National Chocolate Day: Where Did Chocolate Come From?

October 28 is National Chocolate Day, a great day to indulge in some trivia and history on this sweet treat. Dig in!

If there’s no chocolate in Heaven, I’m not going.
―Jane Seabrook, Furry Logic Laugh at Life

I’m a big fan of chocolate. But you’ll never see me with a Russell Stover’s box or Whitman’s Sampler. No shade to anyone who loves that kind of thing but give me a single morsel of pure chocolate over a box of cream-filled confections any day.

National Chocolate Day on October 28 recognizes one of the world’s favorite tastes. While many specific chocolate-related holidays exist throughout the year, National Chocolate Day celebrates all things chocolate.  

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An age-old world-famous treat

Chocolate has been around for over 3,000 years. It was born in Central America and can be traced back to an ancient civilization of people known as the Olmecs. The Olmecs who lived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico from about 1600 BC to around 350 BC introduced it to the Mayans who then passed it on to the Aztecs who then shared it with European explorers.

And it was European explorers who eventually brought chocolate to Florida in the mid-1600s. Of course, back in those days, chocolate was very different than it is today. It was usually consumed as an unsweetened beverage, not a sweet, solid bar or chunk.

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Where does chocolate come from?

Chocolate is made from cacao beans—the seeds inside of the large, gourd-like fruit of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. Humans have been cultivating cacao for at least three millennia. The plant grows in Mexico, Central America, and Northern South America. (Today, cacao trees are also grown in Africa, Malaysia, and other hot, humid locations near the Equator.) Historians document the earliest known use of cacao seeds at around 1100 BC.

Once extracted from the cacao fruit, the beans which are naturally quite bitter are fermented for days. Once fermented, the beans are dried, cleaned, and roasted. After roasting, the shell is removed to produce cacao nibs. The cacao nibs are then ground into cocoa mass which is pure chocolate in rough form.

The cocoa mass is usually liquefied and then molded with or without other ingredients. At this point in the process, it is called chocolate liquor. The chocolate liquor may then be processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter.

  • Unsweetened baking chocolate: cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions
  • Sweet chocolate: cocoa solids, cocoa butter or other fat and sugar
  • Milk chocolate: sweet chocolate with milk powder or condensed milk
  • White chocolate: cocoa butter, sugar, and milk but no cocoa solids
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Heavenly and healthy

The Aztecs believed cacao had magical, even divine properties. The word chocolate originates from the Aztec xocoatl which means food of the gods in their language. As it turns out, the Aztecs weren’t far wrong.

Today, we know that dark chocolate is rich in minerals like magnesium and zinc and also in antioxidants—substances that shield our body’s cells from damage. Scientists say that eating 6 grams of 70 percent dark chocolate a day (that’s 1-2 squares) can reduce high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and the risk for diabetes. It can also reduce inflammation in the body. As if we didn’t already have enough reasons to heart chocolate! Can chocolate also cure a cough?

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Why is dark chocolate so healthy?

First of all, while many sweet snacks are simply vehicles for empty calories, dark chocolate has great nutritional value. It’s loaded with beneficial vitamins and minerals including high concentrations of potassium, copper, magnesium, and iron.

Health benefits of dark chocolate

Here’s a look at some of the other important roles chocolate can play in promoting good health:

  • Brain booster: Dark chocolate increases blood flow to the brain which improves cognitive function. The copper in chocolate can also reduce the risk of stroke.
  • Damage dampener: Dark chocolate is full of antioxidants that fight damaging free radicals in the body. Free radicals cause oxidation in cells which is implicated in both aging and cancer.
  • Heart helper: The magnesium in chocolate helps to prevent high blood pressure and heart disease. Eating dark chocolate also improves blood flow and can help prevent the formation of blood clots as well as arteriosclerosis which is a fancy name for the hardening of the arteries.
  • Mood manager: Dark chocolate contains several chemical compounds that can improve your mood. Key among these is phenylethylamine which causes your brain to release endorphins that make you happy. Phenylethylamine is the same chemical our brains produce when we’re falling in love. No wonder eating chocolate feels so good!
  • Pep producer: Dark chocolate contains at least two stimulants, caffeine and theobromine, which help you to feel more awake and alert. Because chocolate contains much less caffeine than a cup of coffee it may be more easily tolerated by those who are sensitive to caffeine.
  • Sugar stabilizer: Unlike many sugary snacks, dark chocolate has a low glycemic index so it won’t cause dangerous blood sugar spikes. In addition, flavonoids found in chocolate can help reduce insulin resistance by encouraging your body to use insulin efficiently. Finally, because chocolate promotes healthy circulation, it can also protect against damage to the extremities caused by type 2 diabetes.
  • Tooth toughener: In addition to being a stimulant, theobromine also hardens tooth enamel. So, far from causing cavities eating dark chocolate can prevent them.
  • Cough quieter: Turns out, that chocolate quiets a cough better than cough medicine. A research group from London randomly prescribed a group of patients either regular cough medicine or a chocolate-based medicine. Patients on the chocolate-based medication reported that their coughs settled down more quickly than those on regular cough syrup. Scientists believe the properties of cocoa help relieve irritation and inflammation. So go ahead and enjoy that piece of your favorite chocolate when you feel that throat tickle,
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History of National Chocolate Day

As mentioned earlier, the history of chocolate goes back over 3,000 years. Aztecs loved their newly discovered liquid chocolate to the extent that they believed Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom, literally bestowed it upon them. Cacao seeds acted as a form of currency. And this was back in the bitter chocolate days. Once chocolate turned sweet in 16th-century Europe the masses caught on and turned chocolate into a powerhouse treat.

