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Chocolate is a common ingredient in many kinds of sweets—one of the most popular in the world. Chocolate is made from the fermented, roasted and ground beans of the tropical cacao tree Theobroma cacao. The beans come from a cacao pod. The resulting product is known as "chocolate", an intensely flavored bitter food; this is the definition of chocolate used in many dictionaries. This product is defined as cocoa in many countries. In the American chocolate industry, cocoa is defined as the solids of the cacao bean, cocoa butter is defined as the fat component, and chocolate is the combination of the solids and the fat. This is usually sweetened with sugar and other ingredients and made into chocolate bars (the substance of which is also and commonly referred to as chocolate), or beverages (called cocoa or hot chocolate).

There are three types of cacao beans used in chocolates. The most prized, rare, and expensive is the Criollo, the bean of the Maya. Only 10% of chocolate is made from the Criollo, which is less bitter and more aromatic than any other bean. The cacao bean in 80% of chocolate is the Forastero. Forastero trees are significantly hardier than Criollo trees, resulting in cheaper cacao beans. Trinitario, a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, is used in about 10% of chocolate.

Chocolate, when not produced in "bars" or other geometric shapes, is often produced in the form of small molded forms (usually of animals or people), for example as rabbit- or egg-shaped chocolates, near Easter, and other shapes for Christmas, Saint Nicholas and Valentine's Day. Chocolate "kisses" or roses are other popular shapes. Additionally, chocolate is often the main ingredient, or a major ingredient, in ice cream, cookies, cake, pie, and other desserts. The word chocolate is of Nahuatl origin.

Strictly speaking, chocolate is any product 100% based on cocoa solid and/or cocoa fat. Because it is used in a vast number of by-products, any change in the cost of making it has a huge impact on the industry. Adding ingredients is an aspect of the taste. On the other hand, reducing cocoa solid content, or substituting cocoa fat with a non-cocoa one, reduces the cost of making it. There has been disagreement in the EU about the chocolate definition.

Some want to see the definition allowing for any cocoa solid content and any kind of fat in chocolate. This would allow a merely coloured and flavoured margarine to be sold as being chocolate. In some countries this happens, and a 50% to 60% cocoa solid dark-chocolate, with no additive, for domestic use, is hard to find and expensive. Others want to stick to something closer to the strict definition above.

The Aztecs associated chocolate with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility. In the New World, chocolate was consumed in a drink called xocoatl, often seasoned with vanilla, chilli pepper, achiote (which we know today as annatto) and pimento. Xocoatl was believed to fight fatigue, a belief that is probably attributable to the theobromine content. Chocolate was an important luxury good throughout Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and cocoa beans were often used as currency. Other chocolate drinks combined it with such edibles as maize gruel and honey.

The xocoatl was said to be an acquired taste. Jose de Acosta, a Spanish Jesuit missionary who lived in Peru and then Mexico in the later 16th century, wrote:

"Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant to taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women, that are accustomed to the country, are very greedy of this Chocolaté. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that "chili"; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh."

Christopher Columbus brought some cocoa beans to show Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, but it remained for Hernando de Soto to introduce it to Europe more broadly.

The first recorded shipment of chocolate to the Old World for commercial purposes was in a shipment from Veracruz to Seville in 1585. It was still served as a beverage, but the Europeans added sugar to counteract the natural bitterness, and removed the chili pepper. By the 17th century it was a luxury item among the European nobility.

In 1828, Dutchman Conrad J. van Houten patented a method for extracting the fat from cocoa beans and making powdered cocoa and cocoa butter. Van Houten also developed the so-called Dutch process of treating chocolate with alkali to remove the bitter taste. This made it possible to form the modern chocolate bar. It is believed that the Englishman, Joseph Fry made the first chocolate for eating in 1847, followed shortly after by the Cadbury brothers.

Daniel Peter, a Swiss candle-maker, joined his father-in-law's chocolate business. In 1867 he began experimenting with milk as an ingredient. He brought his new product, milk chocolate, to market in 1875. He was assisted in removing the water content from the milk to prevent mildewing by a neighbor, a baby food manufacturer named Henri Nestlé. Rudolph Lindt invented the process called conching, which involves heating and grinding the chocolate solids to a very fine grain ensuring the liquid is evenly blended.

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