A Chronology of Chocolate

by Jenny McGlone
Chapel Hill, NC, United States

Nine out of ten people like chocolate. The tenth lies.

Or so goes the quote of disputed origin. Chocolate inspires almost universal passion and devotion. What would Valentine’s Day or Forrest Gump be without their boxes of chocolates? And yet how many people understand that without the creative efforts of a Swiss chocolatier named Daniel Peter, it might have remained an unknown confection.

Early History of Chocolate

This substance goes back almost 4,000 years to the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico. There, the Olmec brewed a bitter drink from cocoa beans. The name in fact, derives from the Aztec word xocolatl. Cocoa beans were thought to have divine properties, so they were offered to the gods and traded as currency. Sometimes the drink was fermented into an alcoholic beverage.

In the 16th century, European conquistadors returned from the Americas with this beverage and sweetened it to improve its bitter flavor. Within the next 100 years, chocolate became a fashionable liquid dessert of the wealthy. Cocoa beans were also used as medicine. It was not consumed by working class people because to purchase one pound of it would have cost 2 week’s wages.

19th Century Progress

With the Industrial Revolution, chocolate making became affordable, and new techniques allowed it to be converted into solid, durable forms. In 1828, a Dutch chemist named Conrad van Houten invented a method for extracting cocoa butter from the bean, so that the remainder could be ground into a cocoa powder. This powder formed the basis for the first bar, created in 1847 in England.

These technological advances sparked the interest of Daniel Peter, a Swiss candle maker who had fallen on hard times. He spent 8 years in his Vevey workshop attempting to create a creamier solid by adding various types of milk. Finally, in 1875, he teamed up with Henri Nestlé and perfected the world’s first milk chocolate.

Modern Innovations

The ensuing decades have seen a proliferation of chocolate achievements. One recent innovation is the percentage that producers often prominently display on their confections’ labels. For example, a number between 35 percent and 99 percent means that the chocolate bar contains that same percentage of cocoa. Therefore, high numbers will taste more bitter, because the amount of added sugar decreases as the cocoa content increases. Sweet chocolate has between 15 percent and 34 percent cocoa. White chocolate, by contrast, doesn’t contain any cocoa at all, which is why it is such a light color.

Heading back to Vevey, residents report that their milk chocolate tastes so delicious because the local cows are happy. A connoisseur visiting the area might stop in at a shop to test this theory. She would have many treats from which to choose, but she can be assured that no matter whether a piece of candy is 42, 55, or 70 percent cocoa, it will certainly be 100 percent delicious!

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Math Questions

  1. Conduct a survey in your class. What percentage of students like chocolate? Convert that percentage to an “out of ten” ratio.
  2. If nine out of ten people truly like chocolate, what is the probability that all 15 people you survey like chocolate? What is the probability that at least 12 of 15 people like chocolate? What is the probability that none of the 15 people like chocolate?
  3. In 2013, the median family income in the United States is about $52,000 per year. Use the internet to determine the average household income for your area. How much would one pound of chocolate cost if it still cost two week’s wages?
  4. What are top ten chocolate-producing companies in the world? How much do they produce each year?
  5. Where is cocoa produced? Create a map of the exportation of cocoa.
  6. Design your own piece of chocolate. Draw its shape, design, dimensions, and flavors.
  7. Write some math questions related to the proportion of milk and sugar.
  8. How do you best package this chocolate? Is it in a box? A bar? Make a geometric net.
  9. Write some math questions for your classmates related to expenses and profit.
  10. If I have 15 pieces of chocolate and then I sell them for $3.14 each, how much would I earn?
  11. What makes up the other 85-56% of sweet chocolate?

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Social Justice Questions

What impact did the chocolate industry have on the indigenous people living in the countries that produced chocolate? Was the costs of the chocolate industry worth the economic gain?

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  1. Fun facts about chocolate
  2. Five-minute video by Hershey’s on how chocolate is made (with Spanish subtitles)

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