Most people today can’t imagine life without chocolate. Therefore, they are really lucky that they weren’t born before the 16th century, before chocolate was popularised around the world. Before the16th century, chocolate only existed in Mesoamerica. It was used in a way no one would imagine today. Approximately as far back as 1900 BCE, the Mesoamerican people learned to prepare the beans of the native cacao tree.
Early records tell us the beans were ground and mixed with cornmeal and chilli peppers to create a bitter drink with frothing foam. If you think that we make a big deal about chocolate today, the Mesoamericans thought it was even more important. They believed that cacao was a heavenly food gifted to humans by a feathered serpent god, known as Kukulkan, to the Maya and as Quetzalcoatl to the Aztecs. The Aztecs used cacao beans as currency and used it to create a chocolate drink at royal feasts. They went as far as to give it to soldiers as a reward for success. Cacao was so important to them that it was used in rituals. When Hernán Cortés visited the court of Moctezuma, the king had 50 jugs of the drink brought out and poured into golden cups. This happened in 1519.
When the colonists returned with shipments of cocoa, missionaries’ salacious accounts of native customs gave it a reputation as an aphrodisiac. At first, its bitter taste made it suitable as a medicine for upset stomachs. Over time, however, sweetening it with honey, sugar, or vanilla quickly made chocolate a popular delicacy. Soon, all homes had dedicated chocolate ware.
This fashionable drink was difficult and time consuming to produce on a large scale, it involved using plantations and imported slave labour in the Caribbean on islands off the coast of Africa. In 1828, with the introduction of the cocoa press by Coenraad van Houten of Amsterdam, chocolate was changed forever. Van Houten created an invention that could separate the cocoa’s natural fat. This left a powder that could be mixed into a drinkable solution or recombined with the cocoa butter to create the solid chocolate we know today. Not long after, a Swiss chocolatier named Daniel Peter added powdered milk to the mix, inventing milk chocolate. By the 20th century, chocolate was no longer a luxury, it had become a treat for everyone. Meeting the massive demand required more cultivation of the cocoa bean, which could only grow near the equator.
Soon, instead of African slaves being shipped to South American cocoa plantations, cocoa production shifted to West Africa, with Cote D’Ivoire providing two-fifths of the world’s cocoa as of 2015.
Although the tasty treat is still being produced and the industry keeps growing, there have been horrific abuses of human rights in the process of making these products. Many of the plantations throughout West Africa, which supply large Western companies, use slave and child labour with an estimation of more than two million children affected. This is not only cruel, but people who work at these plantations don’t get paid well either.
TL; DR: Chocolate was popularised around the world in the 16th century, it was used as a medicine and an expensive drink in the past. Through the years, chocolate has evolved and became sweeter and acquired many flavours, popularizing it even more. Although the industry keeps growing, many abuses of human rights have been made too.