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 when think about consuming chocolate, we probably think of the verb "eat," not "drink." And the adjective used to describe it would be "sweet."
But 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. She is a self-described "chocolate educator" who runs a business called Chocolate Tours of New York City.
The food we call chocolate is made from a plant that experts call cacao. 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 first consumed, but it's clear that it was cherished from the start. For several centuries in Latin America, cacao beans were valuable enough to be used as currency. According to a 16th-century Aztec document, people could trade one bean for a tamale. And 100 beans could purchase a good turkey hen. 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. According to legend, the Aztec king Montezuma welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a banquet that included chocolate drinks.
By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe. It was believed to have nutritious and medicinal benefits. But it remained 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 selling boxes of chocolate candies throughout England.
In America, chocolate was valued during the Revolutionary War. It was included in soldiers' rations and used as wages. Today chocolate manufacturing is a more than $4 billion industry in the United States. The average American eats at least half a pound of chocolate per month.
In the 20th century, the word "chocolate" began to include affordable treats with more sugar and additives than actual cacao in them. But more recently, there's been a "chocolate revolution," Leaf says. It is 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 chocolate lines by purchasing smaller producers known for premium chocolates. Examples include Scharffen Berger and Dagoba. Meanwhile, 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?