Holistic Health and Chocolate: A Historical Review and Modern Analysis

Chocolate has been enjoyed for hundreds of years. Additionally, it has progressively adapted to various cultures. The story begins in Mesoamerica; however, upon the arrival of Europeans, chocolate expanded first to Spain, then adapted as it traveled across Europe, and then came back to the Americas where the new forms, including solid chocolate bars, widely spread into modern times. While, originally it was a drink, now chocolate is consumed as a drink, bar, syrup, and more. Chocolate is now readily available worldwide. Through a long history including social and historical issues, chocolate reached its current state of being. By contextualizing an interview with a young adult in her twenties, aliased Nicky, with the historical factors leading to her thoughts, it becomes evident one essential factor needed to understand humanity’s relationship with modern chocolate is holistic health as chocolate’s effect on holistic health will affect how people consider chocolate.

In order to better understand the role chocolate plays contemporarily with holistic health, first one must understand the definition of holistic health and be knowledgeable with a brief history of how views of holistic health and chocolate relate. Holistic health is defined roughly as the state of a person’s being “that considers the whole person – body, mind, spirit, and emotions” (Holistic 2015). Thus, for the purposes of its relationship with chocolate, it is possible to group this into three subdivisions: physical health, emotional health, and mental health. Here, physical health is determined by the state of one’s body. Emotional health is how a person feels in terms of moods such as sadness, stress, etc. Finally, mental health regards how one thinks about chocolate and its interactions with the world and community.

Historical Views of Chocolate Regarding Holistic Health

Through the history of chocolate, it is easy to find examples of how people’s conception of holistic health incorporated chocolate. There exists a plethora of examples relating to physical health dating back to Mesoamerican civilizations. For the majority of history, chocolate was viewed as a potential benefit to one’s overall physical health. For example, the Aztec people believed chocolate could be used in healing practices. Thus, they included chocolate in both ritualistic health practices and in botanical remedies for common ailments (Coe 43). Following, shortly after this, the Spanish grew to believe chocolate could cure many ailments. Amongst these are skin issues, fevers, probability of conception, and more (Martin, Mesoamerica 2015). Although these treatments had no data supporting them, the belief in the healing power of chocolate persisted. As it became more popularized in Europe, these healing properties had to be adapted to fit their model of health. Thus, when looking at the 1500s and the following centuries, chocolates influence on physical health was to balance the four “humors”. These “humors” were yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm. Illnesses were believed to be an imbalance of these four humors (Coe 120-121).

Chocolate health uses history
Various uses of chocolate regarding physical health throughout history.

Therefore, at various times, chocolate was used to increase various humors in order to ascertain this balance. Throughout these periods, chocolate was persistently used as medicine. Beyond that, another key moment for chocolate’s utilization in physical health comes when women in Europe more commonly began working outside of the house around the 1800s. Then, chocolate was sometimes used as a mealtime necessity in order to provide stimulation and energy to the family, when it became too time-consuming to prepare lunches (Mintz 146-147). Due to these factors and more, chocolate was almost universally seen as a net positive in regards to physical health; however, when nutrition and medicine broke apart as fields, the association between chocolate and health problems began to become more noticed (Martin, Health 2015). Thus, until this split happened, chocolate was seen as healthy in regards to one’s physical well-being at least until the modern era.

Throughout history however, chocolate was not only important in terms of people’s belief in its effects regarding physical health, but also because individuals sought the benefits or feared the detriments chocolate offered both individually on an emotional level and as a community. In the Mesoamerican realm, the Mayans believed chocolate to be necessary for societal relations and in appeasing the gods. This can be seen through the various religious ceremonies that involved chocolate. These include, sacrifices, death rites, birth rites, and more (Coe 40-45). In addition, chocolate was used for societal health in the Mayan society by providing a means to tighten communal bonds. Accordingly, chocolate was often drank together to strengthen friendship and community. The act of drinking chocolate together in the Mayan language is chokola’j, which is similar to the modern word chocolate (Coe 61). Thus, due to chocolate’s inherent ties to religious life and community it becomes exceedingly clear that chocolate was necessary to both ease the Mayan’s minds of stress and to create a stronger societal dependency. This communal strengthening is continually seen even in Europe. As chocolate popularized in Europe and, specifically, England, beverage shops also grew in popularity. In these locations, tea, coffee, and chocolate were drank while community issue and politics were discussed (Mintz 111). Therefore, it is apparent that chocolate, through its role in these shops, helped form the English society and the close bonds of those drinking in these shops. Negatively, chocolate also furthered the use of slavery during the imperial age. Thus, in terms of the mental health of Europeans, chocolate made them feel more at ease by lessening work-related stress and furthering the profits garnered by the slave trade. However, it also hurt them in reducing their morality and by causing societal and economic issues as the slave trade ended. As such, these stressors caused much unrest both on the individual level and on the community level. Nevertheless, chocolate was still seen as a positive for holistic health in that people believed it provided many physical health benefits, provided emotional stimulation, and increased community kinship. However, despite this idea of chocolate, the modern conception can be seen to be drastically different.

