Where Does Chocolate Come From? | CoachSweetTooth

We all love chocolate in its many forms – from chocolate bars to hot chocolate drinks – but where does chocolate come from?

Most of us also know how chocolate is really made, but where do the ingredients for chocolate come from, and how did we get the chocolate we’re used to today?

Chocolate is made from the beans of the cacao plant, which were first found in what is present day Mexico, about 4,000 years ago. Over time, these moved from South America to Europe, being used for a large number of things before chocolate was invented and popularized around the world.

So, we love chocolate, and we know it goes back a long way. But how did the cacao beans of Mexico become your modern day chocolate bar?

We looked into the history of chocolate and the cacao plants to understand how things progressed into what we are used to today.

Table of contents


The Cacao Plants in South America

Chocolate dates back about 4 millennia, back to what was known as Mesoamerica, in what we now know as Mexico. The first cacao plants were found in this region, and it’s very likely that the first people to reach this area used to eat the beans as food. Since cacao beans are high in a number of minerals, they would serve as a good meal to eat.

The Olmec civilization in this area was one of the first to turn cacao beans into chocolate, and used to drink it as medicine. They would also use it during rituals.

This was as far back as about 1500 BC. Many centuries later, the Mayans would brew cacao seeds, which were first roasted and ground with chilies, water and cornmeal. This mixture was prepared by pouring it from one container to another, until it became thick and foamy. This was called xocolatl, which translated to ‘bitter water’.

By the year 1400, the Aztecs were using cacao beans for trade. They believed chocolate was a gift from one of their gods, and drank it as an aphrodisiac, or to make preparations for war.

Chocolate in Europe

It’s presumed that chocolate reached Europe by the year 1528, when the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes brought it back to Spain. Here, he introduced the cacao beans to the people, who also made a drink out of it, but unlike the South Americans, added sugar and honey to it to get rid of the bitterness.

Because of its delicious flavor, chocolate quickly became common among the richer folk, but stayed within Spain for a long time.

It was about a century later that chocolate spread to France, and then the rest of Europe. Soon, chocolate reached Britain, where they made ‘chocolate houses’ to make chocolate, and this trend spread through the rest of Europe, who started setting up cacao plantations in equatorial countries.

Until the industrial revolution, chocolate was still being made by hand, which was a slow and tedious process, but with the chocolate press being invented, we get the chocolate we’re so used to today.

The chocolate press squeezes the cocoa butter from the beans, leaving behind the solids in a powder form. These are mixed with liquids and poured into a mold, which freezes into a chocolate bar.

Cacao Plants Today

You can’t have chocolate without cacao plants, but with how much chocolate there is in the world, and how easily accessible it is, it’s unrealistic to think that cacao plants are still limited to Latin America.

Technically, cacao plants can be grown anywhere within a 20 degree latitude from the equator. This is sometimes called the ‘cocoa belt’.

Cacao plants are somewhat short and take about five years to start growing cacao pods. Today, cacao plants are grown in about 50 countries around the world, with a small portion of these being in commercial plantations, while most are produced in small, family farms.

While plenty of countries do have cacao plants, they only produce a small amount of cocoa. A very large majority of the cocoa we use today comes from Ghana or the Ivory Coast, and for many farmers, their cocoa sales are their main sources of income.

We’ve come a long way from ritualistic beverages to our average chocolate bar over the past few millennia, but one thing is for sure: humans still like chocolate as much as they did back then!


Lori Gilmore

Lori Gilmore

Lori has been a Culinary Arts instructor for twenty years. She has taught in the public school setting, at the collegiate level and through adult continuing education as well as running several cooking and baking camps for children. She has participated in several cooking, cake & chocolate contests and has been well recognized. She has raised thousands of dollars for charities using the byline “Saving the World one Cupcake at a Time”. Additionally, she has had several articles regarding food published in various magazines.

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