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Medicinal Benefits of Theobroma cacao: Contemporary Studies of Chocolate as a Health Food and the Historical Use of Cacao in Healing

Food was the first medicine. From relieving indigestion to combating infections and fevers, humans relied primarily on their environmental resources as holistic remedies to alleviate suffering and prolong lifespan. Chocolate holds a particularly long history of use in medical practices, and was used heavily in the civilizations of Mesoamerica—and post-Conquest, in European cultures. Natural therapies have always been prevalent, though the introduction of modern medicine pushed these long-standing customs aside as the leading form of treatment. These monumental leaps in discovery created a rift between the fields of medicine and dietetic practices (Wilson). However, as of late, the use of chocolate and other natural resources has seen a marked resurgence in contemporary health methods. Recent studies have shown that chocolate (when consumed in moderation) may assist in minimizing cardiovascular disease, reducing hypertension, and can even help fight cancer and diabetes (Howe 43). These are bold claims that should be received with skepticism, thus solidifying the need for further research to evaluate the long-term benefits of chocolate consumption in modern diet.

These are but a few examples of organic chocolate brands that appeal to customers as healthy.


In this essay, the medical benefits of chocolate will be explored through recent studies conducted over the past few decades, while also putting current societal notions in the context of the chocolate’s complicated history. This renaissance of medicine via cuisine poses many questions: why are we seeing a huge shift into holistic medicine when science is making so much progress in the medical field? Is the public growing disenchanted with drug over-prescription and their side effects, as the cost of healthcare is ever rising? Does the movement in producing less processed, more pure chocolate have a direct effect on the public’s consumption of “healthy” candy, and by association, better overall health? Perhaps we simply want our cake and to eat it too. Yet the answer is not so easily determined, as all of these issues could be refueling this fascination with the medical benefits of chocolate.

Before we can examine the contemporary healing notions of chocolate, we must gain a deeper understanding of the rich cultural history of cacao as medicine. From the time of its discovery by the Olmecs of Mesoamerica in 1500 B.C., Theobroma cacao has served many functions, used primarily as a source of food (Coe & Coe 34). Grown in pods attached to the trunk of a rather peculiar looking tree, the Olmecs recognized that there was more than met the eye to this peculiar plant. As they cracked open the pod to reveal a sweet, gelatinous pulp, they took more notice of the seeds within the milky substance, and began to process those seeds to create the very first iteration of cacao, or “kakawa” (Coe & Coe 35). As empires rose and fell, the subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations of the Izapan, Maya, Toltecs, and Aztecs also coveted cacao for its properties. Consumed primarily in the form of a frothed drink, it was a prized possession and available only to the elite—for it was godly potion that would grant energy and power, and was used in many rituals to appease their deities (Coe & Coe 34). These attributes were considered more than simply advantages; in these times, food and prayer were the only sources of medicine (Lippi).

Section of the ‘Codex’ style The Princeton Vase, A.D. 670-750, depicting a Mayan woman preparing a bitter chocolate drink by pouring the drink from one vase to another, thus creating the coveted “froth” (Martin, Lecture 2.3.16)

Cacao was administered to treat a variety of maladies, many times paired with corresponding incantations by the practitioner. Documents such as The Badianus Codex (1552), the Florentine Codex (1590), and the Princeton Codex (1965, otherwise known as The Ritual of the Bacabs), have served as the primary sources for researchers to study these ancient medical rituals (Dillinger 2060S). From gastrointestinal issues such as stomach pains, constipation, and diarrhea to life threatening cases of infection, fever, and seizures, the usage of chocolate was integrated into many medicinal tonics (Lippi 1573). The beans were the most utilized part of the cacao tree, yet other parts were used for medicinal purposes as well: bark, leaves, and cocoa butter were all important (Dillinger 2060S). Other components such as honey, vanilla bean, pepper and tobacco juice were also used as part of treatment. In one instance, cacao flowers were used in a perfumed bath to cure fatigue for high-ranking officials (Dillinger 2060S). In a more social respect, the famed Aztec leader Montezuma was rumored to drink large amounts of cacao beverages to properly prepare him for sexual intercourse with his many wives (Lippi 1573). Clearly, current notions of chocolate as an aphrodisiac were also somewhat recognized in Mesoamerica.

