Chocolate: Health Food of the Gods?

Carvings on Maya ruins from my visit to Chichen Itza, Mexico in 1992. Do you see anything that represents cacao?
Carvings on Mayan ruins from my visit to Chichen Itza, Mexico in 1992. Do you see any markings that might represent cacao?

From the unsweetened, frothy beverage consumed by the ancient Mesoamericans to the sugar-sweetened, solid bars and confections popular worldwide today, chocolate has changed in numerous ways through the ages. The idea that chocolate is good for you, however, is a concept that has proven to stand the test of time. Chocolate has been documented historically in both art and written word as an elixir believed to promote health of the spirit, mind, and body.

Mayan artifacts frequently depict chocolate as being a significant part of religious and ritual ceremonies. Though no written records remain from the Classic period of Maya civilization (AD 250 through the ninth century), the Dresden Codex is one of only four books surviving from the Post-classic era that preceded the Spanish Conquest (Coe 41). Throughout the panels, “seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans”, the text above each god reading, “u kakaw”, or “his cacao” (Coe 42). The spiritual importance of cacao to the Maya is evident from these depictions of cacao being held sacred by the gods. In the Madrid Codex, there is a scene in which, “depicts four gods piercing their own ears with obsidian lancets, and scattering showers of precious blood over cacao pods” (Coe 42). The image of gods spilling their sacred blood onto the cacao pods that are then processed into chocolate evokes, for the reader, the concept of chocolate as a medicinal tincture meant to aid in spiritual health.

Scenes from the Dresden Codex, one of the only surviving books from the Maya.

Mental and physical benefits of chocolate have been studied and trumpeted across cultures. Though the modern world of medicine has varied opinions on chocolate’s affect – or lack thereof – on health, a thorough medicinal study on chocolate was conducted by French doctor Hervé Robert in 1990. Dr. Robert found that, “the caffeine, theobromine, serotonin and phenylethylamine that chocolate contain make it a tonic, and an antidepressive and antistress agent” (Coe 29). Even in modern times, Dr. Robert saw chocolate as a healing tonic, as it had been regarded in centuries past. In the Florentine Codex, compiled in 1590, “the Aztecs brewed a drink from cacao and silk cotton tree bark to treat infections. Children suffering from diarrhea received a drink made from the grounds of five cacao beans mixed with unidentified plant roots” (Thompson). In Baroque Europe, chocolate was initially thought of as a medicinal beverage. It was viewed in the context of Galen’s theory of humors, which assigned specific properties (hot or cold, and dry or moist) to the four humors, associated with the body’s organs, and promoted the belief that good health required a balance of all four (Coe 128). Per a study published by Spanish missionary Dr. Juan de Cárdenas in 1591, it was generally believed that the earthy quality of cacao (cold and dry) was responsible for symptoms like depression and anxiety, while the fat that rose to the top (warm and dry) was responsible for effects such as headaches and odd sensations (Presilla 27). Though it is more common today to separate the mind and body components to health, this was not the case under the theory of humors and chocolate was recognized as affecting both, and by reciprocity, as viable treatment for afflictions pertaining to both. Cárdenas also promoted the idea of adding ingredients to the potion such as the local “ear flower” plant and vanilla, describing them as having, “just the right therapeutic balance to tame the “malice” of cacao” (Presilla 27) and again conjuring the idea of a healthful potion.

A physician describes the beneficial health-related effects of chocolate, circa 1640.

Even today, chocolate continues to be a worthy focus of study for doctors of modern medicine. In the 1990s, American cardiologist Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg set out to study the Cuna Indians of Panama, who had a practically non-existent incidence rate of hypertension (Presilla 57). This research led to a study of the chemistry of cacao, and a subgroup of polyphenols called flavanols and their antioxidant effects on the circulatory system (Presilla 57). The many positive health impacts these substances have on the body are still being analyzed and determined, but it seems likely that we may soon understand on a chemical level what Mesoamerica and Baroque Europe believed to be true: that chocolate is indeed good for our minds and bodies.

A cacao smoothie, touted as a modern health elixir.

Works Cited:

aas119e43. Maya carvings. 1992. Photograph.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2013. London.

Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. 2007. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/theaztecs.php

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

Thompson, Helen. “Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin.” Smithsonian.com. 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/healers-once-prescribed-chocolate-aspirin-180954189/

Weintrob, Chris. “How to Make a Cacao Smoothie – Healthy Futures.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 19 February 2015.

Wikimedia.org. Dresden Codex Scenes. 3 Oct. 2012. Photograph. Web. 20 February 2015. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADresden_Codex_pp.58-62_78.jpg

 

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One thought on “Chocolate: Health Food of the Gods?

  1. As there are issues with the new wordpress editor not allowing the creation of new tags (and I do not have the option available to revert to the classic editor), here are the additional tags I had meant to add to my blog post: health, healing, humors, Codex, cacao smoothie, spiritual

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