The Medical Hybridization– or Rationalization– of Cacao for Consumption

Throughout history, humans have been wary of the unknown. This constant vigilance has benefitted us throughout evolution by helping us to avoid possible dangers, especially in the context of items for consumption. Understanding the ways in which our bodies react to different food substances is crucial to our survival. In light of this, it is unsurprising that when cacao—an exotic commodity—was introduced to the Spanish diet in the 16th century, it was met with hesitation. Originally a Mesoamerican good, cacao was undoubtedly foreign and certainly questionable when it was first brought across the Atlantic by Spanish explorers (likely Hernán Cortés) in the early 1500’s (Coe 129). In order for this new product to be accepted by the Spanish (and later European) people, cacao needed to be transformed into a food and a concept that fit in with the already existing framework of diet and medical culture (120). By fitting cacao (in its various forms) into the ever-pervasive humoral scheme of medicine, the Spanish were able to hybridize chocolate into a form that was acceptable by the general population. However, there was a tradeoff for this hybridization: what the Spaniards gained in acceptance through the application of Galenic medicine, they lost in true knowledge of cacao’s medicinal properties. In this way, the medical hybridization of cacao in Spain and Europe was not comprehensive, but rather was a selective hybridization that excluded some of the most medicinally applicable aspects of cacao known to the Aztecs— a more ‘primitive’ people, but a people who understood the world around them better than the Europeans would for years to come (122).

Cacao, a sacred substance, as an offering to the Aztec sun god.
Cacao, a sacred substance, as an offering to the Aztec sun god.

In Aztec society, the tradition of cacao as medicine was well engrained in society. Cacao was used for digestion and elimination issues, anti-inflammatory purposes, or as a source of strength to name just a few (Dillinger et al., 2061S). The Aztec beliefs and disease etiology that backed these medical claims stemmed from an extensive knowledge of the native plants, as well as centuries of experience with substances like cacao (Coe 122). Cacao was no exception, and though they may not have known about caffeine per se, through experience and acquired knowledge of the Theobroma cacao plant, the Aztecs knew that it behaved as a stimulant, increasing alertness and providing energy. Cacao’s slew of medicinal properties added to its symbolic meaning for them—a meaning that was quickly stripped when the Spaniards adopted it into their own culture (126).

Francisco Hernández' publication detailing his botanical and zoological finds in New Spain (modern-day Mexico), 1615.
Francisco Hernández’ publication detailing his botanical and zoological finds in New Spain (modern-day Mexico), 1615.

Hearing of the abundance of medicinal plants growing in Aztec Mexico, Royal Physician Francisco Hernández of Spain was sent to study and classify the native botany in terms that the Spanish would understand (Dillinger et al., 2063S). Hernández recorded data on many plants, fitting them all into the theory of Galenic medicine that Europe so heavily relied upon. He classified cacao as a “cold” substance, concluding that it would be good to treat “hot” conditions like fever and hot temperaments. However, he also conversely concluded that depending on the flavorings added (chilis, etc), cacao could also be a “hot” substance used to combat colic (Coe 122-3). The contradictions did not end here. Physician Juan de Cárdenas reported that cacao could lead to fatigue, but physician Henry Stubbe concluded that it was a “speedy refreshment” that was especially helpful to restore energy (Dillinger et al., 2064S). In this way, there was no clear consensus about the medicinal effects of cacao in Europe, and this is largely a result of the general vagueness and inadequate evidence backing the heavily lauded humoral theory of medicine.

Yet, these inconsistencies did not seem to bother the Spaniards, nor the Europeans at large. To me, this suggests that the general population was not looking for truth in exchange for their approval of cacao, but merely a sense of familiarization and the 201012-w-hot-chocolate-lake-champlainreassurance of safety that we evolutionarily crave. The Aztecs had the answers behind the powers of cacao, and though they may not have been easily communicated, Francisco Hernández and others like him were so caught up in mapping the exotic plant onto their own mental schemas, that the real meaning (and symbolic meaning) was lost somewhere over the Atlantic. In this way, the introduction and subsequent hybridization of cacao was less of a hybridization and more of an adoption with appropriation to appease the masses. I can’t really be mad though, because as much as I’d like to know exactly what the Aztecs knew about chocolate, I can’t blame the Europeans for not needing a real medicinal reason to dive in to some cacao.

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

Dillinger, Teresa L., Barriga, Patricia, Escarcega, Sylia, Jimenez, Martha, Salazar Lowe, Diana, and Louis E. Grivetti. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition 130 (2000): 2057S-2072S. Web. 18 February 2015.

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