We Heart Chocolate

In the weeks before Valentine's Day, U.S. consumers will buy nearly 58 million pounds of chocolate. This love affair is not limited to just one day or one country: chocolate has spread from its native home in Central and South America to conquer the world. But today, cacao cultivation is facing a series of wicked problems—ones that threaten to drastically shrink the supply of chocolate just as global demand grows. If the threats aren't taken seriously, might we lose one of our favorite treats? And, if so, will we also lose our next wonder drug?

For most of its roughly 5000-year history, chocolate has been the exclusive preserve of Mesoamericans. The Olmec people, who lived in what is now Central America and southern Mexico, were likely the first to domesticate the cacao tree and determine that the key to uncovering chocolate's rich, complex flavors lay in separating the seeds from the white, fragrant, mucilaginous pulp, fermenting those seeds, drying them, roasting them, and winnowing the bitter beans away from their shells.

When European conquistadors first encountered cacao, they took a while to appreciate the spicy, frothy drinks the Aztec and Maya made with their precious brown beans—but, before long, chocolate caught on. From the 1600s, the chocolate habit spread from the Spanish nobility throughout Europe, and, finally, back to North America again. As it did so, it changed in both form and function, from cash to candy, from beverage to bar, and from aphrodisiac to cardiovascular medicine.

In this episode of Gastropod, we trace chocolate's journey with chocolate expert Carla Martin and historian Helen Veit, and explore its shifting role from traditional medicine to potential wonder drug with historian Deanna Pucciarelli and Harvard epidemiologist Eric Ding. Along the way, Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of the Foods We Love, takes us deep into the lush, fragrant, midge-filled humidity of a chocolate forest, only to warn us that these forests, and the precious beans within them, are now facing not just one but multiple existential threats. Listen in now to savor your next chocolate bar that little bit more.

Episode Notes

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Carla Martin

Carla Martin lectures in Harvard University's department of African and African-American Studies and is the founder and director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. This article of hers provides great context for the original spread of chocolate in Europe. And here's one other tidbit about Carla we loved: she has an entire piece of furniture just for storing her chocolate! Some of the bars are available for family and friends to taste, and some she just won't share. Carla will appear on stage with us at our April 26 show at the Boston Museum of Science.

Simran Sethi and Bread, Wine, Chocolate

Simran Sethi is a journalist and educator whose book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of the Foods We Love, takes readers around the world in search of a deeper understanding of our favorite foods, in an effort to protect them. She also recently launched a new podcast all about chocolate called The Slow Melt.

Fernando Rodríguez, Chocolate Macondo

We read about Fernando Rodríguez's company Chocolate Macondo in this article in Vice and immediately called him up to learn more about what he does. For the past ten years, Rodríguez has been studying ancient chocolate recipes, interviewing people around Mexico who still make traditional drinks, and creating new versions of those ancient drinks in his home city of San Juan Teotihuacán. Next time we're in Mexico, we're definitely visiting.

Eric Ding

Eric Ding is a research scientist in the nutrition department of Harvard University. He's one of the authors of a 2008 article, "Chocolate and the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review," and his enthusiasm about chocolate's potential for combating heart disease has both Nicky and Cynthia feeling pretty good about their own elevated levels of cocoa consumption.

Helen Veit

Helen Veit specializes in nineteenth and twentieth-century American history at Michigan State University, and she'll be joining us onstage for our April 8 East Lansing live show. Her first book, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century, explores food and nutrition in the Progressive Era.

Deanna Pucciarelli

Deanna Pucciarelli teaches food policy, culture, and nutrition at Ball State University. She's the author of The Medical Use of Chocolate, and has written extensively on the subject, including this article about chocolate as medicine in North America and this animated TEDEd talk about the history of chocolate.


For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.



  1. Absolutely great! For those of us who want to buy good chocolate in the UK, where might we find that?!

    Thanks for your hard work! Can’t wait to try out some good chocolate.

    • There is also a great, single estate, monthly subscription box you can get from http://cocoarunners.com/ , I’m in the UK as well but they will also deliver to other countries.
      I’m subscribed to the Dark only box, and I love it. On of my four bars last month was hawaian chocolate and it does have a sort of honey sweetness mixed with a wonderful earthyness.
      I highly recommend them.

  2. Loved this episodes! Do you have links to the $4-5 single-origin chocolates you recommended, for those of us in the US? I’m also in NYC, so would love to try them in person if you know any good places around here.

