Utilized as everything from a delicious drink to a medicinal treatment, chocolate is incredibly diverse in nature. However, it was not always as widely accepted and enjoyed as it is today. In fact, there were some religious questions as to whether or not chocolate could be consumed and under what circumstances–some claimed that it was too indulgent to be permitted. In modern society, there definitely is an underlying sense of guilt associated with the consumption of chocolate confections and sweets. How is it that in an age where health and conscious eating govern all that a food associated with such guilt can be so lucratively successful? Where does this underlying sense of guilt come from? By considering the situation and perspectives on chocolate from its discovery until modern day, this issue will provide a lens through which we can develop a better understanding of the connection between religion and modern culture. Through the analysis of the psychology of guilt ,the history of chocolate, and the religious stance on its consumption over the years, this post will argue that the reason so many people associate eating chocolate with a feeling of guilt is based in its religious history.
Chocolate in Modern Society
In order to understand where the idea of associating guilt with eating chocolate stems form, we must first understand how chocolate is viewed by society today. Some may argue that people do not actually feel guilty about consuming chocolate, but if that were the case then why does almost half the female population consume chocolate only in secret? (Hetherington and Macdiarmid, 237) What is most confusing about this trend is that it seems intuitive that if something were tied to guilt, humans would be less likely to consume that product. “It makes me feel bad about myself, so I will not engage in it,” is the seeming logic. However, multiple psychological studies have shown quite the opposite: guilt makes things more desirable. In fact, “experiencing the emotion of guilt can increase pleasure.” (Silverman, 2012) The idea that something can being perceived as guilty and desirable is the very root of many advertising campaigns. Researcher Kelly Goldsmith argues that if a product is labeled “guilt-free,” the pleasure experienced from consuming this good will most likely decrease. (Silverman, 2012) Therefore, chocolate producers use advertisements (such as the one above) that portray eating chocolate as a guilty activity. Notice the woman hiding behind the chocolate bar, not revealing her whole face. This reaffirms the idea that chocolate itself is a “guilty pleasure,” thus increasing the desirability of the product. These campaigns have been astronomically successful, as demonstrated by the fact that 94% of individuals say that chocolate is their most desired food. (Hetherington and Macdiarmid, 235) It is clear that chocolate not only comes with a sense of guilt, but this guilt is the very basis for why it is so appealing. This begs the question: what is the root of this guilt?
History of Chocolate in Europe
With an understanding of the association between chocolate and guilt, we can now delve into the historical roots of this sentiment. Although it is unclear exactly when chocolate was brought to Europe, it was most likely sometime between 1518 and 1530. (Coe and Coe, 129) Chocolate was consumed mainly as a drink, becoming an integral part of many social clubs. Considered a highly indulgent beverage, it was often served in “coffee-house” settings and consumed by upper class individuals (depicted to the right). The undeniable luxurious nature of this treat became the basis for a raging theological argument that began shortly after its discovery and introduction into European society.
Religious Response to the Discovery of Chocolate
As chocolate became more and more a part of European culture, there began to emerge some potential religious conflicts with the new sensation. Catholicism allows for one to drink water and wine on fast days. However, questions as to the status of chocolate in the context of fast days arose in 1577 when Dominican Friar Chiapas wrote to the Pope inquiring as to whether or not the new drink were permitted on such fast days. (Martin, Lecture 2) This topic was hotly debated for a half-century among priests. Not only did some priests have an issue with consuming chocolate beverage on fast days, but many claimed that it should not be permitted at all. Some postulated that its decadent nature and the fact that it was an inebriant could be of concern. While most religious authorities believed indulgences were permissible in moderation, some held that chocolate was too indulgent and should not be permitted at all.
Additionally, many of the Latin American indigenous groups, such as the Mayan and Aztec people, worshipped cacao gods, such as the one to the left. (Coe and Coe, 39) Because of this religious connection, some began to argue that chocolate was problematic for Christians because of its Pagan origins. While it was never explicitly deemed forbidden, chocolate was seen as a highly indulgent, luxurious treat. Given the fact that overindulgence and physical enjoyment were often looked down upon, this perception gradually led to the idea that allowing oneself to eat or drink chocolate signaled weakness and that was something to be embarrassed about.
Chocolate was not the only food that was associated with guilt. Although people really enjoyed the taste, sugar was initially considered problematic as well. This stemmed from the fact that it was considered highly indulgent and sweet. Some believed it was the root of hyper-sexuality and alcoholism and that those who consumed it would be equated to the “savages” from whom it was discovered. (Hamblin 2015) These negative traits coupled with the idea that overindulgence is a sin led to a very negative connotation surrounding sugar, and further, chocolate because it was such a vital ingredient. Another example of food playing such a significant role in European culture is the abstinence from meat on Fridays by Catholics. This is in commemoration of the fact that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in order to absolve humanity of its sins. (National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1966) Since meat is seen as an indulgence, not adhering to these norms would be considered weak, so people feel morally obligated to observe this guideline. Interestingly enough, this abstinence was recently reimplemented by the Catholic Church, bringing up ideas about food and guilt that had been dormant for generations. (Evans 2011)
Each year, Americans spend around $100 billion on chocolate alone. (Martin, Lecture 1) While this number is absolutely astounding on its own, it becomes even more magnificent when considering the negative feeling of guilt that our culture associates with indulgence, specifically surrounding chocolate. However, through an analysis of the historical roots of this guilt and the psychology behind that emotion itself, it becomes clear that not only does this guilt not hurt consumption, but actually drives it up exponentially. Interestingly enough, the chocolate industry has none other than the Catholic Church to thank for their lucrative success worldwide because their disapproval of indulgence is what created the sense of guilt we experience today when consuming chocolate. As Professor Dhar says, “in every instance, we found that those who felt guilty experienced the greatest enjoyment.”(Dhar, 2013) At the end of the day, this is what we all want—to enjoy ourselves. So go grab a bar of chocolate and let the guilt sink in.
Coe, Sophie D., Coe, Michael D. “The True History of Chocolate.” Thames & Hudson. (2013).
Dhar, Ruvi. “The Pleasure of Guilt.” Yale University. (January 17, 2013). Retrieved from http://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/the-pleasure-of-guilt.
Evans, Martin. “Catholics told to abstain from eating meat on Fridays.” The Telegraph. (May 14, 2011). Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8512721/Catholics-told-to-abstain-from-eating-meat-on-Fridays..html.
Hamblin, James. “Purity Through Food: How Religious Ideas Sell Diets.” The Atlantic. (May 1, 2015). Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/05/the-puritanical-approach-to-food/392030/.
Hetherington, Marion M., Macdiarmid, Jennifer I. “Chocolate Addiction”: a Preliminary Study of its Description and its Relationship to Problem Eating. University of Dundee. (1993). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marion_Hetherington/publication/15056851_Chocolate_Addiction_a_Preliminary_Study_of_its_Description_and_its_Relationship_to_Problem_Eating/links/564a2d7108ae127ff98686bb.pdf.
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” Lecture presented at AAAS 119x Lecture in CGIS, Cambridge. (2017, February 1).
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” Lecture presented at AAAS 119x Lecture in CGIS, Cambridge. (2017, February 8).
“Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinance.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (November 18, 1966). Retrieved from http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/lent/us-bishops-pastoral-statement-on-penance-and-abstinence.cfm.
Silverman, Rosa. “Chocolate-it’s the guilt that makes it so delicious, study finds.” The Telegraph. (December 8, 2012). Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/9731303/Chocolate-its-the-guilt-that-makes-it-so-delicious-study-finds.html.