When we think of chocolate and sugar, the first words that usually pop into our heads are ones like “sweetness”, “indulgence”, and “love”. However, rarely do we ever think about them in the context of medicine, but the historical associations of chocolate and sugar with healing disease are critical in understanding their popularity in the modern era. Examining the history of chocolate and sugar as medicinal substances shows that the European obsession with perceived therapeutic qualities of both allowed for their popularization and eventual exploitative systems that persist to present day. The versatility of chocolate and sugar allowed it to remain widely sought after in Europe and led to their natural development into staple commodities.
Mesoamerican societies such as the Mayans, Olmecs, and Aztecs all consumed cacao and it had great value as medicine. Helen Thompson of the Smithsonian Magazine explains that Mayan “patients consumed a cacao-based concoction to treat skin rashes, fever and seizures” following ceremonial chants. A translated version of a Mayan ceremonial chant with mention of cacao can be found here: http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/grammar/section32.html. She also details how Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagún noted that the Aztecs “brewed a drink from cacao and silk cotton tree bark (Castilla elastica) to treat infections,” another indication that cacao was popular in medicinal contexts. As Europeans began to encounter Mesoamerican civilization, there was great fascination with the medicinal properties of cacao. Thompson uses the example of a Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma who in 1631 writes that cacao “provokes urine, cures the stone, and expels poison, and preserves from all infection disease” (Thompson 2015). Spanish physician Agustin Farfán in his book, Tratado breve de medicina y de todas las enfermedades que a cada passo se ofrecen describes the use of cacao as medicine, and this served as an influential piece of work for European cacao consumption (Martin 2020, Lecture 3). Similar accounts can be consistently found throughout European writings about cacao and the Aztec civilization. To those living in Europe without having direct contact with the people preparing and consuming cacao, the only source of information about cacao was through these writings.
Upon arrival in Europe, cacao was viewed and used as a therapeutic food modeling the practices of the Aztecs. Michael and Sophie Coe write that the to the Spanish, cacao was “a drug, medicine, in the humoral system to which they all adhered” (Coe and Coe 2013, 126). The prevailing medical science of the day was Galen’s humoral theory that posited that the four humors had qualities of being hot, cold, wet, or dry. Substances were treated similarly, and cacao was argued to have cold and dry qualities that could help to treat hot diseases (Lippi 2013). This medical association of cacao was critical to its longevity in Europe that allowed it to develop into a common food and kitchen staple. As cacao persisted around European society, there was more time for experimentation and creation of recipes that slowly allowed for the transition from cacao as medicine to cacao as food. As people began to discover chocolate recipes that were highly palatable and marketable, the focus shifted to making it something accessible to all of European society. It has now grown to become an important cultural symbol for sweetness and delicacy, and an incredibly profitable market that has little association with medical properties. However, if not for the initial medical applications of cacao, it is difficult to envision that cacao would have been around long enough for it to evolve into what it has become.
The story of sugar’s introduction into European societies is similar. Mintz explains that one of sugar’s primary uses in its early days in Europe was as a medicine and says that, “white sugar was commonly prescribed in medicines, and combinations of white foods at times enjoyed a popularity out of all proportion to their therapeutic efficacy” (Mintz 1985, 87). This use as a medicine was not serendipitous, but rather a replication of African and Arabic practices. Mintz details how sugar’s “medical utility had already been firmly established by physicians of the time…and it entered slowly into European medical practice via Arab pharmacology” (Mintz 1985, 80). Though sugar was also being used as a spice and as a sweetener, it was not the only ingredient that was prevalent at the time. In fact, Mintz highlights that for a long time, sugar was a commodity only enjoyed by the wealthy and elite of society. Given this information, one must question whether sugar could have stayed as relevant and popular if not for the fact that it was perceived to have medicinal properties. The common prescription of sugar as a medicine allowed it to permeate through the upper class, and it became a critical ingredient in recipes. Both cacao and sugar underwent progressions from rare, highly prized medical commodities to common culinary staples that we cannot envision society without.
The great irony here is that modern research has shown excessive consumption of chocolate and sugar can have serious health consequences. Studies have shown that sugar is a key contributor to and a risk factor for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (Harvard Health Publishing 2017). Doctors and health professionals generally call for a reduction in sugar and chocolate intake, but 17th and 18th century Europeans would be shocked at the transformation in the perception of cacao and sugar for health. The popularity of chocolate and sugar in contemporary society has blossomed to the point that the evidence for negative health consequences will not be a driving force for its demise if it were to ever come. It is important to recognize, though, that the perceived therapeutic effect of both foods was critical in their popularization. Along with it came the consequences of exploitative practices, and as consumers today, we must question if the apparent health benefits of food outweigh the potential abuses that may come with its production and consumption.
Bolles, David, and Alejandra Bolles. “A Grammar of the Yucatecan Mayan Language.” Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Inc. Accessed March 7, 2020. http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/grammar/section32.htm.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Harvard Health Publishing. “The Sweet Danger of Sugar.” Harvard Health, May 2017. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar.
Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food.” Nutrients. MDPI, May 14, 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3708337/.
Martin, Carla. “Lecture 3: Chcocolate Expansion.” Lecture 3: Chcocolate Expansion. February 12, 2020.
“Milagros De Todos Los Días: A Principios Guías Médicas En La Nueva España.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health, July 17, 2013. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/exvotos/guidesespanol.html.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York, NY: Viking, 1985.
“Sugary Drinks Can Harm Your Health.” Sugary Drinks & Oral Health | Delta Dental of Colorado. Accessed March 7, 2020. https://www.deltadentalco.com/sugarydrinks.aspx.
Thompson, Helen. “Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, February 12, 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/healers-once-prescribed-chocolate-aspirin-180954189/.