The Adaptive Rhetoric of Chocolate

Chocolate and cacao began as a source of food for the people in Mesoamerica and was introduced to early Europe under the guise of medicine. Since then, chocolate has enjoyed the status as medicine, as a dessert treat, and now even as a social justice instrument. The many hats chocolate has worn spanning such a long period of time and across many cultures is its ability to change discourse and rhetoric. The story of cacao and chocolate is a dynamic one, but centered on the idea that people will find a justification to eat and drink cacao and chocolate by whatever cultural means they must. The most important and earliest example of this idea is portrayed through the history of how chocolate found its way to Europe from Mesoamerica under the category of “medicine” (Dillinger).

Early Europeans were skeptical of the mysterious cacao and chocolate drink the Aztecs imbibed in. The Mesoamericans associated cacao and chocolate with gods and the spirits, a practice Europeans decried at the time. It was only when the Europeans became aware of the Mesoamerican and Aztec use of cacao and chocolate as medicine did they begin to look at the cacao and chocolate drink as of potential use in their modern society.

The use of cacao and chocolate as medicine was not adopted by the Europeans at first and it was a slow process. Fernandez de Oviedo of Spain was the first account of European’s using the new cacao/chocolate as medicine, albeit not ingested. Oviedo had cut his foot on a rock and cured the wound by covering it was bandages soaked in a cacao by-product, cacao butter (Coe & Coe 112). For cacao and chocolate to truly become a part of pre-modern Baroque European medicine practice, they needed to fit into the framework of medicine at the time, or the practice of “humoral theory.” The Classical Greek invention of humoral theory by Hippocrates and taken up by Galen, focused on the notion that the body contains four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The right proportion and mixture of the humors would result in good health and an imbalance would cause disease (Coe & Coe 121). Furthermore, humors, diseases, and drugs to cure the diseases and imbalances were categorized as “hot” or “cold” and “moist” or “dry” (Coe & Coe 120). It was Royal Physician to Philip II, Francisco Hernandez who first categorized cacao and chocolate using Galenic analysis and is who exposed the Europeans of the time to the medicinal uses of cacao and chocolate. Hernandez concluded that cacao was “temperate in nature… but leaning to the cold and humid” and drinks made from it would cure fevers. He goes on to suggest that adding the mexaxochil, a “hot” cacao spice, flavoring to chocolate “warms the stomach, perfumes the breath… and combats poisons, alleviates intestinal pains and colics” (Coe & Coe 122). It is in these Galenic theory medical terms that much of the Baroque commentary on chocolate and cacao is couched in. From 1570 on, the year when Francisco Hernandez made the rhetoric of cacao and chocolate relevant to European society and medical practice of the time, chocolate and cacao have adapted to fit into various cultures and time periods.


This advertisement for Milk Chocolate in London demonstrates how important the medical rhetoric of chocolate truly was at the time. The ad mentions the benefits of chocolate on the stomach and in consumptive cases. 

The story of how Mesoamerican cacao and chocolate came to find it’s place in European society under the guise of medicinal use illuminates the importance of cultural framing and cultural rhetoric for adaptation of new things. It seems of recent that American chocolate eaters are returning to these early debates on the medicinal uses of cacao and chocolate to justify chocolate consumption and perhaps create a new market of “healthy” chocolate. Chocolate advertising and rhetoric of the near future may differ from the chocolate marketing of today, with language such as “creamy” and “rich” being familiar and approachable to a past generation and replaced by contemporary buzzwords such as “antioxidant,” “heart healthy,” and “fair trade” that are more comfortable and important to the modern chocolate buyer. Just as the Europeans of the early 16th century were averse to the language of chocolate and cacao as “the food of gods” and its Mesoamerican spiritual discourse, there may exist a paradigm shift in the future of chocolate language focused on popular buzzword language. The history of chocolate and it’s ability to prosper in European society due to Francisco Hernandez’s humoral analysis, rather than as a treat or a drink to honor gods, teaches us a valuable lesson in how cultures adapt to one another over space and time.

These chocolate advertisements display the changing rhetoric of chocolate in our society today. On the left, a Dove ad uses the terms “delicious” and “rich,” words that are being used less and less in current chocolate advertisements. On the right, an ad for IQ Chocolate shows how the chocolate ads are adapting to that buzzword language and cultural relevance, as the terms “superfood,” “antioxidant,” and “bean to bar” all appear to be the main focus of this modern chocolate. 


Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Dillinger, Teresa. “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): n. pag. Print.



Sloane the Chocolatier: A Tasty Myth


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s