beakers. To relieve the bitter flavor, vanilla or chili powder was added, sometimes sweetening it with honey. The Spanish later mixed it with hazelnuts, almonds, or cinnamon.

In 1528, Cortez presented the Spanish King, Charles V, with cocoa beans from the New World and the necessary tools for its preparation. Despite its regal importance, Montezuma’s chocolatl was quite bitter, and the Spaniards did not find it to their taste. To make the concoction more agreeable to Europeans, Cortez and his countrymen began sweetening it with cane sugar.

The idea found favor in Spain, and the drink underwent several more changes with newly discovered spices, such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and vanilla. Ultimately, someone decided the drink would taste better if served hot.

It was not until almost 100 years later that hot chocolate joined coffee and tea as popular and prestigious European drinks. But unlike coffee, which contains no significant nutrients, chocolate has some protein (15%), starch (15%), and fat (30-50%) in the form of cocoa butter.

Chocolate became so popular among the Spanish nobility that later, coffee aficionado Honoré de Balzac asked:

“Who knows if the abuse of chocolate is not somehow responsible for the debasement of the Spanish nation, which, at the moment of the discovery of chocolate, was about to start a new Roman Empire?”

Until the 19th century, travelers to Spain said:

“Chocolate is to the Spanish what tea is to the English.”


Then to France

The Spanish had kept the secret of the source of the divine drink from the rest of Europe for almost 100 years. The Spanish Inquisition began in 1492 on the Iberian Peninsula, where the Spanish, as well as the neighboring Portuguese, began to expel hundreds of thousands of Jews. These Sephardic Jewish communities were scattered throughout the known world. Many settled over the Pyrenees Mountain range – that separated Spain from France – in the Basque Country of France.

France during the 1500s was not as involved in the global spice trade, being distracted by various European conflicts and religious wars, especially with the Holy Roman Emperor. Where they did engage in New World exploration, it was in spice-poor places like Canada.

Portuguese Jews settled in the Basque capital city of Bayonne and introduced chocolate-making there. With the knowledge of the secret of producing the popular beverage, they imported cacao beans from the Americas. They combined the ground powder with spices, vanilla, and sugar, thereby making this chocolate beverage. Even today, Bayonne celebrates one of the oldest artisanal chocolate-making traditions in the Old World during the Feast of the Ascension, with its Les Journées du Chocolat (Chocolate Days.)

A 16th-century French person knew chocolate only as a drink, originally available in pharmacies as a medical treatment. It was good for the stomach and digestion, warming the chest and boosting energy – so much so that it was considered an aphrodisiac.

But by the 17th century, French nobility found it fashionable. Both Louis XIII and Louis XIV had married Spanish princesses who brought their love of chocolate to the French court. Though the “Sun King,” Louis XIV, was not fond of it, complaining that it did not fill the stomach, it was during his reign that French cacao plantations were constructed in their new Caribbean colonies, particularly Martinique. He made appointments to manufacture and sell chocolate.

His successor, Louis XV, was such a fan of the beverage that he prepared his chocolate drink in his private apartments in Versailles by himself.

Today, the French consume at least 15 pounds of chocolate per year per person. While that may seem a lot, it is only half that of Swiss and German citizens. The Swiss are the largest consumers of chocolate per capita in the world.



By 1602, chocolate had spread from Spain to Austria. By 1662, Pope Alexander VII had declared that religious fasts were not broken by consuming chocolate drinks. This paralleled the permission a later Pope gave for German beer consumption during Lent.


Next, to Switzerland

Until the 19th century, chocolate remained a luxury product affordable only to the wealthy. However, with the advent of new industrial production methods and cacao introduction to West African colonies, chocolate prices dropped, and it became available to a broader audience. In 1876, Daniel Peter devised a way of adding condensed milk to chocolate in Vevey, Switzerland, following eight years of trial and error. It was available as a milk chocolate bar.


England Too

In 1657, chocolate crossed the Channel, and the first of many famous English chocolate houses appeared, first in an Oxford coffeehouse.

The dark chocolate bar was developed by the English in 1847 by Dr. Joseph Fry in Bristol. He mixed sugar with cocoa powder and cocoa butter to produce “eating chocolate” through the development of fondant chocolate, giving it a smooth and velvety texture.

Queen Victoria got her soldiers hooked on chocolate when she began sending them gifts of this energizing and delicious candy for holidays in the late 1800s.


They’re Coming to America

New England saw its first chocolate factory in 1765. By WWI, chocolate bars were part of a soldier’s food rations. Today, U.S. Army D-rations include three 4-ounce chocolate bars. Astronauts routinely take chocolate into space.



