Chocolate Tasting: A Class Activity

This quarter I am teaching the “Introduction to International Studies” class, and this week we were talking about food. I always find that students enjoy this week, in part because crops form part of clear commodity chains so that every student can see the connection between themselves and food producers globally. I’ve also adopted a classroom assignment developed by my friend, Kim Brown, which is quite popular- the chocolate tasting. Later in the class I lectured on bioterrorism and cacao in Brazil, which I’ve also covered in an earlier post here. I also showed Robert Beckford’s clever documentary video on rice, chocolate and gold production, which available for free online. The food unit follows a section on development theories. Beckford’s film was engaging for students, but he also tied events in Africa to IMF/World Bank policies, as well as the global trading system, which makes it a good fit for the class. But before I arrived at the core content of the class, I first did the chocolate tasting.

Picture by Suat Eman at

I went to my local New Seasons market, where I purchased raw cacao beans. After some taste testing, my daughters gave me the strong advice not to give this to students without some honey to sweeten it. The food court gave me some latex gloves to break up chocolate bars. And World Market had a wide selection of chocolate bars with different levels of cacao. I broke up the chocolate into small blocks on paper towels and called up the class up by rows. We started with the cacao beans. Students were a little hesitant to bite them because the outer shell looks so hard. I explained that these beans were from Ecuador or Peru, the original homeland of cacao, and were used as money in ancient MesoAmerica. After tasting the cacao beans (a few student genuinely liked them, but they weren’t very popular), students then moved to chocolate which had chiles. The ancient Aztecs drank a mix of chiles and chocolate, which was reserved for the elites. It must have been popular- traces of chocolate have been found on the inside of pottery containers found in the U.S. Southwest, where it doubtless was brought on foot. After that the students were able to sample chocolate with different levels of cacao (or cocoa- the term is spelled both ways). The 70% cacao level seemed most popular, while everyone thought the 90% was too bitter (although I favor that with single malt scotch). The class had fun, and nobody took too much chocolate. Many students would break even the small amount of chocolate that I had put out in half. There was a lot of laughter as people watched their friends’ faces as they ate the cacao beans.

I deliberately chose dark chocolate, so that students who were lactose intolerant could take part. But I also warned the students that almost all the chocolate bars said that they were processed in a facility that also handled “milk, nuts and wheat.” If you can have someone help you break up the chocolate (thank you to my amazing graduate assistant) it makes the preparation much easier. …

Witches’ Broom: The Mystery of Chocolate and Bioterrorism in Brazil

Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree, Juan C. Motamayor, Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace da Silva e Mota, Rey Loor, David N. Kuhn, J. Steven Brown, Raymond J. Schnell; from Wikipedia commons
“Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree,” Juan C. Motamayor, Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace da Silva e Mota, Rey Loor, David N. Kuhn, J. Steven Brown, Raymond J. Schnell; from Wikipedia commons

When people think of chocolate, they may know that it roots stretch back to Mexico, where Aztec emperors used to drink a frothy concoction of cacao and chile. They are less likely to know that cacao originally came from the Amazon, most likely somewhere in Ecuador, which still has the most genetically diverse cacao trees. How it traveled north, perhaps on trading ships along the Pacific Coast, or overland through Central America,  we will never know. But its origins are less of a mystery, than the disappearance of chocolate in Northeastern Brazil beginning in the late 1980s.

Chocolate was originally brought from the Amazon to Brazil’s north-east in 1746. This region was colonial Brazil’s heartland, where the legacy of slavery had created a society defined by both poverty and social inequality.  I spent two months in Recife, Brazil in 1990, where I saw the gold and jewels in the Baroque churches, and the poverty in the countryside. This poverty -and the power of traditional elites- may have motivated one of the greatest crimes in all history, if such a crime actually took place. …

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