“Is Chocolate Good for your Health?” – A Historical Study of Chocolate in Japan


Image 1: A photo of Aztec Chocolate
Source: Photo by Brian Hagiwara Studio, Inc. posted on Smithsonian Museum (2008), “A Brief History of Chocolate”. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/ .[Accessed: March 18th, 2018].
Chocolate was once medicine. This is a great way to justify your love for this indulging sweet.  However, you need to know the whole history behind this mysterious product in order to use this as your argument. We will do this by exploring the historical trajectory of chocolate products as healthy food in Japan.

First of all, what is chocolate?  As it could be seen from the origin of the word- “chacau haa” meaning hot water or hot chocolate, chocolate that was born in Mesoamerica around 1500 BC in a form of liquid (Coe & Coe 2013, 180). In other words, chocolate was not candy to begin with, rather more like cacao juice.

According to Coe & Coe (2013, 108), in Ancient Maya civilization, the drink was considered as a stimulant, almost like an energy drink for warriors. After the Spanish colonized Mesoamerica, they brought back the product to their homeland. While there were heated debates over whether chocolate was good for people’s health or not, in general, the positive view persisted and spread amongst Europe. For example, in 1704, a French food writer Louis Lemery wrote that chocolate was strengthening, restorative, good for digestion, and enhances venery (Coe & Coe 2013, 208).

Such view in favor of chocolate as “healthy” is still alive today. However, the main focus is on the benefits of cacao, in particular that of the substances such as Theobromine and Catechin- an antioxidant (Benton et al., 1998; Arts et al., 2001 cited in Storrs 2017). So, the question here is, is the candy chocolate that we commonly know of, good for our health or not?

Image 2: “Morinaga Miruku Chokorēto” (Morinaga Milk Chocolate)
(Source: Morinaga Seika Kabushiki Kaisha 1918, December 18th, Tokyo Asahi Shinbun, 6)
Introducing chocolate as kami no kate (god’s food), the nutritional benefits of coco beans are explained in detail, such as improving digestion, and therefore contributing to longer lifespan.

The history of solid chocolate is quite recent. Around mid-20th century, the energy drink was turned into a bar to take it for hiking. Concurrently, the sugar content of chocolate rose up, making it into a sweet. Following the Industrial Revolution, chocolate became a cheap product, available to everyone. However, people’s understanding of health also changed around the same time and the belief in chocolate as panacea gradually diminished (Coe & Coe 2013, 241).

Now let’s take a look at Japan. In contrast to Europe where chocolate as a beverage spread amongst the elite class and then to the mass in the form of solid sweet, chocolate was welcomed in Japan after it had established its form as candy. Morinaga Confectionary corporation was the first company to produce chocolate bars from cacao beans in 1910. Around this time, advertisements were filled with health benefits (Image 2).


Particularly interesting about the advertisements in the pre-war era is the notion of calories. Concerned with diseases such as diabetes, we often refrain from eating things with high energy content these days. However, the advertisement published on a mainstream Japanese newspaper called Asahi Shinbun on February 8th, 1920 states that the main reason why chocolate consumption is encouraged is because of its “heat giving power”, in short- calories. The small chart also shows the comparison of calories in food products ranging from white radish, bread, and beef to that of Morinaga’s chocolate products written in bold, emphasizing the high calories of chocolate. Based on the assumption that cacao was the main product that was thought to be nutritious in Mesoamerica and Europe, it is possible that such was also the case with Japan. Yet, we should not overlook the power of sugar. Kushner (2012, 138) notes that sugar, at that time when staple food prices were increasing, was seen as an affordable way of acquiring calories.

This was inextricably linked to war. Triggered by the threat of Western nations, Japan, since the Meiji restoration in 1868, expanded its territory in East Asia, colonizing places such as Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria. In such context, gaining calories was seen as the way to form strong bodies, thus contribution to the nation. In this sense, chocolate was for everyone- men, women, and children (Image 4).


From the Left, Image 3“Morinaga Miruku Chokorēto” (Morinaga Milk Chocolate) (Source: Morinaga Seika Kabushiki Kaisha 1920, February 8th, Tokyo Asahi Shinbun, 6);  Image 4: “Tatakau katsuryoku, Morinaga Miruku Chokorēto” (Power to Fight, Morinaga Milk Chocolate) (Source: Morinaga Seika Kabushiki Kaisha 1920, February 8th, Tokyo Asahi Shinbun, 6); Image 5: Morinaga Chocolate Advertisements in the 1980s targeting women (Source: P-interest (n.d.)  https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/745768019518428795/ [Accessed: March 18th, 2018].


