February 23, 2022

I thought it was appropriate as I sat in my office watching the sleet storm this morning to have an article forwarded to me concerning the difference between hot chocolate and hot cocoa.  While the terms are used interchangeably, they are two distinct drinks.  Hot chocolate is exactly what it sounds like.  It is small pieces or shavings of chocolate that you mix with hot water, milk, or cream.  Drinking hot chocolate is like drinking a melted chocolate bar, and the type and amount of liquid you use will determine how thick it is.  Hot cocoa is instead made with cocoa powder, which is dried and ground cocoa solids.  Cocoa is what is left after you press cocoa butter out of cocoa beans.  Most of the hot cocoa mixes at the supermarket contain added sugar and powdered milk.  Unless you make your own, you probably drink hot cocoa rather than hot chocolate.

When I looked online, I found the history of chocolate can be traced to the ancient Mayans, and even earlier to the ancient Olmecs of southern Mexico.  While “chocolate” may bring images of sweet candy bars and luscious truffles, today’s chocolate is unlike the chocolate of the past.  Originally, chocolate was a sacred, bitter beverage, not a sweet, edible treat.  Chocolate is made from the fruit of cacao trees, which are native to Central and South America.  Each fruit pod contains around 40 cacao beans.  The beans are dried and roasted to create cocoa beans.  Hayes Lavis, cultural arts curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, says ancient Olmec vessels from around 1500 BCE were discovered with traces of theobromine, a stimulant compound found in chocolate and tea.  Since the Olmec kept no written history (at least that we can decipher), opinions differ on how they used cacao in their drinks.

When I lived in the Bay Area, I would visit the chocolateries just off the Wharf District of San Francisco.  While these stores produce “bean-to-bar” chocolate, they created chocolate suited to American tastes.  American Chocolate is regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, who mandates the levels of cocoa solids contained in the varieties of chocolate.  European chocolate adheres to EU standards and require a higher level of cocoa.  The main difference is US chocolate is sweeter than European chocolate, with less cocoa and more sugar or other sweeteners.  I visited one shop that did not make chocolate but sold chocolate bars and baking chocolate with various percentages of chocolate.  They offered samples and the higher the percentage of chocolate the lower the sweetness.  I found anything over 80% intolerable.

THOUGHTS:  Modern chocolate production comes at a cost.  As many cocoa farmers struggle to make ends meet, some turn to low-wage or slave labor, or even child trafficking, to stay competitive.  This has prompted grass roots efforts for large chocolate companies to reconsider how they get their cocoa supply.  It has also resulted in appeals for chocolate which is created in an ethical and sustainable way.  The West has created a demand for all kinds of luxury products (coffee, tea, chocolate, clothes, drugs) that are produced by unregulated practice.  We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to reduce the cost of our pleasure.  Fair Trade and Sustainably Sourced are more than just words.  Do the work.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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