A Contemporary View on Chocolate and Holistic Health

            After understanding a brief history of how chocolate was believed to relate to holistic health since its introduction into Mesoamerica society, it next follows to appreciate how chocolate is thought about in the modern world. To do this, modern research is combined with an interview of a young adult to result in a snapshot of the contemporary view on chocolate. One of the first questions asked in the interview was how Nicky thought about chocolate in regards to physical health. To this, she responded, “chocolate is bad for your health… but I always think dark chocolate is much better for you than milk chocolate” and when further questioned, added, “Chocolate is bad because of all the sugar added. Also, there is little nutritional value to it” (Chocolate Interview 2015). Thus, it is evident she believed the main aspect of chocolate, in regards to physical health, is the amount of sugar it contains.

MJ Graph
Set of graphs comparing sugar intake and diabetes rates.

In relation to the modern data, this viewpoint is largely correct. Moreover, per person we eat 12 pounds more each year than 30 years ago (Mother Jones 2015). However, this increase in sugar alone does not tell the whole story. Instead, it is also important to note that until very recently almost all the research determining the effects of sugar intake healthy has been subsidized by sugar lobbies and companies like Mars who have a strong interest in promoting the use of sugar (Mother Jones 2015). More chocolate also contains much fat. Worse, a decent proportion of that fat is saturated fat which is worse for health than unsaturated fat. One Hershey’s bar contains about 6 grams or 30% of the saturated fat one should consume in an entire day and 19 grams of sugar.

Hershey Label
Label of a Hershey’s chocolate and almond bar. Shows the high amount of fat and sugars in one serving.

Correlated with this sugar intake is a stark rise in the prevalence of chronic diseases including obesity and diabetes. In the past three decades, both the number of children with diabetes and the American obesity rate have more than tripled (Mother Jones 2015). However, the negative roles chocolate has on health could be ameliorated if chocolate made clear positive impacts on physical health like reducing bad cholesterol or providing anti-oxidants. Instead, the nutrition value of chocolate, as Nicky said, is lacking. This corresponds with a trend in human diets. American diets lack the necessary micronutrients, fiber, and fatty acids needed for health, while having too much, sugar, saturated fats, and calories (Martin, Health 2015). Thus, chocolate exacerbates the negative parts of the American diet by further providing an excess of sugar, fat, and calories while lacking the necessary nutrients for health.  Meanwhile, there has been arguments that chocolate contains chemicals and anti-oxidants that would lessen cardiac ailments, provide anti-inflammatory properties, and give other health benefits. (Watson et al 2013). However, meta-analysis of these suggestions shows that conclusive evidence cannot be determined. Thus, overall, the conclusion regarding physical health seems to be that, generally, people view chocolate as physically unhealthy with some hope that certain chocolates, such as 70% or more dark chocolate, may provide preventative benefits.

In this regard, today’s views on chocolate chocolate differ drastically as compared to how societies previously thought about chocolate and physical health. Until contemporary times, chocolate was almost universally regarded as medicinal or, at least, beneficial for physical health. However, modern times have revealed a much different understanding due to a variety of factors which could include a difference in overall quality of the chocolate bar in that many modern chocolate bars are greatly sweetened and have other added Regardless of why, now, chocolate is often seen as an antagonist in the war against obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses.

Although the chocolate generally eaten in the modern times seems to be unhealthy in terms of physical health, people normally refrain from saying they eat chocolate because of its properties regarding physical health. Instead, many people suggest a more emotional reason for eating chocolate. For one, Nicky suggested that she eats chocolate in order to de-stress, and that she eats chocolate when she is moody or sad. Importantly, she states that when she was younger she did not eat chocolate based on her mood, which as will be discussed later could be because Nicky was yet to be conditioned to use chocolate to benefit mood at that young age. More, she says she eats chocolate “because it is there” or “because of its temptation” (Chocolate Interview 2015). This reveals two distinct and important characteristics about chocolate and its role regarding emotional health. The first is chocolate is often seen as emotionally therapeutic and is eaten in order to better one’s mood. The second is chocolate is eaten not out of an innate desire but instead out of a need or addiction to the substance. Here, this refers to Nicky saying she ate chocolate simply because it was readily available and, in a manner, she cannot help herself when tempted with chocolate. The idea that chocolate is used as a “pick-me-up” is common. One belief for why chocolate makes one feel better is purely psychological. From a young age, chocolate is introduced as something happy, delicious, and a reward. Thus, people are conditioned to associate chocolate with positivity. Therefore, upon eating chocolate, even if it offers no innate benefit to mood, people are trained to feel emotionally better after eating chocolate. However, new research shows this reaction may be more than conditioned. Instead, this research suggests that polyphenols and flavanols, which are found in some chocolates, may help moodiness and decrease the effects of neurological disorders (Watson et al 2013). Thus, chocolate through one mechanism or another plays a role in benefiting emotional health. On the other hand, chocolate also can be viewed as a drug. More, one study goes as far as to claim, “sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute to addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive” (Ahmed et al 2013). From this, it is clear that chocolate can be addictive. Thus, the feelings of emotional improvement derive from the reward of being given a drug. Either way, chocolate can produce positive feelings when consumed and, thus, can be seen as beneficial for emotional health.

