Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World's Favorite Treat

Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World's Favorite Treat

by Kay Frydenborg

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“A deliciously informative, engaging and sweeping chronicle of one of the most popular treats in the world” (Kirkus Reviews).
Chocolate explores many aspects of the much-loved cacao bean: cutting-edge genetic science; social and environmental considerations; history; and culture—providing a thought-provoking look into one of the world’s most popular foods through the centuries. It relates fun facts as well—like the story of the children who went on strike to protest a price hike on candy bars after World War II (and were accused of being Communist agents).
As a bonus, it also includes photos—and some sweet recipes.
“Fascinating . . . Excellent and highly original.” —School Library Journal (starred review)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544556935
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/07/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 277
Sales rank: 354,326
Lexile: NC1330L (what's this?)
File size: 79 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Kay Frydenborg lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two dogs, and rides her beloved horse, Remy, almost every day. She's the author of numerous books for young readers, including Wild Horse Scientists, They Dreamed of Horses, and Animal Therapist. You can learn more about her at
Kay Frydenborg lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two dogs. She's the author of numerous books for young readers including ChocolateWild Horse Scientists, They Dreamed of Horses, and Animal Therapist.

Read an Excerpt


The World's Most Perfect Food

Chemically speaking, chocolate really is the world's most perfect food.

— Michael Levin, nutritional researcher, as quoted in The Emperors of Chocolate, 2000

On April 25, 1947, four boys in the sleepy town of Ladysmith, British Columbia, on Canada's Vancouver Island, decided to take matters into their own hands. They'd discovered that the spare change they'd set aside to buy their favorite chocolate bars from a local ice cream parlor called the Wigwam would no longer be enough to buy the bars. One member of the group, seventeen-year-old Parker Williams, had entered the shop in eager anticipation and had come out empty-handed. Overnight, the price of chocolate bars had risen from five cents to eight cents — a 60 percent increase for a three-ounce bar. Parker could hardly believe his eyes. It was outrageous.

The boys vowed to do something about it that very day. They'd organize a strike! With the friends, classmates, and younger brothers and sisters they had recruited, they scrawled their objections with markers on cardboard. They chalked slogans all over Parker's old Buick, too, and later that day he drove this protest-banner-on-wheels slowly up and down the street in front of the Wigwam, while other kids hung off the sides of the car or marched behind. Lifting their signs high, a growing line of youthful militants snaked past shops and passersby, singing lyrics they had just composed:

We want a 5-cent chocolate bar. 8 cents is going too darn far We want a 5-cent chocolate bar Oh, we want a 5-cent bar!

World War II had come to an end, and nations around the globe were rebuilding their economies. In the West, free-market capitalism was rushing back after years of government-mandated wage and price freezes — including a freeze on the price of chocolate. Parents were worried about rising prices too.

Most parents in Ladysmith supported their children's protest effort. Many adult-led community groups also began helping out, printing signs and pledge cards, providing snacks for kids on the frontlines, and lending moral support. Chocolate bars, in 1947, seemed like a fundamental right.

Ladysmith was a small town and news traveled fast. Soon nearly every kid in town had joined the "chocolate bar strike." A photographer from the local paper snapped a photo of the protesters circling in front of the Wigwam; the next day, kids across Canada began picketing their own corner stores.

"What this country needs is a good 5-cent bar!" said some of their signs. "Candy is dandy, but 8 cents isn't handy!" On April 30, two hundred kids marched on British Columbia's capitol building in Victoria and shut down all business in the city for a day because of chocolate. Similar actions were repeated in Burnaby, in Toronto, and on Ottawa's Parliament Hill. The movement swept through the country. Police were called in to break up the crowds. More than three thousand kids signed pledge cards promising to boycott the sale of chocolate until the price returned to normal. Within days, sales of chocolate bars in Canada had dropped by a staggering 80 percent.

Candy companies, caught off-guard, defended the higher price. They, too, were struggling with postwar inflation. The cost of milk, sugar, and cocoa-processing labor had all risen with the lifting of government price controls.

The young protesters were unmoved by this logic. This was about freedom, prosperity, and fairness! It was simple. They wanted their chocolate bars; they deserved their chocolate bars. But they would boycott eight-cent bars. By raising their collective voices, they aimed to hold the line on runaway prices. They planned their biggest event yet — a march on Toronto — for May 3. But then the adult world of international and domestic politics, big business, and postwar paranoia intervened.

On the eve of the Toronto march, an anonymous source told a reporter at the Toronto Evening Telegram that the entire candy strike was being orchestrated by a pro-labor organization with alleged ties to the Communist Party, and the ultraconservative newspaper concluded, in print, that the children's chocolate crusade was nothing more than a front for Communists in Moscow.

Communism was widely feared at that time — many in North America believed that Communists, called "Reds" for their supposed allegiance to the red Soviet flag, were planning to overthrow democracy.

Suddenly, formerly supportive organizations disowned the strike. Emotions were running high, but no one wanted to be seen as a Communist sympathizer. Parents forbade their children to participate further in the demonstrations. The strike fizzled out, and the price of a chocolate bar never returned to five cents. This was deeply disappointing to the kids, for whom communism was an abstract concept that had nothing to do with their spontaneous protest.

