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How fermenting beer lead our ancestors to discover chocolate

a.i. generated image of beer and cocoa

How did beer, teosinte, and chicha, lead to bread, corn, and chocolate?.

One of the great unexplained mysteries of chocolate is how humans worked out just how to make nutritious and delicious drinking chocolate out of unappetising, astringent, and bitter cacao seeds.

Over the past few decades archaeologists, paleobotanists, and anthropologists have posited an intriguing theory. They suggest that drinking chocolate was discovered as a by-product, or accidental follow-up, to our delight in drinking cocoa pulp, and in particular, our fascination for fermented cocoa pulp; ‘cocoa chicha’, a light beer that is still drunk all over South and Central America.

And this fits well with a broader suggestion that fermented alcohol, made from grapes and grains, gave rise to the first agricultural revolutions all over the world, thereby putting us on the path to civilization.

Fermentation of Fruits and Grains as the Basis of Civilization?

Once upon a time, historians believed that ‘civilization’ started when humans upgraded from living as nomadic hunter-gatherers to becoming sedentary farmers who learned to grow plants, farm grains, domesticate animals, make bread, build towns, etc. …who then went on to discover the delights of beer, wine, chicha and other alcoholic beverages.

Over the last few decades this view has been challenged. For example, a number of archaeologists have suggested that Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (described by UNESCO as one of the first manifestations of human-made monumental architecture” and dating back to around 9000 BC) was a temple where nomadic peoples would gather to celebrate with beer and various alcoholic porridges. They then further suggest that as a by-product of figuring out how to brew this beer, palaeolithic hunter-gatherers started farming and baking bread. Or as Edward Slingerland neatly summarises it “beer [came] before bread …[and] Neolithic, alcohol-fueled raves gave rise to civilization“!

A similar set of hypotheses are now being advanced for how Mesoamerican civilizations figured out how to cultivate maize (aka corn) from teosinte. Mayan, Aztec, and Inca civilisations all enjoyed various alcoholic drinks, including a beer brewed from teosinte. For a long period, scientists thought that teosinte was a separate plant to maize, but this view has now been corrected. In parallel, scientists have also shown not just how Mayan civilization worked out how to make beer from teosinte but that in their efforts to improve crop yields, they selectively bred bigger-eared teosinte, which evolved into maize; accidentally creating the bedrock of the modern diet: Corn.

Cocoa Pulp, Chicha/Beer, and Chocolate

The same trajectory from ‘delighting in booze’ may explain the discovery of drinking chocolate.

It may well be that the drinking chocolate celebrated by the Aztecs and Olmecs, and then brought back to Europe in the late 16th Century, also emerged as a by-product of (alcoholic) fermented cocoa pulp (‘cocoa chicha’). That is to say, the palaeolithic inhabitants of Mesoamerica first made chicha from cocoa pulp when they worked out that it easily fermented into a light alcoholic beverage. And then, as a by-product of this fermentation, the Olmecs (and maybe their predecessors) discovered that this fermentation also turned the incredibly bitter and astringent cacao seeds into nutritious and flavourful cocoa beans.

ne intriguing argument for this run of events is from an analysis of pottery fragments from Puerto Escondido, in the lower Ulúa Valley in northern Honduras, which date back to 500-1100 BC. When John Henderson and Rosemary Joyce analysed these pottery shards in the early 2000s they discovered that many contained residue of theobromine; the telltale sign of cocoa fermentation. The earliest pots, which date back to 1100 BC, have necks that would have made pouring any liquid to generate the desired ‘cocoa froth’ exceedingly difficult (the Aztecs treasured above all the froth from drinking chocolate; Montezuma consumed the FROTH of fifty cups of chocolate; he didn’t drink them). However, the later pots, dating from 900 BC, have longer necks that could have easily created cocoa foam and they also contain traces of spices and peppers which we know were used by the Mayans and Aztecs to add flavour to their cocoa drinks (the earlier pottery shards just contain theobromine). In other words, drinking chocolate came AFTER fermented cocoa pulp.

Earlier long-necked pots would have been used for beer/chicha making from 1100 BC.
Pots with shorter, wider necks were used for making the frothed chocolate drink after 900 BC.

📷: PNAS/National Academy of Sciences.

