Although evidence for the medicinal use of chocolate appears in Mesoamerican artifacts as early as 600 B.C. (Dillinger et al. 2000), the health benefits of chocolate have only recently been evaluated in modern American society. Mesoamerican civilizations and European countries long ago recognized the ways chocolate could improve the conditions of those who were sick. One could even say the Mayans deemed chocolate a super food thousands of years ago, when they integrated cacao into their diet and rituals as they believed in its magical properties. Food was considered to be medicine long before contemporary sources of treatment prescribed by physicians. Mesoamerican sources of evidence include pieces of writing, the transmission of words across languages, and residue found in vessels made of pottery and materials stored in tombstones (Coe and Coe 1996).
The consumption of chocolate began in the New World among the Olmecs, and later made its way to the Old World in the 16th century. I explore its incorporation in three primary sources: the Badianus Manuscript, the Florentine Codex, and the Princeton Codex (De la Cruz 1940 and Sahagun 1981). Chocolate was used for preventative and healing purposes, according to these documents.
The image above is printed on the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedia about central Mexico culture that Bernardino de Sahagun composed in 1590. “Book X [the tenth of twelve books in the series] is about Aztec society and covers such subjects as the virtues and vices of the people, food and drink, the parts of the human body, and illnesses and remedies. In this book, Sahagún describes the process of making chocolate from cacao beans, which is also depicted on folio 71v.” The Florentine Codex includes an exploration of medical treatments that used cacao. Among these health benefits were reducing agitation, asthma, cancer, thirst, and hoarseness (Stubbe 1662). Sahagun also described how different parts and methods of preparing cacao (cacao-tree bark, leaves of the cacao, and cacao as a beverage) could be used in order to cure or treat various illnesses.
The Badianus Manuscript, written in 1552 in Nahuatl, presents the use of food in healing particularly through the use of medicinal herbs. The manuscript explores “the use of cocoa derivatives as nutrients or remedies for angina, constipation, tartar-related dental problems, dysentery, dyspepsia, indigestion, fatigue, gout and hemorrhoids” (De la Cruz, 1940). This primary source focus on the use of cacao flowers to cure fatigue. Finally, the Princeton Codex was discovered in 1914 in Yucatan and describes chants that were recited for patients who were ill. “At the conclusion of chants to cure skin eruptions, fever and seizures, a bowl of chacah (i.e., medicinal chocolate) that contained two peppers, honey and tobacco juice was drunk by the patients” (Princeton Codex 1965).
As chocolate was transferred to Western Europe, its consumption was deemed suspicious given its stimulating effects. In order to appeal to Galenism, the prominent medical philosophy at the time, doctors and scientists found evidence of the ways it improved the body (Lippi, 2012). There were various conclusions drawn pertaining to the health impacts chocolate provided from the 17th to the 19th centuries, though the results center on three medicine-related uses for cacao and chocolate: weight gain in emaciated patients, stimulating the nervous system, and improving digestion (Dillinger et al. 2000).
In a study by the Hershey Centre for Health and Nutrition, researchers found that dark chocolate contained more antioxidants and polyphenols than fruit “all of which are thought to protect the body from diseases such as cancer, and heart conditions” (Alleyne, 2011). Nutritionists and vendors alike have declared chocolate, especially dark chocolate, a super food. Cocoa products have been proven to slightly lower blood pressure and have even been linked with lower rates of cancer (Steinberg et al. 2003). However, most studies on the health benefits of chocolate have focused on cocoa extracts, not chocolate, and the distinction must be made in order to consider the impact of the addition of sugar and fats in modern American society.
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“The Badianus Manuscript.” America’s Earliest Medical Book. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.
Coe, S.D., Coe, M.D., 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London
Dillinger T.L., Barriga P., Escarcega S., Jimenez M., Salazar Lowe D., Grivetti L.E. Food of the gods: Cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. J. Nutr.2000;130:2057–2072.
De la Cruz M. The Badianus Manuscript, Codex Barberini, Latin 241, Vatican Library: An Aztec herbal of 1552. Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore, MD, USA: 1940.
Libro decimo de los vicios y virtudes desta gente indiana y de los miembros de todo el cuerpo interiores y esteriores y de las enfermedades y medicinas contrarias y de las nationes que a esta tierra an venido a poblar, Mexico [Online Image]. 1577 CE. The World Digital Library. Retrieved 02-14-16 from https://www.wdl.org/en/item/10621/.
Lippi D. History of the Medical Use of Chocolate. In: Watson R.R., Preedy V.R., Zibadi S., editors. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Humana Press; New York, NY, USA: 2012. pp. 11–21.
Roys, R. L. Ritual of the Bacabs. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK: 1965.
Sahagun B. General History of the Things of New Spain [Florentine Codex, 1590] School of American Research, University of Utah Monographs of the School of American Research, and Museum of New Mexico; Santa Fe, NM, USA: 1981.
Steinberg, Francene M., Monica M. Bearden, and Carl L. Keen. “Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: implications for cardiovascular health.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 103.2 (2003): 215-223.
Stubbe, H.. The Indian Nectar or a Discourse Concerning Chocolata and Nature of the Cacao-Nut and other Ingredients of that Composition is Examined and Stated According to the Judgment and Experience of Indian and Spanish Writers. J.C. for Andrew Crook, London, UK: 1662.