Chocolate: Healing powers of the original superfood

The term superfood, a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being, was first used in 1915 (Merriam-Webster.com). However, the seemingly unending search for the best, most potent cure-all or health-promoting remedy (be it food, drink, or supplement) is not solely a modern obsession; even though it may seem to be a product of our times with increasing sedentary lifestyles and higher caloric intake. As we look back through the history of chocolate, we can see that there has been a long-term love affair and belief in the healing powers of this proposed superfood.

Chocolate: Theobroma cacao or “food of the gods”, as is was named by the 18th century Swedish scientist, Carl von Linné, nearly 250 years after it was introduced to the Old World (Coe and Coe 17-18), had been a cultural mainstay for thousands of years. In fact, evidence of its production and consumption predates the Classic Maya and has been tracked as far back as 1900-1500BC through traces of chocolate found in barra ceramics (Coe and Coe 36-37).

This is a drawing of the barra ceramics which provided evidence of ancient civilization use of chocolate (Coe and Coe 89).

The Maya

The Maya used cacao for medicinal purposes, believing it provided power and strength in addition to digestive and anti-inflammatory remedies. Historical evidence shows that the ancient Maya consumed chocolate as a beverage, often mixed with ingredients such as flowers and spices, that it was shared socially, and had ritualistic significance (C. Martin “Sugar”).

Mayan warrior_C. Martin_Mesoamerica
Pictured here is a Mayan warrior wearing cacao pods as amulets (C. Martin “Mesoamerica”).

The Aztecs

The Aztecs also believed in the strong healing powers of chocolate. They not only consumed it as a beverage, but mixed it with other ingredients and applied it to the skin. According to pre-Columbian era medicinal recipes documented in Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage by Louis Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro, the Aztecs would drink “Chocolate (unmixed with other products; very bitter) … to treat stomach and intestinal complaints; when combined with liquid extruded from the bark of the silk cotton tree … this beverage was use by traditional healers to cure infections. In another recipe prescribed to reduce fever and prevent fainting, 8-10 cacao beans were ground along with dried maize kernels; this powder then was mixed with tlacoxoshitl…and the resulting beverage was drunk” (100).

Aztecs_C.Martin_Mesoamerica
This image depicts Aztec broken bodies, perhaps as a result of illnesses introduced from Europe (C. Martin “Mesoamerica”).

New Medicine Introduced to the Old World

Though perhaps a dubious account, rumored to be written in a 1556 letter by an “Anonymous Conquistadore”, the medicinal properties of chocolate were proclaimed to provide a drink that was “the most wholesome and substantial of any food or beverage in the world, because whoever drinks a cup of this liquor can go thru a whole day without taking anything else even if on a cross-country journey…” (C-spot).

There was great interest in power of this potential medicine, but there was also concern about its potency, and the fact that it was an unfamiliar and exotic substance. Spanish Royal Physician to Philip II, Francisco Hernandez, crossed the Atlantic in 1570 to determine how to “incorporate cacáo into a ‘civilized’ framework: an apothecary based on Humoral Medicine subscribes that cacáo contains healing-properties encompassing 3 & perhaps all 4 elements – air (fat), fire (bitter), earth (thick) & maybe water (sweet) – to yield a neutral temperament leaning ‘wet-cool’, thus making it acceptable. (Unbeknownst to Europeans, native medicine also treated cacáo as similarly ‘cool’, applying it as an emollient in hot illnesses such as fevers & dysentery.)” (C-spot).

4 Humors_C.Martin_Sugar
Depiction of the four temperaments based on the humoral schemed devised by Hippocrates and Galen (C. Martin “Sugar”).

Once brought to Spain, it was introduced across borders as a medicine and quickly gained popularity across Europe. For example, the following account was published in 1713 in Bonaventure d’Argonne’s Melanges d’Histoire et de Litterature: “We know that Cardinal Brancaccio wrote a treatise on Chocolate, but perhaps we do not know that Cardinal of Lyon, Alphonse de Richelieu, was the first in France to use this drug. I heard from one of his servants that he used it to moderate the vapors of his spleen, and that he had the secret from some Spanish monks who brought it to France” (Coe and Coe 152).

Chocolate Today

Coe and Coe write that, in addition to media highlights, there has been an abundance of medical and nutritional literature published in the last decade advocating the beneficial health effects of chocolate; primarily due to alkaloids caffeine and theobromine (30). Through these recent medical studies, it is known that caffeine levels are low and that bromine “is said to be mood-enhancing, and is a known stimulant, vasodilator, and diuretic” (Coe and Coe 31).

 As can be seen after thousands of years of collective (if sometimes controversial) scientific, medicinal, religious, and cultural evidence, chocolate does indeed seem to have healing powers and just may be the original superfood.

Works Cited

A Concise History Of Chocolate. C-spot. http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/. N.p. N.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Grivetti, Louis Evan. and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage. Wiley:New York, 2009. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3 Feb. 2016. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 17 Feb. 2016. Class Lecture.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009. Print.

Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes”. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html. Lynne Olver 2000. 1 March 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2016

“Superfood.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web. 19 February 2016.

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