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Christmas Is Coming! Catch Your Craft Chocolate!

paper wrapped christmas gifts

The nights are truly starting to draw in and Christmas is approaching fast.

We want to let you know we’ve launched our Christmas store! See below for some of this year’s highlights!

And please, given all the issues around the post this year, place your orders as soon as you can! We strongly advise choosing an upgraded service too.


Seasonal Selection Boxes

As ever, we’ve prepared a series of great seasonal gift boxes, from stocking stuffers to deluxe selection boxes.

And if you’d really like to customise your craft chocolate gifting, you can build your own box with your preferred chocolates.

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Warming Chocolate Drinks

One way to take the edge off cold Winter days is to warm up with a luxurious mug of hot chocolate. We have a whole range of drinking chocolates, including our brand new ‘bundle’ which includes a mug, spices, and recipes!

Complete with everything you need to create the perfect cup, including an enamel mug, a whisk, a mix of warming winter spices, and our premium single origin cocoa powder. There’s also a recipe guide sheet included in your hamper, created by some of London’s top baristas in collaboration with us.


Fun Treats for Kids

Most young people have a sweet-tooth, but rather than just giving some chocolate, get them engaged with some fun chocolate activities!


Chocolate Tasting Experiences

If you want to introduce friends and family to craft chocolate, please consider giving them a virtual chocolate tasting kit, and/or inviting them to one of our tasting events.

You might know we have regular online experiences, but we also have special tastings with The Wine Society and Square Mile Coffee planned for January too.


Chocolate Pairing Gifts

At this time of year, many people will be indulging a lot in foods and drinks. Fortunately, craft chocolate is a wonderful accompaniment to several drinks, so check out our selections of pairing gifts this Christmas.


The Gift That Keeps On Giving!

Craft Chocolate Subscriptions

The best way to discover and explore the world of craft chocolate is with our monthly subscription service. Each month, we carefully curate a selection of bars to help people uncover the hidden delights of great chocolate.

It’s not only something for you to enjoy, but you can gift 3, 6, or 12 months to someone you care about.

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It’s not too late for Advent Calendars!

Though ‘Advent‘ has started already, you can still catch up by getting hold of one of these amazing Zotter advent calendars. Do the countdown to Christmas with exquisite flavours!


Make sure you follow our social media channels to keep up with our ongoing ’12 Days of Christmas’ series.


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Craft Chocolate for Less, With ‘Lucky Dip’ Boxes

The ups-and-downs of international chocolate shipping have left us with some extra stock which is “short-dated”. Rather than let it go to waste, we’d like to offer it to you at a discounted rate.

Each of the boxes below contains a selection of these chocolates, but each box will be different! Our ‘luck dip boxes‘ have been really popular in the past, check out which one suits you below!

For a limited time, we’re offering these boxes at a 10% discount!


There’s nothing in dark chocolate which ‘goes off’. They don’t have a ‘use by’ date; but legally all chocolate bars (and pretty much any food) has to have an arbitrary ‘best before date’, and the bars in this box are past theirs.

As milk chocolate contains ingredients which can go off, they must include a ‘use by’ date; all the chocolate in this box is getting close to its use by date and so will need to be eaten quickly!

Use the coupon code LUCKYDIP10 at checkout!


We also have excess stock of this amazing dark milk chocolate from Luisa Abram. Made from wild cacao, grown on the banks of the Tocantins River in the Amazon, combined with rich creamy milk from Jersey cows, this bar is delicious and indulgent.

To help us avoid wasting any, we’re offering to you at a 30% discount (while stocks last).

Use the coupon code BRAZIL30 at checkout!


We know that you love craft chocolate; it’s better for people and the planet, and it tastes better too!

We hope you’ll enjoy these selections even more knowing that you’re also helping to prevent food waste, and getting a bit of a bargain too!

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Trick or Treat!? Halloween is Coming!

halloween pumpkin jack-o-lanterns

What is associated with the colour orange (and increasingly black, purple, and even green), celebrated on 31st October, emerged out of “guising”, “mumming”, and “souling”, is second only to Christmas as a commercial holiday ($6bn spent in the US alone), and one where over 20% of millennials are now dressing up pets in costumes?

The answer is, of course; Halloween!

We know Halloween isn’t for a few weeks, but given there’s some Royal Mail strike action planned soon here in the UK, we encourage you to plan ahead; to make sure you order in plenty of time before the big spooky day!

Try as we might; it’s not easy to find links between craft chocolate and Halloween. Nonetheless, as a treat we’ve assembled two great gift boxes; sets of bars that are coloured, orange, black or purple.

Even though we’ve not found links between craft chocolate and Halloween, we’ve had some fun researching its history and traditions for you to contemplate as you savour these bars.

  • Why is Halloween associated with the colours orange, black and purple?
  • When and where did the word “Halloween” come from?
  • Why do we “trick or treat” on Halloween?

Any which way, we hope you enjoy our range of Halloween inspired craft chocolate treats!

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What is Ceremonial Cacao?

ai generated image of a cartoon cacao ceremony

You might not YET have heard of ‘ceremonial cacao’. But you probably soon will, especially if you are into yoga, meditation or mindfulness.

All over the world, yoga retreats, mindfulness centres, and sober raves are incorporating ceremonial cacao into their activities. All sorts of benefits are being claimed and all sorts of new rituals being practised.

So where did this trend emerge from? What is a ‘cacao ceremony‘, and what is ‘ceremonial cacao‘?

We’ve dug around in the history, habits, and claims of ceremonial cacao, and we’ve been intrigued, amazed and bemused. There’s a lot to like, and to celebrate, within this trend, BUT there is also a lot to be sceptical about, and some important caveats.

Join us as we untangle and define ‘ceremonial cacao’ as a product, advise where you can find ‘the good stuff’, and avoid some of the more outrageous claims. And we recommend specific bars, powders, and buttons that you can use in your next cacao ceremony.

Old World Ceremonial Cacao

The civilisations destroyed by the conquistadors; the Aztecs, Incas, Mayans, were extraordinary.

The Mayan calendar dates back at least 2,000 years and is so accurate that their calendar correction is 10,000th of a day more exact than the standard calendar the world uses today. Despite not using the wheel, Inca runners could transport fresh fish from the seas hundreds of miles inland to their imperial courts within a day. The Mayans built extraordinary cities with stepped pyramids, on the same scale as those in Egypt, that are being discovered to this day.

ruins of mayan buildings in belize

These civilizations made extensive use of cacao. Cacao was so treasured, and of such high value, that it was used as a unit of currency; indeed this is what Columbus mistook them for when he first came across these “almond shaped” beans on his fourth voyage. And cacao beans continued to be used as currency up until the early 19th century. All sorts of ceremonies, from weddings to giving birth, from ritual sacrifices through to moving house, involved cacao. And the Catholic Church co-opted cacao and drinking chocolate into many of its festivals and feasts.

Cacao was believed to have medicinal properties; everything from boosting sexual stamina to settling the stomach. Two key historical documents of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, The Florentine Codex (1590) and The Badianus Manuscript (1552) contain numerous references to “customary uses” and ceremonies involving cacao to address illnesses as diverse as: “angina, constipation, dental problems (tartar removal), dysentery, dyspepsia/indigestion, fatigue, gout, the heart (overheated), haemorrhoids and lactation difficulties” (intriguingly cacao was NOT seen as a solution to the likes of “beriberi, pellagra, rickets or scurvy”).

But the conquistadors’ destruction of Aztec and Incan aristocracies, enslavement of locals, the disaster of smallpox, and all the other horrors; makes piecing together how cacao was venerated in rituals, or prescribed as a medicine, far from easy!

illustration of blinded characters trying to identify an elephant

Small fragments of written documents have survived. And some indigenous tribes have managed to continue some of their ceremonies, rituals, and traditions. But piecing it all together is reminiscent of the parable of the blind men each being allowed to touch one part of the elephant and coming away with completely different impressions, rather than seeing the whole elephant. And in the case of ceremonial cacao, we are talking about LOTS of elephants: Different tribes, even in the same geographies, had very different traditions.

There are some ceremonies (for example the Japanese tea ceremony) where a centuries old tradition is clearly documented and, still studiously followed today. With ceremonial cacao, we just don’t have a full understanding, but we do have a bunch of intriguing customs that are now loosely grouped under the term ‘ceremonial cacao’.

Modern Day Ceremonial Cacao in Latin America

Just as the Americas’ indigenous peoples celebrated cacao and drank chocolate in many ways, the same is true today. Their descendants still use, and venerate, cacao in many ceremonies for very different purposes across Central and South America, from Mexico to Guatemala, Colombia to Panama. Anthropologists continue to document uses of cacao in ceremonies that vary from celebrating the birth of a child, marking the new year, venerating the rainforest and addressing a host of physical, psychological and metaphysical issues.

In the early 2000s, several intrepid travellers became intrigued by these traditions and ceremonies, in particular by those being celebrated by various Mayan peoples in Guatemala and Belize. Many of these cacao ceremonies are presided over by elders who have been continuing multi-generational ritual and traditions. These elders use cacao medicinally, and in ceremonies to help move people on from spiritual blockages to improve their physical and psychological well-being. And they venerate the key role cacao plays in preserving the rainforest.

Projects like the Mayan Wisdom Project and self-styled chocolate shamans like Keith Wilson have begun sharing these ceremonies, ideas and practices with global, non-indigenous audiences. Arguably the Mayan calendar played a key role here as 2012 marked the start of a fifth long term cycle where outsiders can be told more about Mayan customs.

Modern Day Ceremonial Cacao in The West

Studying, and preserving, these ceremonies is clearly to be lauded. But the use of terms like “chocolate shamans”, “inner magic”, “cacao spirit”, has raised some eyebrows.

And anthropologists have criticized some of the ‘ceremonies’ held by these ‘shamans’ as being VERY far from removed from the current ceremonies practiced by the descendants of the Inca, Maya, Aztecs, etc. today, and from the practices at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Indeed, some of cacao ceremonies are, to be blunt, quite “mad” (whatever you read, chocolate is NOT a natural psychedelic) and sometimes even “bad” (beware the unscrupulous sellers of ceremonial cacao who are vague about the source of their cacao).

