From Cacao Beans to Candy Bars: How Chocolate is Made


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Hundreds of years ago, the ancient Aztecs, who ruled Mexico until the 1500s, were drinking chocolate. They made a spicy drink called xocoatl from cacao beans or seeds, which translates to “warm and bitter liquid” or “bitter water.” Then xocoatl became xocolatl in the Nahuatl dialects of Mexico.  In effect, xocolatl is the link to the modern word, chocolate.

How was Xocolatl Discovered?

In 1502, the Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus met some Aztec people in the West Indies. They gave him cacao beans as payment for trading goods. Columbus didn’t like the spicy drink they made from the beans, and didn’t realize how important cacao beans would become.

In 1519, another Spanish explorer, Hernán Cortés, met Moctezuma, an Aztec emperor who loved xocolatl. Cortés realized how valuable the beans were and brought the drink back to Spain.

The Beginning of Hot Chocolate

When Cortés introduced xocolatl to the Spanish people, it was still a bitter-tasting drink. People experimented by adding different ingredients. Eventually, someone tried adding sugar, and sweet hot chocolate was born.

In the 1500s and 1600s, cacao and sugar were very expensive, and only the rich could afford to drink chocolate. For instance, in France, only members of the royal court were permitted to drink hot chocolate.

From Hot Chocolate to Candy Bars

What Americans generally call  “candy bars” is referred to as “chocolate bars” in British and Commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. These are bars of solid chocolate that were first developed in the late 1700s.

In France and Italy a small scale production began after the Spaniards returned from South America with the recipe. At that time, the drink was prepared from  roasted crushed cocoa beans.

From Cailler (1819) to Lindt (1879), significant names in the development of chocolate are worth mentioning:

  • 1819  François-Louis Cailler, a 23 year-old Swiss who made the first bars of chocolate at Vevey.
  • 1826  Fry’s of England, were producing “chocolate lozenges” for medicinal purposes.
  • 1842  John Cadbury, of Birmingham, started to sell “French eating chocolate.”
  • 1853  Fry’s introduced their chocolate cream stick.
  • 1866  The first box of chocolates was made by Cadbury’s
  • 1973  First milk chocolate was manufactured by Daniet Peter, Cailler’s son-in-law.
  • 1879  Rodolphe Lindt, a Swiss confectioner invented a machine that produced cacao seed paste into smooth, creamy chocolate bars. He also built a factory in Berne.

At the beginning, Lindt’s blocks of chocolate were hard with a bitter after-taste, and the chocolate remained heavy and thick despite being heated up. The machine he invented kneaded the chocolate, and Lindt also started the significant addition of cocoa butter. The chocolate that everybody loves today was born. In 1880,  Rodolphe Lindt patented his invention.

Welcome news to “chocaholics” everywhere is a scientific finding in recent years that a small amount of chocolate is actually good for you. In particular the dark chocolate, which contains chemical compounds called flavanols, that are important for healthy blood vessels. According to the International Journal of Medical Sciences, findings from scientists suggest that flavanols offer benefits to brain blood flow and improve cognitive health.

One final note: the scientific name of the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao, “theobroma” meaning food of the gods – a most appropriate description, as any lover of chocolate will agree.


Bayard V, Chamorro F, Motta J, Hollenberg NK. Does flavanol intake influence mortality from nitric oxide-dependent processes? Ischemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes mellitus, and cancer in Panama. International Journal of Medical Sciences. 2007;4:53-58.  Accessed May 12, 2011.

Giscard d’Estaing, Valérie, Associate Editor. The Book of Inventions and Discoveries. London: MacDonald Queen Anne Press, 1990.

Ireland, Kenneth. Who Invented, Discovered, Made the First..?. London: Ravette Books, 1988.

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