As an incredibly important product sold and traded worldwide, cacao has had many uses dating back to as early as 600 BC (Hurst, 2002). According to evidence found in the Dresden Codex books (figure 1), the Mayans used cacao for marriage rituals, the earth’s fertility, rites of death, and several other purposes (Martin, 2016). As a catalyst for using cacao beans to produce chocolate for varying reasons, the Mayans continue to have an influence on the status of chocolate today – primarily in search of medicinal uses for chocolate. Even though the degree at which chocolate is valued for use in medicinal context has decreased, Mayan ideals about chocolate as medicine continue to impact research for such benefits today.
The Mayans were very ritualistic people who valued certain plants from the earth as divine, due to the creation by different gods and goddesses (Bogin, 1997). Cacao was considered a divine gift (figure 2) from the god Sovereign Plumed Serpent, which was the start of cacao as sacred for the Mayans (Dillinger, 2000). Because cacao was gifted by gods and even used in rituals by gods, the Mayans searched for other purposes for cacao. They used cacao to create chocolate beverages to drink during rituals. In their quest for other purposes of chocolate, they found that chocolate had medicinal benefits. It is unsure how effective chocolate was as a medical treatment, but it is well documented how chocolate was used by Mayans for medical purposes.
Chocolate had a plethora of medicinal purposes, according to the Mayans. Some ate the cacao beans, but for the majority of medical remedies, the Mayans ground the cacao beans together with seasonings to create a medicinal potion (Lippi, 2009). The medicinal potion was used to gain weight, stimulate the nervous system, improve digestion elimination, cure anemia, kidney stones, stop fevers, and diminish tuberculosis symptoms. Not only was a chocolate beverage potion used, cacao paste was used as a pharmacological drug for stronger medical problems (Wright, 2010). The list for medical purposes of chocolate is long because the Mayans truly believed chocolate was a divine intervention from a god.
It may seem ridiculous that chocolate was so highly regarded as a medicine by the Mayans, but the use of chocolate as a medicine did not end with the Mayans. Pre-Columbian societies used chocolate as a medicine and such influence continued to Europe and the New World (Lippi, 2009). After exploration by Europeans to the Americas, cacao reached a larger global spread and chocolate popularity grew immensely in Europe. Because Europeans did not follow the same cultural rituals as natives, their usage of chocolate varied from them but they did use cacao for medicinal and health related issues, on a smaller scale (Dillinger, 2000).
Throughout the centuries, chocolate has changed due to the addition of sugar, mass production, and traditional recipes but that has not stopped researchers from expressing interest in chocolate as a use for medicinal purposes. The evidence that we have of the success of chocolate as a medicine in the early 1000s is very limited because the Dresden Codex does not include successes. However, research nowadays shows cacao and chocolate as modern medicine. Cacao has many nutrients such as potassium and iron that contribute to nutritional value of the human body. Studies show that cacao can improve cognitive function, reduce emotional stress, and reduce cardiovascular disease if eaten in appropriate quantities (Wright, 2010). Cacao is also used by the body for antioxidant and antiplatelet qualities which provide other health benefits, figure 3 (Keen, 2013).
In general, it is safe to say that cacao (figure 4) and chocolate provide health benefits (based on research shown). The view of chocolate as a medicinal- or health-related benefit is not a novelty but originated courtesy of the Mayans. Their usage of chocolate to relieve certain health problems continues to influence research today. Even though the views on chocolate have fluctuated over centuries, chocolate is a benefit. As Dr. Lippi wrote, “Chocolate is no longer deemed a guilty pleasure, and it may have positive health benefits when eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet”(2009).
Bogin, B. (1997). The evolution of human nutrition. The Anthropology of Medicine: From Culture to Method , 98–142.
Dillinger, T. (2010). Food of the gods: Cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition, 2057-2072.
Hurst, W. (2002). Archaeology: Cacao usage by the earliest Maya civilization. Nature, 418, 289-290.
Keen, C. (2013). Chocolate: Food as a medicine/medicine as food. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 20(5), 436-439.
Lippi, D. (2009). Chocolate and medicine: Dangerous liaisons? Science Direct: Nutrition, 25(11-12). 1100-1103.
Martin, C. (2016). Introduction to chocolate, culture, and the politics of food. Harvard College, Lecture.
Wright, C. (2010). Cacao – an ancient medicine validated by modern science. Natural News, Dec 2010.