But to continue the metaphors; we should be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

There is a lot about ceremonial cacao which is A GOOD THING. Drinking high quality chocolate at a sober rave, meditation circle, yoga retreat etc. has lots and lots of benefits.

And ceremonial cacao often overlaps with craft chocolate in its sourcing, crafting, ethics and ambitions. For example; Pablo of Forever Cacao stresses the importance that ceremonial cacao “respect the plant, know the growers and thank them” … and you can use the occasion to “unwind physically and metaphysically to relax”.

What is Ceremonial Cacao, as a Product?

This is a tricky question to answer, and not helped by some of the ‘fluffy’ terms used by ceremonial cacao to describe what they use.

In most cases, ceremonial cacao comes in the form of solid blocks which are then mixed with water (and sometimes other sweeteners, herbs, spices, and chilis) to produce a drink used in self-styled ‘cacao ceremonies’.

Try some of our powders and buttons for your next cacao ceremony:

Unlike, say, speciality coffee, there is no standard definition or ‘Q grading’ for ceremonial cacao. It’s more like matcha, where companies will market their products with labels like “culinary”, “every day” and “ceremonial”. To the cynical, “ceremonial-grade matcha” is a marketing term; it’s a way to have consumers pay a bit more. (And in the case of chocolate, the VAT rates will be different as products sold for “cooking” can avoid a VAT surcharge).

Nonetheless, there are some commonly accepted best practices as to what constitutes  ceremonial cacao. Broadly speaking these are consistent with craft chocolate overall… and to be lauded:

  1. The source of the cocoa beans should be transparent; and the growers/producers paid with long term, sustainable contracts. Unsurprisingly, many of the farms producing ceremonial cacao are the same as those used by craft chocolate makers. Indeed, Pablo Spaul of Forever Cacao, who works directly with the Ashaninka in Peru, sells both craft chocolate and ceremonial cacao.
  2. The cacao shouldn’t have additives; no emulsifiers, preservatives and even no sugar. This is good… even if many of us appreciate a little sugar to reduce the astringency and bitterness of the 100% cocoa, and to bring out some of the beans’ flavour.
  3. The cacao should be “traditionally processed”. Again, this is also better for flavour; avoiding industrial processes which are more about cheapness and efficiency (e.g. adding emulsifiers to speed up machinery, washing the cocoa mass in an alkaline solution, roasting nibs not full beans).

The third condition; “traditionally processed” is arguably the biggest difference between what is sold as ‘ceremonial cacao’ and more common 100% craft chocolate bars, 100% craft cooking chocolate, or even non-alkalinised craft cocoa powder. Practitioners of ceremonial cacao prefer to avoid even conching and tempering their chocolate. They may even skip roasting their chocolate (some craft chocolate makers do this too, such as Raaka).

What isn’t fine, and falls into the “bad” and arguably “mad” categories, are claims by that ceremonial cacaos being “raw” and/or “minimally processed” means they’re “healthier” or “magical”. Read more HERE about ‘raw chocolate’,  but bottom line; there is NO EVIDENCE that not roast, or minimally fermenting, or avoiding conching or tempering, makes chocolate healthier (or magical). If anything, the opposite may be true; roasting chocolate helps kill many of the bad bacteria found in cocoa.

infographic comparing ceremonial cacao and mass-produced chocolate
Ceremonial cacao is a LOT better than mass produced chocolate. But it’s really not that different to craft chocolate 100% bars.

The Good in Ceremonial Cacao

Friend of Cocoa Runners, Pablo Spaul, is one of the great advocates and superstars of ceremonial cacao here in the UK. And without wishing to embarrass him; he is a fantastic ambassador of why ceremonial cacao, and craft chocolate, can be so great. His approach is to focus on what’s really important in chocolate and so much more. When it comes to ceremonial cocoa, there are some really good things worth sharing:

Sharing and Savouring

Without doubt this is one of the good aspects of ceremonial cacao; and why it’s becoming a part of so many meditation and mindfulness events. Drinking ceremonial cacao is now central to everything from ‘sober raves’ to morning yoga classes. Sharing some drinking chocolate is a great way to connect and unwind. Reflecting and giving thanks for the farmers’ work which has gone into your chocolate is also a great way to use ‘mindfulness’. You are also encouraged to savour not scoff; something we care about a lot in craft chocolate.

Rituals

There is also a tonne of interesting research about the way that ceremonies and rituals improve how we enjoy and benefit from what we consume. But there have been a whole host of studies, for example here are the results of one by the Association of Psychological Science in the US that made extensive use of chocolate showing:

  1. Establishing simple rituals (such as how you unwrap, and then wrap back up a bar of chocolate) can be statistically shown to “enhance the delight in trying a bar of chocolate”.
  2. Slowing down and delaying gratification (i.e. savouring not scoffing) when eating vegetables also enhances the experience and “increases delight” (this study used carrots, but the same is predicted for chocolate).
  3. Personally taking part in the ritual and ceremony, as opposed to watching someone else carry out the key parts of the rituals and ceremony is also important.
  4. Explaining more about the product consumed, also vastly increased people’s enjoyment.

Sourcing

Ceremonial cacao’s stress on knowing, and respecting, the source of the cacao is also clearly a good thing in avoiding all the problems of child labour, deforestation, unfair working practices, desertification, environmental degradation that are sadly so omnipresent in mass produced confectionery. Again, Pablo’s relationship with the Ashaninka of Peru is a fantastic example of this.

Beware some of the more “mad” claims and bad practices:

There are a number of claims that are made for ceremonial cacao that need to be treated with some scepticism.

Many of these “crazy claims” are similar to the health claims made by raw chocolate; and they are equally specious. Whenever you see a website or leaflet about ceremonial cacao going on about the many scientific compounds that make up chocolate (like polyphenols, catechins, phenylethylamine, theobromine, tryptamine, or tryptophan) and then makes claims that seem AMAZING, please be really, really sceptical.

There have been lots of studies (almost all underwritten by ‘big chocolate’) into the health benefits of chocolate. Sadly, many involve too few people to be valid, and their conclusions all too often match the ambitions of their big chocolate sponsors. So whilst there is no doubt that all high percentage, well made chocolate contains lots of wonderful chemicals, many of the claims stretch credulity.

The ‘bioavailability‘ of many of the wonderful chemicals in chocolate is unfortunately very low; that is to say, it’s hard for your body to absorb them; most just pass through your gut. So even though chocolate contains lots of polyphenols; a great antioxidant; you just can’t get enough of them for a significant impact. Similarly, chocolate has the “love drug” phenylethylamine, but sadly it doesn’t work as an aphrodisiac. And even though theobromine, the main stimulant in chocolate, can help lower blood pressure whilst increasing your heart rate, you’d be hard stretched to persuade your doctor to prescribe it to you!

Having said this, there are LOTS of benefits from consuming proper ceremonial cacao (or craft chocolate). They’re a great source of manganese and iron (so great for vegans). And they have a good role in help managing our mealtime appetites. But these benefits aren’t unique to ceremonial cacao: Craft chocolate has them too.

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Cocoa Runners’ Spencer Hyman talks chocolate’s health effects.

For more detailed discussion on the REAL health implications of chocolate, check out this episode of the ZOE podcast.

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The Truly Bonkers

Listen to a few of the many podcasts or articles extolling the wonders of ceremonial cacao and sooner or later you’ll come across claims that ceremonial cacao can have psychedelic effects, similar to ayahuasca.

These are bonkers! These claims are normally based on misunderstandings about anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid that can be found in cocoa. Anandamide is a chemical that our bodies make which mimics the effect of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. It works by binding to particular receptors in the brain, and anandamide can also bind to them.

However, just consuming chocolate won’t give you a cannabis-like high. As with other chemicals, anandamide in chocolate is not very bioavailable, and isn’t processed in the same way as THC from cannabis. Anandamide in the brain works because the body produces it itself: The word ‘endogenous’ means it’s internally produced. What’s in chocolate is actually an external analogue to anandamide.

So while you may feel super happy and even “high” after a sober rave or meditation session with ceremonial cacao this is not because of any pharmacological aspects of the chocolate. It’s psychological.

…and The Downright Naughty

One of the key tenets of both craft chocolate and ceremonial cacao is working directly, and over the long term, with the bean growers. At Cocoa Runners we sell over 1000 bars and we know not just where all the bars are made, but we also insist on knowing the source of the beans, and sharing this as much as we can. Many ceremonial cacao suppliers and practitioners are equally transparent (again, like Pablo).

Greenwashing

But just as there is greenwashing and false marketing in mass produced confectionery (see the recent Channel 4 Dispatches debunking of Cadbury), the same is also sadly evident with ceremonial cacao. 

Try digging into Legacy Cacao’s self declared “fair profit” company for any information on what they pay, or even who they are paying. And their claim that: “Today, there is only one guardian of the original, ancient recipe. This Mayan Priestess has exclusively chosen Legacy Cacao for this sacred calling. It is our privilege to deliver this legacy of love in its purest form from seed to sip”, doesn’t inspire much confidence in their chocolate crafting!

Cultural and Environmental Appropriation

Accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ are also a major concern. While the likes of the Mayan Wisdom Project are working to share indigenous knowledge, some other companies have been accused of being less careful, and of appropriating indigenous beliefs and practices, adulterating them, rather than authentically seeking to understand and communicate them.

Careless ceremonial cacao sellers are also accused of endangering other plants. For example, many also sell ‘palo santo’. Palo Santo is critically endangered and harvesting it in Peru is illegal. In Ecuador they’re reforesting it. ‘White sage’ is also a problem: Found in northwest Mexico, overharvesting by spiritualists unconnected to indigenous peoples has made it critically endangered.

