26 Facts You Should Know About Chocolate

There is probably no flavor more universally loved than chocolate, and it comes as no surprise. It's rich, smokey, bold, deep, and unlike anything else. It can add depth to any dish, sweet or savory, and is found in most modern cuisines. It has a rich history that has been an important part of early international trade systems, culinary development, and of course, human pleasure. But for a flavor that is such a prevalent part of everyday life, there is still so much that many don't know about the cocoa bean. In fact, there are endless facts about chocolate, beyond its infatuating flavor.

Chocolate has the power to both set the stage for romance and mend a broken heart. It's the feel-good bean that has both kids and adults drooling. So, without further ado, here are some fun facts about chocolate, that can help to expand your mind and culinary creativity.

It was first discovered in South America

While chocolate is an integral part of European culture today, it may surprise you that its origins are rooted elsewhere. The cacao tree is native to South and Central America, specifically the northern and western areas of the Amazon basin, and in the southern areas of Mexico. 

Although it's unclear if the tree was a result of human intervention by crossbreeding two plant species, or evolved independently, we do know that the tree has been around for thousands of years. The bean itself was considered the food of the gods by both Europeans and ancient Americans, who saw the beans as sacred, as we somewhat do to this day.

Small amounts of lead have been found in chocolate

While chocolate has been deemed a healthy food because of its rich concentration of antioxidants, in 2022, Consumer Reports found lead in dark chocolate bars sold by major chocolate candy brands. In addition, high levels of cadmium were found in most chocolate as well. 

While it may be easy to assume that it's been added as part of a preservative, sweetener, or flavor enhancer, the truth is that the companies aren't really at fault. The heavy metals are found in the soil where cacao trees grow and therefore become a part of the fruit. But before you throw out all of your favorite candy bars, note that the National Confectioners Association has made a statement that the levels are within a safe range for human consumption.

Cocoa beans became an important part of international trade

When cocoa was first tasted and exported by Spanish explorers, who happened upon the New World in their oceanic quest for India, its value was strikingly apparent. Even before European intervention, the commodity was a hot one: It was used as currency in trade and served to high-status individuals. And while today hot chocolate is given to snow-covered children, fresh off the sledding hill, a savory version of the beverage was originally given as a reward to warriors, home safe from battle. 

Once Europeans got their hands on the bean, via the Spanish, there was no stopping the demand. It instantly became an important and prevalent part of the international trade market, regarded as extremely valuable.

Chocolate contains caffeine

Although coffee is typically deemed to be too caffeinated for child consumption, chocolate seems to be a staple of youth around the world. While coffee has about 100 milligrams per cup, chocolate has much less. Darker chocolate has the highest concentration, with about 12 milligrams per ounce, which becomes more diluted as the chocolate gets lighter. 

To put that into perspective, one cup of hot cocoa may contain less caffeine than a cup of decaffeinated coffee, but a chocolate bar has slightly more. So while a few chocolate chips might not keep you up at night, for those who are sensitive to caffeine, it may be wise to limit your intake as the day progresses.

For most of its history, it was consumed as a beverage

While chocolate bars, chocolate chips, truffles, brownies, and chocolate ice cream have become fairly dominant features of the rich and flavorful cacao bean, it was originally consumed as a drink. And while you may be picturing a sweet and fatty cup of hot chocolate made with whole milk and plenty of sugar, drinking chocolate looked quite different in the past.

The cacao beans were fermented, dried, and ground into powder or paste that was then mixed with hot water. Chocolate with no other additives isn't sweet, but rather bitter and smokey. Today, many cultures still consume chocolate this way.

Europeans developed the first chocolate bar

Yes, cacao originated in South America, but it was actually Europeans who made the first chocolate bar. It all began when a Dutch chemist extracted powdered chocolate, like the kind we use in hot cocoa mixes today. Then, a man by the name of Joseph Fry, who is credited with making the first chocolate bar, reintroduced the powder back into the fat, creating a solid yet meltable bar. 

Eventually, the company Cadbury was born, and dark chocolate bars were marketed all over England. Inevitably its popularity spread all over Europe and then eventually, across continents.

There are different drinking chocolate traditions from around the world

In the United States, we typically enjoy our hot chocolate made with a powdery, sweetened mixture stirred into a cup of piping hot milk. It's loaded with sugar and makes for a delightful dessert, especially when the weather turns cold. However, there are endless sweet traditions of drinking chocolate around the world that are worth a try. 

For instance, on the island of Samoa, they enjoy a savory roasted cocoa powder made with hot water called koko Samoa. It's savory, and less fatty, while in Columbia, they add whole milk and even cheese to make chocolate santafereño.

