Would you rather eat your chocolate, or drink it?
When most of us hear the word chocolate, we picture a candy bar, a box of bonbons or an Easter bunny. And the verb that comes to mind on consuming chocolate is probably "eat," not "drink." And the adjective used to describe it would be "sweet."
But in fact, for about 90 percent of its long history, chocolate was a beverage, and no one would have called it sweet.
Its the best-known food that nobody knows anything about," says Alexandra Leaf, a self-described "chocolate educator" who runs a business called Chocolate Tours of New York City.
Experts use the term "cacao" to refer to the plant from which chocolatethe foodis made. Scientists trace the origin of the word "chocolate" to the Aztec word xocoatl," which referred to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans. Many modern historians have estimated that chocolate has been around for about 2,000 years or even longer.
It's hard to pin down exactly when chocolate was born, but it's clear that it was cherished from the start. For several centuries in pre-modern Latin America, cacao beans were considered valuable enough to use as currency. One bean could be traded for a tamale, while 100 beans could purchase a good turkey hen, according to a 16th-century Aztec document. Both the Mayans and Aztecs believed the cacao bean had magical properties.
Sweetened chocolate didn't appear until Europeans discovered the Americas and sampled the native cuisine. Legend has it that the Aztec king Montezuma welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a banquet that included drinking chocolate.
By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, believed to have nutritious and medicinal benefits. But it remained largely a privilege of the rich until the late 1700s, when it became mass-produced. In 1828, a Dutch chemist found a way to make powdered chocolate, and the first chocolate bar was created in 1847. By 1868, the chocolate company Cadbury was marketing boxes of chocolate candies throughout England.
In America, chocolate was so valued during the Revolutionary War that it was included in soldiers' rations and used as wages. Today chocolate manufacturing is a more than $4 billion industry in the United States, and the average American eats at least half a pound of the stuff per month.
In the 20th century, the word "chocolate" expanded to include a range of affordable treats with more sugar and additives than actual cacao in them. But more recently, there's been a "chocolate revolution," Leaf says, fueled by an increasing interest in high-quality, handmade chocolates and sustainable, effective cacao farming and harvesting methods. Major corporations like Hershey's have expanded their artisanal chocolate lines by purchasing smaller producers known for premium chocolates, such as Scharffen Berger and Dagoba, while independent chocolatiers continue to flourish as well.
"I see more and more American artisans doing incredible things with chocolate," Leaf says. "Although, I admit that I tend to look at the world through cocoa-tinted glasses."
Critical thinking challenge: How did mass production allow more people to enjoy chocolate?