So check what additives and adulterations, or even just other herbs, are being promoted alongside ceremonial cacao. And just as with craft chocolate in general, make sure you are fully aware of the supply chain that’s delivering the beans in your ceremonial cacao. Push back and ask questions.

A Celebration

Cacao’s history dates back over five millennia. And Carl Linnaeus’ description of the cocoa tree as Theobroma cacao (or “fruit of the gods”) in 1753 hits the nail on the head. We are incredibly lucky to be able to enjoy this fruit of the gods. When the environment is respected, farmers are treated fairly and the cocoa bean crafted to optimise its flavour, the results are truly magical. And it’s great that many practitioners of ceremonial cacao are seeking to harness this philosophy and incorporate it into their sober raves, meditations, yoga retreats and the like.

It’s also great that e.g., Mayan spiritual leaders are being respected for their customs, and that we are learning more about the ways they venerate their environments. There is a tonne we can learn from this.

The same guidelines for purchasing craft chocolate should be used for ceremonial cacao. You should still always check the label, ensure you know exactly what ingredients and steps have been followed and where the beans come from. And whilst you should delight in savouring the ceremony and chocolate, you may also want to be wary about any ‘magical’ claims.

Ceremonial cacao is a great enhancement to any retreat, mindfulness activity or sober rave. And ceremonial cacao is a great reminder that adding some self conscious rituals as to how you savour your chocolate may further enhance your craft chocolate celebrations.

Some suggestions:

If you want to honour the history of Mayan cacao why not try a bar crafted with Lachua beans? These beans were grown by the Q’eqchi’; a Mayan tribe whose ancestors were the first people we know who brought chocolate to Europe in 1544, and whose traditional ceremonies continue to venerate cacao’s environmental importance.

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Who REALLY first brought chocolate to Europe?

cocoa pods on branch

The history of chocolate is; appropriately; rich, complex, and definitely not clear. Everything from how chocolate was consumed and celebrated, to how it first made it to Europe, is shrouded in confusion. For example; although Columbus certainly came across cocoa beans, he doesn’t appear to have realised it could be made into chocolate, and it’s a myth that he was the first to bring it back to Europe.

Much of chocolate’s history with cocoa is also dark and depressing: The conquest of the “New World” and eventual ‘take off’ of chocolate in the “Old World” involves everything from plagues to slavery, and deforestation to desertification.

However, there are some brighter spots; for example, we can now enjoy craft chocolate bars from Lachua, Guatemala, which can trace a lineage back to the first people who brought chocolate to Europe; some Kechi tribal leaders way back in 1544. For more on this history and some of these award winning Lachua bars, please see below and HERE.

New Foods from the New World

The discovery of the “New World” revolutionised food in the “Old World”. Before Columbus, Europe didn’t know about potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, turkeys, corn, maize, vanilla, tobacco, peanuts or; of course; chocolate.

Columbus brought back many of these new foods with him to impress Ferdinand and Isabella, the sponsors of his expeditions. In particular, he was proud of what he called “chili peppers”, as he used these chilis to argue that he had discovered a lucrative new route to the Indies for black pepper. This confusion still persists even though peppers and chilis are very different plants, and the ‘heat’ from piperine (peppers) is very different to the heat from chilis (capsaicin). (For more on this, and some great bars made with both different peppers and different chilis, please see HERE).  

While European (and Asian) desire for chilis took off quickly; it took far longer  for many of these new foods to percolate through into “Old World” diets. For example potatoes didn’t really take off for over two centuries. And even chocolate took a few generations.

Indeed, in the case of cacao and chocolate, it took some time before anyone brought them back to Europe. We know that Columbus and his son came across cocoa beans on his fourth voyage and were amazed at the importance that the Mayans treated these “almond like beans”. But there is no evidence that he witnessed how the Mayans drank chocolate, nor is there any evidence that he brought any cocoa beans, or chocolate, back with him to Europe.

There is also no evidence that Hernán Cortés sent any chocolate back to Europe; although he did describe it in various letters he sent back. This is even more surprising given the fact that his chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo was enamoured with chocolate; gushing over Montezuma consumption of “the froth of fifty cups of chocolate” before visiting his wives. (Indeed, this tale of superhuman stamina may well have been the start of chocolate’s association with aphrodisiacs).

When did chocolate first reach “The Old World”?

The first clearly documented evidence we have of cocoa beans and chocolate being presented to a European court is 1544. Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas brought a delegation of Kekchi (or Q’eqchi) leaders to the court of the future Philip II of Spain, who gave the future monarch a series of gifts including 2000 quetzal feathers, chillies, sarsaparilla and both cocoa beans and chocolate for drinking. Perhaps because the drinking chocolate was served cold (and therefore associated with all sorts of health issues), perhaps because it wasn’t mixed with spices and sweeteners, or perhaps because Philip just didn’t like chocolate, this event was not a ‘eureka moment’ for chocolate in Europe.

It took another generation for Europeans to import cocoa beans in any volume from the New World. And chocolate’s success in the late 1500s appears largely down to its promotion as a great, and tasty, source of nutrition on fast days in Catholic Europe. In medieval and early modern Catholic Europe, over 100 days of the year were ‘fasting days’: All Wednesdays, all Fridays and most saints’ days, plus Lent. On these fasting days, any animal based product; meat, cheese, butter, etc.; was to be avoided. Hot chocolate was therefore promoted as a nutritious and delicious option, especially by the Jesuits, and they even secured papal endorsement for this practise (along with fish on Fridays).

How did cocoa and chocolate fare in the post-conquest “New World”?

Whilst drinking chocolate started a rapid ascent in Europe (and later in the USA and Caribbean), the history of chocolate consumption and cultivation in the conquered “New World” was not nearly as rosy.

One disastrous consequence of the “discovery” of the “New World” was the introduction of various diseases, in particular smallpox, which devastated the populations of the Aztec and Inca Empires, wiping out over 70% of the population in modern day Guatemala and Belize. For more on this tragedy, please see HERE.

Indeed, this is why in the 17th and 18th Centuries cocoa cultivation moved to Ecuador and Venezuela, and away from its traditional heartlands of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize; the combination of smallpox and brutal conquest meant that there weren’t enough people to farm cocoa in areas once famed for their cocoa production.

Ceremonies, Festivals, and Chocolate

These social and political upheavals radically changed not just the way chocolate was farmed, but also how it was consumed and used in celebrations. The Aztec ruling classes, who had consumed cocoa as a core part of their aristocratic lifestyles, were destroyed and many of their chocolate rituals were also abandoned. Given that some of these ceremonies involved human sacrifice, with victims’ hearts cut out with knives dipped in ‘ceremonial cocoa’, some of these ceremonies may not have been sorely missed. But as the indigenous peoples and tribes were brutalised and enslaved, many of their rituals and ceremonies celebrating cacao, the rainforest and their traditional ways of life were destroyed and lost.

In a few cases, some celebrations involving chocolate seem to have survived, and indeed some new rituals have emerged. For example the Ch’orti’ Maya people, based in Eastern Guatemala and Western Honduras, were able to continue to farm cacao despite extensive hardships. And it appears that they managed to preserve some uses of cocoa in religious ceremonies. In pre-Columbian Mayan society, chocolate was a key part of everyday life, woven into the fabric of society. It is still an everyday drink in indigenous Maya culture, and is used in ceremonies to mark milestones in life: The Yucatec Maya use chocolate in coming-of-age rituals to usher girls into adulthood, while the Kekchi Maya in Belize scatter cocoa beans during ceremonies to bless new houses. In the Ch’orti’ culture, where agriculture is still extremely important, chocolate is used in various rain ceremonies, where ritual meals of turkeys and chilate (a gruel made out of cocoa and maize) are consumed.

Amongst the neighbouring Ladino peoples, whose culture combines aspects of their Spanish and indigenous heritage, the Catholic Church co-opted traditional native practices of using chocolate. Hot and cold chocolate drinks made with roasted cocoa beans, cinnamon and sugar are used to celebrate Christmas, the New Year and Easter. (Note: In traditional religious practice, chocolate drinking varied depending on the time of year, according to the Mayan calendar. This switching between hot and cold chocolate drinks caused all sorts of confusion with the European ideas of ‘humours’ and health). Numerous rituals involving cocoa beans and communally sharing chocolate were (and are) also used to celebrate everything from moving house to getting married and even to help mothers recuperate after giving birth.

A Hopeful Story: Lachua Cocoa from the Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya

Las Casas had brought the Q’eqchi’ to the court of Philip of Spain in 1544 to counter the idea of forcefully conquering the indigenous peoples, and to show the benefits of “peaceful” cooperation. Sadly, las Casas’ approach was soon abandoned, and the Q’eqchi’ were enslaved to the Spanish colonists, along with many other indigenous peoples. Their lives became fuel for the colonial machine.

Nevertheless, some of the Q’eqchi’ peoples survived. They were displaced from their homelands, and are now one of the most widely distributed of all the Maya peoples. In spite of this, and of the continued blights of poverty, enslavement persecution, environmental destruction and land loss, they managed to preserve elements of their traditional culture. And for their own personal consumption they continued to grow, and celebrate, cocoa.

In the 1980s, Hershey’s tried to grow cocoa in Belize with the Mopan Maya, neighbours to the Q’eqchi. Hershey suddenly pulled out, badly letting the Mopan down. Fortunately some craft chocolate pioneers including Uncommon Cacao’s Emily, Taza’s Alex Whitmore and Choco del Sol’s Patrick Walter, teamed up with Maya Mountain to step in and plug some of this gap, providing long term contracts for the cacao that also pay a living wage and preserve the environment (for more on this please see our article, and award winning bars, on Maya Mountain HERE).

Recently, Uncommon Cacao have extended this initiative over the Belize border into Guatemala to distribute cocoa grown by the Q’echi’ living around Lake Lachua. Back in 1976, Laguna Lachuá was designated a national park and in 2006 it was designated ‘Ramsar site’ (i.e. a wetland of extreme importance). Since 2014, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), FUNDALACHUA, and FundaSistemas, have worked with a series of local communities to plant, grow, harvest and ferment over 245 acres of cocoa trees. These beans have been distributed by Uncommon Cacao to makers around the world including Fjåk, Land, Bare Bones, Boho, Standout, Pump Street, Utopick and Sirene.

