Cacao as a Medicinal Herb

Ingesting Chocolate

What if chocolate was actually good for us?

It is a splendid possibility to imagine that we could consume one of our favorite treats guilt free. The fantasy of chocolate as not only delicious but also as miraculously healthy, has captured the western imagination since its introduction. In fact, it was under the guise of medicine that chocolate was able to successfully infiltrate the nobility in Europe and then spread to the masses. Upon “discovering” cacao and its uses in Mesoamerican culture, the Europeans immediately tried to fit the substance into their Galenic system of medicine (3). This system, which seems barabaric and completely ridiculous in light of modern knowledge, was the foundational truth of health in Barocque Europe. It created four categories that related to four substances in the body with good health dependent on a balance between them (3). The categories were ‘Hot’, ‘Cold’, ‘Wet’, ‘Dry’ (3). Chocolate and cacao were controversial for the early Europeans who subscribed to this humoral system. Royal Physician to Philip II of Spain, Francisco Hernandez determined that cacao was ‘cold’ and ‘wet’ and most of Europe tended to fall into agreement (3). A central tenant of this western idea, however, was that the balance happens within the body, requiring that chocolate must be ingested. As a consequence, the medicinal recipes in early Europe are mostly just recipes for simple forms of what we now consider to be hot chocolate. For example: William Hughes writing in 1672 details a medicinal chocolate recipe to “strengthen the stomach” that combines cinnamon, nutmeg, almonds, sugar and optionally pepper and cloves (4). In our modern culture, this actually sounds tasty!

hot coco
European hot chocolate made from a Food Network recipe, including cardamom and pepper. (Food Network)

Even today, as we yearn to find medicinal value in chocolate, we stick to the requirement that it must be ingested. In 2006 an NPR broadcast discussed a study done at John’s Hopkins University that found consumption of small amounts of chocolate to have similar beneficial effects as that of aspirin on heart patients (NPR). This conclusion was made after several participants broke the ‘no chocolate’ rule during the aspirin trial (NPR). They were disqualified, but studied nonetheless (NPR). What the scientists found was that the casual chocolate consumers saw effects similar to that of aspirin (listen to the full story here). These results are by no means conclusive proof that chocolate is a miracle cure for heart disease or any other ailments; but it does show how deeply ingrained the fascination with chocolate’s medicinal value is in our culture. As well it shows that we center these supposed health benefits around the process of ingesting chocolate.

Cacao
Artistic renditions from the Badianus Manuscript. The cacao tree is featured in the middle of the top row. (1)

 

Cacao as an herb

But what if the European explorers missed the most valuable essence of chocolate’s healing powers? To find its true power we may need to restructure how we view chocolate and refocus ourselves from sugary (but delicious) beverages to the cacao plant itself. The oldest piece of evidence can be found in the oldest text on Aztec culture from a European perspective: the Badianus Manuscript (4). Written in 1552 (before Sahagun’s famous Florentine Codex documenting the making of cacao beverages) this text documents the use of herbal remedies by Aztec healers or physicians (4). One of the defining characteristics of this codex is its vibrant renditions of the regional flora (2). On the picture above we can see in the middle of the top row, the ever familiar cacao tree with its bright pods. Cacao makes appearances in many of the recipes, curing everything from dental problems to fatigue (4). One particularly interesting use of cacao found in this manuscript comes from the entry on curing “injury of the feet.” (2) Using “the flowers of cacuaxochitl [cacao flower]” this complicated recipe comes together as a sort of bath for the feet, applied topically and not ingested (2). No doubt this would have been essential for a people whose primary mode of transportation was their feet (2).

Below is the translated recipe (2):

“For injured feet grind together these herbs: tlalhecapahtli[“earth wind medicine”], coyoxiuitl [“rose colored bell plant”], yztauhyatl [“salty water plant”], tepechian[“mountain chia”], achilli [flexible, reddish water plant], xiuehcapahtli [“plant wind medicine”],quauhyyauhtli [“wild incense”], quetzalxoxouhcaphtli [“precious blue medicine”], tzotzotlani[“glistening plant], The flowers of cacuaxochitl [cacao flower], and also piltzintecouhxochitl[“noble lord flower”], and foliage of hecapahtli [“wind medicine”] and ytzcuinpahtli [“dog medicine”], the stone tlahcalhuatzin [bezoar stone of huatzin, a native bird], eztetl [“bloodstone”—a type of jasper] and tetlahuitl [red ochre stone], pale-colored earth…


Put some in a little tub over embers or a fire to heat it in water; and when the liquid has become hot, put the feet into the tub. And some part of it is to be inspissated by fire, and is to be applied to the feet; and so that it will not run off, the feet are to be wrapped in a cloth. Next day our unguent
 xochiocotzotl [“flower pine resin”] and white incense are to be thrown on a fire so that the feet may become healthy from the odor and heat. Besides the seed of the herb called xexihuitl is to be ground, and when it has been pulverized in hot water it is to be put on the feet. Thirdly, apply the herb tolohuaxiuitl [“datura plant”] and briars ground in hot water.”

This recipe is a striking departure from that of the early Europeans in two important ways. The first is its extensive use of exotic herbs. The second is it’s consideration of cacao as an herb. In western society it would take a great deal of imagination to see our precious chocolate treats as an herb. Historians have proven that the Aztecs had an incredible knowledge of plants as medicine, a knowledge that far outstripped any of the Galenic principles in Barocque Europe (3). Given this, it is no longer hard to imagine that even in modern day society our vision of chocolate is clouded by cultural norms, and that perhaps chocolate’s real power lies not in a sugary brown drink but in a leafy green plant.

Citations
1. Badianus Illustration [Photograph]. (2012, February 14). Badianus Manuscript, Nixon Medical Historical Library. Found through the UT Health Science Center
2. Badianus Manuscript: An Aztec Herbal, 1552. (2007). Retrieved from http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/herbs/badianus/. Courtesy of University of Virginia: Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library
3. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
4. Dillinger, T. L. (2000). Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate. The Journal Nutrition. Retrieved from http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.full.pdf html
5. Food Network Kitchen. (2016). Spiced Hot Cocoa. Retrieved from http://www.foodnetwork.com/holidays-and-parties/articles/sealed-delivered-recipes-in-a-jar.html. Photographs by Levi Brown
6. More Good News for Chocolate Lovers [Broadcast]. (2006, November 15). Washington: National Public Radio. Host: Steve Inskeep

 

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