Cocoa can be added to chili

For any recipe that could use a touch of richness, look no further than unsweetened cocoa powder. Chili, especially, can benefit from this secret ingredient, along with a little coffee or espresso powder if you have some on hand. Both help to enhance the soup's smoky undertones, which will be sure to elevate your next batch of chili

Don't go overboard, though. Just a small amount will do and can help to offset the acidity of the crushed tomatoes. Not only will this help to deepen the flavor, but it will also carry earthy flavors and give your recipe an upper hand that guests won't be able to put their finger on.

Chocolate sauce isn't always sweet

When we hear "chocolate sauce," it's only natural to picture the sweet, dark, silky sauce that is commonly found drizzled over ice cream, fruit, or brownies. But chocolate, itself, isn't inherently sweet, so it's no wonder that chocolate sauce comes in a variety of styles. 

Mole sauce, for instance, is a Mexican sauce that can be found in savory dishes. It's made with a variety of spices, including chilies, along with nuts, aromatics, and of course, unsweetened cocoa powder. Although there are many variations on the basic mole sauce recipe, it is quite distinctive and readily enjoyed throughout Central and South America.

It's expensive for a reason

Chocolate bars are typically made from cocoa beans, cocoa butter, milk, sugar, and sometimes an emulsifier. The prices of many of these products have been consistently climbing. In fact, the price of chocolate could climb higher than ever

This is because, like many plant-based ingredients, the success of the cacao tree is weather dependent, and when there is drought and climbing temperatures, cacao trees struggle to thrive. In addition, it takes quite a bit of cocoa powder to make each chocolate bar or bag of chocolate chips, so climate changes and natural disasters hold the future of chocolate prices in their hands.

It's rich in antioxidants

While it's hard to believe that candy can actually be good for you, there is some truth behind the claim. Chocolate, or cacao rather, is loaded to the brim with antioxidants, according to Antioxidants and Redox Signaling. Among their many purported benefits, antioxidants help to reduce inflammation, which is a symptom of many ailments. Therefore, cacao is a healthy ingredient to add to any diet. 

However, while chocolate bars do contain the same health benefits as cacao, they are usually also loaded with sugar and fat. As we know, consuming sugar and fat to excess can be unhealthy, so be sure to enjoy chocolate candy in moderation.

It's best to prepare your palate when tasting chocolate

When tasting intense flavor, it's nice to start fresh with a cleansed palate. So, if you'd like to get the most out of your high-quality chocolate, or plan on doing a chocolate tasting, stay tuned for important tips you need for tasting chocolate

Enhance the flavor by starting with a sip of water, and swooshing it around your mouth. While this may work for certain individuals, some professionals claim that plain polenta is the only flavor that can truly reset a palate. Next, rub the chocolate between your fingers to release the taste and take a full inhale. Finally, melt the chocolate in your mouth and enjoy.

Cacao trees can live over a century

Cacao trees, native to South America, are now found all over the world. The trees take about five years to reach maturity and only bear marketable cacao fruit for about 25 years. However, they can live up to a century, and are the sole reason we humans get to experience delicacies like hot chocolate, brownies, and truffles. 

The trees produce pods, which contain beans. From the beans, we not only get cacao but cocoa butter as well, which you may have seen as an ingredient in your moisturizer or hair conditioner to help lock in moisture.

White chocolate isn't technically chocolate

Fermented, roasted, and ground cacao beans are deep brown. So it's awfully confusing that white chocolate is considered to be a type of chocolate. The truth is, that white chocolate is not chocolate at all. 

It doesn't contain cocoa particles but is made with cocoa butter, which is why it's able to keep its creamy white coloring. The cocoa butter is mixed with milk, sugar, vanilla, and often lecithin, and voila, white chocolate. This caffeine-free option is great for those who enjoy the texture of chocolate, but are looking for a less intense flavor.

Many ancient hot chocolate recipes were boozy

Today, boozy hot chocolate is something you'll find at winter festivals, New England bars, and holiday parties, but back in the day, it was more common. In fact, some of the first hot chocolate recipes contained booze. After the Spanish learned about cacao from the Aztecs and brought it over to Europe, they modified the native drink.

While South Americans consumed bitter beverages with hot water, spices, and cacao, Europeans added their own flair with milk, sugar, and vanilla. In addition, they added alcohol which gave it a little extra kick. Wine was often the boozy addition, although today, it's more typical to see whiskey, bourbon, or rum.

Mashed bananas taste great in chocolate cake

As we all know, chocolate and fruit make a fantastic pairing. So when you're making chocolate baked goods, it's a good idea to consider adding in fruit, whether it be a topping, part of the icing, or an ingredient in the batter. A great way to combat dry cake is by adding mashed banana. It's the fruity ingredient that can change your chocolate cake for the better

This works particularly well in chocolate cake because banana and chocolate are a dynamic duo, but also the sweetness of the bananas helps to enhance the chocolate flavor. Add extra cocoa to overpower the banana flavor if you find it too intense.