So try any of these bars below to ‘complete the circle’ from 1544 to today.

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Chocolate and Scotch: Is it a Whisky Business?

If you think about it, food pairing is our bread and butter. We love bread and we love butter. Sure, we might not fancy a dry crust of bread or a bowlful of butter on its own; but this is a tried and tested pairing that elevates the flavours and textures of each component. It’s a combination that offers a sense of completion. Although the simplicity of this duo is something that we take for granted, it allows us to understand the pairing philosophy.

So, what happens when we think about purposefully pairing food and drinks that already have nuanced and intricate flavour profiles of their own? Chocolate has one of the most complex flavour catalogues known of any ingredient. It can stand up to bold flavours. Pairing chocolate with wine is well-established, and increasingly even rum and gin. But what about whisky?

whisky decanter illustration

Whisky and Chocolate: A Parallel Pair?

This is a combination that isn’t fully codified yet, but we think it really should be. Our resident Scotch expert, Rachel McCormack, suggests that the matching potential is almost infinite and that great parallels exist between whisky and chocolate. In both cases, just three ingredients create an astounding range of bottles and bars. Each crafting process designs a unique flavour fingerprint: whether that be with water, grain, and yeast, or cocoa beans, cocoa butter, and sugar.

Rachel is right. Both Scotch whisky and the craft chocolate movement are particularly interested in the sourcing of their ingredients, as well as the cultural significance that they carry. Famously, single malt whisky is traceable to the distillery it came from and even the barley that made it, just as craft chocolate can be directly connected back to its makers and its growers.

At each stage of the whisky and craft chocolate production processes, different decisions are made in order to create specific profiles within the range and the possibility of flavour to be found from within the same combination of ingredients. Arguably, this talent for taste is almost alchemical.

In The Scotsman’s culinary podcast, Scran, Rachel also adeptly pairs the progression of the two industries. In part, other craft movements are the successors of the whisky industry.

Geographical indications ensure that Scotch whisky can only be produced in Scotland and has to have been aged in an oak barrel in Scotland for a minimum of three years. Although craft chocolate is made globally from beans from around the world we at Cocoa Runners define craft chocolate very strictly as a movement which values ethical trade, sustainable practices, traceability, and top-quality chocolate. 

In the podcast, Rachel compares whisky drinkers’ commitment to taste and flavour and savouring good malt whisky with the pleasure that craft chocolate brings to those of us lucky enough to know about it. Unlike chocolate, Scotch whisky does not have a mass-produced equivalent. There is a stringent production process for all types of Scotch whisky and a powerful safeguarding body in the Scotch Whisky Association, something which craft chocolate completely lacks. Additionally, the chocolate industry needs to address many alternative aspects. First and foremost, the temptation of a better quality product must also be paired with information and education.  

Why whisky?

Whisky works. It provides a counterpart to chocolate, complementing strong flavours without overpowering them. Pairing is an opportunity to elucidate the layers of this reciprocal relationship. Don’t just take our word for it, give it a try for yourself!

Tasting Tips:

1) What do I do?

Despite what you might think, pairing does not require any hard and fast rules. It’s really all about experimentation. There’s no right order to it, just make sure to savour what you’re trying. Compare combinations and search for the nuances within them. Try the whisky first, then put a small piece of chocolate in your mouth and let it melt, once you have the flavour of the chocolate take another sip of whisky. If it’s a great match the whisky and chocolate should sing together, you will notice new and enhanced flavour notes in both. If it doesn’t, you’ll know, try a different pairing and chalk it down to experience.

2) How can I identify tasting notes?  

Jumping straight into the jargon can be a little intimidating. However pretentious it seems, we promise that articulating flavours can really help you to identify them. It’s improbable that the word ‘vegetal’ comes to the forefront of your mind when you think of chocolate, but it can help you to distinguish between flavour categories. Yes, the chocolate might taste earthy, but would you describe that as green or brown? If the whisky is smoky is it tobacco, bonfire or barbecue smoke? Can you name the new or enhanced flavours you get from the matching? Visualising these flavour sensations will definitely help with your observations. In the world of whisky, Johnnie Walker have devised a comprehensive flavour wheel. Similarly at Cocoa Runners, we have our own ‘Great Wave’ of taste.

Again, these images will also help you to visualise the timing of the pairing. Look through the “whisky window” and work out where the flavours complement, clash, or coincide. For example, be careful that the flavour height of the whisky does not drown out the delicacy of the craft chocolate melt. 

Craft chocolate’s flavour wave
Johnnie Walker flavour wheel

3) Do they change?

Pairing and tasting are, of course, multi-sensory experiences. You should smell each whisky and chocolate before you taste them as this allows you to appreciate the entirety of the flavour (find out more about the olfactory system here). In terms of texture, try rubbing a drop of whisky on the back of your hand. As it evaporates, take note of the cooling sensation it creates. Does this change the mouthfeel of either the whisky or the chocolate? What additional complexities can you identify by focussing on different senses?

Taster

If you’re looking for an introduction, why not try Chocolate Tree’s Whisky Nibs Dark Chocolate? This bar topped the table as the best Food and Drink Product in Scotland, 2017. Using a similar method to Raaka’s Cask-Aged Bourbon, Alistair and Friederike, have soaked some of the cocoa nibs in a single malt whisky from the Isle of Islay. Consequently, the inclusion of peat and wood smoke notes gives the chocolate a slightly sharper finish.

Main Event

If you already want to go the extra mile, you can visit the Johnnie Walker HQ in Edinburgh. They offer a range of live music events and immersive experiences which exhibit their world-class whisky. 


Feeling whisky? Then why not try the Tasting Gift Set that Rachel has helped us expertly curate. The box includes three different bottles and bars to get you started from the comfort of your own home. You can also follow along with tasting notes from one of our pre-recorded virtual tastings here. A fun night with friends and a tasting kit? Now that really is the perfect pairing.

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Texture, Emulsifiers, Binding and Lecithins

gif of vinegar and oil separating

Even if you think that you’d like to “glaze over” (pun intended) emulsifiers, they are worth understanding and checking out. The use of LOTS of emulsifiers should raise a lot of red flags; they are extensively used in ultra processed foods, mass produced confectionery, etc. And nutritionists are increasingly worried about some of their health side effects, especially to your gut. But at the same time, there are some cases where emulsifiers can play a role in cooking and even in some craft chocolates.  And there is even some evidence that sunflower lecithin can lower cholesterol.

Texture, Cocoa Butter, Fats and Emulsifiers

One of chocolate’s many wonders is TEXTURE. Its mouthfeel is (literally) unique. It’s the only product that can be solid at room temperature and then, as you place it on your tongue, it slowly melts, conjuring all sorts of unctuous delights and releasing incredible aromas and flavours. (And as a quick side-note: We as humans are also unique in being able to appreciate these flavours as we are the only animal that can detect flavour in our mouths. READ MORE).

In craft chocolate this ‘melting’ is thanks to cocoa butter’s crystal structure. After the cocoa beans have been roasted, they are winnowed and then ground and conched into a fine liquid (think Willy Wonka’s rivers of chocolate). This liquid chocolate is then tempered (i.e. heated, cooled, and reheated) to a specific formula before ‘moulded’ into craft chocolate bars that have the (unromantic) crystal structure “V” or 5. Mass produced chocolate tries to replicate the delights of craft chocolate’s “melt” with a bunch of technologies, fats, and emulsifiers. Some of the technology here is spectacularly creative; for example, it’s no mean feat to create a glossy chocolate that covers a frozen ice cream. But in the case of mass produced chocolate confectionery, the focus on cost is a lot less spectacular. To save costs and improve efficiencies, cocoa butter is replaced and supplemented by other fats, preservatives and emulsifiers. And adding vegetable fats, palm oils, and the frighteningly named PGPR are no substitute for cocoa butter’s amazing melt and texture. So if you are wondering why mass produced bars are often so ‘waxy’, just check the ingredients (READ MORE).

And while you are checking your chocolate bar’s label, remember to look out for emulsifiers (inc. lecithins). Emulsifiers are another mysterious additive in mass produced confectionery, ultra processed foods and even some craft chocolates.

Emulsifiers (including lecithins) are a complex and controversial topic. Below we’ve tried to provide a quick definition, history and overview of emulsifiers. And MIllie has produced a series of quick and introductory videos on the topics.

And we’ve also assembled a bunch of craft chocolate bars that are unapologetically FREE of emulsifiers and then a few that unapologetically CONTAIN emulsifiers.

What is an Emulsifier? Definitions and Examples

As anyone who has ever tried to make a salad dressing with “just” oil and vinegar knows, they don’t easily mix. Sure; you can whisk them together. But soon the oil and vinegar will repulse one another and separate. However if you add a little mustard (or egg yolk), you can ‘bind’ them together so they don’t separate. This ‘binding’ of substances that don’t want to combine is called ’emulsification’. Technically, an emulsifier has one end compatible with oil and the other compatible with water, so it can link with both; so they become ‘bound’ and stick together.

And if you’ve ever made mayonnaise at home adding an egg provides the emulsifier by which the vegetable oil, the lemon juice and other ingredients are bound.

The same is also true of making ice cream; but here the egg’s emulsification properties go beyond binding the ice cream, they also impact the texture, making it far more consistent, and less sticky and gloopy.

Historical Development and Application of Emulsifiers

Cooks, and later food scientists, realised that emulsifiers could not only bind but also preserve foods, as well as improving texture and reducing costs.

The classic example here is margarine which was effectively made possible by the development of various emulsifiers. But food scientists rapidly realised that emulsifiers (or specifically lecithins) would also reduce cost, enhance texture, improve mouthfeel, and could preserve shelf life of anything from biscuits and cakes, to sauces and spreads.

