From frothy Mesoamerican ceremonial beverage to widespread currency system to sugary candy bars consumed by millions daily, chocolate has taken many forms since its discovery thousands of years ago. Its current uses and perception by Western society have been largely influenced by the first Europeans to encounter chocolate in the late 16th century. The use of chocolate as a medicinal and luxury item by the early Europeans is largely the reason why chocolate is still viewed as an insubstantial food item linked with holidays and romance in Western society today.
Europeans were first introduced to cacao sometime in the decade following Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, and began paying attention to it after noticing how highly the native Mesoamericans regarded the beans. Explorer Ferdinand Columbus says of the Mayans, “They seemed to hold those almonds [cacao beans] at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship with their goods, I observed that whenever any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe 109). Explorer Hernán Cortez planted a vast plantation of twenty thousand cacao trees, recognizing their value as currency (Presilla 23-24). The colonizing Spanish who settled in the New World first scoffed at the odd, bitter-tasting beverage that the natives held so dear, but soon grew fonder of the substance. They altered the traditional Mesoamerican recipe of cold, frothy chocolate powder mixed with water and spices by adding sugar and drinking it hot rather than cold (Coe 114-115). This Europeanized form of the beverage was introduced to the Spanish court, where it became a fashionable drink among nobility. Due to cacao’s exoticness and to the high labor intensity required to prepare the cacao for consumption, chocolate remained a beverage for the upper classes only. Intricate porcelain teacups and saucers were specifically designed for the consumption of chocolate so that ladies of the Spanish court would be able to drink the beverage without spilling on themselves (Coe 131). A new cooking utensil, the molinillo, was invented for the sole purpose of frothing chocolate beverages, and special chocolate pots were crafted (Presilla 26). An aura of luxury and exclusivity was built up around the consumption of chocolate among the first Europeans to experience it (Presilla 25). This exclusivity was in stark contrast to chocolate consumption among several Mesoamerican cultures that came before them, or to the South Americans of the same time period, who often mixed chocolate with ground maize, water, and spices, and drank it as a nutrient-providing meal (Presilla 28-30). The Europeans largely ignored this use of chocolate and regarded it only as a sweet treat. Thus, when chocolate was finally introduced to the European working class, it did not occur to European chocolate companies to serve it as anything other than a sugary beverage.
Since modern Western culture is largely influenced by early Europe, chocolate has continued to be regarded as a dessert and not as something of nutritional value. An example of this is in Dove chocolate advertising.
The inside of the chocolate wrappers contain often contain messages telling consumers to indulge in the delicious chocolate and give themselves a treat, such as in this image. This chocolate wrapper conveys the message to consumers that Dove recognizes the frivolousness of chocolate consumption, but endorses it anyway because it brings joy. Dove does not even try to make chocolate sound healthy, but instead capitalizes on its deliciousness. This current perception of chocolate is very close to and stems from the early European perception of chocolate as a tempting luxury item that should be eaten sparingly.
Chocolate had a second purpose in its early days of discovery by the Europeans. Not only was it viewed as an elite product, but it was also praised for its medicinal properties. The Spanish colonists noticed the stimulant properties of chocolate and believed it to be an aphrodisiac (Coe 29). The Spanish physician Francisco Hernandez was sent to the New World by the Spanish king Phillip II to study undiscovered plants in Mesoamerica and document them. He classified chocolate according to the traditional Galenic medicinal method and called it “cold and dry,” thus making chocolate suitable for treating illnesses such as fevers, stomachaches, dysentery, and constipation (Dillinger et al). The medicinal properties of chocolate were touted across Europe, and in the 16th and 17th centuries, “medical complaints treated with chocolate/cacao have included anemia, poor appetite, mental fatigue, poor breast milk production, consumption/ tuberculosis, fever, gout, kidney stones, reduced longevity and poor sexual appetite/ low virility” (Dillinger et al). As such, chocolate was carefully consumed in small quantities; one seventeenth-century noblewoman remarks, “I observe my chocolate diet, to which I believe I owe my health. I do not use it crazily or without precaution” (Coe 136). Physicians often recommended that chocolate be drunk in small quantities with precaution (Coe 123-172). Chocolate was treated almost like a miracle drug in early Europe.
The early European view that chocolate has medicinal properties has also continued to have influence on Western perception of chocolate. Coe points out that it is fairly common for products to start out as medicinal items and then eventually be used recreationally. The most famous example of this is Coca-Cola, which was initially used medicinally but became a wildly popular beverage (Coe 126). Chocolate underwent a similar transformation. It was believed to be healthy in small doses, as we can see from this 1935 Hershey’s advertisement.
Here, Hershey is telling us that eating chocolate makes one healthy. Although chocolate started to be consumed more for its taste than for its health benefits, the rumor that chocolate was an aphrodisiac stuck around and furthered its recreational usage. This has caused Western society to link certain types of chocolate with romance and sex. Valentine’s Day and wedding anniversaries are often celebrated with a box of chocolates. The message that chocolate is sexually stimulating still makes its way into our advertising. For example, the advertisement below for Aero chocolate features an attractive half-dressed man who talks about chocolate in terms of sexual puns, such as when he remarks, “And that, ladies, makes the pleasure even more intense.”
Another advertisement for 1848 chocolate features a woman closing her eyes and making excited noises interspersed with footage of cacao being processed into chocolate.
In both advertisements, the companies are pushing the idea that eating chocolate is linked with sexual arousal and that making chocolate can make one sexier. Clearly, chocolate and sex are still linked in popular culture, and this stems from early European optimism that chocolate was a medicine and aphrodisiac.
In conclusion, chocolate has had many roles in many different cultures, but its current usage in Western society is largely influenced by early European chocolate customs. These customs will continue to influence Western chocolate consumption for years to come.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Digital Image. More of the Chocolate, Less of the Sexuality. Accessed March 10, 2017. https://chocolateclass.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/dove-wrapper.jpg.
Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escarcega, 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.” Journal of Nutrition 130, no. 8 (August 2000): 057S-2072S. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.long.
Hershey Company. Digital Image. The History of Hershey Advertising. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://imgc.allpostersimages.com/images/P-488-488-90/17/1721/HP13D00Z/posters/hershey-s-syrup.jpg.
Kmclan80. “Jason Lewis Looking HOT in new Aero Bubbles ad”. Filmed [April 2007]. YouTube video, 00:31. Posted [April 2007]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Brz8jjXuKyg.
Models TV Commercials 3. “SEXY CHOCOLATE Commercial”. Filmed [April 2009]. YouTube video, 00:48. Posted [April 2009]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzOchsY4RhQ.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.