Chocolate - Louise Merceica


If I had to pick one item as the most universally popular food, I come across it would be chocolate so it’s hardly surprising that there is a World Chocolate Day! I don’t feel we need a day to universally come together to appreciate the wonders of chocolate as I am sure many people do that most days! 

Chocolate like many foods does, however, have a very interesting and bitter-sweet history! Let’s take a whistle stop tour!

Chocolate all starts with the cacao bean from the tree - Theobromo Cacao (translating as food of the gods).  In fact, the Aztecs believed that cacao was gifted from a feathered serpent god they called Quetzalcoatl.  ‘Chocolate’ was unique to South America for many centuries with records dating back to 1900 BCE showing that cacao beans were prepared, ground and mixed to be served as a drink (but very different to the chocolate drink we are used to today).

Like many foods’ chocolate was used as a currency with a rough financial translation looking like this;

Item to buy

Number of cacao beans


1 bean


10 beans

A slave

100 beans

Note the transaction of a person, this relates to the uncomfortable history of how the slave trade built many industries, chocolate included.    This, like the use of slaves in the sugar industry started as the demand for chocolate grew across Europe from the 1600’s.  Initially chocolate was limited to those who could afford it as it was a very expensive commodity. Kings and Queens around Europe enjoyed the bitter beverage (though had started to add vanilla and sugar to suit their palate) and it was even given to the military as payment for service in battle! 

As demand grew and more people began to discover chocolate production became more of an issue. To satisfy the European demand, not only were cacao beansneeded but sugar too. This was hard physical labour;- backbreaking work in tremendous heat.  The shameful part of history is that this work fell to slaves.   A horrifying statistic from the National Archives is this;

At the height of the trade in the 18th century British ships carried more Africans than those of any other maritime nation. It is estimated that these ships transported over 3.1 million Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas. Approximately 2.7 million arrived – the others died during the notorious Middle Passage”.

They were collected as slaves and forced to work.  Sadly, this went on for some time until Britain abolished slavery throughout the British Empire with the Slave Trade Act 1807 (though any ships in transit containing people were permitted to carry on trading). 

During the 18th century chocolate production changed to become more ‘technical’ with Coenraad Van Houten from Amsterdam inventing the cacao press to separate the fat from the bean and leave a powder, he then added milk to transform the taste to something more like the taste today.  This led to the first mass-production of chocolate and as some might say, the democratisation of chocolate!

By 1847 in the UK, J.S Fry & Sons added sugar and set into moulds – the chocolate bar was born!!

Even though we all now know that chocolate is full of sugar, the early images of industrialised chocolate all seemed to promote good health! Using images of the Swiss Alps and of lashings of milk!

The history of the chocolate bar we recognise today is brutal. We cannot change the history but we should remember it and learn from it.  Sadly, despite it being 2020 the issue of slavery in chocolate production has not gone away.  There are numerous initiatives around the world to abolish modern-day slavery in food production but it still very much exists, with workers around the world being exploited to produce the number of cocoa beans necessary to produce enough chocolate to go round.  Chocolate is a hugely popular industry and your buying decisions do matter, so please look for logos such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ certification etc. There are many sources of information to help you make informed buying decisions in relation to your chocolate consumption: -

Should you need any inspiration to influence your chocolate buying, there are currently around 2.3 million children working in the cocoa fields of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire. Choosing ethical producers will help to protect them from this along with supporting farmers and our environment.

Source – Slave Free Chocolate

Fun facts about chocolate


  • It is understood that English traders’ mis-spelt cacao and the name cocoa stuck with us!

  • The word chocolate is derived from the Mayan word for hot ‘chocol’ and the Aztec word for water ‘Atl’ put them together and you have chocolate (sort of!) Remember the Aztecs drank it hot and would have called it Cacahautl (Cacao Water)

  • To make a pound of solid chocolate, you’ll need around 400 cacao beans!

  • If you’re ever been wine tasting, you will be familiar with flavour compounds Wine has approx. 200 whereas chocolate has over 600 making it quite a complex flavour to savour!

  • White chocolate is not actually chocolate at all!

  • The biggest bar of chocolate ever made was by Thornton’s weighing in at 5800kg to celebrate their 100th birthday!!

  • North America consumes 50% of the chocolate produced worldwide

  • Death by chocolate! There was an alleged Nazi plot to assassinate Sir Winston Churchill with a bar of exploding chocolate!

Chocolate gets a bad press when it comes to our health but how does it really fare nutritionally? That really depends on how dark your chocolate is, the health benefits come from the cacao bean not the added milk and sugar so these facts only relate to anything above 70% content.

Nutritional information about chocolate 


  • Antioxidants—Compounds found in cacao (flavanols) contain antioxidant properties. These help to protect the body against free-radical damage.

  • Free-radicals are ageing so eating antioxidant rich food can delay the ageing process along with protecting against many types of cancer.

  • Heart Health—Eating a small amount of dark chocolate 2-3x a week can help to lower your blood pressure. The compounds in cocoa relax artery walls and help to prevent arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) thus reducing your risk of heart disease.

  • Blood sugar regulation—Dark chocolate has a low GI scale so doesn't cause highs and lows in blood sugar (unlike milk and white chocolate will). Dark chocolate also helps to keep blood vessels healthy and the flavonoids help the body to use insulin effectively.

  • Good for your brain—dark chocolate increases both blood flow to the heart and the brain (you may have been told to eat chocolate when cramming for an exam as chocolate increases cognitive function) thus not only reducing your risk of heart disease but also of stroke.

  • Good for your mood—dark chocolate contains chemical compounds that have a positive effect on your mood. Principally chocolate contains phenylethylamine, this is the same chemical the brain produces when you fall in love! Phenylethylamine encourages the brain to release endorphins so eating dark chocolate you will feel happier!

  • High in Vitamins and Minerals— Dark chocolate contains high concentrations of; potassium, copper, magnesium and iron. The iron helps to protect against iron-deficiency anaemia, magnesium helps prevent type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease whilst the copper and potassium help protect against stroke and cardiovascular diseases.

  • Good for your teeth—dark chocolate contains theobromine which has been proven to harden tooth enamel. Most chocolates and sweets will weaken tooth enamel.

Chocolate is popular, it’s actually quite healthy but it has a chequered past.  We can’t change this but we can help shape its’ future by our purchasing decisions, choosing ethically to support the growers and prevent the modern day slavery and environmental damage all in the name of our popular (sometimes) sweet treat.


Louise Mercieca is a Nutritional Therapist, Consultant, Author, Presenter on Early Years TV Food, and Founder of The Health Kick, a business driven by the mission of providing understandable, practical nutritional advice, in a world driven by diet culture and convenience eating.


Louise is influential in early-years health, making an impact that can influence the next generation’s eating habits. She is the author of ‘How Food Shapes Your Child’ and is hugely passionate about spreading the message that kids can make healthy food choices.