Is chocolate healthy? While this question still pops up all over media today, it has been grappled with in every civilization in which chocolate was consumed. Despite the overwhelming acknowledgement that candy is unhealthy for humans today, specialty chocolate bars can be found wedged between acai bowls and kale salads at the fitness food cafes Embody Fitness Gourmet and Hu Kitchen in Connecticut and Manhattan, respectively. This investigation seeks to contextualize these contemporary healthy chocolate bars by understanding how chocolate’s health and medicinal attributes were perceived over time by the people that consumed chocolate. In order to understand how chocolate ended up in a fitness café today, we must examine how chocolate historically has come to be viewed as healthy, and how the “healthy” chocolate of today fits into this narrative. Ultimately, contemporary chocolate is just as susceptible as past chocolate to being shaped by cultural and societal conceptions of health.
Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”
Mesoamerican civilizations not only understood cacao in cultural and religious contexts, but also recognized its applications in medicine and health. Chemical analysis conducted on archaeological ceramics from Mesoamerica show that “chocolate has an antiquity that stretches 38 centuries back into the past, to predate even the San Lorenzo Olmecs” who lived from approximately 1500 BCE to 400 BCE (Coe & Coe, 36). Pre-Columbian Maya documents written in hieroglyphics, such as the Dresden Codex, often depict cacao being consumed by gods in ritual activities (Coe & Coe, 41). Furthermore, the Popol Vuh, or “Book of Counsel,” is a colonial document recorded by a Franciscan friar which contains the oldest Maya myth recorded in its entirety. In the Popol Vuh, cacao is shown in a variety of contexts, sometimes possessing a godly quality while sometimes being shown in commonplace scenarios (Coe & Coe, 40). Drinking cacao was part of ritual and celebratory acts, including marriage rituals and rites of death.
Mesoamericans recognized cacao’s applications in medicine and health. The ancient Maya believed chocolate to be very healthy, which stands as one of the many reasons royal rulers consumed vast quantities of cacao at their banquets; archaeological investigations even proved that rulers were in “better health and lived far longer than their chocolate-deprived subjects!” (Coe & Coe, 32). Mayan warriors decorated their armor with cacao pods and would eat cacao to boost energy, perceiving themselves to be invisible and protected in battle after consuming cacao (Lecture, food of the gods). Cacao was not only used to maintain and enhance health, but also was employed for its perceived curative properties in healing rites involving cacao. In the 18th century manuscripts copied from ancient Mayan codices called Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams, applications of medicinal cacao are shown to treat a wide variety of afflictions, including fevers and seizures (Martin, Feb. 1 Lecture). Additionally, cacao served as an ingredient in botanical remedies, and was often combined with pepper, honey, avocado, and other natural substances (Martin, Feb. 1 Lecture). Cacao intervened in all facets of ancient Mesoamerican life, especially in health and medicine.
European Perception of Chocolate through Humoral Theory
The introduction of cacao from Mesoamerica into Europe necessitated contextualizing cacao within the European understanding of medicine and health. When ships loaded with cacao beans reached the ports of Spain, the Spanish population and the populations of the other European powers “were at the mercy of a worthless and often destructive constellation of medical theories which had held the Western world in its grip for almost two millennia” (Coe & Coe, 120). To achieve pervasive acceptance of this exotic beverage, cacao needed to be fit “into this fallacious scheme” (Coe & Coe, 120).
Pre-modern European medical understanding and practice was dominated by humoral theory, which was created by the ancient Greeks and maintained its acceptance in Western civilization until modern medicine and understanding of physiology emerged in the early 19th century. Formulated by Hippocrates (460-377 BCE), this theory of disease and nutrition asserted that the human body consisted of four humors—black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm— which needed to be maintained in the correct combination to ensure good health (Coe & Coe, 121). If the ratio of these humors deviated, diseases and other afflictions were expected to occur. Galen, another ancient Greek born in approximately 130 A.D., “expanded [Hippocrates’s theory] by adding the notion of humors, diseases, and the drugs to cure disease could also be hot or cold, and moist or dry” (Coe & Coe, 121). Under this extension of Hippocrates’s theory, phlegm was considered moist and cold while blood was considered moist and hot.
