Skip to main content

Chocolate Facts, Effects & History

Cacao powder in a bowl
(Image credit: Dionisvera/Shutterstock )

Chocolate is the most popular sweet treat in the world. People around the world (but mostly in Europe and the United States) consume more than 3 million tons of cocoa beans a year, according to the World Cocoa Foundation. And, not only does eating chocolate make you feel good, it may also be good for your heart and your brain.

What is chocolate?

Chocolate is prepared from the fruit of the Theobroma cacao, a tropical tree whose name means "food of the gods" in Greek, according to "Chocolate: Food of the Gods," an online exhibit by the Cornell University Library.

Theobroma cacao trees are native to the Amazon and Orinoco river basins in South America. The trees are widely distributed from southeastern Mexico to the Amazon River. They thrive in hot, humid areas within about 20 degrees of the equator, according to Cornell. As the popularity of chocolate spread, growers established plantations in other regions, such as West Africa and South and Southeast Asia. Today, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Indonesia and Brazil account for 79 percent of the world's cacao production.

Cacao trees bear fruit that are about the same size and shape of a papaya, according to Patric Chocolate. These bumpy, lumpy berries, or pods, are full of up to 50 sour seeds, or beans, covered in white pulp. 

Cacao seeds are harvested by hand because machines could injure the trees, according to Cornell. Workers remove the pods, which are orange when they are ripe, and open them with a machete. The seeds are placed in large fermentation trays that are stacked and covered in banana leaves, where they are left for two to seven days. Fermentation produces the chocolate flavor and aroma. It also destroys the seed's embryo, preventing unwanted germination, and causes the white pulp to fall away from the seeds.

After fermenting, the beans dry out on sunny platforms. Workers turn them several times a day for three to five days to complete drying. The beans can dry faster in rotary driers but sun-dried beans taste the best, according to Cornell.

Next, the beans are taken to the chocolate factory, where they are cleaned and debris is removed. The beans are roasted in large, rotating ovens. The roasting draws out flavor and removes the beans from their hulls. Roasted beans go into a winnowing machine, which cracks the beans and removes hulls. The remaining part of the bean is called the nib. Nibs become chocolate.

The nibs are ground down under a series of rollers. This process results in a thick paste called chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor does not contain alcohol (however, chocolate liqueur does). It is the main source of unsweetened baking chocolate, according to Pam Williams, co-founder and past president of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) and founder and lead instructor of Ecole Cocolat Professional School of Chocolate Arts.  

At this stage, the type of chocolate being produced is determined. According to the FCIA, ingredients separate fine chocolate from that of average quality. "Fine chocolate," as designated by the FCIA, contains only cacao liquor, cacao butter (optional), sugar, lecithin, vanilla (optional) and possibly milk fats and solids. Additional flavors or ingredients like nuts can be added later.

(Image credit: Dreamstime)

Types of chocolate

Fine chocolate falls into three categories: dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate, Williams said.

  • Dark chocolate has chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, lecithin, sugar and vanilla.
  • Milk chocolate has all of the above plus milk fats and milk solids.
  • White chocolate contains everything milk chocolate does except chocolate liquor.

Chocolatiers debate whether white chocolate is really chocolate. Until 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considered it a confectionary rather than chocolate because it does not contain chocolate liquor. The Hershey Food Corp. and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association petitioned the FDA, which added a standard of identity for white chocolate. Because the FDA refers to it as white chocolate, rather than confectionary, some experts, like Williams, accept white chocolate as chocolate.

Within the three categories, the FDA also acknowledges several grades, Williams said. They include unsweetened or brute, which can be up to 99 percent chocolate liquor; bittersweet; semisweet; and dark milk chocolate. The type of chocolate depends on what ingredients are present and the percentage of cocoa, in addition to where the beans are from and the way they are prepared.

Health benefits of chocolate

Good heart food

Several recent studies have examined the role that chocolate may have on heart health. Cacao beans are full of phytonutrients, which act as antioxidants and provide additional benefits. Furthermore, cacao beans are rich sources of iron, copper, magnesium, zinc and phosphorus, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Dark chocolate contains two to three times more beneficial flavanols than milk chocolate because milk chocolate's cacao concentration is diluted with milk and possibly more sugar.

