[February 13, 2023 | Montrose Mirror | By Kathryn R. Burke]

Did you know that Ben Franklin recommended chocolate as a cure for Smallpox? (Pity it didn’t work on the Aztecs—5-8 million people died of it after the Spanish invasion.) Colonial women of the 1700s were warned against consuming it, especially in the spring, because it was an “inflamer” that stimulated the libido. (Still does, and they ignored it just as we applaud it–probably for the same reasons.) Children were not allowed to drink it because it was a stimulant. (Which it still is; think about how crazy kids get when they eat too much chocolate Halloween candy.) Finally, early prototypes of the machine gun pre-date the making of milk chocolate. (Gives death by chocolate a new perspective.)

Chocolate—food of the gods, gift of governments and sweethearts, source of vitality, stimulant for socialization and sexual desire. Once considered more valuable than gold (and used by Mesoamericans as currency), chocolate has been weaving its magic for at least 5,500 years (that we know of). The earliest historical artifacts come from Mesoamerica (Central and South America), where it was served as a frothy, bitter drink, made into hallucinogenic potions and also used it for human sacrifice. (Read story here.)

For about 90% of its history, chocolate was a drink, not a food. That changed after the Spanish introduced it to Europe in the 1500s. After learning to sweeten it, chocolate caused a chocomania across Europe, and by the 1800s grew in popularity.

1600s. There are various theories on how chocolate first arrived in the colonies. History records that it first arrived in Florida on a Spanish ship in 1641, although it is likely Mesoamericans had been trading it with their neighbors to the north for centuries. Some historians think that drinking chocolate spread from England to its North American colonies. More likely, it came to our coast about the same time it arrived in England, via the regular maritime trade routes from the West Indies to the major colonial ports of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island. The first American chocolate house opened in Boston in 1682. (Like those in Europe, it was known to be sinful and a hotbed of political intrigue.) Chocolate ice cream was also invented about this time.

1700s. By 1773, cocoa beans were a major American colony import, but chocolate was still expensive and difficult to make. It remained a drink primarily for the wealthy…with a few interesting exceptions. In 1773, chocolate became the preferred breakfast drink, after rebels threw about 350 chests of tea into the harbor during the Boston Tea Party. During the Revolutionary War (1775-83) chocolate was provided to the military as rations. When funds ran short, it was sometimes given to soldiers as payment instead of money. (Following in the Aztec’s footsteps?)

1800s. For much of the 19th Century, chocolate was enjoyed in the U.S., as it was in Europe, as a beverage. Milk was often added, and it was usually sweetened and/or flavored with spices. It was still expensive, thus mostly reserved for the elite. Eating it as a solid was difficult; it was hard and difficult to chew. Newspaper advertisements for “solid eating chocolate” appeared mid-century, but chocolates “were not well received by the public because of their coarse and gritty texture.”

The cocoa press and other inventions during the Industrial Revolution ushered in the modern era of chocolate by enabling it to be used as a confectionery ingredient. The resulting drop in production costs made chocolate much more affordable. Swiss innovators chocolatiers developed the first appealing eating chocolate in the 1870s.

1900s. Milton Hershey pioneered the assembly-line production of milk chocolate in the U.S. about the same time Henry Ford began mass-producing automobiles. Hershey built an entire factory town in rural Pennsylvania, with housing and amenities for his workers.

During the “Roaring Twenties,” chocolate soared in popularity, possibly because it was used as a sugar substitute when alcohol (also high in sugar content), was prohibited. By the end of the decade, more than 40,000 different candy bars were being made in the U.S., according to Susan Benjamin, candy historian and author of Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure.

Father-son duo, Frank C. Mars and Forrest Mars Sr., collaborated with Hersey on the idea for the Milky Way bar, which hit the market in 1923 with the chocolate for its coating supplied by Hershey’s. That same year H.B. Reese, who had worked as a dairy farmer and shipping foreman for Hershey’s, launched his own candy company. Five years later, he introduced Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, later to be produced by Hershey’s. They became one of the top-selling candies in the United States.

During the Great Depression, Hershey launched a building campaign that kept hundreds of people employed and resulted in the addition of a large hotel, sports arena, and other public structures to his company town. In 1941, a Hershey/Mars partnership began producing M&M candies.

Gearing up for WWII, the U.S. Army asked Hershey to create a specially designed chocolate bar for emergency rations. There were four requirements: weigh 4 ounces, be high in energy, withstand high temperatures, and “taste a little better than a boiled potato.” The idea was not to make it so tasty that soldiers would treat it like a snack. The D-ration bar which resulted was released in time for D-Day. More than 160,000 troops, fortified by the D-bar, stormed the beaches of Normandy. It’s unclear how many actually ate it. Most who tried it said they would rather have eaten the boiled potato.

Today. Chocolate has continued to grow in popularity. As of 2023, Chocolate is a $127.9 billion industry, and it is expected to keep growing.  (Google Overview: 31 Chocolate Consumption Statistics & Facts, by Dame Cacao.) Science suggests (usually) that dark chocolate (with high cacao content) is good for you (eaten in moderation, which is often difficult to do). On the downside, cacao farming can harm the environment through forest clearing adding to climate change and the spread of disease. Science is considering genetic engineering. (Which can often produce unexpected and unwanted results.)

There is a significant demand now for specialty chocolate products due to the “bean to bar” (single origin) concept of chocolate made with high-quality ingredients with Fair Trade certification  About 60% of the world’s cocoa is produced on chocolate plantations in West Africa, with the Ivory Coast being the largest source. Like many food industry producers, individual cocoa farmers are at the mercy of volatile world markets, which in turn effects prices. Unfortunately, slave labor is often used. Where it is not, chocolate is marketed as “Fair Trade.” Consumers who want ethical chocolate should look for certifications designating Fair Trade, Rain Forest Alliance, UTZ, and Fair for Life.

Because of its perceived aphrodisiac qualities, chocolate candy has become a symbol of romance and a favored gift to give for Valentines. Whatever your favorite brand or type of chocolate, and whenever you choose to consume it, chocolate is still, unquestionably, America’s favorite sweet treat.