To many, chocolate is seen simply as a sweet indulgence we get to enjoy during special occasions. Cultivation of cacao began with the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec cultures. Seeds of the fruit of the theobroma cacao plant were an integral part of daily life: it was a source of nutrition, currency, religion and medicine. Chocolate has a long history spanning thousands of years. Even today, it is impossible to go through a day without constantly being bombarded with images of chocolate; there are ads on TV, public transportation, and of course there is always the tempting display at the pharmacy. Despite the daily images of chocolate, there is still conflicting information in regards to the health benefits of chocolate. Although modern preparation of chocolate, which includes added sugars and other unnatural ingredients, perhaps we should take a cue from the Mesoamericans and learn more about the health benefits of chocolate.
Next to maize, it was the most important plant food in Mesoamerica. Cacao connected mankind to their gods; it was used as a milestone for important life events, a healing beverage, and a luxury (Coe and Coe, 2013). According to the beliefs of the Maya and Aztec, cacao was part of the creation myth. In the Maya Popol Vuh and the Aztec texts, the gods created man from maize, cacao and other good plant foods. These foods were brought to mankind from the Mountain of Sustenance (Coe and Coe, 2013, p.39; Dillinger et al. 2000, p. 2058S). There was a connection between the divine and human kind, and cacao played an important role.
Before European contact in the 16th century, cacao was prepared only as a beverage. The earliest evidence for the consumption of chocolate can be found in the writings and artifacts of Mesoamerican civilizations. Cacao was traditionally prepared as a beverage. The males of the community, specifically the highest officials, priests and warriors, consumed this treasured substance; the beverage was unsuitable for women and children due to its intoxication (Dillinger et al., 2000, p.2058).
Chocolate’s history as food and medicine began in the 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish explorers. According to the Florentine Codex, compiled by the Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahugún, chocolate was drunk by the Aztecs to treat stomach and intestinal complaints. It was also used to treat infections childhood diarrhea and fever (Dillinger et al., 2000, p. 2060). Both indigenous and modern texts show evidence that chocolate was used as a vehicle to administer medicinal products or to improve the flavor of medicinals.
Throughout history, there are a few consistent medicine-related uses for cacao/chocolate. Many sources have found that chocolate was regularly recommended or prescribed to help those needing to gain weight (Dillinger et al., 2000). Today, that idea doesn’t seem far-fetched since much of the chocolate we consume has added sugars and fat. There is also evidence that chocolate was used to treat both patients who lacked energy and those who were hyperactive. Bernardino de Sahugún “maintained that drinking large quantities of green cocoa made imbibers confused and deranged, but if taken in moderation, the beverage was invigorating and refreshing” (p.1576). The regular drinking of chocolate was also found to improve digestion and elimination, and was often prescribed because it stimulated the kidneys and improved bowel function (Dillinger et al., 2000).
There is evidence that shows the Mesoamerican civilizations knew and appreciated the health benefits of chocolate. Natural substances found in cacao offered a degree of protection from many ailments. The manner in which the cacao drink was prepared by the Mesoamericans showed a degree of appreciation for the substance, and contained ingredients good for the body. Instead of sitting back and enjoying a delicious candy bar, perhaps we should sit back with a frothed cacao beverage.
Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The True History of Chocolate. London, Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print
Dillinger, T.D., Barriga, P., Escárcega, S., Jimenez., Salazar Lowe, D., & Grivettiet, L.E. (2000). Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. Journal of Nutrition, volume 130 (8), pages 2057S-2072S.
Lippi, D. (2013). Chocolate in history: food, medicine, medi-food. Nutrients, volume 5, pages 1573-1584.