Here at Ombar, we believe that chocolate can be a healthy, nourishing food rather than the sweet confection that normally passes for chocolate. Well, it might just be that history is on our side…
Did you know that for decades chocolate was celebrated as a nutritious drink – even considered a medicine by doctors? And that in London drinking chocolate houses were more popular among the super-elite than coffee houses?1
So what happened? How did chocolate go from nutritious drink to junk food?
In our blog ‘History of Chocolate: The Early Years’ we mention that cacao was first discovered by ancient South American civilisations who relished it as a cold, frothy drink and used it as both medicine and currency.
Fast forward to about 1000 years later when Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer, and his crew captured a canoe full of cacao beans just off the Central American coast and became the first Europeans to encounter chocolate2. It wasn’t until forty years on, though, that chocolate (as a beverage) was first officially introduced to the Europeans by Mayan nobles brought over to Spain. Being too bitter for their tastes, the Spanish adapted the recipe, replacing the maize (corn) and chillies with another one of their favourite colonial resources, sugar2.
The Spanish kept the secret of chocolate to themselves for a long time. But luckily for us, during the mid-1600s chocolate found its way into coffee houses in England3.
When chocolate first became popular in Europe it was seen as a health food – a view supported by scientists, doctors and researchers of the time. There were over 100 recorded medicinal uses for cacao2! Doctors prescribed chocolate to treat a wide range of afflictions, from stomach and intestinal complaints to kidney disease, liver disease and weakness4.
Europeans most valued chocolate for its nourishing and energising qualities. They even saw it as a food that could solely sustain a person or even prolong life2! Even the British Medical Journal stated that chocolate is “one of the most nutritious, digestible and restorative drinks”4.
So what happened to change our perception of chocolate so dramatically?
Producing chocolate on a large scale was a very labour-intensive and expensive process in the 18th and early 19th century, meaning chocolate remained a delicacy reserved mainly for the elite3. But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution new processing techniques were being created that would change the way we enjoy chocolate.
Remember, at this point, chocolate was still consumed as a beverage. One of the issues with chocolate at the time was that excessive oils found in cacao beans caused chocolate drinks to have an unpleasant texture. So many chocolatiers added extra ingredients like potato flour (and even brick dust!) to their chocolate mixture to mop up the fat3. Yum.
But in 1828 a Dutch chemist called Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented a cocoa press that could reduce the fatty content to nearly half, making it easier to mass produce cocoa powder and reducing the need to add extra ingredients3.
Then in 1847 the British chocolate company Fry & Sons invented a ground-breaking new product3. After much trial and error, they finally combined the right amounts of cocoa powder with cocoa butter and sugars, creating the first solid chocolate bar which was called ‘eating chocolate’.
But it was Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter who arguably changed the face of chocolate in the biggest possible way with his invention of milk chocolate in 18753. Thanks to his friendship with Henri Nestlé, who had just developed a milk powder, Peter managed to make a milk chocolate that didn’t go rancid.
These innovations helped chocolate consumption soar. The great news was that chocolate changed from being something only the elite could afford to something available to every household across Britain3. But these developments also steered chocolate down the path of being something much sweeter and creamier than before, and over time the cacao content was reduced in favour of more milk and sugar, making it more of a confection than a nutritious food.
Chocolate has been defined today by these relatively recent developments that have occurred over the last 200 or so years. In today’s mass-consumed milk chocolate cacao is still present, but in very small amounts, and it’s there really only as a flavouring agent. This is a stark contrast to the ‘restorative drinks’ of our past where cacao was the front and centre hero ingredient.
1) Green, D. (2018). How the decadence and depravity of London's 18th century elite was fuelled by hot chocolate. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/surprising-history-of-london-chocolate-houses/ [Accessed 10 Jan. 2018].
2) Dillinger, T., Barriga, P., Escarcega, S., Jimenez, M., Lowe, D. and Grivetti, L. (2000). Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(8).
3) Cadbury, D. (2011). Chocolate wars. London: HarperPress.
4) Watson, R. and Preedy, V. (2010). Bioactive foods in promoting health. Amsterdam: Academic.