World Chocolate Day 2022: Who Invented Chocolate? The History and Origins

More than 4,000 years ago in ancient Mesoamerica—a region that covers much of Mexico and Central America today—the first cacao plants were found.

The plant gave us chocolate, which is celebrated across the globe on World Chocolate Day on Thursday. The observation of the day dates back to 2009.

However, chocolate itself has a much longer history. One of Latin America's earliest civilizations, the Olmec, was the first to turn the seeds of the cacao plant into chocolate, which they drank during rituals and used for medicinal purposes.

Back then, chocolate was consumed as a liquid and had no sugar in it. A far cry from the chocolate bars we know and love today.

World Chocolate Day
Ruby chocolate, a new pink chocolate obtained without adding berries, flavors or colorants, is presented to the media at the Barry Callebaut factory in Lebbeke-Wieze, Belgium on September 18, 2017. World Chocolate Day is celebrated on July 7 each year. Emmanuel Dunand/Getty

The earliest traces of cacao residue date from 1400 B.C. and was found on pottery excavated in Honduras, according to Smithsonian magazine.

The Maya made chocolate centuries later with roasted and ground cacao seeds mixed with chilies, cornmeal and water.

The thick foamy drink was called "xocolatl," meaning "bitter water," and the Maya saw it as a gift from the gods. Indeed, the Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, means "food of the gods."

In the 15th century, the Aztecs conquered the Maya. The Aztecs also loved chocolate, and used cocoa beans as currency, believing that chocolate was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl.

Both the Aztecs and Maya believed that cacao had divine or magical properties and they drank chocolate during sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death. The Aztecs even gave it to victorious warriors after battle to celebrate.

The brown stuff made its way to Europe in the 16th century after Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés established colonies across Central America.

It was an instant hit, at first being used as medicine. Before too long, people were adding sugar, vanilla and honey to it and chocolate became the drink of the European aristocracy and super wealthy.

Chocolate was still being consumed as a drink until 1828 when Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten introduced a "cocoa press" to separate fat (cocoa butter) from roasted beans and leave behind a fine powder. This was then used to make the early forms of hot chocolate we know today, with milk being added to it to create the libation. Van Houten's invention allowed chocolate to be mass produced, making it cheaper and much more accessible.

The chocolate bar was not born until 1847, when British chocolatier J.S. Fry and Sons decided to combine the fat and liquor with sugar, before putting it in molds to make it into a solid substance. This was a dark chocolate bar but in 1875 Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter and businessman Henri Nestlé added milk to the mix to create milk chocolate.

Since then, chocolate's popularity has only been increasing and it shows no sign of falling out of favor.