Little known in the modern world today is chocolate’s vast and detailed history in the medical realm. Ironically, the reason for such ignorance stems from chocolate’s subsequent role as a conventional food which persists today—despite the fact that this role and chocolate as a medicine are strongly connected. More simply put, the emphasis on chocolate’s curative properties beginning largely in the 17th century in early modern Europe stemmed from chocolate’s increased popularity after the Spanish conquest. But the blatantly flawed medical use of chocolate then caused an even greater popularization of the commodity. Thus, medicinal chocolate is both a result and a catalyst of its prevalence.
Galenic theory, built off of Hippocrates’ body substance theory, asserts that illnesses are to be combatted with contrasting drugs, which are some combination of hot, cold, dry, and moist (Coe and Coe 121). For instance, a fever would be treated with cold drugs. This theory was defective for several reasons, but was incorporated into medical studies for centuries to come nonetheless. This blind appreciation derived from an idolization of such ancient Greek figures that was primarily European, which helps to explain why these practices endured so far past their time.
Existing alongside these ineffective medical practices was the integration of chocolate into European culture after Spain conquered the Aztec Empire. As it became increasingly central to everyday life, so too was it convenient to infuse it with medicine and give it deeper purpose. There was a pattern of some commodity fulfilling such a pervasive role, as “‘before chocolate was known in Europe, good old wine was called the milk of old men; but this title is now applied with greater reason to chocolate’” (Quélus, 1719, as quoted in Dillinger et. al 2067S). And Jennifer Evans gleaned from David Gentilcore that although doctors wanted to change habits with their recommendations, they more often “adapted their theories to acquiesce to popular demand” (Evans 327). This helps explain why chocolate would be supported by doctors. According to Ken Albala, however, the universality of it was not embraced by these physicians. In competing with vendors who sold chocolate for recreational purposes, physicians “insisted that chocolate is more properly a medicine than a food and… utilized any available explanatory system to bolster their arguments” (54). This behavior was exhibited because, by restricting chocolate to a specific medicinal purpose, doctors would be able to have far greater control over the booming market.
Before I address the exact use of chocolate as a medicine in the 17th century and the many ways in which it was fallacious, some concessions can be made in its defense. For one, physicians in the 17th century did have some knowledge of the fattening abilities of chocolate. When the association between weight gain and chocolate was first noticed, they responded by explaining that “the buttery parts of the cacao” fatten the chocolate, which shows some understanding (Dillinger et al. 2066S). After all, cocoa is between 45 and 55% fat (“The Health Benefits of Chocolate” 7:07). Similarly, chocolate was often extolled for its energy-providing properties. As we now know, this is a valid assessment given its caffeine content. But then, as we will see, chocolate was used to treat so many ailments that the knowledge of this truth may have been coincidental. For chocolate was dually considered immensely calmative as well.
Some of the scholars who wrote about chocolate’s medical application were, at least initially, specific. Francisco Hernández mainly focused on its use in treating liver problems, fever, and dysentery (Dillinger et al. 2063S). Others, like Cárdenas, thought of it mostly in terms of its causing sustenance (Dillinger et. al 2064S). Santiago de Valverde Turices concluded that lots of chocolate helped chest pain and smaller amounts helped stomach pain (Dillinger et. al 2064S). But more common was the use of chocolate as a blanket medicine to cover all diseases and smaller pains. This isn’t very surprising, as researchers in this time didn’t even agree on how to classify chocolate under the Galenic classification. Not that they should be shamed—given that chocolate was served in various forms and flavored in many different ways, we can’t even clarify what exactly was being classified. Furthermore, chocolate’s astringent flavor made it appear cold and dry while its nourishing qualities seemed hot and moist (Albala 56). Regardless, the versatility which chocolate’s medical use took on is evident in the writings of Colmenero de Ledesma in 1631. He believed chocolate to “. . . vehemently incites to Venus, and causeth conception in women, hastens and facilitates their delivery; it is an excellent help to digestion, it cures consumptions, and the cough of the lungs, the New Disease, or plague of the guts, and other fluxes, the green sicknesse, jaundice, and all manner of inflammations and obstructions. It quite takes away the morpheus, cleaneth the teeth, and sweetneth the breath, provokes urine, cures the stone, and expels poison, and preserves from all infectious diseases” (Colmenero de Ledesma, 1631, as quoted in Dillinger et. al 2064S). de Ledesma, with his inclusion of poison and infectious diseases, clearly felt that chocolate had essentially superhuman healing powers. But this fallacy still served to popularize chocolate further, despite the fact that some claim its medical use was “extended so broadly it became obsolete” (Albala 53). Whether or not this is the case doesn’t ultimately matter—the medical overuse would itself cause an increase in consumption. True, the lack of clarity on its medical use could have contributed to why it ceased to serve a medical purpose and driven it into a solely recreational role. But this, too, would cause an increase in consumption.
We can clearly ascertain that the growing popularity of chocolate in 17th century Europe contributed to its induction into the medical world. We can also assert with confidence that this process further drove chocolate consumption. The question is whether or not its defective medical application became obvious to consumers and relegated chocolate to its current status as a conventional pleasure food, increasing revenue simply because it was more accessible in this way. This is unclear because, as previously stated, the medical abuse alone would have spurred increased chocolate consumption. The former is more likely, however, as the bigger jumps in chocolate consumption came as chocolate became less and less medical, around the middle of the 19th century. Galenic theories were then replaced by modern medicine and physiology (Coe and Coe 121). Chocolate as a pleasure food also seems to reap more success on the whole. But in any event, the intersection of chocolate and medicine is deeply historically significant through its contribution to the proliferation of chocolate consumption.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
Evans, Jennifer. “Regional Food: Nature and Nation in Europe.” Food and Health in Early Modern Europe : Diet, Medicine and Society, 1450–1800 41.3 (2016): n. pag. Web.
Albala, Ken. “The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory.” Food and Foodways 15.1-2 (2007): 53-74. Web.
Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escárcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis E. Grivetti. “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. Web. Mar. 2017.
“The Health Benefits of Chocolate”. Prod. Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Perf. Dr. Catherine Kwik-Uribe. Youtube. N.p., 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 3 Mar. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVPKiH4aWpE>.
“A Chocolate Valentine | Circulating Now.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health, n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2017. <https://circulatingnow.nlm.nih.gov/2014/02/14/a-chocolate-valentine/>.
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