All these developments were made possible thanks to the extraction of lecithins’ from eggs by TN Gobley in 1846 (if you think you’ve seen this name before, you are right: Gobley also figured out how to create vanillin: READ MORE). And then in the 20th Century, scientists worked out how to extract lecithin from soya beans and later sunflower seeds. In parallel, scientists worked out how to extract and synthetically create other emulsifiers from everything from seaweed to plants, crustaceans to animals. And these newer ‘extracted’ emulsifiers often do much more than bind together liquids and solids which otherwise would not mix.

For example; one commonly used hydrocolloid emulsifier is carrageenan, extracted from seaweed. Carrageenan is regularly used in dairy and dairy-alternative products, particularly flavoured milk and soy mylk. It’s also added to processed meats to soften their texture and help them retain 20-40% water, providing a highly dubious cost cutting measure. On the other hand, without hydrocolloids commercial yogurts would be a lot “soupier” and watery as it ‘gels’ the low fat yogurt together.

Today, the US FDA has approved over 100 different emulsifiers for use in food, drinks and food-like substances. Emulsifiers’ ability to improve mouthfeel and reduce cost were critical in the development of ultra-processed foods (and that’s why Michael Pollan’s advice to check the label, and beware any additive that your grandmother wouldn’t recognise, is so useful).

Trying to contextualize and date all these applications and technologies isn’t easy; but here is a vastly simplified attempt.

ApplicationExampleTechnology
BindingOil and vinegar in salad dressingWhisking, mustard seed
Stabilisers/preservativesMargarine, mayonnaiseEggs, tomato paste, then extracted lecithins (19th Century)
Texture (and binding)Ice cream, chocolate, yoghurt, alternative m!lks, etc.As above: Eggs and extracted lecithins. Sunflower lecithin (later 20th Century), hydrocolloids (mid-late 20th Century).
Cost cutting/ commoditisationBreads, confectionery, processed meats, cosmetics, etc.Alternatives to vegetable, natural fats; lecithins, gums, hydrocolloids, PGPR (mid-late 20th Century)

Emulsifiers in Chocolate

Unsurprisingly, mass produced chocolate rapidly realised the advantages of adding emulsifiers to “chocolate”. In the UK as early as 1929, patents were being made for their use in the making and processing of chocolate by Hermann Bollmann and Bruno Rewald. Firstly, emulsifiers help reduce the cost of ingredients (the likes of soy lecithin and PGPR are far cheaper than even palm oil, and way cheaper than cocoa butter). Secondly, manufacturing costs could be reduced by using emulsifiers: Liquid chocolate all too easily “gums up” machines and emulsifiers, by improving viscosity, means that mass confectionery’s machines can run faster, need less cleaning, etc. Thirdly, they could improve shelf life stability (aka stop other fats going grey etc.). Fourthly, emulsifiers enable food scientists to create all sorts of wacky textures; critical for avoiding ‘sensory specific satiety’ that comes from the short and bland flavours of mass produced confectionery, with its reliance on sugar, salt and fat.

So, as with any other ultra processed foods, if you see a bunch of E-numbers and emulsifiers on the label of your chocolate bar, think twice; it’s a likely sign that your chocolate is mass produced, probably from couverture, nib roasted, and is designed for scoffing not savouring.

Perhaps surprisingly, craft chocolate makers do sometimes make limited use of lecithins; for example:

  1. COOKING AND BAKING: Many chefs want some lecithin in their chocolate for making bon-bons, cakes etc. as it makes enrobing, cooking etc. easier. So some craft chocolate will contain lecithin (e.g., Menakao).
  2. BRIDGE BARS: Craft chocolate can sometimes be a little overwhelming with labels detailing beans from a place they’ve not heard of, and listing a percentage that seems dauntingly high. So to “bridge” this challenge, craft chocolate makers create bars that appeal to the familiar, using local ingredients, familiar flavours and tourist-tempting ideas. These bars act as bridges between the familiar and the new. But crafting them is hard; and to bind together theses various “bridging” ingredients, a little sunflower lecithin can be very useful (see below for some examples from Omnom, including their famed Black N Burnt and Liquorice bars).
  3. MOUTHFEEL: This gets a bit geeky, but depending on the beans, the dark chocolate percentage, how finely you grind and conche, and finally what machines you conche with, sunflower lecithin can help smooth out some of the variations in the coarseness of the chocolate granules. Many chocolate makers use cocoa butter to smoothen the mouthfeel, but this can also create some richness that isn’t always appropriate. But if, for example, you are trying to grind super fine (i.e. below 15 microns) and use a ball mill (as opposed to longitudinal) conche, you can get some noticeable variations in the microns of the chocolate granules which a little lecithin can help smooth over. For an example, please see Firetree’s Mindanao Island dark bar and then compare this with e.g., Friis-Holm or Pump Street, who use cocoa butter.

To date, craft chocolate makers have used sunflower (as opposed to soya) lecithin, and ensured that this is not genetically modified.

This use of emulsifiers is very different to mass produced confectionery’s approach. If you look at the ingredients of a mass produced bar of chocolate confectionery, it will have a plethora of different emulsifiers; for example, a bar of Dairy Milk contains emulsifiers and fats including the emulsifiers E442, E476, PGPR, and both palm and shea oils.

By contrast, a craft chocolate bar in most cases won’t contain any emulsifiers or lecithins. And if they are used, it’ll just be ONE lecithin (and no palm oil or vegetable fats, etc.).

Emulsifiers and Your Gut

One final comment:

There is increasing research suggesting that various synthetic emulsifiers, in particular carboxymethylcellulose, polysorbate and carrageenan, may cause issues with the gut and allergic reactions. At the moment, no one is suggesting that these emulsifiers are another nitrite like problem (nitrites are the carcinogen in many processed meats). But it’s worth keeping an eye out for more research here, and keep up to date with our blog.

On the other hand there is also some research that sunflower lecithin’s supplements can help lower HDL cholesterol (the bad stuff), reduce ulcerative colitis and improve memory loss. Plus sunflower lecithin is good as a moisturizer on your skin (however there really isn’t enough of it in any craft chocolate bar for you to consider using them as an unguent or massage oil… although the cocoa butter in a craft chocolate bar does open up other delights).

As ever; it’s complicated!

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Divinely Delicious: Chocolate and Religion

Chocolate has always been associated with religion. Religious beliefs direct how people use chocolate, from Aztec blood rituals to Catholic fasts, Easter eggs to Hanukkah gelt, and the Quakers who commercialised chocolate in Britain. Even the name of chocolate itself, Theobroma cacao, roughly translates to ‘food of the gods’! Find out more about how food and faith intertwine in this deep dive into chocolate’s divine history.

Chocolate’s Beginnings: A Ritual Drink

The earliest links between chocolate and religion are pretty gruesome. Excavating sites related to the Olmec civilisation, archaeologists discovered traces of cocoa in burial pits alongside the remains of human sacrifice victims. This suggests that cocoa played some role in Olmec religious rituals.

In Mayan religion, cocoa played a foundational role. The Mayan creation story recounts that humans were created from a mixture of the blood of the gods and cocoa pods. Cocoa was part of the fabled myth of humanity’s birth. The cocoa tree was also associated with death in Mayan spirituality. The Mayans buried cocoa alongside their dead, to help them on their journey in the underworld. The cocoa tree acted a bit like the ‘world tree’ in Norse mythology. In Mayan codices it is depicted as an axis growing through and connecting all the realms. Its roots are in the underworld, its trunk in this world, and its leaves in the heavens. 

In the Aztec world, cocoa was valuable and was connected to sacrifice. It was drunk as part of religious rituals, but it was also used in sacrifices as a substitute for blood. Chocolate was mixed with berries to give it a red colour, allowing it to stand in symbolically for blood. Cocoa had spiritual and ritual power. It’s even said that the Aztecs prepared drinks made from chocolate mixed with blood washed from a sacrificial knife. These were given to sacrificial victims to bind them, almost magically, to their fate.

(Left, an Aztec ritual involving drinking chocolate, pictured in the white vessel.)

Chocolate & Catholicism

With the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, chocolate spread to Europe. It first became popular with missionaries in the New World, who used it to treat minor illnesses and keep their strength up. These Catholic priests played a key role in bringing chocolate over to Europe. The first record of chocolate’s arrival in the Old World is in 1644, when Dominican friars brought over a group of Mayan nobles. They were presented to the Spanish court, and brought gifts to Prince Philip of Spain, including chocolate!

Once it got to Spain, chocolate was quickly taken up by religious communities. Monks drank chocolate before religious services, to fortify them and give them energy. Benedictine monks were also involved in the import of chocolate into Spain from the New World. A quote from the Benedictines of the time was: ‘Do not drink the cocoa, anyone but friar, sir or brave soldier.’ Chocolate was reserved for the nobility, the military – and religious leaders. Records also tell us that  in 1585 a Japanese ambassador to Philip II of Spain was very impressed when he visited a convent of Poor Clares of Veronica. The nuns gave him chocolate they had prepared themselves! (Spanish and Italian Poor Clares, as well as Cistercian nuns in Francce, still make and sell chocolate confections today to support themselves.)

Chocolate & Catholicism II: Feast & Fast

The biggest role chocolate played in Catholic life was as a source of energy during fasts. Fasting was a common practice in the 16th and 17th-century Catholic church. The religious calendar contained over 100 days of fasting! Nobody could decide, though, whether it was lawful to consume chocolate while fasting. It was hard to tell if this filling beverage should count as a food or a drink. 

In 1636, Antonio de León Pinelo, a Spanish colonial historian, dedicated a whole book to the subject, titled Whether Chocolate Breaks Ecclesiastical Fast: A Moral Question. Pinelo didn’t reach a conclusion: opinions were just too divided! The religious order of the Carmelite friars banned chocolate as an immoral luxury that was incompatible with a life of holy poverty. On the other hand, a letter sent in 1683 reveals that Franciscan friars drank chocolate even on fast days! The argument got so hot that in 1666 Pope Alexander VII had to step in. Apparently, he was given some chocolate to drink, and disliked it. He declared in disgust, ‘liquidum non frangit jejunum’ (liquids do not break the fast). This was taken as a Papal decree, and it’s still lawful for Catholics to drink hot cocoa during periods of fast.