In recent years, chocolate has been modified for eating by Dutchman Conrad Van Houten (Dutch cocoa), Swiss Rudolph Lindt and Henri Nestlé, American James Baker, Pennsylvania’s Milton Hershey, and San Francisco’s Domenico Ghirardelli.


My Favorite Chocolates

ghirardelli chocolate shop

Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop, San Francisco. Image: Wikipedia


  • Ghirardelli: Growing up in northern California, a favorite field trip was to San Francisco and the famous Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactury. It offered chocolate ice cream sundaes of phenomenal size. Their block milk chocolate bars set the high mark in my taste for this chocolate.
  • droste

    Droste Pastilles. Image: Wikipedia

    Droste: As a student at Berkeley, I was exposed to imported European chocolate with subtle taste notes. Droste Dutch chocolate was then, and is still today, available in tubes of “pastilles.”

  • Belgian: A trip to Brussels is a chocolate extravaganza. All around the Grand Place, the city square next to the Hôtel de Ville (town hall), are a variety of local and internationally renowned chocolate shops: Godiva, Neuhaus, and Leonidas, among others. They even have a Chocolate Museum on the square. The international airport hosts a veritable shrine of chocolates for your last-minute shopping. I’ve lingered there.
  • English: Cadbury was granted its first royal warrant from Queen Victoria in 1854. To me, English Cadbury Chocolate tastes better than the American variety. They’re famous for their Creme Eggs at Easter. Their chocolate bars are available everywhere, even in the London Underground stations where you board the train (Mind The Gap.)


The Ultimate Divine Taste

For the ultimate taste treat, consider this story from Greek mythology. For the wedding of the Greek gods Zeus and Hera, a challenge was issued: whoever could create the best and most original dish for the festivities could ask Zeus for a favor.

The newlyweds sipped and tasted every nuptial delight presented to them. They came to a tiny dish made by a winged nymph named Melissa. It was an amber fluid, sticky in texture, with a sweet taste and a delightful fragrance.

“gloopy without being unguent, slow-moving without being stodgy, sweet without being cloying and perfumed with a flavor that drove the senses wild”

The company was impressed, and Melissa and her honey were declared the winner.

Melissa comes from the Greek word μέλισσα (mélissa), “bee,” which in turn comes from the root μέλι (meli), “honey”.

Try chocolate and honey, an Olympian treat.


Zeus and Melissa

Zeus and Melissa. Image: Crawlionomics


Fabulous Fun Facts About Chocolate

From 100 Delicious Facts about Chocolate:

  • As well as milk, dark, and white varieties, there is a rare fourth type known as blond chocolate. (Does it have more fun?)
  • A study found that the smell of chocolate in a bookstore made customers 22% more likely to buy books of any genre and 40% more likely to buy cookbooks or romance novels. (This is likely why realtors recommend baking chocolate chip cookies when trying to sell a home during an “open house.”)
  • Brussels Airport is the world’s biggest chocolate seller, selling over 800 tons of chocolate annually. 1 in every 200 workers, or around 17,000 people in Belgium, work in the production and promotion of chocolate
  • Over two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is grown in Africa, and Côte d’Ivoire alone produces 33% of the world’s supply.
  • Cacao trees can live up to 200 years old, but they only make viable cacao beans for just 25 years of their life.
  • America consumes almost 50% of the world’s chocolate, while Europeans consume about 40%.
  • Hershey’s Kisses are named after the kissing sound the deposited chocolate makes as it falls from the machine on the conveyor belt. Hershey’s produces 70 million Kisses a day.
  • Napoleon always had chocolate with him; he ate it whenever he needed an energy boost.
  • Chocolate producers worldwide use around 20% of the world’s peanut crops and 40% of all almonds grown.
  • Chocolate actually inspired the Microwave. Percy Spence, a scientist working on WWII radar, loved chocolate. When near a magnetron, he noticed a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. He realized magnetrons could be used to heat food quickly and discovered the microwave oven.
  • Richard Cadbury, the son of Cadbury founder John Cadbury, made the first heart-shaped box of chocolates in 1861 for Valentine’s Day. William Cadbury (Grandson of Richard Cadbury) commissioned the design of the Cadbury logo in Paris in 1905 by French designer George Auriol.
  • The film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” was financed by Quaker Oats to promote its new Wonka Bar candy. That’s why it’s named that instead of the book’s title, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” by Roald Dahl.



Willy Wonka Movie Poster. Image: Wikipedia


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood chocoholic

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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