Adoption of cacao in Europe required that it be classified within humoral theory. In 1570, King Philip II of Spain directed his Royal Physician Francisco Hernández to travel across the Atlantic to classify plants in the Americas under humoral theory. Claiming cacao to be very nourishing, Hernández believed the cacao bean to be “temperate in nature” yet should be considered more “cold and humid” (Coe & Coe, 122). Due to its cool nature, cacao drinks could be used to cure fevers and provide a cooling relief from hot weather. Many of the cacao spices used by Mesoamericans, such as mecaxochitl flavoring, were considered “hot” under humoral theory. Given that Hernández classified plants with strong odor and taste as “hot” and those with little odor or taste as “cold”, he believed the spices that Mesoamericans included in their chocolate drinks were “hot” and carried medicinal applications by “warm[ing] the stomach, perfum[ing] the breath… [and] combat[ing] poisons, alleviat[ing] intestinal pains and colics” (Coe & Coe, 122). Ultimately, Hernández classified cacao drinks as “cold” most likely because the Aztecs considered their beverage cold, consumed the drink at room temperature or colder, and used the drink to replenish the body and avoid fatigue (Coe & Coe, 122).
Just as Galen expanded on Hippocrates’s humoral theory, so too did Juan de Cárdenas expand on Hernández’s analysis of chocolate and classification of cacao under humoral theory by publishing a treatise on New World foods in 1591. Cárdenas details that chocolate can be unhealthy if prepared or taken improperly. He asserts that “green” chocolate, most likely referring to unripe cacao beans, causes health symptoms such as melancholy, irregular heartbeats, and paroxysms, and can harm digestion (Coe & Coe, 123). Conversely, Cárdenas contends that cacao can aid in digestion, be nutritious, and imbue happiness and strength if the cacao is prepared properly, including grinding and toasting, as well as is mixed with substances like atole gruel (Coe & Coe, 123). He recognized the health and medicinal value of the substances that Mesoamericans added into chocolate, such as hueinacaztli, or ear flower, which “comforts the liver, stimulates digestion, and extirpates windiness” (Coe & Coe, 123).
Cárdenas echoed many of Hernández’s claims regarding chocolate, including that drinking chocolate is a good method for avoiding fatigue, cooling off, and replenishing the body. However, Cárdenas did deviate from Hernández’s humoral description of cacao and chocolate. Cárdenas believed chocolate to consist of three main parts: a “cold”, “earthy”, and “dry part; a “warm and humid” oily part; and a head-ache inducing, bitter-tasting, “hot” part (Coe & Coe, 123). Culinary historian Maricel E. Presilla shares her opinion of Cárdenas’s treatise: “In a way Cárdenas was rationalizing his own enjoyment and acceptance of the way chocolate was made in the Americas and putting it in the scientific context of the times. And we find that the techniques and practices he considered wise and healthy have been used from his day to the present in Latin America and Spain” (Presilla, 27). Now that cacao was properly classified under humoral theory and considered healthy in Europe, it could be consumed by all who had access to the luxurious drink.
In essence, Europeans took cacao beans and detached the religious and cultural significance Mesoamericans had for them while fitting this new commodity into Europe’s humoral belief system as a medicine and a drug. It was under this categorization as a medicine, a drug, and a healthful product, that chocolate travelled in Europe, “from one court to another, from noble house to noble house, from monastery to monastery” (Coe & Coe, 126). Chocolate became a symbol of luxury, consumed by the nobility of Europe, but also appreciated for its medicinal properties. In fact, Alphonse de Richelieu (1634-1680) is suspected to be the first person to bring chocolate to France to be consumed as a medical treatment for his spleen (Coe & Coe, 153).
Industrialization and Chocolate: The Age of Adulteration
By the mid-1900s, chocolate was converted into a solid form, becoming accessible, cheap, and enjoyed by all while firmly breaking the 28 century-old practice in which chocolate was exclusively consumed by wealthy elite (Coe & Coe, 232). At this point in time, “no longer did [people] have to fret over whether chocolate or its flavorings were ‘hot,’ ‘cold,’ or ‘temperate,’ ‘dry’ or ‘moist’” (Coe & Coe, 234). The perception that chocolate was healthy persisted until chocolate received more public scrutiny. However, it was not the chocolate that was considered unhealthy, but rather the adulterants that were being added to chocolate in place of more expensive natural ingredients. For example, “the expensive cacao butter [was] completely extracted (and sold elsewhere), then replaced with olive oil, egg yolks, or suet of veal or mutton; the resulting product goes rancid very quickly” (Coe & Coe, 243-244). Starch became a popularly used filler in chocolate. Methods to uncover the true recipes of chocolate being sold to the public emerged, such as the practice of adding drops of iodine solution into a mixture of melted chocolate and boiling water which would produce a blue color once the mixture was cooled (Coe & Coe, 244).
