During February, which is Heart Health Month, it’s important to realize that achieving cardiovascular health isn’t all about deprivation – chocolate can play a part! I discussed chocolate’s heart-health benefits in a previous article, and came to realize this delicious drink has a history as rich as its iconic flavor.

Chocolate began as a bitter drink, a stimulant like coffee. It was doctored with sugar and processed by industry to become the milk-chocolate bars we know today. Over the years, it was a luxury that only slowly became available to all. Alas, the modern, inexpensive industrial product is less nutritious, and for many palates, much too sweet.

Today, however, bittersweet high-cacao bars packed with complex flavors and healthful antioxidants are easy to find. Think of these gourmet treats as a bit of a return to chocolate’s historic, aristocratic roots as a health tonic.

An Ancient Stimulant

The original unsweetened beverage emerged in southern Mexico, where archeologists have found Olmec pots dating to around 1500 B.C. that contained traces of theobromine, a stimulant found in both chocolate and tea.

The Olmecs, a civilization that mysteriously vanished about 300 B.C., may have grown cacao beans as a domestic crop. They probably passed on the trick of grinding the bean and adding water to make a drink.

The Mayans are most famous for the city of Teotihuacan, which became the center of Mesoamerica for centuries. They established cocoa plantations in the Yucatan. They drank a beverage of ground up cacao and water mixed with vanilla, chili peppers or honey.

The traditional drink survived among some peoples, notably the Kunu, who live on islands in the Caribbean near Panama. On any one day, they used to drink more than five cups of water boiled with either home-grown or Colombian cocoa powder rich in antioxidants. When Kunu migrated to the mainland and cut back on drinking cocoa, their blood pressure rose along with their death rates from heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

The Drink of the Gods

Grinding beans from the cacao pod with stones
The Aztecs ground beans from the cacao pod with stones, then made a drink from the resulting paste reputed to enhance health and longevity.

The Aztecs, who came to power in the 1400s, traded cacao beans as a currency. They regarded “chocalatl” (shuck-O-lahtl), which meant “warm or bitter liquid” as a gift from a snake-god, Quetzalcoatl (Qetz-O-wahtl). It was a frothy drink with high status, available to ordinary folk only at weddings. Montezuma II (1466-1520) the ninth Aztec emperor of the region now known as Mexico, considered it an aphrodisiac that would also enhance fertility and longevity. Historians believe he may have drunk gallons a day. 

The Drink of Kings

We don’t know exactly how cacao beans came to Spain. Christopher Columbus may have discovered them on a trade ship and brought them home, or the conquistador Hernan Cortes may have encountered the drink at Montezuma’s court.

The drink became an indulgence in the Spanish court, now sweetened with cane sugar and flavored with cinnamon and other spices. It may have traveled to Paris with a 14-year-old princess named Anne who was married off to King Louis XIII in 1615.

But imports from across the sea had begun earlier, creating plantations manned by slaves. Their labor fed a craze that spread across the aristocracy in the courts of Europe.

In 1657, chocolate went retail, but only on the high end. A Frenchman opened a shop in London that served a luxurious cacao beverage. The new “chocolate houses” began serving chocolate rolls and cakes as well.

How Chocolate Was Industrialized

England first industrialized chocolate production, though chocolatiers in Switzerland and the Netherlands, entered the fray. Joseph Fry of Bristol began grinding the beans using a steam engine in 1795.

In 1819, the first Swiss chocolate factory opened, but it wasn’t until 1828 that a Dutch chemist figured out how to make a powder that became “Dutch cocoa” by adding alkalinizing agents such as potassium sodium to make it less acidic. He or his father may have invented a cocoa press that together with Dutch processing eventually allowed cocoa to become available to many. “Dutching,” alas, destroys many of the antioxidant polyphenols that make chocolate healthful.

In 1830, the British company J.S. Fry and Son created a form of solid chocolate bar; then 17 years later the firm began to mix cocoa butter back into "Dutched" chocolate, and added sugar. The resulting paste was molded into a solid bar shape, similar to the modern chocolate bar.

By 1849, Joseph Fry & Son and Cadbury Brothers displayed chocolates at an exhibition in Birmingham, England.

Two years later, Prince Albert's Exposition in London displayed bonbons and chocolate creams (as well as caramels and hard candy).

It was another decade before Richard Cadbury created a heart-shaped candy box for Valentine's Day!

How Chocolate Became Milky and Creamy

The early chocolate bars were hard, even crunchy, rather like modern, bittersweet chocolate. A Swiss named Daniel Peter experimented for years, looking for the best ways to add milk powder for a softer texture and smoother taste. He later joined Henri Nestle to create the Nestle Company.

French chocolate poster
By the 1890s in France, as well as much of Western Europe, chocolate had become available to – and was loved by - virtually everyone.

In 1879, another Swiss, Rudolf Lindt, invented a device, the conch machine, which made finally succeeded in making bar chocolate smooth rather than crunchy.

At this point, chocolate was the soft, sweet, rather bland product that would become beloved by children. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, family companies like Cadbury, Mars and Hershey joined Nestle, mass-producing this irresistible treat for the general public.

In 1897, a Sears and Roebuck catalog included a recipe for brownies.

Now that chocolate was an industrial product, the demand for cacao beans soared. By 1910, William Cadbury was urging several English and American companies to join him in boycotting plantations that abused workers.

A Return to Deep Chocolate Flavor

Today, you can opt for products made with “fair trade” beans harvested in a certified process and packaged into products designed to create sustainable incomes for farmers. You can also choose chocolate like ours that is high in cacao, organic, unDutched (which means more of the healthful polyphenols are preserved), free of additives and low in sugar.

Andrew Weil, M.D., typically enjoys a couple of ounces of dark chocolate after meals, and suggest seeking varieties that have at least 70 percent cocoa solids.

Who knows, your dark chocolate could make you feel like Montezuma!