It takes quite a few beans to make just an ounce of candy chocolate

Chocolate, if nothing else, is dense. Its flavor is powerful and unforgettable. This is due to the high concentration of cacao used in every ounce. And while cocoa pods are quite large, a cocoa bean is about the size of an almond. To produce enough cocoa for just one bar of chocolate, it can take 400 to 500 beans. This certainly requires quite a bit of labor and is a contributing factor to the high cost of chocolate, especially that which is made with quality ingredients.

There are four main cocoa varieties

Just like coffee beans, cacao comes in different varieties. There are four main types of cacao plants, including the forastero, criollo, trinitario, and nacional. The forastero is the most common, so you've probably indulged in this bean for the most part. The criollo is much rarer and is only used by select, high-end chocolatiers. It's exceptionally fragrant, and is much less bitter than the forastero. The trinitario varies the most in flavor, and is a hybrid. 

It's unlikely that you've ever tried chocolate from the nacional, as it was only discovered in 2011. If you're fortunate enough to find some, it's rare, rich, and creamy.

The Swiss eat more chocolate than any other nation

You may not be surprised to find out that more than any other nation, the Swiss are the largest consumers of chocolate. Swiss chocolatiers are some of the best in the world, and it's apparent that their citizens are quite aware of this fact. In fact, in Switzerland each person consumes an average of nearly 20 pounds, every year. For reference, that's about the weight of a large sledgehammer or watermelon, although probably better tasting. Austria is close behind in second place, and perhaps surprisingly, the United States comes in 10th.

Chocolate chip cookies were a mistake

The most popular cookie in the United States, is, no doubt, the chocolate chip cookie. But did you know its invention was a mistake? 

Ruth Wakefield, who was working for Nestle Toll House, was trying to make chocolate cookies and broke up a chocolate bar to add to her dough. Instead of melting and mixing with the dough as it cooked, as Wakefield anticipated, the little chips of chocolate held in place. As a result, our favorite cookie was born. In addition, the chocolate chip cookie is more than just a favorite in the cookie category, it's also the most popular dessert in America. 

Chocolate has an effect on our moods

There's a reason we eat a box of chocolates after a breakup, why we bring chocolate-covered strawberries on a romantic date, and why when things just seem to be going wrong, we reach for that pint of chocolate ice cream. It just makes us feel better, and there's a scientific reason for it.

Loma Linda University released a few studies that prove that dark chocolate consumption has a direct effect on our brain chemistry and moods. They found that it's not all about that sugar rush. In fact, chocolate bars with higher concentrations of cacao actually improved people's moods through stress relief.

Cacao is now mostly grown in Africa

While cacao was first discovered in South America, that doesn't mean that humans weren't eager to grow it all over the world. Europeans, in particular, were thirsting to have the plant more accessible, but needed a specific climate in order to host the trees. 

The trees were spread to island communities across the globe, and then eventually made their way to West Africa, where 70% of today's cocoa production and chocolate exportation takes place. In fact, cacao trees have been growing on the continent of Africa since they were brought there in 1822.

Cocoa and cacao are different

The terms cocoa and cacao are often used interchangeably when discussing chocolate. And while cacao may just seem like the correct or even pretentious way to say cocoa, the two are actually different words entirely. 

Cacao refers to the raw and unfermented bean, while cocoa is the powder made from fermented and roasted cacao beans. Therefore, the trees can be referred to as both cacao and cocoa trees, as they produce both outcomes. But if you're in the grocery store shopping for cake ingredients, it's important to know the subtle distinction, as it could affect your recipe.

Italians invented chocolate ice cream

Right up there with the universal love of chocolate, is the love of ice cream. And while its origins are much disputed, as frozen milk has been around since humans began trying to preserve it, it's commonly acknowledged that the Italians were the first to invent the dessert we know and love today. 

They are also responsible for the first chocolate ice cream, made in Naples, recorded as a frozen chocolate recipe published in 1692. It's hard to believe a world without chocolate ice cream, but we can thank the Italians for their ingenious efforts.

Hazlenut enhances chocolate

Although few can argue that chocolate isn't rich, there is a way to further enhance its depth. And when it comes to adding depth to your hot chocolate, there is a pantry favorite that takes the cake.

Hazelnuts are rich, nutty, musty, and slightly earthy. When roasted, they become quite aromatic and have an oily, rich mouthfeel. In order to bring your hot chocolate game to the next level, consider smearing roasted hazelnut butter or Nutella along the inside rim of your mug. Just this small addition should make a world of difference in both depth and flavor.

Nutella came from Italy's gianduja

Nutella is a popular hazelnut chocolate spread that has taken the world by storm. But before it was produced by Ferrero, it was a combination that Italians couldn't get enough of called gianduja. 

What makes Italy's gianduja chocolate unique? It was made with a variety of hazelnuts that are much sweeter and smaller, at least than the ones we are used to purchasing at the grocery store today. However, the two share a striking resemblance, and we are just happy that the creamy and nutty chocolate mixture is now accessible all around the world.