Chocolate has been around for thousands of years in one form or another. Yet it's only been in the last 100 or so years that it's become a global powerhouse, with companies launching new types of chocolate every few years.
From chocolate consumption by country, gender, and even time of year, the amount of data to wade through can be overwhelming. So here are some of my favorite facts about chocolate; from its origins to its characteristics, and chocolate trivia that will entertain and inform.
Interesting Chocolate Facts
Switzerland is the biggest consumer of chocolate in the world.
Recent market research showed global chocolate consumption for 2022 projected we'd consume 7.5 million tons of chocolate this year. OF all the countries, Switzerland ranked first per capita with 8.8 kilos of chocolate consumption per person that year.
The top 10 was all comprised of Eurocentric countries, while the United States came in at the number 19th spot with 4.4 kilograms consumed per person.
Chocolate’s name has ancient origins.
The word chocolate is thought to be derived from xocóatl. This is a name given to it by the Spanish that combines the word ‘chocol’ from the Maya (meaning hot), and ‘atl’ from the Aztec (meaning water or liquid).
The appropriate word in the Aztec-Náhuatl language is chikola:tl, which appears in other Mesoamerican languages, or even cacáhuatl. It is thought that the Spanish avoided both these names because ‘caca’ means poop in their language.
Cocoa was domesticated roughly 5000 years ago.
An article published by The University of British Columbia covers a study that uncovered evidence of cocoa’s domestication between 5,300 and 2,100 years ago. This is thousands of miles and roughly 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.
Instead of Central America, pottery from the Mayo-Chinchipe culture, an ancient civilization in South America, was found to contain traces of theobromine and starch strains specific to the cocoa tree.
Chocolate was initially consumed as a bitter drink.
Unlike the solid bars we consume these days, early civilizations consumed cocoa in the form of drinks. These cacao beverages consisted of ground cocoa paste mixed with water and spices. The fermented, cured, and roasted beans gave the drink a rather a bitter taste.
However it's believed that the more special the occasion, the more botanicals were added. Drinks made from the crushed cocoa nibs were flavored with varying amounts of maize, vanilla, flowers, chili peppers, medicinal herbs, and/or fermented agave sap.
Cacao was literal money growing on trees.
In the book ‘The True History of Chocolate’, the authors discussed the Maya’s use of cocoa beans as a currency to pay for goods and services. This was also true in the ancient Aztec culture, who regarded cocoa beans as more valuable than gold.
Accounts from adventurers and envoys of the time often cite the use of cacao as a form of money throughout the continent, with the cacao-growing cultures slowly spreading its consumption to others.
The Spanish brought cocoa to Europe.
Italian-born Christopher Columbus encountered cocoa on his 4th voyage in 1502 when he and his crew stole a native canoe that contained various goods that they took back to Spain.
One story goes that the introduction of hot cocoa to Europe started with the conquistadors’ encounter with the Aztecs in 1519. Others claim that friars in 1544 brought Philip II gifts in the form of Mayan slaves and cocoa beans.
Milk chocolate originated in Jamaica.
The formal discovery of the modern chocolate milk drink is credited to Hans Sloane, who set sail for the then British-controlled colony of Jamaica in 1687. He was an Anglo-Irish physician and collector who observed locals consuming the drink during his 15-month stay.
According to the historian James Delbourgo, Jamaicans have been brewing hot chocolate with milk as early as 1494, albeit not always with cow's milk.
The first chocolate bar was molded in 1847.
J.S. Fry & Sons was one of the big three British confectionery companies founded by Quakers, and was the largest producer of chocolate in the UK in the early 1800s.
In 1847 they molded the first portable chocolate bar that was suitable for commercial production, made from sugar, chocolate liquor, and added cocoa butter. This original served as the template for chocolate bars as we know them today.
The milk chocolate bar was invented thanks to Nestlé powdered milk in 1875.
Daniel Peter initially came up with a process to mix milk into a chocolate bar in 1857, but ran into problems removing water from the milk. The moisture level remained too high, and that caused mildew to form.
