Chocolate – Elixir or Poison?

We see the articles pop up from time to time – chocolate is the new cure for every health affliction. It lowers this, supports that and treats everything else.  This concept of using chocolate to heal isn’t novel.  The origins of it’s healing properties date back to Mesoamerica and have evolved over the subsequent centuries.  But as chocolate became consumed by the masses thanks to producers who brought chocolate to the masses, the negative effects of consuming the confection have been talked about just as much as the positive effects.  Ultimately, is chocolate an elixir or a poison?

MESOAMERICAN MEDICINE

Chocolate was ingrained in almost every part of the lives of Mesoamericans.  Among many of the uses for cacao, there were a variety of medicinal applications.  Cacao was believed to help digestion, aid in inflammation, boost energy and was used as an anesthetic. Application of medicinal cacao used for afflictions found in Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams include 50 ways of curing and healing to address skin eruptions, fevers, and seizures.  Remedies were a combination of cacao and other botanical ingredients, like avocado, that are considered to be “superfoods” in modern society. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods” 75-76) Traditional Aztec healers cured many ailments that we consider to be commonplace today with various forms of chocolate. For example, a stomachache for an Aztec would be treated with pure, unmixed chocolate (Grivetti and Shapiro 100),  which seemed as commonplace in their society as it might be to reach for Pepto Bismol in our society today. 

EUROPEAN ADOPTION

When the Spanish began noticing the powers of cacao after landing in Mesoamerica, they began adopting it for their own healing uses.  They noticed that it boosted energy and saw that Mesoamerican warriors who consumed cacao were made stronger. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods'” 58) The Anonymous Conqueror said in his description of Tenochtitlan in 1556 that, “this drink [cacao] is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.” (Coe, and Coe, 86-88)

It’s clear that the Spanish saw that cacao was prized by Mesoamericans for a variety of reasons.  They began using cacao for their own healing purposes such as improved probability of conception, quality of breast milk, reversing the effects of exhaustion, impotence, vision-quest hangovers, mental illness, fevers, poison, skin eruptions, lung problems, agitation, diarrhea, indigestion, and flatulence. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods'” 76) Like the Mesoamericans, they used chocolate as a cure-all, further supporting the belief in chocolate’s healing and medicinal powers.

In the 1500’s when cacao made it’s way to Spain, Francisco Hernández & Dr. Juan de Cárdenas began working on incorporating adapting the use of cacao as medicine from

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Galen’s Humoral Scheme

Mesoamerican into “civilized” frameworks. “An apothecary based on Humoral Medicine subscribes that cacao 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.” (“A Concise History of Chocolate”)   Fifty years later, we saw the first of many flags that will come in the following centuries about whether chocolate is healthy or harmful when Dr. Santiago Valverde Turices published the first guide on chocolate, Un Discurso de Chocolate, in 1624. (“A Concise History of Chocolate”)  Almost 400 years later, we still debate this question.

 

 

MODERN-DAY PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION

As time progressed, chocolate became more industrialized.  Coenraad Johannes Van Houten manufactured cocoa powder in Holland in 1828, followed by Joseph Fry manufacturing of first chocolate bars for consumption in 1847. (Martin, “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal” 42, 44)  Chocolate got a bad rap as a “poison” not long after when some companies began tampering with chocolate by mixing in inedible ingredients (like crushed red brick) in order to decrease costs.  In the mid-1800’s, consumers’ distrust for processed foods, like chocolate, brought new meaning to the “poison” label. The British government was inspired to pass a number of food adulteration acts to make such practices illegal and to reassure consumers that their food was pure. (Martin, “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal” 18) This distrust of corrupt or poisoned foods, while mostly forgotten after corporations became more committed to ensuring the quality of their products, still endures in our modern society, especially with chocolate and candy consumption.

While food adulteration has subsided over the subsequent decades, companies have used other tactics to decrease chocolate production costs.  Chocolate is rarely seen mass-produced in a simple and pure form.  Big Chocolate, such as Mars and Hershey, use additives and have created offerings that use minimal chocolate, relying on the addition of cheaper ingredients to defray costs.  Compare the ingredients in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup versus a recipe for a homemade version of the treat in the above.  The mass-produced cup includes chemicals and ingredients not usually – if ever – found in a kitchen.  When you compare the botanical ingredients Mesoamericans used to mix with cacao and the ingredients that Big Chocolate uses in their production, it’s staggering to see the progression of chocolate product ingredients.

DOES CHOCOLATE HEAL OR HURT?

It’s clear based on many early texts that chocolate in its purest cacao form was believed (without scientific conclusion) that it had healing and strengthening properties. The wide adoption of chocolate as a health elixir during the 1500’s and before leads us to believe that the primitive results that Mesoamericans and Spanish explorers saw when using cacao did cure their ailments.

Modern researchers, such as those at Harvard, claim that “ingredients in cocoa can be healthy, but the high-calorie chocolate bars that contain it aren’t necessarily good for you.” The flavonoids found in chocolate “have beneficial effects on heart disease risks, as well as on blood flow to the brain. Chocolate is the candy that’s made by adding sugar, milk, and other ingredients to cocoa powder. Those ingredients also add fat and sugar, which counteract some of cacao’s health benefits.” (Chocolate: Pros and Cons of This Sweet Treat, Harvard Health Publications) It seems that chocolate in it’s simplest form and in moderation does, in fact, have positive health benefits.  The modern research on the food would seem to support the positive response that Mesoamericans saw when they used cacao as a health supplement.

WORKS CITED

  • “Chocolate: Pros and Cons of This Sweet Treat.” Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  • Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. 86-88. Print.
  • “A Concise History of Chocolate.” The C-Spot. The C-Spot, 1 Mar. 2017. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  • Grivetti, Louis, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 100. Print.
  • “Homemade Peanut Butter Cups.” Taste of Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”.” 01 Feb. 2017. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” 9 Mar. 2017. Lecture.
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