But they weren't ready to give up chocolate. Whether allowances were raised by sympathetic parents or extra chores were completed to earn the money, kids continued to buy their favorite bars. By 1947, life without chocolate had become unthinkable — chocolate had already changed the world.

The truth is, the world has changed chocolate, too, in surprising ways. It's all part of the long, strange history of this remarkable food. In its original liquid, unsweetened form, it was a key element in the culture, diet, religious rituals, and economies of several major Mesoamerican civilizations for more than two thousand years before anyone in the Western world had ever heard of it, let alone tasted a drop.

It wasn't until August 15, 1502, during his fourth and last voyage to the Americas, that Christopher Columbus encountered a large dugout canoe near an island off the coast of what is now Honduras. It was filled with local goods intended for trade, including fine cotton garments, a variety of weapons, and copper bells. But perhaps the most valuable item was a large cache of cacao beans, which Columbus and his men had never seen before and mistook for almonds. Columbus directed his crew to seize the canoe from the Indians and retained their leader as his guide.

Later, Columbus's son Ferdinand described the encounter. He was struck by how much value the Native Americans placed on the strange-looking almonds. "They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price," he wrote, "for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen."

What Ferdinand and the other members of Columbus's crew didn't know was that dried cacao seeds were the local currency. They were as precious as cash; in fact, they were cash! Though Columbus took some of them back to Spain with the other treasures he acquired (or stole) in the New World, the Spanish court was initially as unimpressed as Columbus himself had been.

It was almost twenty years later that the swashbuckling Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived on southeastern Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula and quickly began to understand the true value of these unappetizing brown beans the natives prized so highly. It was almost too good to be true: in this new land, money really did grow on trees!

From that time forward, chocolate began sweeping the globe and reshaping the world. Far more than a dessert, it is the basis of a worldwide business that yields annual profits of $83 billion. The average European eats 24 pounds (11 kg) of chocolate per year. In the United States, more than 11 pounds (5 kg) of chocolate are consumed annually by the average U.S. citizen.

But statistics tell only a part of the story. Chocolate has been considered, at various times, to be a sustaining food, strengthening (and sometimes intoxicating) beverage, culinary seasoning, currency, religious icon, status symbol, military ration, guilty pleasure, health food, aphrodisiac, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic. Chocolate has provided inventors and entrepreneurs with great wealth, archaeologists with clues to the lifestyles of people of ancient times, and biologists with insights into the evolution of animals and plants. The new science of chocolate leads back, into a fascinating past with surprising twists and turns, and forward, into the still-evolving future of a warming planet — a planet that is teeming with more than 7 billion people and counting — most of whom want chocolate!

The question is, where in the world did chocolate originate? And how did it go from being a wrinkly brown bean in the hold of an Indian canoe to a universally beloved food in a class of its own, the frustrated desire for which could almost bring business as usual in a major, modern industrial country such as Canada to its knees?

To find out, we have to start in the cocoa woods, where the long-standing human love affair with chocolate began.


Though he had an abundance of confidence, Christopher Columbus was a confused man on a lofty mission for the queen of Spain. His goal was to reach India, and thus chart a faster and safer trade route for procuring precious silks, spices, and other treasure from the Far East Asian "Indies" (so called because they were near India), but he fundamentally miscalculated his own route. Using outdated and discredited charts and maps, Columbus had estimated the distance around the equator to be sixteen thousand miles, when in reality it is twenty-five thousand miles. Thus he believed that the shimmering island in the Bahamas that he saw on October 12, 1492, was one of the islands in the Far East that Marco Polo had described a century before. The Indies, at last! Having finally spotted land after a difficult ten weeks at sea, Columbus was sure that China and Japan lay just a bit farther north, well within reach.

Returning the following spring with a grand fleet of seventeen ships and a thousand men, he landed on the Caribbean island he named Hispaniola (today's Dominican Republic and Haiti). Though the natives who lined the beach, watching his approach, were the Tainos, a group of some five hundred thousand Arawak Native Americans who had been living there for five thousand years, and though the island was in reality nine thousand miles from India, the disoriented Columbus called the people Indians. The name he bestowed on them stuck, and was later used by Europeans, and by the European settlers of North America, to describe all the native peoples of this so-called New World.

Many modern scholars believe that more people were living in the Americas at the time than in all of Europe! The central Mexican plateau, realm of the Aztec Empire, may have had a population of 25 million, compared to fewer than 10 million in Spain and Portugal combined. This would have made Mexico the most densely populated place on earth, with more residents per square mile than either China or India. And yet the entire large, native population of a continent, home to diverse civilizations as advanced as any in Europe, was named on the basis of a mistake.

Columbus went to his grave believing, against much evidence to the contrary, that he had, in fact, arrived on the shores of Asia. But even before his death in 1506, his assertion that he had found the Indies was increasingly doubted by others, and he fell out of favor. In the end, the New World was named not for Columbus, but for his acquaintance and fellow Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who recognized that this was, at least for Europeans, a whole new world.


