The findings were published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Spanish explorers took the non-alcoholic chocolate beverage to Europe in the 16th century. Today's familiar milk-chocolate bars first appeared in the United States in 1894. (See a picture of a chocolate sculpture.)
California author Ann Krueger Spivack, who wrote The Essence of Chocolate with John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg, was not involved in the study.
The discovery that fermented cacao seeds could be used to make a chocolate beverage was a "happy accident"—one that eventually gave the world one of its most popular pleasures, she said.
The new research into chocolate's history could "fuel creativity and spark the imagination of chocolatiers and chefs," Alice Medrich, author of Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate, said by email.
"As a result, we get new ideas about using chocolate in savory as well as sweet dishes and about pairing the flavors of chocolate with other flavors, too," Medrich said.
"New dishes and new trends are born. And new ideas spread from the most innovative and elite kitchens quickly, ultimately becoming products on supermarket shelves."
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