Several present-day chocolate companies began operations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cadbury started in England in 1868. Milton S. Hershey, 25 years later, purchased chocolate processing equipment at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He started the company by producing chocolate-coated caramels. Nestlé, dating back to the 1860s, has grown into one of the largest food conglomerates in the world.

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Chocolatey trivia

As you nibble on brownies and truffles, give the following fun facts about chocolate a read. We hope they’ll make your National Chocolate Day all the more mouth-watering!

  • It takes approximately 400 cacao beans to make one pound of chocolate.
  • In 1828, a Dutch chemist by the name of Coenraad van Houten invented Dutch cocoa powder by removing natural fats (cocoa butter) from chocolate liquor, grinding it up, and adding alkaline salts to cut its bitter taste.
  • The first chocolate bar was created in 1847 by Joseph Fry who discovered that a moldable chocolate paste could be made by adding melted cocoa butter back into Dutch cocoa.
  • The first-known printed recipe for brownies appeared in The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook in 1896 although the dessert was flavored with molasses instead of chocolate. Chocolate wasn’t added to the recipe until the cookbook’s 1906 edition.
  • During the American Revolutionary War, chocolate was included in soldiers’ rations and was even given to soldiers in lieu of wages.
  • The world’s largest Snickers candy bar was 12-feet-long, 2-feet-tall, and weighed more than two tons! And yes, it was edible.
  • A four-story-high Hershey’s Chocolate Bar replica sits outside of the Hershey’s Chocolate World attraction in Niagara Falls, Ontario. (In comparison, a life-sized Hershey bar is about 6 inches tall.)
  • The Lindt Home of Chocolate Museum in Zurich, Switzerland, houses one of the world’s largest chocolate fountains. At 30.5 feet tall, it holds nearly 400 gallons of real, liquid chocolate.
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Other chocolate holidays to nibble on

In addition to National Chocolate Day, be sure to revel in these other holidays that honor chocolate:

  • National Hot Chocolate Day: January 31
  • National Cream-filled Chocolate Day: February 14
  • National Chocolate Covered Nut Day: February 25
  • National Chocolate Covered Cashews Day: April 21
  • National Chocolate Chip Day: May 15: May 15
  • National Chocolate Ice Cream Day: June 7
  • National Chocolate with Almonds Day: July 8
  • National Milk Chocolate Day: July 28
  • National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day: August 4
  • National Chocolate Pecan Pie Day: August 20
  • International Chocolate Day: September 13
  • National Chocolate Covered Anything Day: December 16
  • National Chocolate Candy Day: December 28

Don’t see your favorite chocolate listed then create your own national chocolate day

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By the numbers

  • $10,000: Price of Swarovski-studded chocolates
  • $260: Price of a 1.76-ounce To’ak chocolate bar
  • 400: Number of cacao beans it takes to make one pound of chocolate
  • 8: Number of years it took to perfect the recipe for milk chocolate
  • 90 million: Number of chocolate Easter bunnies manufactured every year
  • 36 million: Number of heart-shaped chocolate boxes sold every Valentine’s Day
  • 1828: Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten invented a hydraulic press that could separate the cocoa butter from the cacao, thereby producing a powder
  • 1847: British confectioners invented the first chocolate bar
  • 1875: Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter joins forces with M. Henri Nestlé, then a baby-food manufacturer who had invented a milk-condensation process; together they found a way to bring milk chocolate onto the market and would go on to form the Nestlé company
  • 20: Percentage of all dark chocolate consumed in the U.S. 
  • 22 pounds: Amount of chocolate that would need to be eaten to kill a person
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National Chocolate Day activities

Try making your own truffles: It may seem difficult but it’s actually easier than you think. All you’ll need is some cream, some chocolate chips and a tiny bit of time.

Tour a local chocolatier: Get an up-close look at the process that chocolate goes through from bean to bar at a local chocolate factory or chocolatier. Most places have tours available to the public and are more than happy to share their knowledge, experience, and love of the chocolate profession and trade.

Share chocolate with your friends: Chocolate is amazing, friends are amazing, and human connection over chocolate is one of the most beautiful things. Most people like chocolate, and really, even if they don’t, you know they’ll appreciate the offer to spend a moment with them and chat.

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Four dreamy facts about chocolate

1.  Chocolate is technically a vegetable: Chocolate comes from the cacao bean which grows on the cacao tree.

2. White chocolate is not chocolate: As it contains no cocoa solids white chocolate isn’t chocolate.

3. The first chocolate beverage: Hot chocolate was brewed in Aztec culture and tasted really bitter.

4. Cacao beans as currency: The Aztecs valued cacao beans so much that it was used as currency.

Worth Pondering…

All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.

—Charles M. Schulz: Cartoonist