Nowadays, Catholics enjoy chocolate as part of religious celebrations, especially at Easter and during advent. And in 2014, Pope Francis was given a statue of himself made entirely from chocolate, which weighed a whopping 1.5 tonnes!

Chocolate & Judaism

Chocolate enjoyed decades of popularity in Catholic Spain before it spread to the rest of Europe. There were two main ways in which it spread around Europe. Amongst the nobility, chocolate spread through marriages and diplomatic gift-giving. Chocolate was given as a wedding gift when the French King Louis XIV married a Spanish princess, for example. Amongst the emerging middle classes, and outside of courts, chocolate spread due to religious strife.

Catholic Spain was a hotbed of antisemitism and religious persecution. In 1415, after years of pogroms and forced conversions, the Catholic monarchs of Spain passed the Alhambra Decree, ordering the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. This led to a mass migration of Jewish people from Spain to the rest of Europe. Some of those who fled were chocolate makers. Several of these Jewish chocolatiers settled in Bayonne, introducing Spanish-style drinking chocolate to southern France. Bayonne is still known for its chocolate! 

During the religious festival of Hanukkah, children are often given chocolate coins with the image of a menorah stamped onto their foil wrappers, as a festive treat! These coins are called Hanukkah gelt, and have been popular since at least the 1920s.

Chocolate in Britain: a Quaker Business

In Britain, the religion most associated with chocolate making was Quakerism. Many of the entrepreneurs responsible for the success of commercial chocolate in Britain were Quakers. Cadbury, Rowntree, and Fry’s chocolate companies were all founded by Quakers.

Quakers got into chocolate for religious reasons. In the 19th century, many Christians considered alcohol to be a social evil. Quakers were at the forefront of the temperance movement, moved by their consciences to seek alternatives to alcohol. Chocolate, then universally consumed as a beverage, seemed like a wholesome, viable option. 

To begin with, these Quakers infused their businesses with their values. Rowntree invested in public libraries in York, and studied poverty in the city. In 1902, they founded the village of New Earswick for low-income families, and pioneered the new field of adult education. Even now, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation continues to advocate for social justice and campaign for an end to poverty. Cadbury famously built a village for their workers in Bournville, in the Selly Oak area of Birmingham in 1915.

However, as Quaker Jon Martins has noted, ‘Quaker ethics are now historical footnotes for these vast corporations’. Even in 1915, when Cadbury were building Bournville, they were benefiting from slave labour from plantations in Africa. (This was discovered, leading to a boycott which forced Cadbury to find new cocoa suppliers.) For those interested in ethical chocolate, craft chocolate is the best solution. Not only does it taste ten times more delicious than mass-produced chocolate, it also has transparent supply chains. Craft chocolate allows us to consume chocolate sustainably and ethically, upholding British chocolate’s founding Quaker principles far better than those old firms do today!

(Image: Visit Of King And Queen To Bournville, 16th May 1919, painting by F. Gregory Brown.)

Chocolate in World Religions

Unlike the other Abrahamic religions, Islam has never really developed chocolate culture. Islamic countries in the 16th and 17th centuries tended to enjoy coffee rather than chocolate. (Although British chocolate houses likely owe their origins to Turkish coffee house culture.) In recent years, the increasingly complex ingredients lists of mass-produced chocolate have made it difficult for Muslim consumers to know whether their chocolate is halal (permitted under strict religious dietary laws). This is easier with craft chocolate, whose ingredients lists tend to be simple and easy to understand. (Read our handy guide on how to read labels for more info!)

However, a Muslim boy is reportedly responsible for one peculiar anecdote about chocolate and religion: a chocolate-based ritual in Kerala, India. In 2009, the boy offered up a Munch brand chocolate bar to a Hindu deity named Balamurugan, son of the god Shiva. The trend of offering Munch bars caught on, and devotees of the god now routinely bring their own bodyweight in chocolate to Balamurugan. The deity has such a taste for chocolate that he has acquired the nickname Munch Murugan!

Some Thai Buddhist monks have also taken a leaf out of the book of 16th century Catholic friars. When fasting, they allow themselves to consume chocolate. Chocolate is allowed because it is used as medicine, and because if it is allowed to melt on the tongue it can be counted as an oil, rather than a food.

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Chocolate: A Cure for All Ills?

chocolate as medicine

Nowadays, we might think of chocolate as unhealthy, a contributor to the obesity crisis. However, what you might not know is that chocolate has a key place in the history of medicine.

In the past few decades, many health claims have swirled around chocolate. Unfortunately, lots of these are just too good to be true, as we found out when we chatted to Professor Tim Spector, an expert on these issues. The idea that chocolate might have health benefits isn’t new. In fact, for as long as chocolate has existed, people have believed in its medicinal benefits. Read on to find out more about the crucial role of chocolate in the history of medicine!

Medical Chocolate in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Although cocoa probably originated in the Amazon rainforest, the earliest records we have of its use come from central America, in modern-day Mexico and Ecuador. Frothed, spiced chocolate was a royally-approved drink in Aztec and Mayan culture, and played a central role in their societies. Chocolate was used in religious rituals, wedding ceremonies, royal feasts – and medicine. Yes, that’s right, chocolate’s place in the history of medicine starts not in Europe, but amongst indigenous people in the Americas.

We know that Mayan medicine involved chocolate. This means that chocolate has probably been part of the history of medicine for around 4000 years! The Mayan understanding of illness was deeply connected to the natural world. Healers would perform chants invoking the spirits of animals and types of tree. For skin problems, fever and seizures, these chants were combined with a medicinal drink. This drink contained chocolate mixed with peppers, honey and tobacco juice. (We probably wouldn’t recommend this combination, taste-wise…)

Chocolate as Aztec Medicine: The Florentine Codex

Most of our records about chocolate’s use in early medical history come from the medieval and early modern Aztec Empire. The Aztecs used chocolate to treat stomach problems and indigestion. They also mixed it with tree bark to cure infections, and with maize to relieve fever. We know much of this from the 1590 Florentine codex. This was a book about Aztec society written by a Franciscan friar named Bernardino de Sahagún, with illustrations by local Aztec artists. The book is bilingual, with text in both Spanish and Nahuatl, the Aztec language. The Florentine codex is one of the earliest books we have from the New World which includes information on history, medicine and chocolate!

Part of the Florentine codex records Aztec medical practice, and includes multiple recipes for pharmaceuticals made using chocolate. One cure for a cough includes a kind of tea made from opossum tail, followed up by a herbal drink made from chocolate mixed with pepper, vanilla, and sacred flowers. The Aztecs often used chocolate like Mary Poppins’ ‘spoonful of sugar’, mixing remedies into chocolate to help mask unpleasant flavours.

First Contact: Chocolate as Medicine in the New World

Europeans first encountered chocolate during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. During the early years of contact, they were struck by the local use of chocolate as a medicine.

In the second half of the 16th century, Friar Agustin Davila Padilla, a Spanish priest, wrote about a chocolate treatment administered to one of his missionary colleagues. This missionary suffered from kidney disease. To cure him, local doctors ‘ordered him to use a drink that in the Indies they call chocolate. It is a little bit of hot water in which they dissolve something like almonds that they call cacaos, and it is made with some spices and sugar’. According to Padilla’s account, the medicine worked! Then and there, chocolate entered into European medical history. In particular, the late 16th-century Spaniards were impressed by chocolate’s nutritious and fattening properties. It was good for restoring those who had lost weight and strength due to illness.

The History of Medicine in Europe: Chocolate and the Humours

You might remember the medieval humours from school, if you ever studied the history of medicine. Chocolate came into contact with the humours in the 16th and 17th century, and proved a bit problematic. For those who don’t remember their lessons, here’s a reminder.

In Early Modern Europe, medicine was based on the humoural system of the ancient Roman physician Galen. This categories different illnesses as wet, cold, hot and dry. The system was based on balance, so hot dry illnesses such as fever would be treated with cold wet medicines and foods. In Galenic practice, food and medicine were inseparable.

When chocolate came along, it scrambled the system. In bean form it was cold and wet, as powder, cold and dry. As a drink, it was hot and wet because it was fatty, but it was astringent, and often spiced with chilli and pepper which made it dry. Chocolate was impossible to categorise! Some scholars argue that chocolate, along with coffee and tea, were the last nail in the Galenic coffin, confusing the system and paving the way for its replacement. So you might argue that chocolate had a pivotal role in advancing medical history towards more modern theories than the outdated humoral system!

The Chocolate Cure in 17th-century Europe

During the 17th century, news of chocolate’s medicinal powers spread to continental Europe. Antonio Colmenero de Ledesmo wrote an immensely popular treatise on chocolate, published in 1631. His book records one of the earliest recipes for drinking chocolate, but it also contributed to the history of medicine. He noted that chocolate was good for aiding childbirth, helping digestion and curing gut diseases. It was also useful for treating jaundice, TB and ‘the green sicknesse’ (anaemia). Moreover, Ledesmo helpfully noted that chocolate ‘cleaneth the teeth and sweetneth the breath’. We’re not too sure on that one! 

In 1672, William Hughes, an American physician, described chocolate as ‘very nourishing’. He wrote:

‘Chocolate is good against all coughs, shortness of breath, opening and making the roughness of the artery smooth … it strengthens the vitals and is good against fevers, catarrhs, asthmas, and consumptions of all sorts.’

William hughes, 1672

Chocolate’s supposed health benefits led to it becoming a popular choice for well-to-do gentlemen who frequented coffee shops, as it was believed to be more nutritious and wholesome than tea or coffee. It was also enjoyed by their female relatives who drank it at home. Letters from the French aristocrat Madame de Sévigné, reveal that she wrote to her unwell daughter advising her to get a chocolate pot and take drinking chocolate for its restorative effects.