Since this work was published in the early 2000s, archaeologists and paleobotanists have discovered even earlier examples of pottery with traces of theobromine that date back to 3500 BC in Santa Ana La Florida in Ecuador. However, it’s not yet clear whether the people living there, named as the Chinchipe Maya, were brewing cocoa pulp ‘chicha beer’ or crafting ‘drinking chocolate’ (or both). So we can’t definitively assert that the earliest known consumers of fermented cocoa pods, the Chinchipe Maya, started off by first drinking fermented cocoa pulp. But it certainly provides a credible explanation for how Mesoamericans worked out that fermentation, followed by drying, winnowing, grinding, and the addition of spices, vanilla, and some water, could make a nutritious filling drink from incredibly bitter, astringent cacao seeds.

You can try cacao pulp yourself! Straight out of a cocoa pod, the sweet, nutritious, and flavoursome pulp can be used to make all sorts of curious drinkable concoctions!

Other Arguments for Alcohols’ Roles in ‘Civilizing’ Mankind

Although many of us delight in beer, wine, and other alcohols, the dangers of alcohol are also well documented. This has led scientists to try and understand the evolutionary benefits of fermenting grains and fruits into alcohol.

The ‘standard’ argument that beer is safer to drink than unpurified water is now looked at with some scepticism as it’s generally easier to boil water than ferment beer, chicha etc. Although when travelling to certain parts of the world, bottles of beer may well be a better option than water (and ice) that are new to you and your digestive system.

Back in the early 2000s, Robert Dudley posited an alternative theory for our love affair with alcohol under the arresting title of “The Drunken Monkey”. Dudley suggests that both humans and monkeys use the smell of ethanol (i.e. alcohol) to find ripe and fermenting fruit, which was otherwise often hard to find (possibly including cocoa). And once they’d found this valuable fruit, our sour taste receptors help us distinguish between ‘good fermentation’ and ‘bad bacterial rotting’ to pick out the alcoholic fermented fruits. Dudley also notes; “ethanol consumed during the course of frugivory may act as an appetite stimulant“, that is to say, we want to eat more after consuming alcohol, and getting ‘the munchies’ around fruit can clearly be a good thing.

cocao beans and pulp fermenting

Researcher Edward Slingerland, mentioned above, also adds this:

“…intoxication [through alcohol] helps solve a number of distinctively human challenges: Enhancing creativity, alleviating stress, building trust, and pulling off the miracle of getting fiercely tribal primates to cooperate with strangers. Our desire to get drunk, along with the individual and social benefits provided by drunkenness, played a crucial role in sparking the rise of the first large-scale societies. We would not have civilization without intoxication“.

Slingerland’s basic argument is that alcohol, at low levels, helps humans overcome some of the disadvantages of our prefrontal cortex; that bit of our brain responsible for “grown up, pragmatic, rational thinking“. The prefrontal cortex is the slowest part of humans to develop (taking around 20 years from birth). And while the prefrontal cortex clearly helps us step back, pause, ponder, and reflect in an adult-like way, the prefrontal cortex also makes us more inhibited and cautious. This ‘stepping back’ can discourage cooperation and challenge creativity; indeed, many societies, and even companies, use alcohol to get around these problems. For example, Microsoft, in the early 2000s, coined the so-called “Ballmer Peak”, named after the ex-CEO of Microsoft, who discovered that coders are at their most “creative” when their “blood alcohol level is at between  0.129% and 0.138%. And according to Slingerland, Google also has special Scotch whisky bars for coders who are stuck and need something more than caffeine to solve a problem.

Alcohol also encourages bonding and severely inhibits lying (the latter requires too much concentration for most people when inebriated). Hence its powerful role in building bonds and trust.


Slingerland, and almost every other scientist in this area, goes to great lengths to stress that these benefits come from drinking alcohol in moderation, and with other people. They note that the beers and chichas of Göbekli Tepe and Puerto Escondido were very low by today’s standards. And they are careful to warn of the dangers of alcoholism and excessive inebriation, especially from strong spirits, and from drinking alone.

Resources and further reading:

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Heavy Metal Chocolate

a.i. generated image of chocolate bar lifting metal bars

Craft chocolate: It’s not just healthier, fairer, and better for the planet than ‘big chocolate’, but it’s also SAFER.

Craft chocolate’s focus on flavour, transparency, and fairness means that the risks of cadmium and/or lead in your chocolate can be controlled far more effectively than big chocolate’s prioritisation of cost minimisation and efficiency.

