Since its diffusion into European culture due to the return of Spanish Conquistadors, chocolate has integrated itself into modern culture. Chocolate, quite literally, taken over the world. There are few restaurants or even places of business that do not sell some version of the food. Though originating in the Western hemisphere, cacao and in turn chocolate have deeply impacted the lives and diets of the world. From the its origins in the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations where cacao was viewed as the food of the gods and its diffusion into European cultures where it was consumed in communal houses chocolate has had been viewed positively. However some groups have had negative views toward it as something sinful. Into current times, the views of chocolate have varied greatly based on who is being asked. These views toward chocolate and, specifically, its health implications has varied widely over the centuries, in this post I will delve into the relationship between the product and consumer to analyze how views have changed toward its health implications over time. I will argue that these changes of opinion are based more on the methods by which cacao products are made than with the reality of chocolate.
Europeans did not originally enjoy chocolate or embrace it as natives did. It was traditionally a bitter drink since there was no added sugar and was served with native ingredients such as chili (Harp). This version of chocolate was full of benefits according to the people that drank it. The natives had warriors drink the chocolate drinks for energy in battle as they held that the drink’s recipe was provided by the gods (Leissle 28). Cacao beans have caffeine in them so this makes sense as the warriors are reacting to the chemical. It is clear that the natives believed the drink granted power but the Europeans were still reluctant to drink it since it did not actually taste good and they were unfamiliar with the native spices. They ultimately remedied this by adding sugar and spices they did know, such as cinnamon (Coe & Coe 115). With this combination chocolate became very popular and Europeans would open Chocolate House’s where people would gather, consume chocolate, and converse in a similar fashion to the coffee houses.
Even though chocolate had grown in popularity the people were not necessarily in complete agreement as to whether it should be consumed. The physician of Pope Clement XI Albani believed that chocolate had no downside if it was not consumed in excess, though no definition of excess is given and it later tales stated that 3 bowls of chocolate a day was perfectly fine (Coe & Coe 203). But some also believed the opposite, Dr Giovanni Batista Felici held the opinion that it would shorten lives and worsen the character of those that consumed it, also preventing any child from being able to sit still (Coe & Coe 205). However this view of the results of chocolate consumption seems very similar to how the body reacts to sugar consumption. Medical studies have reported that processed sugars rapidly change the blood sugar levels of those that consume them, potentially leading to the hyperactivity that Dr. Felici observed. Since sugar and chocolate at this time could rarely be separated it makes sense that he would conclude that this was due to chocolate consumption. This can also be seen as European countries started their consumption of chocolate as the trade routes that brought them sugar from the colonies flourished (Mintz 131).
In the modern era chocolate has had many investigations into its health benefits, In a simple google search of “Is chocolate healthy?” you can see many such articles concluding in agreement and not. Professor Marion Nestle found that many of these studies are the result of food companies skewed results (Petrow). In fact it is not the chocolate that has health benefits but the flavanols from the cacao bean, most everything else in modern chocolate is not healthy, and modern chocolate does not even contain enough to be beneficial (Petrow). The bitter taste that the Europeans wished to get rid of with additives was the beneficial portion of the cacao which the Mesoamericans correctly believed benefited their warriors.
The benefits of consuming chocolate are outweighed by the negatives of the amount of sugar and fat that comes with it. For example, a study showed that flavanol intake increased performance of participants in memory tests but required participants to consume nearly seven chocolate bars a day, which for obvious reasons has its own set of consequences. However, due to the industries publication of studies like this where the results say chocolate is healthy, many members of the public also believe this as well.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019
“Hyperactivity and Sugar: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002426.htm.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018
Morton, Marcia, and Frederic Morton. Chocolate: An Illustrated History. Outlet 1988
Mintz, Sidney W. 1986. Sweetness and Power
Petrow, Steven. “Perspective | Is Chocolate Healthy? Alas, the Answer Isn’t Sweet. Here’s Why.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 Oct. 2019, http://www.washingtonpost.com/health/is-chocolate-healthy-alas-the-answer-isnt-sweet-heres-why/2019/10/25/7933aeec-e6e0-11e9-a331-2df12d56a80b_story.html.