In the 17th-century version of what we might now call ‘wellness culture’, chocolate ranked alongside the sulphurous hot waters at spas such as bath, and the effects of seaside air in stylish resorts: it was a treatment, but it was also a treat!

picture of a chocolate house in london

Benjamin Franklin Recommends it! Medicinal Chocolate in the 18th & 19th Centuries

In the 18th century, one of the early proponents of medical chocolate in American history was, perhaps surprisingly, Benjamin Franklin. The American founding father was a big fan of chocolate. When he started out as a bookseller, he claimed that he sold lots of books ‘too tedious to mention’ and also ‘very good chocolate’. One of Franklin’s money-making schemes was Poor Richard’s Almanack, an almanac which included weather, astrological facts and axioms. In 1761, Franklin’s almanac explained the benefits of chocolate for treating smallpox!

As the years wore on, chocolate continued to be used to treat all manner of diseases and played a major role in the history of medicine’s modernisation. In 1796, it was claimed that chocolate could delay the growth of white hair, in an early example of myths about chocolate’s magical anti-aging properties! The following year, Erasmus Darwin, a physician who was the grandfather of Charles Darwin, treated himself for gout using chocolate.

Chocolate in Victorian Medicine

During the 19th century, medicinal chocolate was used to treat syphilis, cholera, and measles outbreaks. (We doubt it did much good.) 

Chocolate was seriously considered by medical professionals. In 1846, the pharmacologist Auguste Saint-Arroman published an English translation of his treatise Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: Their Influence upon the Health, the Intellect, and the Moral Nature of Man. Arroman thought chocolate was useful in many situations, but cautioned that it could have negative effects. This potent drink was, he believed, dangerous for the young. He also described a medicine called ferruginous chocolate, apparently used to treat anaemia, or, as he described it:

‘[a medicine that is] beneficial to women who are out of order, or have the green sickness, is prepared by adding to the paste of chocolate iron in the state of filings, oxide or carbonate.’

Auguste Saint-Arroman, Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: Their Influence upon the Health, the Intellect, and the Moral Nature of Man, 1846

Of all the treatments considered so far, this probably did work! Chocolate is a rich vegetable source of iron, and the iron filings would have helped! Some historians suggest that other treatments using chocolate may have worked because the chocolate was boiled, making it a sterile drink. Chocolate was therefore safer than water, which was often polluted, or alcoholic alternatives.

If you want to try a Victorian medical recipe yourself, look no further than ‘medicinal gluten chocolate’. This recipe was patented in England in 1855. It was made from equal parts cocoa and sugar, plus half that amount of gluten. The ‘gluten’ in question was bread reduced to a fine powder. Edible, but not particularly healthful, with that much sugar involved!

Cocoa: It’s Still in Our Medicines!

Nowadays, chocolate doesn’t turn up much in medicine, though it can still be found as a flavouring in supplements and diet replacement drinks. However, cocoa beans remain a common ingredient in pharmaceuticals! Cocoa solids (the chocolatey bit of cocoa) is mainly used for food. However, cocoa butter (the fat from the cocoa bean) is a cheap fat commonly used in ointments. So check the ingredients next time you reach for your topical creams! Chocolate is also still used in indigenous medicine, and it continues to attract health claims, though these are often dubious! Why not find out more about them in the health section of chocopedia?

Debunking Chocolate Health Claims with Dr Tim Spector

There are a lot of scientific claims about chocolate! So we teamed up with Dr Tim Spector to ‘review’ these claims. Similar to the way we encourage you to check the ingredients on a chocolate bar’s label for its ingredients, and the details of the farm where the beans are sourced, we STRONGLY suggest you review chocolate-related health claims and how many people were studied, who funded the work and your own potential ‘cognitive bias’…

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An Industrial History of Chocolate

A chocolate factor in Luton, 1913

What do you know about the history of chocolate processing? How chocolate is made can be a bit opaque, but luckily we have this page explaining it. But chocolate wasn’t always made this way! Read on to find out more about the industrial history of chocolate.

At Cocoa Runners, we’re all about small-batch chocolate and old-fashioned ways of doing things. But the way we experience chocolate has, undeniably, been formed by a series of industrial developments stretching back almost two centuries.

We want you to know how chocolate works, and that means understanding the history of the machines and inventions in chocolate processing that allow chocolate to be what we know it as today. That’s why we’ve produced this handy timeline of major industrial developments in chocolate production!

1828 – The Cocoa Press

Early chocolate was mostly consumed as hot chocolate. Ground cocoa beans were dissolved in hot milk or water, and enjoyed. The problem with this was that cocoa beans are very fatty, and fat does not dissolve. This cocoa fat, known as cocoa butter, got stuck in people’s beards and generally caused a lot of hassle.

Thankfully, in 1828, a major development in the history of chocolate processing helped solve this problem! A Dutch inventor and heir to a chocolate-making firm named Coenraad van Houten created a machine for pressing the fat from cocoa beans. This allowed for the separation of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. This paved the way for chocolate as we know it! Cocoa butter is the main ingredient in white chocolate, while cocoa solids are the key for milk and dark chocolate. Defatted cocoa solids are more stable and easier to work with than full-fat chocolate.

Centuries later, Van Houtens’ invention was scaled up to an industrial level for the mass-production of chocolate! Photo of workers operating hydraulic presses at the E&S CWS Luton Cocoa Works, c.1913.

1847 – The Chocolate Bar

In the mid 1800s, Van Houtens’s used the cocoa press to create a new ingenious invention that would change the industrial history of chocolate forever. After separating cocoa fat from cocoa solids, an English chocolatier named Joseph Fry had a counterintuitive idea. He melted both substances, and mixed a little bit of cocoa fat back into the cocoa solids. This allowed him to create a solid bar of chocolate, which could be eaten, rather than drunk. In 1847, Fry began selling these bars commercially, and they became a huge success! Chocolate (almost) as we know it was born!

An advertisement for Fry’s chocolate from 1912…chocolate bars had moved on a long way by then, but Fry’s remained a market leader in the UK.

1875 – Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate is now the most popular type of chocolate, but it’s a relative latecomer in the history of chocolate processing. It was first created in 1875. It was the result of an unlikely partnership between Daniel Peter, a Swiss chocolatier, and his neighbour Henri Nestlé, a pharmacist.

In the 1870s, Henri Nestlé was known for quite a different invention. He was a successful manufacturer of an early form of baby formula. The process of condensing milk had been discovered in 1820. Nestlé had developed a version of the technique which he used to create powdered milk. This powder could be mixed with boiling water to create a nutritious feed for babies who could not be breastfed.

Meanwhile Nestlé’s neighbour Daniel Peter was attempting to create solid chocolate enriched with milk. Hot chocolate mixed with milk was already being sold commercially, and had been popular since the 17th century. But solid milk chocolate was an altogether trickier proposition. Chocolate does not react well to water, and it was impossible to combine liquid milk with cocoa solids and cocoa butter.

Luckily for Peter, Nestlé’s powdered milk proved to be the solution! The dehydrated milk could be easily mixed with cocoa butter and cocoa solids, creating solid milk chocolate for the first time!

1879 – Conching

In the late 19th century, a twist in the industrial history of chocolate came when an invention appeared which revolutionised way we make (and eat) chocolate. It was a machine called the conche, which grinds cocoa particles extra small. The rapid mixing and grinding of the machine also distributes the cocoa butter evenly throughout the newly liquified chocolate, ensuring consistency of silky texture in the solid bar. 

Conching helps give chocolate its characteristic melt and snap, and its creamy mouthfeel. However, if you conche for too long, the cocoa particles become too small and the cocoa butter takes over, giving a cloying mouthfeel. Equally, unconched chocolate remains popular in South and Central America. Taza, one of the chocolate makers we work with, specialise in unrefined stone-ground chocolate bars, made without conching. These bars have a grainy, gritty texture, a bit like eating tiffin – it’s different to the chocolate we’re used to, but equally delicious. 

The conche was invented in 1879 by Rodolphe Lindt. You might recognise that name, as Lindt is now a brand-name, with his contribution to the history of chocolate processing largely forgotten. Lindt built a chocolate empire from his invention, which still continues today. The story told about Lindt’s discovery of the conche is that it was a happy accident. Supposedly, Lindt made a mistake, and left his grinder on over the weekend. When he returned, he found that the chocolate had been ground extremely finely, and was less granular and more aromatic than usual. Whether or not the story is true, Lindt’s fine-grinding conche was a huge success, and made his fortune!

To see what a difference the conche made to chocolate, why not try some unconched chocolate, to get a feel for what chocolate was like before Lindt’s invention.

1890s – Industrialisation

It was only in the 1890s that all these older inventions came into their own, as the history of chocolate processing began was turbocharged by the scaling up of chocolate production. Before then, chocolate had mostly been made manually, with workers grinding cocoa on stone tables. Mechanisation was limited, and was mostly in the form of small hydraulic machines. Before the 1890s, industrialisation could be costly to business. The British company Fry’s had mechanised too fast too quickly in the early 1900s, and their business suffered as a result. In pre-industrial chocolate workshops, one labourer could make around 10kg of chocolate per day. By contrast, when mechanisation really kicked in in the 1890s, one worker could produce around 500kg of chocolate paste.

German engineers pioneered new machinery for making chocolate. It was this machinery that inspired the entrepreneur Milton Hershey to move away from the caramel business and begin making eating chocolate in the USA. (See the section on lipolysis to find out what happened next!) The industrialisation of chocolate-making and the proliferation of factories continued into the early 20th century. It was aided by the rise in chocolate confection, and ‘eating chocolate’ becoming a staple snack. Increasingly, chocolate became an affordable commodity product, and industrialisation was crucial in allowing this transformation.

