Chocolate comes from cocoa beans, which grow on trees. The cocoa tree’s scientific name is theobroma cacao, meaning “fruit of the gods.” Cocoa trees originated in the Amazon basin. In the wild, they grow to 50 feet in the shade of towering 200-foot hardwoods.

The Aztecs and Mayans of Central and South America began cultivating cocoa trees 2,000 years ago. They made a ceremonial beverage by mixing crushed cocoa beans with water, then spicing it with vanilla or chili peppers.

Cocoa beans were so sacred to the Mayans that they carved images of cocoa pods on their stone temple walls. The Aztecs called their prized cocoa-bean libation “chocolatl.”


Spanish invaders learned about cocoa from the Aztecs in the 1500s and brought it to Europe. Spanish royalty drank it hot, flavored with sugar and honey.

Chocolate slowly spread among European royal courts. By the 17th century it was widely enjoyed by the wealthy but remained too expensive for commoners.

Chocolate production became easier and faster once the steam engine was invented. By 1730, chocolate was affordable to most Europeans. North America’s first chocolate factory opened in the U.S. in 1756.


The invention of the cocoa press in 1828 greatly improved the quality of chocolate. The first chocolate bars were created in 1847 in England. Milk chocolate was invented in Switzerland in 1876.

Though chocolate was popular with Europeans, chocolate production in the U.S. rapidly eclipsed that in Europe.

During World War II, the U.S. government supplied its overseas forces with chocolate. The first astronauts ate chocolate en route to the moon. Today, children across the U.S. eat chocolate breakfast cereals, and the U.S. Army’s M.R.E.’s (Meals Ready to Eat) include chocolate bars.

But chocolate is greatly appreciated the world over and consumed in vast quantities. That’s yet another reason why devastation of tropical forests is of grave concern. Cocoa trees thrive in the shade of towering, equatorial rainforests.

While rainforests dwindle and the demand for chocolate increases, scientists are seeking new ways to better manage cocoa farms and preserve the environment.