After hearing claims of chocolate adulteration, media and governments mobilized to investigate these claims and catalyze regulation. The Lancet, a popular British medical journal, launched a health commission to analyze foods in 1850. After collecting samples from chocolate producers around England, the health commission discovered that 39 out of 70 samples “had been colored with red ocher from ground bricks” and that “most of the samples contained starch grains from potatoes, or from two tropical plants, Canna giganta and arrowroot” (Coe & Coe, 244). Similar results were found in French-produced chocolate. The findings catalyzed the British government to pass the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 as well as the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872 (Coe & Coe, 244). While chocolate manufacturers no longer put red ocher or potato starch in their chocolate, producers continue to create new ways of lowering costs while trying keeping taste, such as through using artificial flavors and other chemicals. In the 1900s, “in the interests of economy…the mass producers began skimping on, or even cutting out altogether, the substance that gives the quality to superior chocolates: cacao butter” (Coe & Coe, 257).
Is Chocolate Considered Healthy Today?: Chocolate as a Gourmet Fitness Food
Today, the healthiness of chocolate is being debated every day. Generally, mass produced chocolate, especially milk chocolate, is considered unhealthy mostly due to its high sugar content. Dark chocolate is often considered healthy or neutral. Coe and Coe explain, “Dark chocolate does not cause diabetes, dental caries, or acne, or produce headaches, as sometimes has been alleged” (Coe & Coe, 31). The obesity among people who consume chocolate in large quantities is often blamed on milk chocolate as well as other unhealthy lifestyle habits. While the cacao butter commonly found in chocolate is a saturated fat, cacao butter predominantly consists of stearic triglycerides, “which have been shown to have no effect on blood cholesterol levels” (Coe & Coe, 30). No direct link has been shown to exist between the development of heart disease and chocolate consumption (Coe & Coe, 30).
The book Chocolate and Health: Chemistry, Nutrition and Therapy edited by Philip Wilson and Jeffrey Hurst offers a comprehensive investigation into and explanation of the health claims made about chocolate. With experts within each field writing a section regarding chocolate claims in their area of expertise, several conclusions about the true health benefits of chocolate can be made. Cacao contains the alkaloids theobromine and caffeine which interfere with adenosine receptors, affecting mood and alertness (Wilson & Hurst, Chapter 5). Cocoa flavanols serve as antioxidants, lower blood pressure, and improve mental processes (Wilson & Hurst, Chapter 5). Daily consumption of moderate amounts of flavanol-rich cacao products is associated with improved blood pressure in hypertensives and increased insulin sensitivity (Chapter 7). Chocolate and chocolate food products can be an excellent for post-exercise nutrition by providing the “nutrients necessary to repair muscle protein, replenish glycogen, quench oxidants and elevate mood during the post-exercise recovery interval” (Wilson & Hurst, Chapter 8).
Embody Fitness Gourmet is “a fitness inspired eatery serving a diverse menu of healthy and functional foods” with three locations in Connecticut that provide customers with expensive juices, salads, and Intelligentsia coffee, among other products (Embody Fitness Gourmet Facebook Page). Embody considers itself progressive and modern in all ways, hopping on every food, fitness, and lifestyle trend. Embody partners with SoulCycle and offers its products through Uber Eats. It even strives to be politically progressive and active by having unisex bathrooms labeled “everyone” and posting picture of its bathroom door on Facebook with the caption, “The weather may not make much sense, but some things are pretty clear” (Embody Fitness Gourmet). Embody offers a wide range of premium-priced products containing superfoods, such as avocado, acai, and kale. It is here in this health mecca that we find chocolate bars standing as the only product on the long, sleek counter in front of the iPad wielding cashier.
