In Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews sang a song about how “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” and in the case of chocolate, she was most certainly correct. Medicine has historically been reputed to have a bitter taste, so it makes sense that as far back as the Aztecs (and possibly the Olmecs), chocolate has been attributed as having all sorts of healing properties and positive effects on the body. In this essay, we will explore the use of chocolate as a health remedy along with how and why these uses have changed over time.
Historically, cacao consumption is believed to have started in Mesoamerica. Cacao was consumed by Aztec elites as an after dinner treat, and cacao consumption was featured in certain Aztec rituals . However, from European historical accounts by both Bernal Diaz del Castillo and the Franciscan friar, Bernadino de Saharan, we know that the Aztecs used cacao as a sexual stimulant as well as for a variety of health problems including heart trouble, infections, respiratory illness, and hemorrhoids . In Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest Over the Centuries, Mesoamericans are described as using cacao to treat snakebites and to strengthen their warriors for battle . While the consumption of cacao was seen as spiritual amongst the Maya, they were also known to use cacao in order to treat skin ailments, epilepsy, and fever . With so many amazing healing properties, colonial Europeans must have believed cacao to be a medical marvel.
Cacao was transformed when it was brought to the European continent. Cacao went from a drink that was mostly used by Mesoamericans for ritualistic purposes to a drink that was used primarily for medicinal purposes . The Church played a large role in relegating European chocolate consumption to medical purposes. This was due to the fact that chocolate was seen as a mind altering substance, a euphoria-inducing experience, and its consumption potentially went against Church fasting rituals . In order to get around Church skepticism, many scholars wrote about the medical uses of chocolate, and they tried to make chocolate fit into the “humoral system” . Using Galen’s theory, early European physicians tried to classify chocolate as hot or cold and wet or dry based on their own observations and most likely their personal taste preferences . In the end, colonial Europeans used chocolate to treat hysteria, melancholy, thinness, fatigue, chest pains, kidney disease, stomach ailments, anemia, fainting, STDs, blood circulation, hypochondria and respiratory ailments .
Today, chocolate consumption in the mass quantities seen in Mesoamerica and Europe is considered part of an unhealthy lifestyle. This has led big chocolate companies like Hersheys and Mars to fund research into the health benefits of cacao in order to reclassify chocolate as a superfood and widen their market shares. Therefore, many studies have been done in recent years in order to prove that regular cacao consumption will improve a person’s health. Modern studies have shown that dark chocolate improves heart health, suppresses cough and improves respiratory function, is good for mental health, improves cognitive function, and helps with gastrointestinal disorders .
In conclusion, moderate dark chocolate consumption is beneficial for a person’s health. However, it is important to understand that historically medical science has been used to promote the consumption of chocolate and that this tradition continues to this day. Many of the chocolate health studies are funded by those who have a financial stake in the results, and it is difficult for people to understand that milk chocolate will not confer the same health benefits as dark chocolate. Therefore, it is fundamentally important that one consume his or her chocolate responsibly.
 Coe, Sophie D.; Coe, Michael D. (2013-06-28). The True History of Chocolate (Kindle Location 1210). Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.
 Thompson, H. Smithsonian Institute. “Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin”. February 12, 2015. Retrieved March 2015.
 Hurst, J., Wilson, P. Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest Over the Centuries. Royal Society of Chemistry; 1 edition. October 2, 2012.
 Lippi, D. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food”. in Nutrients. May 2013. 1573–1584. Retrieved March 2015.
Picture of Mary Poppins via Creative Commons.
Chocolate Prescription via Google Images filtered “labeled for noncommercial reuse”.
The morning chocolate by Pietro Longhi; Venice, 1775-1780 picture via Google Images filtered “labeled for noncommercial reuse”.
“Eat this not that” picture via Google Images filtered “labeled for noncommercial reuse”.