1912 – The Maillard Reaction

One of the key processes in chocolate production is the roasting of cocoa beans. Cocoa beans have been roasted since prehistory. The writings of the Spanish conquistadors record that the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica knew that unroasted cocoa could make people sick, while roasted cocoa had health benefits. This is likely because roasting cocoa at high temperatures kills off harmful microorganisms which may have grown on the fermenting pods. Roasting is also important for reducing the water content of cocoa, and improving its taste (it helps reduce astringency and bitterness).

Since roasting cocoa is almost as old as cocoa itself, 1912 is a bit of an arbitrary date. We chose it because it’s the year that French chemist Louis Camille Maillard identified the reaction which takes place during cocoa roasting. The Maillard reaction had an immense, if indirect, impact on the history of chocolate processing. The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction involving amino acids and sugars which is responsible for the delicious, complex flavours of food cooked at high temperatures (from around 140 to 165°C). Understanding the Maillard reaction allows modern craft chocolate producers to carefully control the roasting of their beans, creating the perfect flavours.

1921 – Lecithins

In 1907, a German scientist named Dr. H. C. Buer filed a patent for lecithin made from vegetable seeds. Lecithin could already be made from eggs, but the invention of vegetable lecithin was a major step forward in the history of chocolate processing.

Lecithins are emulsifiers, which help to bind together fats and liquids. In chocolate, lecithins are used to bind together cocoa butter and cocoa solids, preventing the mixture from splitting. They help ensure it retain the smooth texture created by the conching process. It also reduces the chance of bloom occurring when chocolate is stored incorrectly.

The real game-changer for lecithins came in 1921, when Hermann Bollmann, a factory-owner from Hamburg, began making lecithins from soybeans. Soya lecithin was cheap and easily accessible, and its main commercial uses were for margarine and chocolate. In 1925, Bollmann brought his invention to Britain, where he marketed it for use specifically in chocolate. He was aiming to make a contribution to the industrial history of chocolate. Bollmann applied for (and was granted) a patent for ‘an improved process for producing soluble cocoa powders’, by mixing them with lecithins.

Lecithins are a complicated issue in craft chocolate. Mass-produced chocolate uses lecithin to reduce the amount of cocoa butter needed, making chocolate cheaper (and reducing the quality). Many craft chocolate producers avoid lecithins, but natural lecithins can still be useful for maintaining chocolate’s smooth, melting finish. They are also important for chocolate processed where it is grown, as the tropical climates which are good for growing cocoa are often too hot to easily process it without the help of lecithins.

Read more about lecithins in the science section of chocopedia!

1925 – Couverture

Belgium is a country whose name is synonymous with chocolate. But what did the Belgians do to deserve that reputation? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer lies in contributions that Belgian chocolatiers made to the industrial history of chocolate production in the early 20th century. In 1912, Jean Neuhaus invented a new genre of chocolate in the form of the Belgian praline, a smooth shaped shell filled with sweet confections, often involving nuts. 

The proliferation of Belgian chocolate truffles was made possible by another far more important invention. In 1925, Belgian chocolatier Octaaf Callebaut invented a mechanism for the storage and transport of couverture chocolate in liquid form.

Couverture is the term in the chocolate industry for a semi-finished chocolate product, created after the initial roasting and grinding, but before tempering and other processes. Couverture chocolate has a high percentage of cocoa solids and cocoa butter left in it, so is often seen as being ‘high quality’. (We believe the only truly high quality chocolate is craft chocolate, and you can find out why here.)

Easy access to liquid couverture chocolate transformed the history of chocolate processing, and changed the way the modern industry operates. Now, chocolatiers can take this ‘raw’ chocolate product and temper and mould it themselves. This saves chocolatiers from having to go through the laborious process of turning cocoa beans into chocolate. Callebaut’s invention allowed commercial chocolatiers to focus on other aspects of chocolate, such as creating interesting fillings. It also made it easier for other food manufacturers to use chocolate in their products, adding it to cakes, ice creams, cereals and biscuits. Couverture was so successful that, a hundred years on, Callebaut’s business is almost entirely dedicated to selling it.

Couverture’s Impact

Callebaut’s invention was ingenious, but it also paved the way for inferior quality chocolate products. It was chocolate’s equivalent of the invention of standardised, mechanised fast food and ready-meals. We might explain the difference between chocolate made using pre-prepared couverture and chocolate made from scratch by using the analogy of a roast chicken and chicken nuggets.Chocolate ‘makers’ (chocolatiers) who use couverture are doing something similar to staff in the kitchen of a fast-food chain.

A home cook might take the raw ingredient of a chicken and carefully prepare and cook it themselves. Similarly, the craft chocolate makers we work with at cocoa runners take cocoa beans and lovingly process them into chocolate, controlling each step. Chocolatiers and fast-food chains outsource this processing, reheating (or tempering) pre-prepared, industrially processed products. They never set eyes on the raw chicken, or the freshly-picked cocoa bean.

All that being said, couverture chocolate can be really useful. It’s helpful if you want to experiment with chocolate for yourself, or use it in home cooking or baking. However, most commercially available couverture is industrially produced, and its supply chains are decidedly murky. Luckily we at cocoa runners have a range of couverture products available, so you can cook with truly high quality chocolate!

1930s – Lipolysis

This contribution to the history of chocolate processing is one we really don’t condone, but it’s too interesting to ignore! If you’ve ever tried mass-produced American milk chocolate, you might have noticed that it has a slightly sour tang. Some have even compared this taste to vomit! Surprisingly, that’s because the compound which causes the taste, butyric acid, is also present in baby sick (and parmesan). 

Butyric acid is a by-product of decomposing dairy products. When milk spoils, it breaks down, and butyric acid is one of the chemicals produced. Butyric acid is responsible for the cheesy smell of off milk, and the sour stench of rancid butter. 

But what’s it doing in chocolate?

Butyric acid is present in most American chocolate because of an industrial innovation by the grandfather of Big Chocolate in America, MIlton S. Hershey. Hershey, the founder of Hershey’s chocolate, began making chocolate in a different way to his European peers. As we read about with Henri Nestlé and Daniel Peter, European milk chocolate was produced using condensed milk. 

Is happiness really to be found in a Hershey’s bar…?

Condensed milk didn’t work for Hershey; its shelf life wasn’t long enough. Instead, he decided to use fresh milk. But of course, fresh milk lasts even less long than condensed milk! To make his milk chocolate shelf-stable, Hershey had to do something new to stop the milk going off. Something never done before in the whole industrial history of chocolate processing. He created a process called the ‘Hershey Process’, of controlled lipolysis.

Lipolysis is the name for the chemical reaction that happens when milk spoils. Hershey essentially spoiled his milk deliberately, just enough that the off taste wouldn’t be too noticeable, and the milk would be protected from fermentation. This reaction gave off butyric acid, and is responsible for the sour taste of Hershey’s chocolate.

Hershey was able to pull off this ruse because Americans weren’t as used to chocolate as Europeans were. They simply didn’t know what chocolate was supposed to taste like! The vomit-like tang of Hershey’s chocolate became synonymous with milk chocolate in America. Nowadays, other American mass-market chocolate makers even add butyric acid, to mimic Hershey’s distinct flavour!

1936 – White Chocolate

White chocolate was made possible by the Van Houten cocoa press, which enabled the separation of cocoa solids used for dark chocolate from cocoa fat, the raw material for white chocolate.  For about a century, cocoa butter was a waste product. Some was sold on for pharmaceuticals and confectionary, but it was expensive and had too high a melting point to be really useful. Luckily, white chocolate came along and restored cocoa butter to its rightful place in the history of chocolate processing. Nowadays, white chocolate production is one of the main uses of cocoa butter.

While recipes for white chocolate can be found dating back to the 1870s, it really became its own category of chocolate in 1936, when Nestlé’s Milkybar hit the shelves. Nestlé’s white chocolate began life in 1929 as ‘Nestrovit’, a multivitamin product aimed at the children’s health market. However, the sweet, fatty confection caught on as a treat rather than a treatment! Since then, white chocolate has been popular but divisive, loved by some and hated by others. 

1950s – Bliss Point

In the middle of the 20th century, advances in food science paved the way for radical change in the history of chocolate processing. In the 1950s, an American scientist named Harold Moskowitz was doing research into nutrition for the American military. He was trying to work out how to convince soldiers to finish their pre-prepared meals. Moskowitz discovered that people have a natural sense of satiety, an ability to know when we’re full. He also found that humans crave variety; too much of the same flavours and textures gets boring.

Moskowitz discovered what he called the ‘bliss point’. This is a perfect combination of salt, fat, sugar and diverse textures which overrides our innate sense of satiety. Foods which operate at the bliss point make it difficult for us to know when we’re full. We just keep eating, beyond what’s good for us. Milk chocolate always teeters on the edge of the bliss point, with its combination of crunchy snap, silky smoothness, sweetness and fat. Food scientists working on the formulas for mass-produced chocolate exploit this, creating chocolate bars tailored to the bliss point. 

Mass-produced chocolate’s reach for the bliss point exemplifies the commodification of chocolate. From the mid 20th century onwards, chocolate became big business. Chocolate companies turned away from taste and quality towards efficiency and cheapness. New innovations followed, such as nib roasting, where beans are pre-cracked into nibs before they are roasted. Altogether, chocolate-making became a smooth and streamlined operation, prioritising cheapness and consumer appeal. 

In the process, the complexity of taste and flavour which we love about craft chocolate got lost.

In Conclusion…

As you can see, industrial innovations are always a mix of the good and the bad. Sometimes, what they offer is helpful. For example, the delicious smoothness of many craft chocolates couldn’t be produced without conching, and white chocolate couldn’t be enjoyed without the cocoa press. But often, there is also a flipside. While couverture opens up marvellous possibilities for cooking with chocolate, it also complicates supply chains, and has led to a situation where most chocolate ‘makers’ have no idea where their chocolate comes from at all! And some inventions – like the Hershey Process – are, in our opinion, plainly bad! 

The truth is that Big Chocolate will always find ways to skimp on quality and maximise profits. We would invite you to try craft chocolate, and see how industrial innovations can be used for good!