How Chocolate’s Stimulant Properties Lead to it’s Popularity

Biting into a delicious chocolate bar, it may seem almost unfathomable that chocolate has not always been regarded as a scrumptious. Chocolate’s distinct bitterness means it is an acquired taste. Why acquire a taste for this rare food? The Spanish explorers that came to Mesoamerica in the 17th century found it used as a stimulant. These chemical properties of chocolate influenced it’s popularity in the Old World.

Make no mistake, chocolate contains drugs. In the most extensive medical study of chocolate, it was found to contain caffeine, theobromine, serotonin, and phenylethylamine” (Coe 31).  The effects of these chemicals transcend their psychological effects (although our expectations affect their impact). Below is a picture from NASA’s experiments of drugs on spiders.


One spider wove a web drug-free, the other after being exposed to caffeine. The spiders moved significantly faster and produced a random, haphazard web. Spiders are not the only animals susceptible to the chemicals in chocolate: chocolate kills dogs due to the theobromine content (Gwaltney-Brant).

The stimulant properties of chocolate were known before settlers came to the new world. Aztec soldiers were given chocolate as rations and “drank it even on the march” (Presilla 19).


This codex depicts Aztec warriors in different levels of the hierarchy. At the highest level, Aztec victors got to consume chocolate with the elite. The Aztecs had built an empire in a hundred years based on their military prowess and the early Spanish explorers were rightly impressed by them. It was the Aztec warriors use of chocolate that impressed the Spaniards, incited them to try it and bring it back to the old world.

When they brought chocolate back to Europe, the Spaniards removed it from the spiritual context for the Aztecs and Maya and instead sold it as a medicinal drug. This medicinal use may have made the initially strange, bitter taste of chocolate more palatable. Co explains that “it soon became a medicine that was appreciated for its taste, its filling nature and its stimulation” (Coe 126). Like many other foods before it- such as Coca-Cola and tonic water- chocolate was first marketed with it’s medicinal properties before being consumed non-medically.


This pastel by Jean-Etienne Liotard depicts a maid delivering chocolate, a miraculous hangover cure and stimulant. The chocolate is not only a literal drink, but could also be seen as a token, one of many symbols delivered in art. She depicts how chocolate is consumed not only by the very ill, but as an aid to every day life.

Not only did chocolate’s stimulant properties make it appealing as a medicinal drug, but also a recreational drug. When chocolate came to the masses in Britain, alcoholism was a serious issue. Heavy alcohol use paved the way for chocolate and invited chocolate as a partial stimulant. The English’s sweet tooth, which chocolate satisfied, “had long been cultivated by sweet or sweetened alcoholic beverages” (137 Mintz). Due to alcohol and sweetened drinks like chocolate, coffee and tea, “some laboring families were spending a third or even a half of their income on drink throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (137 Mintz). The British were used to spending large percentages of their income on drugs and chocolate’s chemical properties make it fit into this category perfectly.

While there are many things to love about chocolate, it’s stimulant properties played an important role in it’s popularity among explorers in the new world and in Europe, as well as add to chocolates appeal today.

Works Cited

“Cadbury’s Cocoa Rugby Advertisement.” Graphic Nov. 1888: 307. Web.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Codex Mendoza. 1521. Oxford University Bodleian Library, n.p.

Gwaltney-Brant, Sharon (February 2001). “Chocolate Intoxication”. Veterinary Medicine Publishing Group. RetrievedNovember 5, 2011.Liotard, Jean-Etienne. The Chocolate Girl. 1744. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, n.p.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

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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