A Word on Chocolate

John G. Jones, Ph.D. Senior Paleoethnobotanist

The origins of chocolate are obscure. The plant itself, Theobroma cacao, is native to Central and South America, but it is currently being cultivated around the world in humid tropical areas. Theobromine, a principal component in chocolate, has been identified in dried residue in ceramic vessels from Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize, and most recently in cylinder jars from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. We know from these biochemical analyses that chocolate has been around since at least AD 250, but it was probably known to the Maya, Olmec, and other cultures from  much earlier times. Chocolate is cultivated in an environment not favorable for pollen preservation (shady, wet, overbank areas of the tropical lowlands). The tree only produces a few flowers, each with just a few pollen grains. Its pollen has never been found in sediments, and I have been looking for years. We have identified ancient chocolate groves, we think, based on the nursery trees the Maya planted to provide shade for the cacao trees. Chocolate doesn’t produce phytoliths and its seeds are only rarely identified in any flotation sample. Archaeobotanically, chocolate is simply invisible.

Several years ago, a major chocolate company petitioned the FDA to allow chocolate (as a natural substance) to be completely removed from their chocolate products. Their statement said that consumers can’t tell the difference between real and fake chocolate, so why did it matter? There is some truth to this statement sadly. Is there real chocolate remaining in these inexpensive chocolates? Nobody is saying. The results of these hearings have never been made public, but I believe they have changed the definition of chocolate to not require that elements of cacao be present in their product. Many modern chocolate products are now labeled, ominously, as “chocolate flavored.”

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao plant. The seeds occur in pods, and the seeds are covered with a sweet cottony white coating much favored by children – it is loaded with natural sugar and caffeine – what’s not to like! To make chocolate, the seeds are removed from the pods, rinsed, and then tossed into cardboard boxes where they are allowed to rot. Don’t be squeamish – this is how it has always been done; the rot is necessary to bring out chocolate’s distinctive flavor. After the seeds have rotted a bit, they are dried on screens, packed into sacks, and shipped to the processing plants. Here, they are roasted and de-husked, then ground to a fine paste.

Cacao has a whopping 55% fat. This gives “real” chocolate that wonderful mouth feel that keeps us nicely addicted. The fat in chocolate is called cocoa butter, and this stuff is valuable. Here is what most chocolatiers do (for example ALL chocolate makers in the United States). They remove the cocoa butter from the chocolate and sell it for big bucks. Then the de-fatted chocolate, called cocoa powder, is mixed with a lesser amount of cocoa butter, or more likely vegetable oil – usually around 7%, along with some preservatives. If it is milk chocolate, expect as much as 40% of the product to be diluted with milk products. But many folks are thinking that most candy makers, for their regular line of candy products, don’t much bother with this process these days.

Around 1986, a US Government agent showed up in my lab with a 30-pound block of pure dark chocolate produced in France. They wanted to know if we could determine if the chocolate originally was grown in West Africa (a lower quality chocolate), or northern South America (a high-quality chocolate). If pollen were present in the sample, it would be easy to tell. We broke off a chunk of about an ounce of chocolate, curated about 3 ounces as evidence, and sent the remaining 29.75 pounds of chocolate home with the delighted graduate students.

This was the impetus for our future studies. From 1988 through 2012, I taught a palynology course. In 1988, I introduced a popular class exercise where everyone was assigned a forensic project. In every class, one of the projects was to process a commercial bar of chocolate to extract pollen. The assignment, based on our genuine forensic study from 1986, was to identify the pollen in the chocolate bar to determine if the chocolate came from Africa or from Central America. In all the classes, nobody has ever found pollen; they aren’t supposed to. There is little chance that pollen would be naturally introduced into the chocolate, and if pollen was found in the chocolate sample, it would have been introduced at the chocolate factory. What the students did find though were tons of fungal hyphae and fungal spores. Remember chocolate is allowed to rot and ferment so that the rich chocolatey flavor could develop. This led, then, to a discussion about chocolate processing, and the introduction of contaminants into forensic and archaeological samples, and this was the REAL goal of the class project. Since 2008, however, we have failed to find any fungal remains in the same type bar of chocolate! It has been suspected and discussed by experts in the field that modern commercial grade chocolate is now essentially chocolate-flavored wax. Genuine chocolate products now appear to be restricted to gourmet candies. When we process Godiva chocolate, for example, we still find the fungal spores you would expect.

Is there some kind of moral to this story? Nah. I love chocolate, but I don’t eat it often. When I do partake, I splurge and buy the expensive stuff like Maya Gold from Belize, or Dagoba (maybe named after the star system in Star Wars, perhaps made by Master Yoda himself?!).

By the way, when the Maya made their chocolate, served as a warm beverage, they sometimes added the fermented dried seed pods of an orchid to enhance the flavor – we know this as vanilla. The Maya often also added hot chilies to their chocolate, and one of my favorite memories in Mexico was dining on freshly roasted chocolate beans dipped in chipotle pepper sauce. You too may have had this traditional Maya combination – its called mole!