Luckily he was neighbors with Henri Nestlé, who had developed a milk condensation process that produced dry powdered milk. It would take another seven years for Peter to fine-tune his formula before launching his ‘Gala Peter’ milk chocolate brand in 1887.
Hershey’s earned their first million producing caramel candies.
In 1886, after many years of drifting jobs and opening an unsuccessful confectioner’s business, Milton S. Hershey was penniless. His luck turned when he secured a loan with Lancaster National Bank to fund a large order for his “Hershey’s Crystal A” caramel candy to supply an English candy importer.
In late 1893 he decided to pivot to chocolate production after attending a world fair in Chicago, which would lead him to sell his successful caramel business for $1 million in 1900.
Chocolate made it to the military in 1937 as a ready-to-eat ration.
The D Ration Bar is a chocolate ration commissioned by the U.S. Army and supplied to soldiers in World War II. The US government asked Hershey’s to make them in 4-ounce bars, and requested that it be high in energy, heat tolerant, and not too tasty, to prevent quick consumption.
The bars were so viscous that they had to initially be packed into the molds by hand, but apparently they got the job done.
M&Ms were first supplied to the U.S. military.
Like the D Ration Chocolates mentioned above, M&Ms found their way into military contracts. These candy-coated chocolates came in cardboard tubes and in multicolored coatings, just like we know them to today.
The slogan “Melts in your mouth, and not in your hands” characterized M&Ms logistical advantage as a form of energy ration for WWII GIs.
White chocolate isn't legally 'chocolate.'
There are three types of chocolate: dark, milk, and white. While categorized specifically as chocolate, white chocolate is technically not 'chocolate' due to the absence of cocoa solids. Instead, it is made with only cocoa butter, milk solids, and sweeteners.
Natural white chocolate isn’t completely white, either, because cocoa butter has an off-white color; any bright white shades of chocolate are likely be due to added coloring.
Chocolates undergo a process called tempering.
Both the cocoa solids and the cocoa butter need to undergo a process of repeated agitation, heating, and cooling to achieve a majority of specific V-shaped crystal structure. This is called “tempering,” and it gives chocolate its shine, structure, consistency, texture, and snap.
The tempered structure of cocoa butter loses its stability at body temperature and is the reason for chocolate’s melt-in-your-mouth consistency.
Compound chocolate isn’t real chocolate.
Compound chocolate is also known as compound coating. According to the FDA definition, compound chocolate shares its likeness with chocolate, but doesn't contain the key ingredients of cocoa butter.
Instead, it uses cheaper vegetable oils like palm kernel oil or partially-hydrogenated mixed vegetable oils. It also contains more sweeteners, can withstand higher temperatures, and doesn’t require tempering, making it more convenient to work with in certain cases.
Salt physically enhances the chocolate experience.
A relatively new trend is adding a pinch of salt to chocolate. Salt is an inclusion which neutralizes the taste of bitterness and emphasizes sweeter flavors, even those inherent to the cacao itself. But because most cocoa is naturally more bitter than sweet, salt has been used by some to smoothen its bite and bring attention to its sweeter notes.
As an added bonus, the right kind of salt also adds a bit of crunch to chocolate’s texture, making for a more sensory experience.
Chocolate can provide an energy boost.
Like tea and coffee, the positive effects of chocolate on a person’s cognitive functions and alertness can be traced to its caffeine and theobromine content. The caffeine and theobromine in chocolate are specifically found in the cocoa solids.
That means that dark chocolate and chocolates with a high cocoa solid percentage will naturally contain more of these stimulants. Generally, chocolate contains less caffeine compared to tea or coffee, but dark chocolate with a very high cocoa percentage can also contain a significant amount.
Chocolate is toxic for dogs.
Specifically, theobromine is poisonous for dogs because they can't digest it. Since theobromine is found in cocoa solids, dark chocolate is especially bad for our pets. White chocolate has less theobromine, but is just as bad if enough is ingested, and it also contains high levels of sugar and fat that is not good for their health.
Smelling chocolate triggers relaxation.