The modern view on chocolate as proposed both through research and anecdotally through an interview correspond with the historical view of chocolate and emotional health. Both then and now, chocolate was seen as a pleasure benefiting ones emotional being. In both cases, chocolate was a manner of reward and used to celebrate or help move past bad times. In Mesoamerica, chocolate was used as an emotional stimulant as well for celebrations like marriage and birth, but also used to get past emotional distress in death. Thus, it is obvious that the relationship between chocolate and emotional health although it has taken slightly different forms has been constant and consistent in regarding chocolate as a net positive for emotional health.

Finally, in terms of evaluating the relationship between holistic health and chocolate, it is necessary to assess the role chocolate plays on mental health as it relates to how people interact with their societal environment. To this aspect of holistic health, there are two main components with which Nicky was concerned. The first was that capitalistic tendencies would lead to decisions solely based on profit and not public welfare and the second was that chocolate consumption would be detrimental to the environment because she was unsure if there were common regulations about the use of pesticides and agricultural practices (Chocolate Interview 2015). In regards to the first concern, modern research supports this worry. For example, one researcher claims that capitalism leads to decisions that simultaneously exacerbate the issues of hunger and obesity. Albritton argues that a multitude of factors including the misuse of lands for non-foods, poor diet choices, and inappropriate farming techniques all contribute to the decline in health and are partially due to a capitalist system (Albritton 242-251). In this manner, capitalism exacerbates the strain on the community by encouraging a system in which chronic nutrition-based diseases are common. However, another issue found with the standard practices is a lack of regulation leading to poor standards for the quality of food and the living conditions for laborers. Accordingly, Nicky asserted that direct trade, fair trade, and organic certifications play a large role in her selection of groceries (Chocolate Interview 2015).

Fair trade logo
Example of a fair trade logo used to certify products that meet the appropriate criteria

However, these certifications are limited and often fail to account for many of the issues at hand. As such, the current state of chocolate detriments mental health as it brings added concerns of equality, environmental protection, and rights rather than helping ameliorate these inequities found throughout the world.

This differs as compared to the role chocolate used to play on an individual’s interaction with the world around them. In the past, chocolate was used as a meeting point to socialize and tighten kinships or discuss politics and local happenings in Britain. Nowadays, chocolate is normally bought and eaten more individually. In current times, chocolate instead exacerbates the differences between groups by promoting obesity, helping maintain poor working conditions, and harming the environment through agricultural and shipping practices.

Throughout history humans have revered chocolate for its believed effects on holistic health. It was appreciated for its supposed benefits to one’s physical health, for the emotional bettering found in chocolate’s consumption, and for its enabling of more tight-knit communities. However, chocolate is not considered as wonderful today. Although humans still appreciate it for its great taste and its ability to improve one’s mood, they worry about its effects on physical health due to its association with obesity and diabetes and they worry about the conditions that surround the commodity trade of chocolate. As such, it is apparent through an analysis based on history, modern research, and anecdotal evidence that chocolate’s perceived effect on holistic health is a fundamental factor in how people regard the substance.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. H., K. Guillem, and Y. Vandaele. “Sugar Addiction: Pushing the Drug-sugar Analogy to the Limit.” Current Opinion of Clinical Nutrition Metabolic Care 16.4 (2013): 434-39. Web.

Albritton, Robert. Food and Culture: A Reader. By Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 342-50. Print.

“Chocolate Interview.” Online interview. 27 Apr. 2015.

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

“Holistic Medicine: What It Is, Treatments, Philosophy, and More.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.” Harvard University, Cambridge. 11 Feb. 2015. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Health, Nutrition, and the Politics of Food.” Harvard University, Cambridge. 13 Apr. 2015. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “food of the Gods”” Harvard University, Cambridge. 2 Feb. 2015. Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Taubes, Gary, and Cristen K. Couzens. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” Mother Jones. N.p., Dec. 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Watson, Ronald R., Victor R. Preedy, and Sherma Zibadi. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. New York: Humana, 2013. Print.

Image Sources

Martin, Carla D. “Health, Nutrition, and the Politics of Food.” Harvard University, Cambridge. 13 Apr. 2015. Lecture.




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