Cultural Importance

Celebrating the cocoa harvest. Courtesy of National Confectioners Association.While cacao is no longer used as money, it plays a central role in cultures around the world today. Chocolate features in holidays and special occasions and to some extent still doubles as medicine.

And its use is on the rise, with global production of cocoa climbing 2 percent each year—and reaching approximately 3 million tons. For the past century, demand has climbed at 3 percent per year, outpacing production.

Who eats the most?

In 2010, Switzerland led, at 22 pounds per person. Austria and Ireland followed at 20 pounds and 19 pounds. The United States comes in at 11th place, with Americans gobbling nearly 12 pounds apiece each year.

Special Occasions

In the United States, many of the chocolate dollars spent go toward celebrating holidays, to bring home Valentine’s hearts or Easter bunnies, Halloween candy, chocolate Santas or Hanukkah gelt.

In Mesoamerica, where humans first ate cacao, ritual use survives. In Mexico, hot chocolate may accompany festive foods for two Christian holidays, the 12 Days of Christmas and Candlemas. Mexicans also celebrate Dia de la Muertos (Day of the Dead) from October 31 to November 2 by giving balls, bars and drinks of chocolate to friends and family and honoring the deceased with chocolate offerings.

Indonesian statue. Courtesy of Mars.In a town in Central Sulawesi in Indonesia, it’s easy to see how much the cacao farmers value cacao. They have built a statue that is nearly 20 feet high, simply a pair of hands holding a cacao pod.

In many cocoa farming villages, drying the beans is done as a collective effort, with farming families gathering to turn the beans and visit with one another. (See more about life on a cocoa farm.)

Medicinal Use

Throughout history, chocolate has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments—most commonly to help thin patients gain weight, to stimulate the nervous systems of feeble people, to calm those who are hyperactive, or to improve digestion and kidney function. It remains an important tool for the healers of today.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, traditional healers called curanderos give chocolate drinks to cure bronchitis and plant cacao beans in the earth to pay off evil forces and heal those who have espanto, sickness from fright. Children drink chocolate for breakfast to ward off stings from scorpions or bees.

Immigrants who moved from the area to the San Joaquin Valley of California continue to use chocolate as medicine—mixing it with eggs to fight fatigue, drinking it with herbal tea to lessen pain or combining it with cinnamon and rue to soothe upset stomachs.

In the Dominican Republic, chocolate drinks still are used to treat many kinds of illness, from sore throats to anemia to gastrointestinal illnesses to overworked brains.

The Kuna Indians of Panama drink five or more cups of chocolate each day—and have been studied for their notably low incidence of heart disease and cancer. Their shamans burn cacao beans as incense and diagnose a patient’s illness by reading the smoke. The Kuna also use the smoke of cacao beans and chili pods to heal malaria and similar diseases. 

In recent years, multiple studies have found chocolate can have positive heart health effects.

Did You Know?
An Indonesian cocoa farming community built a giant statue of hands holding a cocoa pod.
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