The results of an experiment conducted by Neil Martin, a psychologist at Middlesex University in Enfield, found that smelling chocolate affects the brain’s ‘theta’ brain-wave. The test showed that smelling chocolate reduced attentiveness. Apart from the other odors in the experiment, only chocolate exhibited this phenomenon.
Chocolate is thought to contain the ‘love-molecule’.
Chocolate contains phenylethylamine which is believed to have psychoactive effects much like cannabis. Some of these include improvement in mood, antidepressant effects, improved attention, feelings of euphoria, and even ecstasy in very high doses.
Scientists propose that the feelings of love and the success of relationships may be linked to certain chemical reactions in the brain, which phenylethylamine may have influence on.
There are 10 distinct varieties of cocoa.
The three main varieties of cocoa people usually refer to are forastero, criollo, and trinitario, however recent evidence has shown that there are actually 10 distinct genetic families. But the distinction into 3 groups persist, and many companies still mention on bar packaging what varietal of cacao they use.
Forastero and low-grade Trinitario beans fall under “Bulk” or “Ordinary” cocoa beans and make up most of the beans used in chocolate production. Criollo cocoa is actually still its own genetically distinct family, with a smoother taste overall.
But it has fallen out of favor with the market over the last couple centuries, with only a recent resurgence, due to the difficulty in cultivating them.
More than 60% of cocoa comes from 2 countries.
Two countries in West Africa, Ivory Coast and Ghana, are responsible for supplying 60% of global cocoa production. Cocoa is native to South America and was traded north through the centuries.
Eventually it spread globally through the establishment of plantations during colonial times. Despite the growing chocolate industry, cocoa farmers in Africa struggle to meet minimum wage rates.
The price of cocoa beans is volatile.
Cocoa beans are freely traded in the global market as soft commodities. Prices have plummeted since 1977 and have been steadily ranging sideways, not meeting the minimum wage for farmers to survive.
This exposure to market volatility and the effects of inflation on the value of currencies have contributed greatly to the poverty and lack of financial security faced by many cocoa farmers, causing many ot even turn away form their farms and seek work elsewhere.
One pound of chocolate contains 400 cacao beans.
Depending on the type of cacao pod, one fruit can contain between 20 to 50 beans. In one year a cocoa tree can bear 50,000 to 100,000 cacao blossoms, but only 10% to 30% of those will grow and fully develop.
The trees and pods are also fragile and prone to disease, making producing cocoa extremely labor intensive during cultivation and during the initial processing.
The largest chocolate bar by area measured 383.24 sqm.
On February 6, 2020, a giant chocolate mural measuring 26.8 meters wide by 14.4 meters high and weighing 13,073 kg was unveiled in Rotterdam.
The artwork was made of 1,620 elements that formed the image of the newest hospital ship of Mercy Ships, an international aid organization. Sale of the elements helped raise money for this organization.
- Interesting Chocolate Facts
- Switzerland is the biggest consumer of chocolate in the world.
- Chocolate’s name has ancient origins.
- Cocoa was domesticated roughly 5000 years ago.
- Chocolate was initially consumed as a bitter drink.
- Cacao was literal money growing on trees.
- The Spanish brought cocoa to Europe.
- Milk chocolate originated in Jamaica.
- The first chocolate bar was molded in 1847.
- The milk chocolate bar was invented thanks to Nestlé powdered milk in 1875.
- Hershey’s earned their first million producing caramel candies.
- Chocolate made it to the military in 1937 as a ready-to-eat ration.
- M&Ms were first supplied to the U.S. military.
- White chocolate isn't legally 'chocolate.'
- Chocolates undergo a process called tempering.
- Compound chocolate isn’t real chocolate.
- Salt physically enhances the chocolate experience.
- Chocolate can provide an energy boost.
- Chocolate is toxic for dogs.
- Smelling chocolate triggers relaxation.
- Chocolate is thought to contain the ‘love-molecule’.
- There are 10 distinct varieties of cocoa.
- More than 60% of cocoa comes from 2 countries.
- The price of cocoa beans is volatile.
- One pound of chocolate contains 400 cacao beans.
- The largest chocolate bar by area measured 383.24 sqm.