Throughout history, chocolate has been associated with war and athletic competition. Warriors in ancient Aztec culture could partake in in the drinking of cacao – something usually reserved for royal blood – and it was even included in their military rations. Merchant traders, called pochteca, who were responsible for increasing the empire’s wealth, could also drink the sacred beverage. These men were athletes of their time, leading expeditions and sometimes walking hundreds of miles at a time. Similar associations of chocolate still exist today: chocolate is included in soldier rations and elite athletes rely on chocolate for the performance boosts and recovery benefits. Although these congruencies in culture exist, the rationale motivating the use of cacao differs for these time periods.
A Culture of Conquest:
In Pre-Columbian Central America, the Aztec Empire was a dominant force. With its culture of conquest, two of the most valued groups in Aztec society were the warriors and traders. At its height prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Aztecs controlled a majority of Central America, and the empire was determined to gain territory and expand its network. Cacao had emerged as a valuable commodity, and its presence in a particular geographic area was grounds for invasion. Described by Sophie and Michael Coe in The True History of Chocolate, one such military campaign took place during the reign of Ahuitzotl, who ruled from 1486—1502, when the Empire took the province of Xoconockco. Located on the Pacific coastal plain, this area was, “famed for the high production and top quality of its cacao,” and of “enormous interest to the Aztec long-distance merchants, or pochteca…” (69). For the Aztecs, cacao was something worth dying for and this says a lot about its significance. It was an exclusive social indulgence reserved for a select few – this may explains why warriors were so willing to partake. Behind cacao’s association with social status was its strong connection with religion.
Cacao’s Religious Significance:
Close ties to the Aztec gods motivated the love of cacao. The early association began with the Aztec creator deity, Quetzalcoatl, also the god of wind and wisdom. Quetzalcoatl is depicted in the figure below. One author explains, “The Mexica (Aztecs) adopted cacao as a food and medicine when they arrived in the central valley of Mexico and the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl discovered cacao in a mountain filled with other plant foods” (Batchelder). In a deeply religious society, the cacao discovered by the gods would come to represent human blood. Warriors would drink cacao for strength before battle and might have taken it after to replace any blood lost. “Being symbolically blood, it was the right potion for Aztec warriors” (Coe & Coe 104). The Aztecs didn’t understand any of the physiological effects of chocolate, but they knew it made them feel different. Other soldiers throughout history have also recognized these benefits.
Chocolate and the Modern Warrior:
Take a look at the chocolate advertisements below. As chocolate became a commercialized product, companies needed to set themselves apart from their competition through their marketing. Popular themes emerged around soldiers during the time of World War II. The Nestle advertisement reads, “Chocolate is a fighting food!” (top left). A similar Mars Company advertisement for M&Ms shows two American military soldiers and reads, “Now 100% at war!” (bottom left). There were probably commercial reasons for these marketing decisions as well, but the entire nation was onboard with war efforts, and this was the chocolate industry’s way of showing its support. An earlier Cadbury ad from 1888, also shows chocolate’s role in sport. This ad cites that Cadbury’s cocoa, “Sustains against fatigue, increases muscular strength, gives physical endurance and staying power” (right). At this time, soldiers and athletes still probably didn’t know all of the physiological effects of chocolate, but these serve as examples of how associations with war and competition have persisted.
Physiological Effects of Cacao:
Today, we do understand these physiological effects of chocolate. The main substances in chocolate that have an effect on the human body are the alkaloids caffeine and theobromine. Caffeine is something that all of us are probably familiar with – it stimulates the nervous system, increasing alertness and decreasing fatigue. The other alkaloid, theobromine, “is said to be mood enhancing, and is a know stimulant, vasodilator, and diuretic” (Coe & Coe 31). Another thing found in chocolate is a flavonoid compound called quercetin. This substance is, “known to have not only antioxidant but also anti-inflammatory activity” (Coe & Coe 31). Although the Aztec warriors did not have access to this information, we do now. This information has impacted the transition of chocolate into modern culture, and the continuity of soldiers and athletes as chocolate consumers has persisted.
New information about the performance benefits of chocolate is still being discovered. In one of the first studies of its kind in 2015, researchers in London investigated the effects of regular dark chocolate consumption on the oxygen demands of moderately trained cyclists. The primary outcome observed was that regular dark chocolate consumption increased the work rate achieved at their established thresholds by 11% as compared to without chocolate consumption. They concluded that, “ingestion of DC for 14 days reduced the oxygen cost of moderate intensity exercise and may be an effective ergogenic aid for short-duration moderate intensity exercise” (Patel, Brouner, & Spendiff). These types of discoveries inform many of the today’s athletes and soldiers, and may serve as motivation for chocolate consumption.
Different Motivation, Same Benefits:
As a Harvard athlete, we were given chocolate products regularly to boost out performance (products shown below). As football players, we were given energy bars at halftime of our games that contained dark chocolate . Following workouts, we were provided with chocolate flavored protein shakes. Additionally, a refrigerator in our locker-room was restocked weekly with cases of chocolate milk. Although I acknowledge some of the instances of chocolate in our diets my be for the purposes of flavor, it’s interesting to think that in a small way what we consume may have been influenced by Aztec warriors and traders. The Aztec warriors drank cacao because of its religious meaning, prestige, and how it made them feel. Athletes and soldiers today also eat chocolate because of its how it makes them feel, but the scientific research backing chocolate as a beneficial substance also informs their consumption choices.
Batchelder, Tim. “The Cultural Pharmacology of Chocolate.” Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients, no. 256, Nov. 2004, pp. 103-106. Web. 7 Mar. 2017.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
Patel, Rishikesh Kankesh, James Brouner, and Owen Spendiff. “Dark Chocolate Supplementation Reduces the Oxygen Cost of Moderate Intensity Cycling.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition12 (2015): 47. PMC. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.