In its most basic form, chocolate is the processed and ground-up seeds of the cacao tree, almost always consumed with sugar. Even though chocolate comes from a tropical fruit, that doesn't make it salad (as much as we'd like it to)! In fact, the concept of chocolate has become so diluted that when you ask where chocolate comes from, you could be asking a multitude of things. This ranges from where chocolate is made and where cacao is grown to where chocolate milk comes from!
In the USA some chocolate brands confusingly put "chocolate" as an ingredient on their bars. Following the FDA's definition of chocolate, that ingredient of "chocolate" is cacao, processed in unknown ways. To get to the bottom of where chocolate comes from, let's dive into the most common forms of chocolate and their respective origins.
How chocolate is made is a complicated process. Before it's ready to be eaten, the cacao must be fermented, dried, cleaned, and roasted. But in ancient Mesoamerica, it's hard to say which of those steps were followed. What we do know is that chocolate was drank before it was eaten, and that present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras had the strongest traditions and ceremonies surrounding drinking chocolate.
Once cacao made its way across the ocean in the early 1500's, it was still ground-up and drank as a hot chocolate beverage, often with spices. In the 1800's, someone had the grand idea of pressing the cacao and sugar into a ball and eating it. That’s how the chocolate bar was invented. So although the flavor of chocolate was born in Central America, the way we consume it today is a European innovation.
The word “chocolate” actually comes from the Nahuatl word xocolatl, used to refer to the bitter cacao drink they consumed for centuries before the Europeans arrived.
If cacao, and often sugar, make up a chocolate bar, then part of the answer to this question lies in the origin of cacao and sugar. Commercial chocolate is made with the cheapest sweetener available: sugar, processed from either sugar beets or sugar cane. These days most sugar beets are grown in the northern USA, and most cane sugar is grown in Brazil and Asia. Cacao is grown in a small belt around the equator, in dozens of countries. But most of the world's cacao comes from just two countries: the Côte D'ivoire and Ghana.
On the other hand, there are thousands of people working to change where and with what we make chocolate. They're using a variety of sweeteners, including coconut sugar, xylitol, and honey, as well as ancient varietals of cacao growing everywhere from Latin America and Asia to the South Pacific. Where chocolate's ingredients come from is slowly shifting.
Historically, the chocolate bars you buy in a convenience store have been made in Europe or the US, using African, Asian, and South American cacao. The five chocolate companies with the largest market share are all located in the US or Europe, and have all been manufacturing chocolate bars for over a century.
Snickers bars, Cadbury Creme Eggs, and Almond Joy are all manufactured in the West, and have a paltry amount of actual chocolate in them. But in recent years, the market share of the "big five" has been shrinking, in large part due to the craft chocolate movement. This movement of small-batch chocolate making has diversified the number, size, and location of chocolate makers, such that you may even have a chocolate maker in your own city!
A chocolate bar’s flavor comes from cacao’s naturally complex material, a mix of minerals, nutrients, and tiny doses of fragrant chemicals. This blend has hundreds of compounds, each in different ratios depending upon the cacao’s origin, varietal, and processing. That makes imitation chocolate flavor difficult to perfect, explaining why artificial chocolate flavorings and scents seem so flat.
There is no “chocolate oil” present in cacao, beyond the fat of the beans themselves, which is called cacao butter.
All chocolate flavorings are blends of chemicals put together in a lab and added to an oil base to make it shelf-stable. While some of the chocolate syrups used to make chocolate milk may contain some cocoa powder, they’re largely artificially-flavored. There’s no way to extract each of the hundreds of aromas and flavors naturally occurring in cacao, and in equal proportions to boot. While chocolate flavoring comes from a lab, real chocolate comes from the farm (with help from the factory).