While most studies have found some correlation between chocolate consumption and reduced risk of heart problems, the amount and type of chocolate needed requires further study. A 2017 meta-analysis of the effects of chocolate on coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes published in the journal Nutrients concluded that the most benefit was associated with moderate chocolate intake. The authors found little benefit in heart disease or stroke reduction among people who consumed chocolate more than three times a week. Protective effects against diabetes emerged at two servings a week, but that benefit disappeared if people had more than six servings a week.

On the other hand, the findings of a large-scale study of more than 150,000 primarily male U.S. veterans who did not have coronary artery disease at the beginning of the study, suggest that eating an ounce of chocolate at least five times a week may help prevent the risk of coronary artery disease-related events like heart attack and heart failure.

Chocolate may also help prevent the development of atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heartbeat that increases the risk of heart failure, stroke and more. A study, published in the journal Heart in 2017, found that adults who ate chocolate at least once a month had 10 to 20 percent lower rates of developing atrial fibrillation than those who never or rarely ate chocolate.

Good brain food

Chocolate may be good for the brain. Some studies have focused on chocolate's ability to improve cognitive function. A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease in 2016 found that chocolate consumption might lower the risk of cognitive decline in older people. The study looked at nearly 400 Portuguese citizens over age 65 and saw that those who ate a moderate amount of chocolate — on average, one chocolate snack a week; the study did not differentiate between milk and dark chocolate — decreased their risk of cognitive decline by 40 percent over two years. Those who ate more chocolate, or those who had more caffeine, saw fewer cognitive benefits.

Good mood food

Chocolate is often associated with positive effects on mood, but the reasons why it makes some people feel good are debatable. Chocolate contains substances that stimulate the brain in the same way cannabis does, such as anandamines, and substances that have similar effects as amphetamine, such as tyramine and phenylethylamine, according to the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. However, these substances are in very low concentrations — too low to induce an antidepressant effect.

Chocolate may interact with neurotransmitter systems that contribute to appetite, reward and mood regulation, such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, according to the 2013 article in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. However, the authors noted, the effects may have more to do with chocolate's taste and smell than its chemical effects.

A 2010 study published in Archives of Internal Medicine found a link between depression and chocolate consumption. The results showed that people who scored high on a screening test for depression consumed more chocolate than those who weren't considered depressed. However, the study pointed out that there is only a link, and cannot explain why. Since the participants were not followed over time, the researchers don't know whether eating chocolate ameliorates or amplifies a sad mood. The possibilities are many — from using chocolate as a sort of natural Prozac to the idea that chocolate might have some role in driving depression.

Health risks of eating chocolate

Like many foods, chocolate is healthiest when eaten in moderation. The sugars and fats that are added to chocolate make it high in calories, which may lead to weight gain. Furthermore, many of the protective effects that chocolate may offer might be mitigated by overconsumption.

History of chocolate

Scientists debate how long humans have been using and consuming cacao beans. Chocolate's history goes back at least 2,000 years, while historians Sophie and Michael Coe, authors of "The True History of Chocolate (opens in new tab)" (Thames and Hudson, 2013), suggest that it might go back four millennia. The word chocolate can be traced back to the Aztec word "xocoatl," the name for a bitter drink made from cacao beans. This was the way chocolate was consumed until the Spanish conquistadors came to Central America.

In several pre-Columbian Latin American societies, cacao beans were used as currency, according to Smithsonian magazine. Mayans and Aztecs believed the beans had mystical properties and used them during important rituals. When the Spanish arrived, sweetened chocolate came into existence. Legend has it that the Aztec king Montezuma gave conquistador Hernán Cortés a bitter chocolate drink, which he said was disgusting. But Cortés' men added cane sugar and honey to it and took it back to Spain, where it quickly became popular.

Chocolate was a fashionable drink for rich Europeans throughout the 18th century. The Industrial Revolution allowed chocolate to be mass-produced and brought the treat to the masses. The popularity led to the development of cacao tree plantations.

