The History of Chocolate for Kids

With Easter just around the corner, many kids are getting very excited for one of the treats that often comes this time of year: chocolate!

Chocolate is a delicious treat and comes in many colours, flavours and forms including milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate and hot chocolate.  But have you ever thought of where chocolate comes from?  

The history of chocolate began with the ancient Olmec and Mayan peoples of Central and South America.  The Mayan people were a large group of Indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America and the ancient Olmecs lived in southern Mexico before that. 

Back then, chocolate was very different than it is today.  It was a drink that people enjoyed. But it was not sweet.  It was bitter, which means having a sharp taste and was not sweet. 

Chocolate is made from cacao fruit, which comes from cacao trees which grow in hot places like Central and South America. This is why chocolate first came from these areas.  The beans from inside the cacao fruits are called cocoa beans after they are dried and roasted.  This is one of the first steps in the process of making cacao fruit beans into chocolate. 

Historians think that ancient Olmec and Maya people ground cocoa beans into powder and used it to make a chocolate flavoured drink.  The reason they think this is that there are traces of this type of powder found in old pots from ancient Olmec times.  This was around 15,000 B.C., which is a very very long time ago.

However, there is no written history from this time.  So it is not clear whether Olmec people made these drinks just for their flavour, or if it was part of a ceremony.  

The Olmec people passed their love of cacao on to their neighbours in Central America, the Mayans.  The Mayan people loved chocolate so much that they used it in their drinks and in their food.  They often made it into a thick, sweet and spicy drink, using honey to sweeten it.  And they sometimes added chilli peppers to make the drink spicy.  Have you ever tried spicy hot chocolate?  If not, it is something that you can find in some cafes today and is quite delicious, if you like spicy things.

After the Mayan people, the Aztec people came to live in the Central American and Mexican area.  They also developed a love of chocolate.  The Aztec people loved chocolate so much that they believed that cacao plants had been given to them by the gods.  They used cacao in some of their religious ceremonies.  They felt very lucky to have this drink. 

One of the things that people probably liked about cacao in the old days and that people still like about it today is that it contains caffeine. Caffeine is an ingredient that is found in tea and coffee plants that is a stimulant and makes people feel more awake and perky.  It is one of the main ingredients in coffee, and is one of the reasons why adults drink coffee, too. 

Aztec people liked to drink chocolate as a drink, either hot or cold.  They also added spices to their chocolate drinks and draft them out of special, decorated containers.  The Aztec people treated cacao beans like money.  They considered the beans to be more valuable than gold!

One famous Aztec chocolate lover was Montezuma II.  He was the ruler of the Aztec people in Mexico from 1502 to 1520.  Legends say that Montezuma II drank a gallon (or almost 4 litres) of chocolate drink per day!  He loved the taste and also believed that drinking it would make women fall in love with him. 

When Spanish explorers from Europe first arrived in Central America, they learned about chocolate.  These explorers included Christopher Columbus.  The European explorers loved chocolate as well once they tried it.  When they returned to Spain and other countries, they brought cacao beans with them.  In Spain, the Spanish people loved the drink and by the late 1500s, it had become a very popular drink throughout the country. 

As other European countries explored Central America, they also learned about cacao and brought beans back to their home countries.  That is how chocolate came to be popular across Europe in countries such as France and Italy. Europeans loved chocolate so much that a demand grew for cacao beans.  A demand is the desire of large groups of people to buy something.

Back in Central America, the European demand for chocolate meant that cacao plantations were growing in size and number.  The farmers that worked at these plantations were mostly local people who were treated as slaves.  A slave is a person who works very hard without proper pay or appreciation. The life of a slave cacao farmer was a very difficult life.  They worked hard from early morning to late at night picking beans for the European people.

The European explorers and traders continued to bring the beans back to Europe.  As European people continued to enjoy chocolate, the popularity spread.  Europeans started creating their own recipes for cacao beans as well.  Instead of just using the Central American recipes, they created different types of hot chocolate, using sugar, cinnamon and other spices.

About 150 years later, in 1828, a Dutch chemist named Coenraad Johannes van Houtan discovered a new way to make cacao powder. It was an easier way to create powder that would mix easily with hot water to make hot chocolate. The process through which van Houtan did this was later called “Dutch processing”.  The cacao powder that he made was similar to what we think of as hot chocolate powder today.  At the time it was called “Dutch cocoa.” 

Dutch cocoa powder made processing chocolate easier and cheaper than in the past.  As a result, even poor people could afford chocolate. This meant that chocolate grew even further in popularity.

Up until 1847, chocolate was primarily consumed in Europe and America as a drink, mixed with water or milk. However, in that year a company called J.S. Fry and Sons created the first chocolate bar in Britain.  They molded a paste made out of sugar, butter and chocolate and put it together into the shape of a bar. It was delicious and they knew they had a hit. Everyone who tried the solid chocolate loved it.  And a new form of chocolate was born.

By the late 19th century, family chocolate companies such as Cadbury, Mars, Nestle and Hershey were all making a variety of chocolate treats.  People across the world loved eating chocolate as well as drinking it.  There were therefore lots of customers to buy chocolate from these companies. 

Today, chocolate is still enjoyed by people around the world.  It is still available to drink, but it is more often eaten as a treat or dessert or in baking. It has changed a lot since the earliest versions of the bitter Olmec drink.  But the root of the treat is still the same. 

It is still very hard work to farm and produce chocolate however. While it is now easier than it was in the days of slaves and colonists, many cacao bean farmers still have to work very hard to produce their beans.  And they do not always get paid very much money for them. This has inspired many people throughout the world to focus on “fair trade” chocolate.  Fair trade means chocolate that is created in an ethical and sustainable way.  This means farming in a way that treats farmers fairly and without putting the environment at risk so that future generations can also meet their own needs.

Do you love eating chocolate as a treat?  Or drinking hot chocolate on a cold day? What are some of the types of chocolate that you like to eat or drink.  What would you try if you were challenged to come up with a new type of chocolate?  It is fun to think about they ways we can enjoy something so delicious and historic today.

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