Chocolate: from Medicine to Health Food

Chocolate as Medicine

One of my favorite phrases is, “to live is to eat and to eat is to live.” While the two are inextricably linked, they offer two distinct philosophies in that the former uses food as a cornerstone to continue living, while the latter prioritizes food as a cause worthy to live for. Chocolate is an interesting existence that has helped to serve both ways of life. From its roots as a “food of the gods” with beneficial health effects in Mayan and Aztec cultures to its enjoyment en masse in today’s society, chocolate has endured the test of time as more than a mere food: it has reached a new status in its popularity as a medically approved health conscious food.

Chocolate has been consumed as early as 600 BC as a carefully crafted beverage in Mesoamerican civilizations. However, the historical uses of chocolate strictly as medicine dates back to the mid 16th century, as noted by the Badianus Manuscript, a medical text that detailed various ailments, treatments, and paintings of medicinal plants including the use of cacao (Lippi).  More specifically, chocolate was used as a remedy for “angina, constipation, tartar-related dental problems, dysentery, dyspepsia, indigestion, fatigue, gout and hemorrhoids” (Lippi).

Humoral Diagram — Detailing the various combinations used for remedies

When chocolate became known to the European world, there was great excitement at the prospect of a substance that was both medicinally valuable as well as being tasty. The primary hurdle chocolate had to overcome to be accepted by the medical community in Western Europe was how it fit into humoralism, an ancient Greek and Roman medical philosophy. Humoralism was developed by the Greek physician Hippocrates, who believed that the proper homeostasis of the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) and their respective elements (air, water, fire and earth) was necessary to properly balance one’s health. Each of the properties had respective principles (warm, wet, dry and moist) to properly diagnose patients by balancing an overabundance or lack thereof the opposing principle (Presilla 27). Chocolate was difficult to ascertain, as various professionals had differing opinions on its medical properties. Dr. Cárdenas, a traveling expert Mexican physician, believed it to contain both “cold and dry,” “warm and moist,” and unusually “warm and dry” properties (Presilla 27). On the other hand, Francisco Hernandez, the court physician of Spain, believed it to be “cold and humid,” and thus could be best prepared for those with “hot and dry” conditions, such as fevers (Lippi).

Chocolate has historically been an aphrodisiac -- it's no different today
Chocolate as an Aphrodisiac — this tradition continues even today

Chocolate has served not only as a medicine, but also as a dietary supplement as well. As it was a precious resource in Mesoamerican civilizations, it was primarily reserved for those of nobility and upper social classes. However, it would be used as sustenance for great warriors traversing long distances as it is a high calorie substance. This practice has continued to even today, where soldiers all over the world are given military chocolate as a stimulant when they are abroad. In a different but equally fierce battlefield, chocolate has served as an aphrodisiac for millennia. In fact, Montezuma was presumed to have often imbibing his chocolate beverage before having sex with his several wives. Although there are various claims as to the success of chocolate as an aphrodisiac, chocolate companies all over the world like to market it as such, especially during “love-oriented” holidays and events, such as Valentine’s Day.

Nowadays, the health benefits of chocolate have been carefully researched and well documented. When consumed in low to moderate amounts, the health benefits of chocolate (particularly dark chocolate and high percentage cocoa) may lower cholesterol levels, reduce heart disease risk, and diminish the chance of stroke (Nordqvist). It is mostly the recent trend of adding sugar to chocolate that increases the risks commonly associated with eating high caloric foods. Although chocolate has existed for millennia in various forms for numerous reasons, its popularity remains strong, if not continuing to grow. As long as one consumes it in moderate amounts, doctors and physicians from ancient civilizations to the ones today will most likely agree that it will do you more benefit than harm — so live a little!

Works Cited

Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food.” Nutrients. MDPI, 14 May 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

Nordqvist, Joseph. “What Are the Health Benefits of Chocolate?” Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, 30 Aug. 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

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