Consumer Reports, in the US, published an analysis of twenty eight dark chocolate bars which revealed that the vast majority exceeded California’s “maximum allowable dose limits” for cadmium and/or lead in chocolate (European regulations on cadmium and lead are different, and mandatory, whereas in the US each state has different requirements, with California being the toughest, but even these aren’t mandatory). 

Even though the number of bars that were analysed is small given the MILLIONS of bars consumed every day, this sort of spotlight is very welcome. The original article by Consumer Reports is well written and researched.

The dangers of cadmium, and even more so lead, in chocolate (and other products), have been known for some time. So this isn’t new news, but it’s worth reflecting on what these problems reveal about the differences between ‘craft’ and ‘mass-produced’ chocolate’s respective approaches to sourcing, bean quality, and flavour.

Bottom line: The good news is that cadmium and lead should not, and need not be in, (craft) chocolate. The bad news is that the reaction from big chocolate is, yet again, a deafening silence and an attempt to ignore, and wish the problems away.

A brief background on lead toxicity

Consuming lead (or using it to whiten your skin) is NOT a good idea. The Romans used it for pipes and to sweeten their wines, and Elizabeth I whitened her cheeks with powder containing it, and it DEFINITELY did them no good!

Lead is highly toxic, and we’ve known this since Roman times. If you want nightmares about lead poisoning, just read the WHO (World Health Organisation) report on the topic! But the good news, to quote the WHO is that “Lead exposure is preventable“.

The bad news is that “There is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects” and it’s still far, far too prevalent. It’s sobering to realise that it was only in 1978 that lead paint was banned in the US, and despite recent disasters like Flint, many US household pipes still contain lead. And as Consumer Reports showed, it’s still in many mass-produced chocolate bars.

A brief background on cadmium toxicity

Cadmium is also toxic and a poison. It destroys our kidneys, bones, and lungs. But unlike lead, cadmium poisoning is more of an ‘industrial’ and recent disease.

In the 1840s artists discovered how cadmium could create extraordinary reds and yellows (think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Haystacks). Unfortunately, cadmium is also highly toxic, so the amount allowed in paints is carefully controlled (indeed every now and again different countries, and the EU, have tried to ban cadmium pigments in paints). And cadmium was also used extensively in the industrial revolution in zinc smelting, galvanising steel, etc.

variations of cadmium paints

Today, the people most at risk from cadmium poisoning are workers where cadmium is used and can be inhaled (like smelting and welding, and zinc mining and extraction) and smokers (and passive smokers).

At the same time, cadmium is naturally present in soils all over the world and it can be a contaminant in phosphate fertilizers. So as part of wider efforts to stop heavy metal poisoning, governments in the US and EU have set maximum cadmium levels for different foods. Interestingly, although chocolate has been hugely impacted by these regulations, it doesn’t appear to be one of the worst offenders. For example, when the EU introduced standards for cadmium levels in chocolate a decade ago, the report noted:

“Foodstuffs are the main source of cadmium exposure for the non-smoking general population. …The food groups that contribute most of the dietary cadmium exposure are cereals and cereal products, vegetables, nuts and pulses, starchy roots or potatoes, and meat and meat products”.

And yes, there are all sorts of conspiracy theories about political machinations as to whether this is a super Machiavellian campaign to favour cocoa from West Africa against South America, given that the volcanic soil of South America does sometimes have higher levels of cadmium; but see below; it’s a LOT more complex than simply how much cadmium is in the soil.

The US FDA’s most recent analysis of American diets discovered cadmium in some surprising places:

“The foods with the highest mean cadmium concentrations are sunflower seeds and spinach, …likely due to cadmium in the soil where growing occurs, the nature of the foods, as well as cultivating practices …The next highest mean cadmium concentration was found in potato chips”.

It only analysed one sample of cocoa powder, but this did contain “worrying” levels of cadmium (though not as much as potato chips).

Toxic Heavy Metals in Chocolate: Cadmium

As a cocoa tree grows, some cadmium (as well as zinc, iron, magnesium, and more) is absorbed from the soil and seeps through into the seeds within the cocoa pods.

The amount of cadmium absorbed is hugely impacted by the acidity of the soil (i.e. its pH balance); to quote a study that examined cadmium levels all over the world’s cocoa belt;

the total amount of soil cadmium and pH that explained the amount of cadmium that ends up in the bean …When you get into more acidic pH values, cadmium is more soluble and more available to the plant“.