Enslaved people farmed most of the plantations. Initially, Spanish colonizers forced Mesoamericans to farm the cacao plantations, according to "The Biography of Chocolate (opens in new tab)" (Crabtree Publishing Co., 2005), by Adrianna Morganelli. When the indigenous peoples began to die in large numbers from diseases brought by Europeans, enslaved Africans were brought over to make up the labor shortage. In addition to sugarcane, indigo and other crops, enslaved Africans planted, maintained and harvested cacao trees throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America to feed the new European taste for chocolate.

In 1815, Dutch physicist Coenraad Van Houten experimented with removing varied amounts of the cocoa butter from chocolate liquor, according to Cornell University. This led to the creation of cocoa powder and soon solid chocolate.

In 1847, a Bristol, England, chocolate company, Fry's, created the first mass-produced chocolate bar when Joseph Fry added additional cocoa butter to Van Houten's chocolate, which turned it into a moldable paste, according to Bristol Museums. Milk chocolate was invented soon after with the help of Henri Nestlé, who went on to found the major food company that bears his name. Major European chocolate brands Lindt and Cadbury also got their start in the 1800s; Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine, which gives chocolate a velvety texture.

Mass chocolate consumption hit the United States in the late 1800s when Milton S. Hershey began selling chocolate-coated caramels. He then developed his own formula for milk chocolate, purchased chocolate factory equipment and introduced mass-produced chocolate bars and other shapes, like Hershey's Kisses, in 1900.

In 1923, the Mars Co. developed the Milky Way bar by putting nougat inside a chocolate bar. That same year, former Hershey employee H.B. Reese introduced Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, which later became part of the Hershey brand.

As the years progressed, chocolate concoctions from both small and large producers became increasingly innovative. In September 2017, Swiss chocolate company Barry Callebaut introduced ruby chocolate. Ruby chocolate comes from isolating specific compounds in cocoa beans, according to Confectionary News. That, along with a modified processing technique, results in a rosy pink chocolate that has a sweet but sour berry taste and no traditional chocolate flavor, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. Other colored chocolates are made from dyed white chocolate.

Threats to chocolate

Chocolate production is threatened by climate change. According to a 2016 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the primary cacao-producing countries of Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia will experience a 2.1 degree Celsius (3.7 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in temperature by 2050. Rainfall will not rise along with the temperature, causing lowered humidity levels. As a result, viable land for cacao production will significantly shrink. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability report, 89.5 percent of the 294 chocolate-producing locations studied would become less suitable by 2050. 

Farmers and scientists are working to develop strategies to maintain chocolate production. Some farmers are planting taller trees next to cacao trees to increase shade and decrease moisture loss, according to the NOAA. Cacao plantations may also move to higher elevations with cooler temperatures and greater rainfall. 

Genetic scientists are taking a different approach. A January 2018 press release from the Innovative Genomics Institute announced a project to develop disease-resistant cacao. Condensing cacao plantations because of climate change could increase the spread of disease. The project will use CRISPR DNA-editing technology to make a heartier cacao seed.  

Ethics of chocolate production

According to Slave Free Chocolate, 2.3 million children work in chocolate production in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, where they are vulnerable to trafficking, slavery and other violent labor practices. The International Labor Rights Forum reports that these children are often exposed to chemicals, work long hours and are denied education. According to Epicure and Culture, many children are sold into slavery and never see their families again. Others are kidnapped.

Though the Harkin-Engel Protocol of 2001 was designed to stop child labor in the chocolate industry, according to the CNN Freedom Project, little has changed. The deadlines for action have been repeatedly pushed back. 

Consumers who want ethical chocolate should look for certifications designating Fair Trade, Rain Forest Alliance, UTZ, and Fair for Life, according to Slave Free Chocolate’s guide to chocolate companies.

Chocolate production can also harm the environment. Farmers often clear forests to make room for cacao plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, about 70 percent of Côte d'Ivoire's illegal deforestation is related to cacao farming. One danger of deforestation is soil erosion, which can make land less fertile for cacao plants, creating a vicious cycle, according to Confectionary News

Additional resources

Jessie Szalay