The chocolate is called Hu Chocolate, produced by Hu Kitchen— a similar health food company in Manhattan. The chocolate comes in eight flavors, including almond butter and puffed quinoa, cashew butter and vanilla bean, hazelnut butter, salty, simple, crunchy mint, banana, and fig nut. When asked if customers buy a lot of the chocolate, the cashier at Embody replied, “Yeah! People love it, but it’s pretty pricey at $8.25 per bar.” While these two fitness food companies are trying to offer their customers a healthy chocolate bar, their efforts reflect a concerted rejection of industrialized chocolate and a desire to be cool and trendy.
The Hu Chocolate bars demonstrate a concerted rejection of industrialized chocolate and processed food of today and of the past. The packaging lists that it contains no gluten, no dairy, no refined sugar, no cane sugar, no sugar alcohols, no dairy, no GMOs, no emulsifiers, and no soy lecithin (hukitchen.com). Their website explains their reasons for excluding these ingredients. For using no refined sugar, Hu Chocolate vilifies big chocolate companies: “Most commercial chocolates are sweetened with low quality refined sugars. These sugars always made us sluggish and tired, which made us hesitant to eat chocolate. Hu Chocolate is sweetened with an unrefined organic coconut sugar, which never gave us a crash” (hukitchen.com). While Hu Chocolate is using healthier ingredients than commercial chocolate companies, it supports its claims on legally-defensible anecdotal evidence, such as that coconut sugar does not give them a sugar crash. Their slogan to “Get Back to Human” expresses their anti-industry sentiment.
Both Embody and Hu Chocolate reject the industrialization of food and seek to retreat to more nature ways of making and using food products. On Embody’s Facebook page, it often posts advertisements from the past to make fun of misconceptions and fads of past generations. One post includes a “reducing diet menu” that could be supplemented with Domino sugar to lose weight. The Embody Facebook page dismisses these advertisements immediately as “ridiculous”, instead of explaining or understanding the history of systematically-targets advertisements of sugar at women and children to help prevent fatigue and save money (Mintz, 130). In essence, these companies reject the ingredients and processes of the modern food industry. The Hu Chocolate advertises itself as being stone ground dark chocolate, harkening back to the Mesoamerican practice of grinding cacao using a metate and its subsequent replacement by stone mills (Coe & Coe, 115).
To a certain extent, these companies take advantage of current fads to sell their product just as everyone from Mesoamericans to industrial chocolate manufacturers made claims about their chocolate. Hu Chocolate claims its products are “organic/fair trade” but no information on where they source their ingredients from is available (hukitchen.com). Furthermore, Hu Chocolate exploits the gluten-free fad by claiming on their label that there is “no gluten” in their chocolate, yet gluten is rarely found in chocolate (hukitchen.com). Furthermore, it labels its product as “Paleo*”, referring to the paleo diet fad, but the asterisk leads the consumer to the explanation that the chocolate is labeled in this way because “some flavors are primal” (hukitchen.com). Embody even places chocolate as the one item on its counter, knowing that chocolate is bought as an impulse purchase. Most of all, these two companies place the chocolate products among superfoods— of course, people are going to think it’s healthy and buy it for a premium price. Ultimately, both Embody and Hu Chocolate are focused on being relevant by keeping up with trends and fads, just like industrial chocolate and sugar companies of the past. Additionally, examination of Hu Chocolate as a gourmet fitness product allows us to understand how we perceive the health benefits of chocolate relative to how the Mesoamericans, Baroque-era European, and industrial revolution chocolate manufacturers did. Ultimately, contemporary chocolate is just as susceptible as past chocolate to being shaped by cultural and societal conceptions of health.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 . The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
“Comic cartoon about food adulteration, 1858, from Punch.” The British Library. The British Library, 06 Feb. 2014. Web. 05 May 2017. < https://www.bl.uk/collection- items/comic- cartoon-about-food-adulteration-1858-from-punch>.
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“Embody Fitness Gourmet.” TBT to ridiculous 1950s advertising for… – Embody Fitness Gourmet. N.p., 23 Feb. 2017. Web. 05 May 2017. <https://www.facebook.com/embodyfg/photos/a.502839906415719.15976032.466963 940003316/1486796624686704/?type=3&theater>.
“Hu Chocolate.” Hu Kitchen. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2017. <https://hukitchen.com/collections/chocolate>.
Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Lecture.
Mintz, Sidney. 1986 . Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Wilson, Philip K., and William Jeffrey Hurst. 2015. Chocolate and health: chemistry, nutrition and therapy. Cambridge, UK: Royal Society of Chemistry.