Please see the links below to Margenot and Wade’s work on this topic.

stand of cocoa trees on a farm

Cadmium, and soil pH levels, are both very, very localised. So blanket assumptions that “this country is fine, this country is a problem” are way too simplistic; one corner of a single field can be a massive problem, another corner be absolutely fine.

The age of the tree also determines how much cadmium is passed through to the cocoa seeds; with older trees generally passing on higher traces of cadmium.

There are also some suggestions that different cocoa varietals may differ in how they absorb cadmium. And to quote one expert here;

One could silence uptake pathways with CRISPR (gene editing) and stop the heavy metals migration into the tree, cacao pods and seeds [but] that’s a 3-5 year project with trees in the ground after that …10-15 years to scale“.

So short term, we are back to avoiding obvious ‘no-nos’ like drying beans on the side of busy roads. And we’re testing batches of beans, and controlling the pH of fields.

Indeed, craft chocolate has launched a number of initiatives not just to monitor for cadmium, but also to address, and reverse, any problems. For example, Original Beans has managed to reduce the amount of cadmium in the beans from Piura (Peru) by up to 75% through initiatives like adding lime to the soil to reduce soil pH levels.

And the governments of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia have numerous monitoring initiatives.

Cadmium levels in chocolate are also a result of how the cocoa is processed. Cocoa powder is higher in cadmium because it has less cocoa butter, and so the cocoa mass (i.e. the dark stuff that contains the cadmium) is a higher percentage, and also because the processing can also sometimes impart cadmium when, for example, the cocoa presses use galvanised steel parts, pipes, etc. This makes cocoa powders a particular problem. And it also means that certain manufacturing approaches are inadvisable. In particular, when big chocolate ‘bulks out’ its cocoa percentage by using (cheaper) cocoa mass rather than the full bean, this can create risks and potential problems.

The bottom line is that we know how cadmium is getting into chocolate. And we know how to stop this. The key issue is transparency: We have to know where the cocoa is coming from, and to ensure that the farmers, cooperatives, and agents are aware of the problem. And when possible, steps need to be taken to resolve the problem by, for example, adding lime to the soil.

At a minimum, you need transparency at a FARM AND CO-OPERATIVE level to remove sources of cadmium infused beans. This is where the transparency in craft chocolate is so important (as well as paying farmers far more, focusing on flavour, etc.). But contrast big chocolate, where in many cases they can’t trace where over two thirds of the cocoa they process is coming from, and have no easy ability to identify supply chain issues like cadmium (and lead).

The opaqueness of big chocolate’s supply chain here, along with their focus on costs and treating chocolate as “just another commodity ingredient” is also why big chocolate keeps being caught processing beans involving deforestation, child labour abuses, etc. (see the most recent Cocoa Barometer report for more on this).

Toxic Heavy Metals in Chocolate: Lead

The issue of lead in chocolate is simpler. Lead does not appear to get into chocolate from being sucked up by the cocoa tree from the soil. Lead gets into chocolate the same way most lead gets into us, via airborne particles that come from pollution, in particular car exhaust, smoking, industrial processes and the like (some lead does still bleed into us via lead pipes, lead paints, etc.).

Unfortunately in many parts of the world, roads are often used to store and dry cocoa beans. And this appears to be where the lead is getting into chocolate, from lorry exhausts and industrial pollution.

Again, the lesson here is that the issue of lead in chocolate can easily be avoided, but only if you have transparency and traceability. And only if you pay farmers enough so that they don’t have to leave the beans out to dry on polluted roads.

Other Considerations (and an argument against snacking)

Our absorption of cadmium and/or lead into our bodies via foods and drinks is also driven by a number of other key factors. In particular;

  • Both cadmium and lead are absorbed far more on an empty stomach.
  • Children are at far greater risk; they can absorb 30-50% more than an adult (hence why both the EU and California have different recommendations for kids).

So rather than ‘snacking and scoffing’ on an empty stomach, savour your chocolate at the end of a meal (and you’ll also delight your second stomach here). And this is particularly true, and important, with young kids.