    • Hi Grace –
      So the two brands my partner Tim and I almost always have in the house are Taza and Theo. And you can probably find both in any higher end grocery store, like Whole Foods. Taza is made in Somerville (where I live!), and it’s Mexican-style chocolate, so it might surprise you. It’s a little gritty, because it’s stone ground and not conched at all. But I find it absolutely addictive and I adore it. Theo is another great chocolate company, based in Seattle, and it has the familiar smooth texture. These are in the $4-5 range, and I think they’re both fantastic.

      • Oh, but these mostly aren’t single-origin bars – Taza does have some single-origin chocolate bars. Theo and Taza, though, are leaders in the fair trade and transparency movements in chocolate. For single-origin bars, you’ll likely pay a little more! Look around in specialty shops near you and let us know what you find.

      • Rogue and Patric are amazing U.S.-based chocolate-makers; Patric’s Rio Caribe bar blew my mind. My personal favorite, though, is Willy’s Cacao: it’s a U.K.-based chocolate company, but they do ship, and they have a wider range of single-origin bars that you can taste side-by-side to really appreciate the difference. Their Indonesian and Venezuelan bars are so, so good, and their Madagascan is really fruity.

    • 2 Beans in NYC is a great store to explore lots of different single-origin chocolates, including fair and direct trade options. They even have camel milk chocolate, which I haven’t tried but sounds intriguing! You can pick up a chocolate I love, Madécasse, which is from Madagascar and actually produced in its country of origin (that’s super rare—most producers just buy the beans and make the chocolate over here, so that cacao growers never even taste the end product), at Whole Foods or a lot of more gourmet grocery stores/bodegas—it’s $4.50 a bar if I remember right. Theo and Taza (which has a unique unconched texture that is worth trying—some people love it and some are not fans) are also widely available.

      • This is awesome, thank you! Didn’t realize there was one so close by.

        In return, I’ll also share this place, if you’re ever over in NorCal: http://thechocolategarage.com/
        Wonderful little place in Palo Alto that offers free tastings of some really phenomenal chocolates at certain times each week, plus more in-depth guided tastings.

  3. I will definitely look up Chocolate Macondo, as I hadn’t heard of them – but there is another, US-based company making historical chocolate reproductions: Kakawa Chocolate House in Santa Fe, NM. (https://kakawachocolates.com/) They produce a whole series of chocolate “elixirs” reproducing Mesoamerican and Historic European recipes along with some nice contemporary blends. They are very intense (a serving is 3 oz of liquid, which can be water, dairy or nut milk depending on the recipe) and you feel like lying down in a dark room (happily!) after drinking some. If you visit in-store, they have free samples of everything, and your order is served in beautiful little chocolate cups that they also sell.

    My personal favorites are the 1666 Italian Citrus (which contains culinary ambergris), the 1692 French Lavender, and the 1775 Marie Antoinette (which has orange flower water among other flavorings). They have five different Mesoamerican blends, a couple of which are entirely unsweetened but all of them are very intense and interesting.

    Kakawa ships their elixirs (I gave them out as Xmas presents this year) as long as the weather is right. They’ll do international as long as you call/email directly to confirm that they can ship to you.

  4. I teach English to apprentice chocolate makers at a professional/vocational program in the south of France, and I’d love to share parts of this episode with them. Will the transcript become available soon?
    Thanks for these great episodes! I really look forward to them in my podcast feed.

  5. Can you tell me where I can find the Hershey’s advertisement mentioned in this episode? The one where it compares calories in a bar favorably to bread, beef, etc.

    Thank you!

  6. As a child I spent a two years in Venezuela when my Army dad was stationed there (1968-1970). Our sixth grade class in Escuela Campo Alegre got a tour of a chocolate factory, it was wonderful.

    Due to the rules as an American school in the country, we were required to get certain hours per week of Venezuelan history and social studies. It was taught by an extremely wonderful and open woman* who actually told us about the genocide of native Carib Indians, and of the history of chocolate in the area. Apparently the Spanish first treated the cacao beans like coffee, and it was a disaster.

    Wait! Coffee is having genetic crisis… and apparently so is cacao! I have been listening to a podcast by a professor in Florida about agricultural issues, and he had some stuff on the issues with coffee. I posted a comment about cacao, and got no where. Le sigh. Please, I want cacao saved:

    Oh, and also bananas, even though I dislike them. They are still useful, I made many banana cream pies for my dad. (while I dislike his politics, I would still make him stuff he likes to eat!).

    * I was there between being ten and twelve years old, and I met her son at a gathering in another family’s home. He was a full on high school teenager, and I was freaked out because he and the other young high school son of the host family actually treated me like a normal intelligent person, even though I was just in sixth grade. I have a brother who is six year older than me, and his friends often tormented me (as did my big brother, hence I learned to never believe everything I was told). By the way, my brother and I are now closer than we are to our younger sister, things change over the years.

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