The Chocolate Rx: Early European Belief in Medical Cacao


An advertisement run by Hershey's (dated to be before the 1950s). The founder of Hershey's, Milton Hershey, understood the power of marketing. By lauding the health benefits of chocolate and using colorful artwork, Hershey made his company into a household name. This also reveals the persistent European belief in the medical use of cacao and even its later derivatives.

In Western society, the overt medicalization of cacao and its products ran rampant up until about the early 20th century (Wilson & Hurst 29). As we see in the historical advertisement below, physicians endorsed the curative effects of chocolate, suggesting that the public also held similar beliefs. Although the idea that milk chocolate can heal consumptive cases seems absurd in this day and age, when considering the origins of cacao and its European adoption, the early European belief in medical cacao no longer seems so strange.



In this newspaper ad, a physician endorses chocolates as a treatment for stomach issues as well as consumptive cases. Similar to the Hershey's ad, this marketing tactic utilizes the health origins of cacao and demonstrates the popular medicalization of cacao and subsequently, solid chocolate.

Cacao Prescriptions in Ancient Mesoamerica

Long before European medicalization of cacao, Mesoamericans (the Olmec, Maya and Aztec) were using cacao for medicinal purposes. Due to meticulous documentation of the Aztecs, the Aztecs’ use of cacao as a medicine best illustrates the beliefs in the healing properties of this superfood. One of these invaluable sources is the Badianus Manuscript (1552), also known as the “Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians.” Written by Martin de la Cruz and Juan Badiano, this book documents various herbal treatments for a multitude of illnesses in both Latin and Nahuatl. In many excerpts, cacao is used as a treatment either to be ingested or topically applied for illnesses such as fatigue, constipation, angina, lactation difficulties and hemorrhoids (Dillinger et al.). Another surviving text is the Florentine Codex (1590) where Fray Bernardino de Sahagún writes detailed cacao prescriptions for ailments such as infection, diarrhea and cough. He also notes that cacao was used to make Aztec medicine more palatable or made into a beverage to act as a vehicle for other medicines (Dillinger et al.). These significant documents and observations contributed to the European popularization of cacao as a medicine and the continuation of traditional Aztec preparations.


A page from the Badianus Manuscript showing a cacao tree (top center). The inclusion of cacao in this manuscript exhibits its curative status in Aztec culture, which would contribute to the eventual medicalization of cacao in Europe.

European Adoption of Medical Cacao

Although it’s clear that Mesoamericans used cacao as medicine, we will now investigate how the Europeans came to adopt this use. Firstly, Aztecs were expert herbalists and many Europeans witnessed the healing powers of Aztec herbal concoctions firsthand. These testimonials helped preserve the medicinal use of cacao in the post-conquest New World and in Europe (Aaron & Bearden 74). Secondly, Europeans were vigilant about improving their health since they often suffered from stomach issues due to their meat-centric diet (Coe & Coe 124). Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the Aztec view of health complemented popular European thought at the time (Aaron & Bearden 75).

The Old World and Europe had largely different views on health, but they also shared a handful of similarities. One significant difference was the incorporation of cardinal directions and colors in the Aztec healing process (Dillinger et al.). If we overlook this difference, we can see that both Aztec and European medicine focused on the theory of opposites. For example, the Aztecs often based their medical world on paired terms like “hot/cold” and “humidity/drought” (Dillinger et al.). Until the 19th century, the Galenic humoral theory from Classical Greece was popular in Europe. It was believed that the body was composed of four humors: black and yellow bile, phlegm and blood. The humors could be characterized as hot, cold, wet, or dry and treatments would be chosen to counteract these elements (Aaron & Bearden 75). As such, it seems natural that the Europeans adopted the medical uses of cacao well into the 19th century since both cultures emphasized balance for a healthy constitution.

Although Europeans preserved some Aztec treatments like using cacao beverages as a vehicle for unsavory medicines, they also adapted cacao to fit their particular views on health. For example, in Spain, cacao beverages were taken hot, not cold like in the Americas. This preference stemmed from the humoral theory where the cacao bean was seen as “cold” and “dry” (Coe & Coe 123). Thus, drinks were prepared such that it could cure disorders of the opposite qualities and we begin to see a more marked divergence in preparations. For instance, spices used by Aztecs were also used in European cacao preparations, but Europeans began adding other spices like anise, cinnamon and pepper in order to counteract the “cold” qualities of cacao (Wilson & Hurst 51). Despite the adoption of medical cacao from Mesoamerica, the Europeans truly made it their own by overlaying their personal health perspectives on cacao. This medicalization also persisted for centuries, even after cacao transitioned into solid chocolate in the early 19th century (illustrated by the above advertisements).

Historical and Social Significance

By analyzing the early European belief in the healing effects of cacao, we have seen the gradual hybridization of this commodity and how it was adapted to fit its new European social context. Although this happened long ago, this adaptation of food to its social environment is constant and persistent. For example, there has been a renewed interest in the health benefits of cacao and its derivatives these days. Instead of adapting cacao to a humoral theory, we have molded it to cater to our evidence-based view of medicine (Wilson & Hurst 18). We, thus, tout cacao’s health miracles by evaluating its biochemical effects on the body, recalling the past phenomenon outlined above. By being cognizant of this process, we can cultivate and maintain a critical eye on the impact of food in society and vice versa.

Navitas Naturals markets its cacao powder by promoting cacao's chemical properties such as its antioxidant, iron, and magnesium content. This is highly reminiscent of the vintage advertisements above. Even today, modern consumers believe in the health benefits of cacao, which has now shifted to a more evidence-based research that better suits out current times and beliefs.

Works Cited

Aaron, Shara, and Monica Bearden. Chocolate: A Healthy Passion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2008. Print.

Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Print.

Dillinger, Teresa, Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escárcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Lowe, and Louis Grivetti. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition 130.8 (2000): 20575-0725. Web.

Wilson, Philip K., and Jeffrey W. Hurst. Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest over the Centuries. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2012. Print.



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