Nowadays society knows chocolate as a pleasure food, something tasteful to complement dinner, a type of candy, or even something to heat up into liquid form for a cold night’s drink. However, historically, chocolate served other uses, one intriguing one of which was that for medicinal purposes.
[See informational video of uses of cacao such as for medicinal uses, by the National Confectioners Association at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSTuk6PBfT4 ]
In this report it will be discussed how Mesoamericans regarded chocolate as having potential medical usages, applying the food item to certain ailments, sicknesses, and even preventative measures. Finally, the Mesoamerican conception of medical uses of chocolate will be contrasted with scientific descriptions of the actual medical and health benefits that chocolate may actually poses such as its possible involvement in biological effects on humans nowadays.
It is quite interesting to see that over thousands of years ago, an item that is so commonly taken for granted, chocolate, was thought to be “Food of the Gods” (Dillinger et al, 2000) and believed to poses a multitude of medicinal abilities. For instance, Montezuma would consume superfluous amounts of cocoa, as would his society as well to do exactly what Viagra does for men today (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2015). Yet soon after the Columbian discovery of the cacao bean, Europeans also joined the bandwagon in believing in possible health benefits of chocolate. Accounts from friars and priests discuss consuming and administering chocolate to soldiers for strength, and for diseases such as liver disease and kidney failure, respectively. Oftentimes Europeans would even prepare pure cacao paste to consume as a beverage for alleviating fevers (Grivetti, 2005; Lippi, 2009).
However, not only did both Mesoamericans and early Europeans consume chocolate for beliefs in medical benefits, but they also consumed it together with certain medications and foods to aid in consuming purposes. Ancient Mexican texts of the Aztecs such as the Badianus Manuscript, Florentine Codex, and Princeton Codex all point to combining cacao with certain other foods such as maize or even bark of silk cotton trees to cure a multitude of different sicknesses and pains (Dillinger et al, 2000; Lippi, 2009). Dillinger et al (2000) discuss that through ancient artifacts and manuscripts it can be seen that such ancient civilizations would consume significant amounts of chocolate not only for pleasure, and not just for medical benefits, but in fact simply to help take down other medications and less-tasteful foods. Doctors would even prescribe the food item for energy gain, and interestingly enough, to calm people down. When not used for energy related fixes, it was consumed for weight gain and in other times to detract from more unfavorable tastes and medicines (Givetti, 2005; Lippi, 2009).
Therefore, taken together it can be seen that the ancient civilizations and even early Europeans included chocolate immensely in their daily lives, from not just leisure, but also to medical benefits and in preventing certain ailments. However, one may ask now why current society does not regard the food item so highly. Although it is tried and true that current medication, preventative measures and surgeries, and other ailment fixes are substantially more effective than certain foods like chocolate, there have still been reports of health benefits to cacao and chocolate. In fact, some studies such as that conducted by Hervé Robert in 1990 point to Theobromine and caffeine in chocolate serving as neurological remedies to depression and mood. In fact, serotonin and alkaloids in the cacao have been studied to serve as mood enhancers and diuretics respectively (Hudson, 28-31).
A detailed news article documenting studies and different physician and psychologist viewpoints on the benefits and health effects on chocolate. Within the article there is an emphasis on mood and anti-depressive effects chocolate may serve on human beings.
Furthermore, a handful of the discovered 500 or so compounds found in chocolate have been found to serve as antiseptics, and others to be involved in other biological ways (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2015). As a result of discussing former–Mesoamerican and early European–conceptions of possible health benefits of chocolate and relating them to current discussions, beliefs, and findings of the health-related effects of chocolate on humans, it can be seen that although there are not fully conclusive results on the subject, it can be reasoned that cacao may provide interesting and possibly beneficial biological effects on humans. Once serving as a diuretic, erectile fix, and even anti-depressant or energy booster, our common snack food, desert, or nice cup of cocoa may in fact provide related benefits today as our Mesoamerican and European ancestors once thought.
Coe, Sophie Dobzhansky, and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Third Edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 20013.28-31.
Dillinger, Teresa L., et al. “Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate.” The Journal of nutrition130.8 (2000): 2057S-2072S.
Grivetti, Louis E. “From aphrodisiac to health food: A cultural history of chocolate.” (2005).
Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate and medicine: Dangerous liaisons?.” Nutrition25.11 (2009): 1100-1103.
William Hurst. “Chocolate as Medicine.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2015 63 (45), 9899-9900. DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.5b04057