Chocolate is a multi-billion dollar global industry. But the sweet sensation the world has come to love actually traces its roots to ancient America, where the substance, originally consumed as a bitter drink, was used to flaunt wealth, pay debts, and worship the gods.
The Mayans, people native to the tropical rain forests of Central and South America, were the first to turn the bitter seeds of the cacao tree into a spicy drink, about 2,000 years ago. They used chocolate in tribal rituals and as a trade item.
In the late 1990s, an excavation team in Copán, Honduras, discovered a small lump of chocolate from this early period.
Cameron McNeil was a member of the team. She says there are some foods today that give us a fair idea of what the morsel might have tasted like in its prime. "If you go today and eat at a Mexican restaurant, and you have some type of chocolate mole sauce, it would have been similar to that," she says. "Or perhaps to an unsweetened coffee."
The chocolate residue is approximately 1,500 years old, making it one of the oldest pieces of chocolate known to science. It is on public view for the first time in an exhibition celebrating the story of chocolate at the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Chocolate remained exclusive to Central and South America until the Spanish, combing the New World for gold, came across the spicy drink in the 16th century.
Exhibition Curator Charles Spencer says the Spanish found it too bitter. "The Spaniards took it back to Europe. When it got to Europe, somebody, we do not know who, had the idea of adding sugar to it. Now sugar is not from the New World. Sugar was domesticated in Southeast Asia, so it was an immigrant to Europe also. So these two products from completely different parts of the world were put together in Europe to produce a sweet drink," he says.
Travelers to Spain from around Europe returned home with the new drink, and it took the continent by storm.
Exhibition co-curator Christina Elson says Europe is also the proving ground where chocolate made its slow progression from beverage to cake and candy. "That did not happen until the 1800s, when it became mass-produced to the extent people began to use it as a powder in baking. Until then, it was confined to drinks and more elite contexts," she says.
Once chocolate met with mass-production, it became a staple food. Consumption of candy bars in the United States soared after World War I. During both World Wars, soldier rations included chocolate. During World War II, nearly all of chocolate produced in the United States was reserved for the military.
Chocolate has earned a reputation over the years of being an aphrodisiac, and possibly addictive. Legendary lover Casanova supposedly used chocolate to enhance his romantic encounters. People routinely refer to themselves as "chocoholics."
But anthropologist Charles Spencer says this is the stuff of legend. "I do not think it is seriously addictive. It is just awfully tasty. It has an unusual flavor, especially the way we consume it today. It combines a bitterness, which comes from the theobromine, one of the key ingredients in chocolate, and, of course, the sugar," he says. "That combination is highly appealing, and it appeals to people of all cultures in all parts of the world."
Mr. Spencer concedes that the small amount of caffeine present in chocolate can act as a mild stimulant. And chocolate contains phenylethylamine the same chemical created by the brain, when a person experiences feelings of love.
Pastry chef Kim O'Flaherty believes chocolate is at least spiritually addictive. "It is addictive. I am a pastry chef, so I am a big sugar-pusher. I believe it feeds your soul. It pleases you on many levels. It just brings joy into your life. If you know there is a candy bar in the cabinet, you will not stop thinking about it until it is gone," she says.
Today, premium chocolate makers sell their products in their own shops, and occupy entire sections of big department stores. Bill Tarr was in Macy's, New York, one of the biggest department stores in the world, buying chocolate for some co-workers. He says he is unconcerned with chocolate's chemistry, he just likes it. "Chocolate is unique," he says. "It is the only food, if you can call it a food, that leaves such a pleasant aftertaste. That is how chocolate can make you so happy and pleased."
But let the buyer beware. Chocolate may not always flow as freely as it does today. Cacao trees grow in the rain forest, under the shade of larger canopy trees. They cannot thrive in un-shaded plantations. So chocolate faces the same crisis as the world's rainforests, depletion.