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The Origins of Chocolate

The history of chocolate began in Mesoamerica 4000 years ago. At that time, the so-called Olmecs settled on the Gulf coast of the states of Tabasco and Veracruz in what is now Mexico.

The Olmecs were the first advanced civilization in Mexico. Finds from settlement areas show that they already prepared a drink from ground cacao beans, presumably for religious rituals or as medicine.

Later advanced civilizations such as the Maya and Aztecs also cultivated cacao trees and brewed bitter drinks from the cacao beans. The Maya even called it the "drink of the gods". But that's not all: among the Aztecs, cacao beans were also an important means of payment. 

The Olmecs were the first advanced civilization in Mexico who evidently consumed chocolate.

Chocolate comes to Europe

When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico with his ships in 1519, the Aztecs offered the Spaniards their chocolate as a welcome drink. However, the bitter drink was met with little enthusiasm by the Spanish. 

Only a few decades later, when the idea of sweetening the bitter drink with sugar emerged, did chocolate become a hit drink among the wealthy aristocracy.

For a long time, the Spanish kept the chocolate drink as their secret. It took a whole century for the delicacy to reach neighboring France and the rest of Europe. Furthermore, the enjoyment of chocolate was reserved for the rich upper class until the 19th century.

It was not until machines for processing cacao were invented in the course of the Industrial Revolution and yields in cacao cultivation increased that other classes of the population were able to afford chocolate. 

In 1848, an English company introduced edible chocolate made from cocoa mass, cocoa butter and sugar to the market for the first time.

The first chocolate drink was very bitter. Only the addition of sugar made it pleasurable to consume.

The chocolate production process

Step 1: Harvesting and fermenting the cocoa beans

Cacao beans are the basis of chocolate. They are contained in the yellow to reddish-brown cacao pods that grow on cacao trees. One fruit contains an average of 25 to 50 cacao beans. For a 100 gram bar of chocolate, about 50 cacao beans are needed. 

Cacao plants need warmth and moisture to thrive. As a result, cacao can only be grown in a few regions around the equator. Today, about 70 percent of global cacao production takes place in West Africa, primarily in Côte d'Ivoire and in Ghana.

Cacao is predominantly grown by small-scale farmers. Cacao cultivation is very labor-intensive and is still done mainly by hand. 

First, the farmers cut the ripe fruits from the trees and bring them to central collection points. There, they break the fruits open with knives or sticks to get to the cacao beans inside.

The beans are fermented for several days, which gives the cacao its typical aroma, before they are dried and packed into bags for resale.

Chocolate is made from cacao beans.

Step 2: Processing the beans

The majority of cacao beans are not processed in the countries where they are grown. Via middlemen and exporters, the beans end up in the global North, in so-called grinding companies

There, the cacao beans are freed from their shells, roasted and then ground. The result is cocoa mass, also known as cocoa liquor. This cocoa mass is then further processed into cocoa butter and cocoa powder, or used by chocolate companies to make chocolate.

There are three types of chocolate, which differ in their cocoa content. Dark chocolate contains the most cocoa and is therefore also considered particularly healthy. Milk chocolate contains whole milk powder. White chocolate contains no cocoa at all, only cocoa butter. It is therefore actually not real chocolate - but still really delicious!

Most cacao beans are processed into chocolate in Europe and the USA.

Chocolate? Yes – but fairtrade, please! 

Chocolate is one of the most popular foods in the world. No wonder the trade in cacao beans is so lucrative. The global net sales of the chocolate industry amount to over 100 billion US dollars annually. 

Unfortunately, however, not all players earn equally from this business. In fact, cacao farmers receive only about 6 percent of the price we pay for a bar of chocolate in the supermarket. Most live below the poverty line of two U.S. dollars per day per person. 

Fortunately, there are more and more Fairtrade initiatives that ensure that the farmers receive adequate payment for their work. In addition to better working conditions for the farmers, Fairtrade also has a direct benefit for us. Cheap, conventional chocolate often contains additives such as flavorings or colorings. In contrast, Fairtrade chocolate usually comes from organic farming and consists of minimal ingredients of the best quality.

Most cacao farmers earn almost nothing for their hard work.

Is chocolate healthy?

On the one hand, cocoa is rich in magnesium, which strengthens our bones, promotes brain performance and ensures healthy muscle function. In addition, certain plant pigments in cocoa lower blood pressure and regulate blood sugar levels. Cocoa is also rich in antioxidants that protect our cells from the harmful effects of free radicals.

But be careful: Milk chocolate, which tastes particularly sweet and delicious, also contains a lot of sugar in addition to cocoa. That's why it's better to invest a little more money in a high-quality piece of Fairtrade chocolate – preferably dark – and enjoy it consciously. 

Has all this reading given you a craving for a piece of melt-in-your-mouth chocolate? Then put it on your shopping list right away!

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