Graph 1.jpg
Graph1: Graph showing the growth of healthy chocolate market from 2014 to 2017 (unit: one hundred million yen)
Source: Meiji Con., (n.d.) “Chokoreto koka”.
https://www.meiji.co.jp/sweets/chocolate/chocokoka/ [Accessed: March 18th, 2018].
What awaited the burst of the bubble economy in the 1991, was the so-called the Lost Decades. Japan faced prolonged economic stagnation and serious social issues such as stress-society. After the economy recovered, with the phenomenon of ageing-population and declining birth rate, people started to become more aware of seikatsu shukan-byo (life-style related diseases), namely diabetes, high blood-pressure, and obesity. In other words, people came to view their life in the long-term, desiring a healthy life. According to a survey on people’s attitude towards food conducted by the Japan Finance Corporation in 2017, the main trend in people’s choice of food was healthy food with 44.6%, showing a steady rise for the past seven years. In the contrary, the second prominent factor money (31.4%) has been showing continuous decline, possibly indicating that people are prioritizing health over cost. This reflects the “health boom” which could be seen from the exponential growth of “healthy chocolate” market (Graph 1) (Meiji Co., n.d.).

Chocolates in this genre could be categorized into two groups: one, marketing special nutrients in cacao, and two, adding particular substances to chocolate. An example of group one chocolate is GABA, manufactured by Glico confectionary corporation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9bmMwvUelA ). As the name says, containing high amounts of a substance called Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid (GABA) understood to be useful in controlling stress, the chocolate targets working people, men in particular, calling itself a “mental balance chocolate” (Glico Co., n.d.). Chocolate Koka (Chocolate Effect) by Meiji Co., – the best seller in the healthy chocolate market is known for high content of cacao ranging from 72% to 95% (Image 6). The packaging even indicates the amount of cocoa polyphenol content and claims to be beneficial for people’s health and beauty (Meiji Co., n.d.)

Image 5.jpg
Image 6: Chocolate Koka Product Series with the Amount of Cacao content and Polyphenol per piece
Source: Meiji Con., (n.d.) “Chokoreto koka”. https://www.meiji.co.jp/sweets/chocolate/chocokoka/ [Accessed: March 18th, 2018].
Moving onto the second group of chocolate. For those who are concerned about the calories of chocolate there is Libera. Glico confectionary corporation created this product which contains Indigestible dextrin- a type of fiber that prevents the intake of fat and glucose (Glico Co., n.d.). It is assigned as a “Function Claim”- “foods submitted to the Secretary-General of the Consumer Affairs Agency as products whose labels bear function claims based on scientific evidence, under the responsibility of food business operators”. Lotte corporation has also produced “Lactobacillus Chocolate” (Nyusankin shokora). Coating Lactobacillus brevis NTT001, a plant derived lactic acid bacterium, this product helps improve the condition of people’s intestines (Lotte Co., n.d.). These two are more targeted towards women.

These trends show how chocolate in Japan has reemerged as a magical health food. Although chocolate has been receiving a similar kind of attention in US and possibly in other parts of the worlds, it is mainly the high content of cocoa that is the primary focus of attention. Japan’s follows a similar trend but with a different strategy. It is by specializing in specific nutritional benefits of chocolate that they do so. Furthermore, it also contains nutrients foreign from cacao to provide a different type of benefit that chocolate previous did not have or could not have achieved. From this, we may be able to say that the Japanese consumers are wanting to health benefits from chocolate and perhaps food in general. Taste is not enough and chocolate is not just candy.


Works Cited:

Arts, I. C., Hollman, P. C., Bueno de Mesquita, H. B., Feskens, E. J., & Kromhout, D. (2001). Dietary catechins and epithelial cancer incidence: the Zutphen elderly study. International journal of cancer, 92(2), 298-302. Cited in Storrs, C. (May 25, 2017).

Benton, D., Greenfield, K., & Morgan, M. (1998). The development of the attitudes to chocolate questionnaire. Personality and Individual Differences24(4), 513-520. Cited in Storrs, C. (May 25, 2017).

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson.

Consumer Affairs Agenecy, Government of Japan (2015). “What are Food with ‘Function Claims’?” https://www.e-expo.net/pdf/news2015/20151228_caa01.pdf [Accessed: March 17th, 2018].

Glico Co., (n.d.). “Gaba”. http://cp.glico.jp/gaba/index.html. [Accessed: March 17th, 2018].

“Libera”. https://www.glico.com/jp/product/chocolate/libera/. [Accessed:                                                   March 17th, 2018].

Kushner, B. (2012). Sweetness and empire: sugar consumption in imperial Japan. In The Historical Consumer (pp. 127-150). Palgrave Macmillan, London, 138.

Lotte Co., (n.d.). “Nyusankin shokora”. https://www.lotte.co.jp/products/brand/nyusankin-chocolat/ . [Accessed: March 17th, 2018].

Storrs, C. (May 25, 2017).  “Is chocolate good or bad for health?” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2016/02/10/health/chocolate-health-benefits/index.html [Accessed: March 17th, 2018].

Japan Finance Corporation (2017). “Survey on Consumer’s Attitude on Food”. https://www.jfc.go.jp/n/findings/pdf/topics_170915a.pdf [Accessed: March 17th, 2018].

Meiji Co., (n.d.). “Chokoreto koka”. https://www.meiji.co.jp/sweets/chocolate/chocokoka/ [Accessed: March 18th, 2018].

Morinaga Seika Kabushiki Kaisha (ed.) (2000) Morinaga hyakunenshi (100 years of History of Morinaga Confectionary Company), Tokyo: Morinaga Co..



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