The Chocolate Prescription: A Brief History of Medicinal Chocolate

A sweet confection commonly used throughout the world, Chocolate’s popularity as a luxurious and delectable treat is unsurpassed. Commonly consumed in a wide variety of ways, chocolate’s sweet nature wasn’t originally rooted as a dessert; it was a pharmaceutic.

Hippocrates once quoted, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”1 A philosophy that was applied half across the world by ancient civilizations such as the Maya and the Aztec. “Chocolate (known as cacao), it seemed, had the power to improve the probability of conception and the quality of breast milk or reverse the effects of exhaustion, impotence, vision-quest hangovers, mental illness, fevers, poison, skin eruptions, lung problems, agitation, diarrhea, indigestion and flatulence, to name a few.”2 Clearly considered to be a cure-all for a variety of ailments, chocolate was esteemed in both Maya and Aztec culture.

It wasn’t until a Fransiscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagun, who had traveled to New

A page from the Florentine Codex
A page from the Florentine Codex

Spain (now known as Mexico) and carefully documented the culture of the Aztec. Within his various volumes, the Florentine Codex contained various methods of preparation and uses for ground up cacao in conjunction with other herbs. In the Badianus Manuscript, a ground up herbal remedy for injuries of the feet was meant to be applied externally.3 The first European written text to produce an account of how another missionary was treated for kidney disease “At the end of his days, his urine was afflicted, and the doctors ordered him to use a drink that in the Indies they call chocolate. It is a little bit of hot water in which they dissolve something like almonds that they call cacaos, and it is made with some spices and sugar…and when in his illness he found himself well with drink, he said that God [had punished him], because he had not been penitent in his early years.”4

Surely such a miraculous cure-all that was cacao was to be introduced to the heads of state back in Spain. Fransisco Hernandez was sent by Spanish King Phillip II on a scientific expedition to the New World to study, collect and classify. Upon his return, his detailed accounts of the use of cacao began to stir up interest. While this new medicine was attributed for many health remedies, one must bear in mind that it was documented with a European translation of Maya and Aztec methods. To better understand it’s properties, cacao needed to adhere and convert to the European medicinal school of thought.

According to Bartholomeo Marradon, cacao could be administered as medicine to those who were ill without heat. His variations in recipes included the addition of sugar, cinnamon, chilli powder, cloves, anise and annatto seeds for color. However, he ultimately also argued that this new medicine was not without it’s side effects and was considered “potentially obstructive”.5

Taking on the challenge in debating Marradon, another Spanish physician, Colmenero

The Galenic Humoral chart displays the body's four seasons.
The Galenic Humoral chart displays the body’s four seasons.

de Ledesma opted to find a way in which this Aztec medicine could fit into the Galenic medical philosophy. A medical theory in which it was thought that, “prescribing medicines and foods to be given to the patient, so that if the disease was ess entially a warm and dry one, a cold and moist medicine/food would be prescribed.”6 His efforts in understanding what cacao was, what qualities it pertained, how and when to consume it were ultimately followed by an abundance of studies (17th-19th centuries) throughout chocolate’s spread through Europe.

With the conversion of this medicine into a common treat, chocolate still to this day is continuously being studied for it’s medicinal benefits. While Hippocrates and the Aztec were certainly trending on to something, don’t expect your next prescription to be chocolate cake.


2 Chocolate: Pathway To The Gods, Dreiss & Greenhill,The Healing Powers of Chocolate, pg. 141




6 The True History of Chocolate, Coe & Coe, Chocolate Conquers Europe, pg. 128


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