Avoiding Cadmium and Lead in Your Chocolate: The Smart Approach

For consumers, the simplest means to avoid lead and cadmium in your chocolate is simple: Check where and how the bar is being made (avoid ‘reconstituted’ bars using cocoa powder), and above all make sure you know the name of the farm and/or co-operative.

Upgrade to craft chocolate: Join the revolution! Come to a virtual tasting to discover more!

Consumer Reports’ analysis included two bars with craft chocolate beans sourced directly, transparently and traceable from named co-operatives and farms by; 

And of the twenty eight bars analysed, only five bars were lower than the mandated levels for both cadmium and lead. And yes, two of those bars were those from Taza and Mast (the other three were from Ghiradelli and Valhrona).

Avoiding Cadmium and Lead in Your Chocolate: The Bizarre Approach!

There have also been some other pretty bizarre suggestions by various experts following on from the publication of the Consumer Reports study.

One of the most bizarre is the suggestion that consumers switch to milk or white chocolate and/or choose a low percentage dark chocolate bar. Without wishing to discourage people from consuming craft milk or white chocolate, in most cases they contain more sugar than dark bars. And in the case of most mass-produced chocolate, sugar comprises more than 50% of the ingredients of their milk and white bars (and many dark bars).

Eating too much sugar is a key cause of our current obesity epidemic, and also child and adult diabetes. So trying to protect people’s livers and kidneys from cadmium by switching to higher sugar alternatives is akin to asking a kid to stop playing with matches and instead play with loaded guns!


It’s great that Consumer Reports did this research and testing. And we hope that someone will do something similar here in the UK/Europe.

In the meantime, we’ve collected a tonne of studies by co-operatives, farms, makers, and craft chocolate distributors showing that their beans are not contaminated by lead or cadmium (thanks to Kokoa Kamili, Conexión, Tibitó, Original Beans, and many more).

Having said this, most of the other journalistic follow-up, missed the chance to learn a few deeper lessons, in particular;

  1. The positive angle here is that this discovery provides another great reason why you should only buy chocolate if you know where the beans come from and how the chocolate’s been made. Chocolate that is traceable and transparently traded is safer, as well as being far more flavoursome, ethical and environmentally friendly. So please tell your friends to upgrade to craft chocolate.
  2. The ‘elephant in the room’ question is; why has so little attention been paid to Consumer Reports’ work. Big chocolate’s silence has been deafening. Even the threat of legal cases hasn’t generated much of a response. Depending on where you live, 15-25% of people eat chocolate daily. And over two thirds of the people in most Western countries will have eaten chocolate in some form over the last week. There is no reason for us to run a risk of consuming chocolate with excessive amounts of cadmium and/or lead. Big chocolate knows full well what gives rise to cadmium and lead in chocolate, and in how to avoid this. But yet again rather than address this issue, and reflect on the inequities of many of their sourcing practices, big chocolate is hoping that if it says nothing, this issue will blow over. Sadly, big chocolate has learnt that silence can sometimes work (see how they stonewalled the criticism of all the ‘healthy heart studies’ sponsored by Mars in the 2000s).
  3. On a related note, why are we willing to have so much junk in our chocolate? Cadbury built its brand, in the 19th century, on selling the “purest cocoa powder”. Take a look at any supermarket chocolate bar and see how many ingredients you have in your kitchen cupboard. Granted these are ‘permitted’ ingredients. But why are we consuming them given that we don’t need these additives, vegetable fats, emulsifiers, palm oils etc. to make chocolate that really is worth savouring? How do we (re)create consumer appetite for “less is more” and “purity” of ingredients similar to the way Cadbury’s did this in the 19th century?

So please, please look at the label. Check where the bar is made (not where it’s ‘assembled’ or ‘reconstituted’). Check where the beans come from. Trust the likes of Simran and Bryan from Kokoa Kamili, and Alex Whitmore of Taza.

Craft chocolate bars taste better. They are better for the environment. They are better for the farmers. And they are better, and safer, for you and your families. Less really is more. Less lead and cadmium. More transparency.

Resources and further reading:

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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 Christmas chocolate 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.

bespoke craft chocolate gift boxes banner

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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chocolate subscription details buttons

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!

Christmas Chocolate Updates

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

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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!

Prevent Food Waste: Savour Amazing Chocolate!

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 (and white 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!

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.


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.


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.

zoe science and nutrition podcase image

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.

zoe science and nutrition podcase image

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).


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?


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.

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.