The Medicalization of Chocolate

Chocolate has captivated Western audiences since its introduction into the European diet. Early European samplers found that chocolate and cacao had remarkable bodily effects. It lightened moods, revived the faint, and expelled “sorrows” (Graziano 132). Thus, Western culture set out to unlock chocolate’s corporeal, chemical, and psychological effects, using the current cultural medical discourse of the time. But from its earliest days, this food related exploration was couched in pseudoscience and speculation, a practice that continues today.

Chocolate has been medically scrutinized from the moment it entered the European economy and has been unpacked and forced to fit the medical discourse of the time. Upon its entrée into 16th Century, pre-Modern Europe, chocolate was deconstructed and studied to fit into the cultural “humoral system,” the current medical view that built on the Hellenic belief that the body contained four humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile (Coe and Coe 121). Health and well-being were established by maintaining an equilibrium between these humors. Thus, all new food sources entering into Spain from the Americas had to pass “medical tests” to understand “how novelties like tomatoes, chiles, vanilla, squashes and potatoes affected the ‘humors’ of the body” (Presilla 27).

This collection of Pre-Modern cartoons showcases the cultural medical and bodily beliefs associated with the four humors. All four were to be kept in a precise balance, or one would slip into any of the four extreme states—lust, anger, slow response, or depression. Please note that the terms “Mucus” and “Phlegm” were often used interchangeably.
This collection of Pre-Modern cartoons showcases the cultural medical and bodily beliefs associated with the four humors. All four were to be kept in a precise balance, or one would slip into any of the four extreme states—lust, anger, slow response, or depression. Please note that the terms “Mucus” and “Phlegm” were often used interchangeably.

Chocolate was particularly difficult to classify, as it didn’t affect the body in singular or localized ways (Presilla 27). Thus, medical professionals devised complicated and detailed ways to deconstruct the medicinal and health properties of chocolate to fit the medical cultural norms. Dr. Juan de Cardenas proclaimed that cacao in its raw form was damaging, but when toasted or mixed could be medicinal. The fat solids were warm and dry, and the cacao solids were earthy and dangerous. However, one could mix chocolate with other additives like the hoja santa plant or vanilla to “tame the ‘malice’ of cacao” (Presilla 27). Similarly, royal physician Francisco Hernandez believed “the cacao seed is ‘temperate in nature’…but leaning to the ‘cold and humid’; on the whole, it is very nourishing. Because of its ‘cool’ nature, drinks made from it were good in hot weather, and to cure fevers” (Coe and Coe 122). Thus, from its earliest appearance in the Western world, chocolate has been used and studied in attempts to pinpoint the substance’s health risks and benefits, using the medical lens of the time.

Chocolate was melted and molded to fit the medical discourse of 18th-19th Century Europe as well. In an era where medical professionals looked to draughts and poultices as the panaceas to most ailments and diseases, chocolate was branded a health food that could be combined with other substances to better palate and enhance the medical benefits of these additives (Graziano 139).

Ads like these ran regularly in newspapers and other publications of the 1700’s and promoted the message of chocolate as a health food. These widely circulated advertisements widely spread this belief and began the trend for other health and additive infused chocolates.
Ads like these ran regularly in newspapers and other publications of the 1700’s and promoted the message of chocolate as a health food. These widely circulated advertisements widely spread this belief and began the trend for other health and additive infused chocolates.

Sir Hans Sloane developed milk chocolate in 1700’s as a medicine, “primarily to increase the digestibility of the high fat cacao” (Graziano 136). Other chemists began creating “homeopathic chocolates” as well, adding other additives like rice flower, chicory root, albumin, and iron to cure a host of ailments including digestion, menstrual irregularities, and anemia (Graziano 139). During this era, multiple other forms of chocolate hit the shelves including, “amber chocolate, tonic chocolate, binutritibe chocolate of chicken broth, chocolate of pepsonized meat, tar chocolate” (Graziano 139). Thus, like the 16th Century Europeans, 18-19th Century European society adapted chocolate to fit their cultural medical practices as well, melding chocolate with medicinal and dietary supplements.

Today, while chocolate is no longer consumed as medicine or a humor maintaining substance, it has not lost its medicinally captivating qualities. Scientists and medical professionals continue to try and pinpoint the potential health benefits of chocolate, often using what appears to be correlative or circumstantial evidence. Medical News Today suggests that “potential benefits” of eating chocolate include, “lowering cholesterol levels, preventing cognitive decline (Nordqvist). A report in the British Medical Journal concluded, “based on observational evident, levels of chocolate consumption seem to be associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders. Further experimental studies are required to confirm a potentially beneficial effect of chocolate consumption” (Nordqvist). And a study at the University of Granada simply concluded that, “teens who eat lots of chocolate tend to be slimmer” (Nordqvist). Once again, these conclusions seem to be couched in highly correlative and speculative logic. However, I posit that this nothing new for Western culture. For centuries, chocolate has captivated the Western audience, and the mystery behind its potential health benefits has baffled generations. And since its introduction into European culture, chocolate has been linked to this pseudoscientific study of health and benefits, a practice that has persisted into the modern day.

Video: Dark Chocolate is Good For You

And so the trend continues of attempting to locate positive health benefits in chocolate. However, this practice often seems tied to speculative logic. Try listening for the “mays” and “could” Dr. Oz uses to “substantiate” his claim that “real chocolate is actually good for you.”

Work Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Graziano, Martha M. “Food of the Gods as Mortals’ Medicine: The Uses of Chocolate and Cacao Products.” Pharmacy in History 40.4 (1998): 132-46. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.

Nordqvist, Joseph. “What Are the Health Benefits of Chocolate?” Medical News Today (2014): n. pag. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2000. Print.

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