The Cocoa Woods: Back to Before

The cocoa woods were another thing. They were like the woods of fairy tales, dark and shadowed and cool. The cocoa pods, hanging by thick, short stems, were like wax fruit in brilliant green and yellow and red and crimson and purple.

— V. S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage, originally published 1962

The tree grows wild — single and scattered, or in irregular clumps all but hidden beneath the tall rainforest canopy of northwestern South America. Able to survive only within a narrow range of equatorial conditions, it's fragile, but it's also perfectly adapted to its rainforest habitat. The tree's leaves can shift position, from vertical to horizontal and back again, like a window shutter, providing needed access to the sun yet protection from sunburn for tender young leaves. The tree loves damp places, often clustering near the banks of rivers. Moisture drips from its broad, flat green leaves and clings to its delicate new ones, which unfurl in a shiny, deep crimson color that affords further protection from the tropical sun. Moss and lichens cling to the bark of its trunk, as do other plants such as small orchids.

Even before people first saw the tree's multicolored, football-shaped pods festooned like party lanterns up and down the trunk, non-human animal species were drawn to the delicious, tart-sweet pulp. For perhaps fifteen thousand years, scientists believe, forest creatures such as squirrels, monkeys, and bats have feasted on the nutritious and tasty fruit of the tree we call Theobroma cacao. They crack or claw or gnaw open the pods, drop or knock them to the ground to break them apart, then dig into the juicy, cream-colored tissue inside. They slurp and nibble the slippery flesh, and spit out the thirty to forty large, bitter seeds arranged neatly within it. Or they swallow the seeds whole. Either way, the tree is happy (if, indeed, a tree can feel happiness), because within days, many of the seeds will take root in leaf-littered, shallow soil, and eventually they will grow new trees.


Cacao or cocoa? It can be confusing! Chocolate is derived from the cacao (pronounced kak-kow) tree, also known by its taxonomic name, Theobroma cacao. Cacao seeds (usually called "beans") grow inside the tree's fruit (called "pods"). Once the beans have been dried and fermented, they are referred to as cocoa (pronounced ko-ko) and are ready to be processed into cocoa powder, cocoa butter, or chocolate.

So the tree is cacao, and cocoa is the substance that is made from the seeds of the tree. The parts of the cacao tree that are not processed into cocoa, such as the leaves and flowers, remain cacao.

And we shouldn't confuse either of these terms with coca (pronounced ko-ka), the evergreen shrub from which the drug cocaine is made.

At the age of three or four, young cacao trees sprout clusters of tiny white flowers that decorate their dark trunks like small, bright stars. Once the cacao tree begins to flower, it will continue to flower year round. The moisture in these flowers evaporates rapidly in the rainforest, and the volatile oils that remain in the flowers have a mushroomy fragrance, so subtle that humans can barely detect it. Tiny biting flies called midges, attracted by the fragrance, enter the flowers, often just before dawn, to seek nourishment from the sticky, yellowish, high-protein pollen hidden within their stamens. Midges live close to the rainforest floor, on decaying vegetation and organic material beneath a towering canopy of fruit- and flower-bearing trees whose leaves provide dense cover. The flies — each one small enough to fit easily on the head of a pin — whir with the fastest wing beat of any creature on earth — up to an astonishing thousand beats a second! But to the tree, all that matters is that midges are the all-important fertilizers, critical to its life cycle. They transfer the reproductive material, pollen, from plant to plant, to maintain diversity.

The pollinated cacao flowers put forth fruit in about forty days, and the fruit pods mature and grow to full size in another five or six months. Even after the pods ripen, changing from mottled green to yellow, crimson, or purple, they remain attached to the trunk of the cacao tree until someone — an animal with claws and teeth, or a human with a machete — cuts them down. Dead leaves and decaying, abandoned pods beneath the trees provide the perfect breeding ground for new midges that will pollinate more cacao flowers; animals, wind, and nearby river currents scatter the tree's seeds throughout the rainforest.

The plant genus Theobroma is millions of years old; its birthplace is the Upper Amazon Basin of South America, just east of the great Andes mountains. The cacao tree is one of about twenty-two species of Theobroma. Fifteen of these produce edible fruit. But the cacao tree is easily the most important and best-loved Theobroma species the world over, because it's the only one whose seeds can make chocolate.


Excerpted from "Chocolate"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Kay Frydenborg.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Table of Contents,
The World's Most Perfect Food,
The Cocoa Woods: Back to Before,
Tree of Myth and Money,
Blood and Chocolate,
Taming Wild Amazon Chocolate,
Doing Well by Doing Good: Chocolate in the Industrial Age,
The Dark Side of Chocolate,
Candy, Food, or Medicine?,
In Search of Wild Chocolate: New,
Science Meets Ancient Trees,
The Mother Tree and the Accidental,
Chocolate Makers,
White Beans,
Chocolate Rainforests,
How to Eat Chocolate,
Chocolate Timeline,
Photo Credits,
About the Author,

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