Chocolate’s Journey from Medicine to Food

In The Prisoner of Azkaban, as Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts to begin his third year at school, his train is ambushed by a group of wraiths. One of them attacks Harry, leaving him cold and shaking at the floor of his compartment. Luckily for the young wizard, a fellow traveler hands Harry a piece of chocolate; Harry then “took a bite and to his great surprise felt warmth spread suddenly to the tips of his fingers and toes” (86).

In a world where wizards and witches travel by broomstick, mend wounds with a wave of a wand, and slay larger-than-life beasts, it is chocolate that heals an ailing wizard? Maybe chocolate’s history has something to bear on this interpretation: might there be clues in the cultural history of chocolate why this substance has special powers of health?

In its first uses by Europeans, chocolate was associated with medicine, credited with healing a variety number of human ailments. Part of this is because chocolate, containing caffeine and theobromine (both stimulants) does have a measurable effect on mood—but its status as an elixir can be traced back to Europeans’ early understanding of the product.

Seventeenth-century Europeans understood their own bodies as composed of four humors; you’re healthy when they’re in balance. In this precarious scale, it was important to know where your foods fit in: were they moist, cold, hot, dry? For sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europeans, chocolate (along with sugar and coffee and tea) presented a profound problem of classification, as they were encountering it for the first time (Coe 128).

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Title page from a 1652 pamphlet promoting the health benefits of chocolate prepared and consumed correctly.

Perhaps chocolate was medicine, good for your humors if you took it correctly. Many pages of the 1652 publication “Chocolate: Or, An Indian Drinke,” an English translation of a Spanish text that extols the benefits of chocolate, are devoted to debating the food’s true properties: Is it dry, or wet? Is it hot, or cool? The author concedes that chocolate is sometimes hot and sometimes cool, sometimes moist and sometimes dry. Moderation is key—it’s bound to be good for you under the right conditions. Can you add cinnamon, or would that be too hot? Are there times of the year where it might be more beneficial? In the following passage, he advises the seasons to drink it: “You may take it till the Moneth of May, especially in temperate dayes. But I doe not approve, that in the Dogdayes it should be taken in Spaine, unlesse it be one, who by custome of taking it, receives no prejudice by it” (37). In other words, don’t drink it when it’s hot out, unless you like to drink it when it’s hot out.

As the food historian Ken Albala has pointed out, physicians had financial incentive to promote chocolate as a pharmaceutical: “In thriving competition with those who sold chocolate for mere pleasure, physicians insisted that chocolate is more properly a medicine than a food and they utilized any available explanatory system to bolster their arguments” (Albala 54). Indeed, the mental calisthenics of classifying foods to these categories pushed Nicolas Blegny, the physician to King Louis XIV, to complain about the “useless reasoning of one who comes to the conclusion that chocolate is cold, the arguments of another who sustains that it’s hot, in a word which leads to another pretending to prove that it’s tempered”(quoted in Albala 67). And this problem, combined with the ever-expanding medicinal uses of chocolate and the uptick in its recreational use, would slowly erode the product’s early stature as a powerful medicine.

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1930s Hershey’s advertisement promoting chocolate syrup for health

While medicine may have provided chocolate with a point of entry into the European household, historians point out that therapeutic uses of cacao quickly gave way to recreational ones. Sophie and Michael Coe write, “soon [chocolate] became a medicine that was appreciated for its taste, its filling nature, and its stimulation” (126). Sidney Mintz takes a similarly utilitarian view of sugar—another new, exotic food entering European diets—that can be applied to chocolate as well: “The former medicinal purposes of sugar were now assimilated into a new function, that of a source of calories” (Mintz 108). These historians claim that by the late 17th century, these new, possibly miraculous substances introduced into Europe just decades before had become demystified. Once potential drugs and dangers, they became food.

But can we leave the story there? After sugar became merely a source of calories and chocolate became merely a consumer good, the forces of industrialization and commercialization began to pick up some of the threads where early medicine left off. Advertisements, not physicians, could make new claims about the health benefits chocolate had to offer. In this way, chocolate companies the new physicians, eager to sell exclusive formulas to an audience eager for novel concoctions.

A popular strategy to market chocolate was to promote its contributions to health.

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Early 20th century advertisement for chocolate as a restorative.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, candymakers made claims about the virtues of chocolate for children, for workers, for women. A 1900 Hershey’s advertisement called their bars “more sustaining than meat.” Another from the early 20th century depicts children climbing chocolate jars on their way to better health. Another advertisement from Baker’s makes the claim that doctors are recommending the chocolate to fight fatigue. Maybe all of these strategies, which now seem wrongheaded, come from the same tradition of promoting chocolate as something to restore our humors, reset our balance, when deployed correctly. They want to draw on the uncertain line between medicine and food.

After all, if chocolate can restore vitality to the world’s most famous wizard, imagine what it can do for us muggles.

Works Cited
Albala, Ken. “The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory,” 2007 Food and Foodways, 15:1-2 (2007): 53-74.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Colmenero de Ledesma, Antonio, Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke By the wise and Moderate use whereof, Health is preserved, Sicknesse Diverted, and Cured, especially the Plague of the Guts; vulgarly called The New Disease; Fluxes, Consumptions, & Coughs of the Lungs, with sundry other desperate Diseases. By it also, Conception is Caused, the Birth Hastened and facilitated, Beauty Gain’d and continued. Trans. James Wadsworth. London: John Dakins, 1652. Available from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21271/21271-h/21271-h.htm (Accessed March 10, 2017).
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999.

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