Prized since ancient times, chocolate is enjoyed the world over in many forms. Whether you're a single-origin dark chocolate purist or a sucker for a classic candy bar, here are some sweet facts worth knowing.
Theobroma cacao is the scientific name for the tree that grows cocoa beans, and it means "food of the gods."
Eating chocolate can sometimes feel like a divine experience, and it looks like Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was thinking along those same lines. He gave the cocoa tree species the scientific name Theobroma cacao. "Theobroma" means "food of the gods" in Latin and "cacao" comes from the Nahuatl word "xocolatl" (xococ is the word for bitter and atl means water).
The Maya and Aztecs were the first to grow cacao and used the beans as currency.
Valued by both ancient civilizations, cacao was used as a form of currency to purchase food and clothing. It was also used to make xocoatl, a bitter drink comprised of roasted and ground cocoa beans, water, and spices that was reserved for nobility and warriors.
Chocolate makers make chocolate from cocoa beans, and chocolatiers take finished chocolate and put their spin on it.
Though these two titles may sound similar, they actually mean two very different things.
Bean-to-bar chocolate makers are artisanal craftspeople that take specialty cacao beans sourced from particular regions and do all the steps required to turn that raw product into a delicious, beautifully wrapped chocolate bar: sorting, roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding, conching, tempering, molding, and wrapping. Adjustments are made at every step of the process with the end goal of bringing out the nuanced flavors of the cocoa beans, and in small-batch chocolate making each step differs slightly with different origins and even between different batches of beans from the same origin.
Chocolatiers, on the other hand, take finished chocolate from chocolate makers and use their creativity to make confections, from truffles to nut and peppermint barks to 3D objects made using custom molds.
The numerical percentage listed on a chocolate bar indicates how much cacao is in the bar.
In chocolate higher percentages typically indicate a "darker" chocolate bar, and this is because the percentage is equivalent to the amount of cacao in the bar. Everything else is added ingredients, which can include sugar, milk, and other additives like soy lecithin (an emulsifier) and vanilla.
Cacao beans consist of cocoa solids (which contribute flavor and the signature deep color of the finished bar) and cocoa butter (the fatty part of the bean that gives chocolate its smooth texture). Depending on the cacao beans used (as cocoa butter content can vary) and the desired consistency of the end product, chocolate makers add additional cocoa butter to enhance mouthfeel and make the chocolate easier to work with.
The top three holidays for chocolate candy sales in the US are Christmas, Easter, and Valentine's Day.
Move over, Halloween. The chocolate and candy-centric holiday got beat out by Valentine's Day, which holds the number three spot in market research firm Packaged Facts' US food market outlook 2018 report. It was found that for the $22 billion US chocolate candy industry, holiday and seasonal products account for an estimated 24% of all sales.
Chocolate takes on the flavors of things around it, so keep it sealed if you're not eating it all in one sitting.
"Chocolate is like a sponge and will absorb anything around it," DeAnn Wallin, owner and chocolate maker of Salt Lake City-based Solstice Chocolate, told INSIDER.
"If you have it in your purse with mint gum, you'll have mint chocolate," Wallin continued. "If you put it in your fridge with cheese, your chocolate could get a little funky if it's not wrapped up. You gotta keep it away from other things."
For this reason Wallin uses a specially designed resealable foil package for her bean-to-bar chocolate, which keeps out unwanted odors and allows for mess-free storage.
Chocolate has a melting point just below the temperature of the human body, which is why it literally melts in your mouth.
Chocolate melts at temperatures between 86 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which is below normal body temperature and the reason why it melts in your mouth -- or in your hand, if you hold onto it for too long. Milk and white chocolate are more heat-sensitive than dark, and consequently have lower melting points.
America's favorite chocolate bars are Snickers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Kit Kats.
A whopping 45.37 million Americans ate Snickers bars in 2018, according to data compiled from U.S. Census and the Simmons National Consumer Survey (NHCS), making it the top-consumed candy bar. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Kit Kats trailed just behind, with 45.26 million and 42.97 million consumers, respectively.
While white chocolate isn't technically chocolate, one of its key ingredients – cocoa butter – comes from the cacao bean.
White chocolate isn't considered "actual" chocolate because it lacks the cocoa solids that give chocolate its characteristic flavor and color, as mentioned above. What it does contain is the fatty part of the cocoa bean — cocoa butter — which gives chocolate its smooth texture. The cocoa butter gets combined with things like sugar, milk solids, and vanilla for a buttery bar.
And before you knock white chocolate as an inferior product with tons of additives, know that there are talented people in the craft chocolate industry making quality white chocolate bars. Askinosie Chocolate, for one, presses its own cocoa butter for its chocolate-making needs (so that any additional cocoa butter added to a single-origin chocolate comes from that same origin) and to create a single-origin white chocolate barmade with just three ingredients: organic cane sugar, cocoa butter (from Trinitario Davao cocoa beans), and goat's milk powder.
Tempering chocolate is what gives it its signature shine and snap.
During the tempering process, chocolate is raised and lowered to specific temperatures to get the crystals in the cocoa butter to line up in a precise way that results in the signature shine and satisfying snap of good chocolate, Wallin detailed.
Improperly tempered chocolate will give a matte finish and result in a soft chocolate that melts easily.