Sweet Relief: A History of Chocolate as Medicine

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of chocolate in the media as a means of weight loss, body transformation, and pursuing a healthy lifestyle. Individuals have flocked to this fad, willing to integrate chocolate into their diet in the hopes of physical improvement. The Flat Belly Diet states, “The Flat Belly diet does not offer magic….but it does offer science” (xi) and proceeds to coin the term “MUFAS”, mono unsaturated fatty acids, as the science behind the subject (5), citing dark chocolate specifically as a MUFA to be utilized on a daily basis throughout the diet program (27). Before and after pictures of thrilled women, finally rid of their belly fat once and for all wave gleefully from the pages of the self-help book.

For many, this may seem like a wholly novel idea. However, in light of deeper research, it becomes clear that the authors of this diet plan are simply tapping into the age-old penchant that humans have for turning to chocolate for medicinal purposes. In the following blog post, I will examine that phenomenon, tracing chocolate’s journey as a medical agent throughout history. I theorize that this continued use is due to both its chemical makeup and its esteemed position in social history.

To begin, it is crucial to look at the beginning of chocolate’s historical journey as a remedy. Presilla and de los Santos explain that chocolate was used for religious offerings and elite ceremonies by the Aztec and Mayan communities pre-European invasion (20). By making offerings to the gods and drinking cacao at ceremonies, the Mayans and Aztecs implicitly indicated an association of chocolate use with longevity and health. Additionally, as explained by Dillinger et al., missionary Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex explicitly named chocolate as an Aztec remedy. In his written account of Aztec customs, he named chocolate as a therapy used by the civilization for everything from infection and fever to diarrhea or excessive phlegm (2060). However, Europeans took this practice to an even further level. Historians Sophie and Michael Coe describe how the Europeans “stripped it [chocolate] of the spiritual meaning which it had for the Mesoamericans, and imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya… it was a drug, a medicine” (Chapter 5).

chocolate world digital
Image of Florentine Codex section detailing Aztec medicine. Source

With medicine in the 16th century being speculative at best, incorporating this holy, revered substance into the medical repertoire was an attractive option. When chocolate was discovered, the medical world at the time revolved around bleeding, deadly surgery without anesthetic, and other foul remedies meant to balance the “humors” (Dillinger, 2059). Therefore, the reports of Aztec medical expertise were more than enough to catch the attention of King Phillip II, who sent his royal physician, Francisco Hernández to investigate (Coe and Coe, Chapter 4). Hernández quickly adapted the Aztec rituals to fit within the European system of the four humors. This publicity caused many others to follow suit. Notable Spanish doctor Antonio Comero de Ladesma claimed that it “preserved health” and made the user “amiable” while Englishmen Thomas Gage and Adam Stubbes also endorsed the product ((Dillinger et al 2064). Thanks to this widespread publicity touting the efficacy of chocolate, by the Baroque period, chocolate, had fanned across Europe as a viable medication, endorsed by royalty and beloved by individuals of the highest class (Coe and Coe, Chapter 5). Of course, this was soon met with controversy, as by the 18th century medical professionals were also warning the public of the dangers of chocolate, claiming that excessive use could result in hyperactivity, discomfort, and even death (Coe and Coe, Chapter 7). While these claims were eventually disputed, chocolate’s role as a medicine was beginning to be contested.

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A London doctor warns of the dangers of chocolate. Source

By the turn of the 19th century, modern medicine was on the rise and chocolate’s medicinal value was in a nosedive. As data and facts replaced assumptions and ideas, chocolate was replaced by the scientifically supported medicines we see today (Coe and Coe, Chapter 8). This is due to the fact that modern science found the health benefits of chocolate to be modest. However it is important to note that chocolate can cause several physical effects. First of all, its chemical makeup which include caffeine means that chocolate consumption does give a slight energy boost, and it is addicting (Presilla and De Los Santos, 10). Additionally, a recent study conducted by Joke van Wensen and colleagues found that over time, certain doses of dark chocolate can have health benefits such as lower blood pressure (1). Another study found that chocolate consumption increases total plasma antioxidant capacity (Halliwell 787).  However, in these studies, and many more, the effect of chocolate is minimal, and it is yet to be seen if the results are long lasting and prove causation rather than simply correlation.

In light of these facts, it is incredible that situations like the one in this article are still occurring. How is it possible that chocolate keeps on being disproved as a healthcare option, but continues making dramatic resurgences as medicine?  First of all, it seems clear that chocolate’s chemical makeup is a huge contributor. It has addictive qualities and does give a small boost of energy, so it is easy for a consumer to fall into the habit of eating it, and to believe that they are physically benefitting. However, cocaine, cigarettes and french fries are all products that give a physical boost and are addicting, but no one operates under the assumption that they are medically valuable. The crucial difference here is that, as described above, chocolate has been revered and storied by experts and the highest castes of society for centuries, from the Aztec warriors to the Kings and Queens of European society. Chocolate has carried social power for centuries, and this is a powerful thing in the human brain. It is a treasured part of Western culture, and it seems clear that the social context of chocolate continues to outweigh medical opinion. For this combination of reasons, it is very likely that chocolate will never lose its allure as a healthcare option.

References

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Cohen, Paula. “How the “chocolate Diet” Hoax Fooled Millions.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 29 May 2015. Web. 1 Mar. 2017

Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escárcega, Jimenez Martha, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis Gravetti. “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): 2057S-072S. Journal of Nutrition. The Journal of Nutrition, 01 Aug. 2000. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.

Duncan, M. Wholesome Advice against the Abuse of Hot Liquors. Digital image. Folger Digital Collection. Printed for H. Rhodes, and A. Bell, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.

“General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino De Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book X: The People, Their Virtues and Vices, and Other Nations.” WDL RSS. World Digital Library, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.

Halliwell, Barry. “Health Benefits of Eating Chocolate?” Nature, vol. 426, no. 6968, 2003, pp. 787-787; discussion 788 Advanced Technologies & Aerospace Database; Agricultural & Environmental Science Database; Earth, Atmospheric & Aquatic Science Database, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/204509938?accountid=11311.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.

Vaccariello, Liz, and Cynthia Sass. Flat Belly Diet!: A Flat Belly Is about Food & Attitude, Period. (not a Single Crunch Required). New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.

van Wensem, J. (2015), Overview of scientific evidence for chocolate health benefits. Integr Environ Assess Manag, 11: 176–177. doi:10.1002/ieam.1594

 

 

 

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