When Spanish travelers found their way to the Americas, they were initially resistant to cacao as a food, especially in the native preparation (as it was too bitter and spicy for their European palate) (Coe & Coe 110). Though the invading Europeans made use of the cacao bean as a form of currency with the native culture, time passed and hybridization occurred, prompting a larger interest for cacao as a food. For instance, the Spanish monk Bernardino de Sahagún provided both words of encouragement and caution for the consumption of cacao: he hailed its energizing and revitalizing properties, but warned of drinking too much green cacao (made from unroasted beans), as it was intoxicating to the recipient (Lippi 1573):

“[Green cacao] makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one. When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one. Thus it is said: ‘I take cacao. I wet my lips. I refresh myself. ’ ” (Sahagún 1590, Part 12: 119–120) (Lippi 1573).

As European voyages took cacao and other local commodities across the Atlantic, they were introduced to Spanish royalty and the elite. Apart from the consumption native foods, King Philip II of Spain learned of the medicinal uses of local plants. In 1570, he sent the Royal Physician Francisco Hernandez across the Atlantic to assess the native herbal remedies (Coe & Coe 122). In the 16th century (and as it had been for almost two millennia), European medicine was based in Hippocratic-Galenic theories of the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; to remedy ailments or imbalances of each humor, physicians would prescribe drugs and particular diets in either hot or cold, moist or dry categories (Lippi 14).

A 16th century German woodcut of the four temperaments: phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric, and melancholic, which were related to the states of cold, moist, hot, and dry, as well as the four elements and their zodiacal signs (Coe & Coe 127)

James Howe wrote his own perspective on Hollenberg’s widely acclaimed study, providing a critical review of Hollenberg’s findings. In his article “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered,” Howe recounts his many visits with the Kuna people, disparaging the oversimplification of Hollenberg’s depiction of their lifestyle, noting that the Kuna in fact consumed a variety of drinks of which cocoa was indeed a large part of; they also incorporated coffee, oatmeal, bananas, plantains, and even soursop fruit (Howe 46). His overall concerns with the initial Kuna studies were that Hollenberg created a caricature of the true Kuna culture to advance his findings, and even if those results do hold merit, his investigation was truly skewed (Howe 50).

Food was also categorized in this manner, and cacao was subject to this classification when Hernandez made his way to the New World. Through this lens, cacao was categorized differently in its various forms (they would be highly debated and contested over time) (Lippi 14). Hernandez claimed that the cacao seed was “temperate in nature,” but leaned toward “cold and humid,” and was therefore ideal for hot weather and for subsiding fevers (Coe & Coe 122). In 1591, doctor Juan de Cárdenas revisited the cacao classification and stated that “green cacao” was detrimental to one’s health, and only the roasted bean was beneficial (Lippi 14). Cárdenas’s evaluation states that chocolate has three parts: a “cold,” “dry,” and “earthy” part; an oily aspect associated with air which “warm and humid;” and finally, a very “hot” part, bitter to the taste, causing headaches (Coe & Coe 123). What is particularly interesting in Cárdenas’s evaluation is that at this point in time, there was no understanding of the chemical composition of chocolate. In modern times, the presence of caffeine in chocolate is widely known, as is its ability to cause unsavory side effects to those with sensitivity. Coe and Coe suggest that perhaps this, paired with theobromine withdrawal, was the cause of the headaches Cárdenas laments in his description (125).

These are but a few of the medical evaluations executed by the Spaniards on the humoral nature of cacao, as it was firstly introduced to them primarily as a drug. After gaining popularity as a recreational drink in Spain, chocolate was introduced to other European cultures, such as Portugal, Italy, France, and England. Cacao was met with much controversy and suspicion, but despite that caution, chocolate drinks spread like wildfire during the Baroque Age (Coe & Coe 168). As years passed and medical advancements were made, the conception of chocolate as medicine continued to be questioned and reassessed in light of changing theories. From the 17th century doctors such as the Spanish Barolomeo Marradon and the English Dr. Henry Stubbe to the 18th century practitioners Antonio Lavedan and Carl von Linné (also known as Linnaeus, who in 1753, classified chocolate as Theobroma cacao, or “food of the gods”) there were both new manners of using chocolate as medicine and reinforcements of old practices as well (Lippi 19). Note but a few of those prescriptions in the table below, as detailed by Dr. Donatelli Lippi:

Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 7.14.54 PM.png

Dr. Lippi continues to describe the eventual schism that occurred in the late 18th century due to the French Enlightenment, where cooking and dietetics were separated from medical texts to develop their own unique literature (20). This included the use of chocolate as medicine, and the next few centuries saw a huge departure from those beliefs; instead, chocolate became a Western candy phenomenon, inciting a gargantuan industry spreading across Europe and the Americas (Albala). It was not until the last few decades that chocolate resurfaced as a legitimate source for health, prompting new scientific studies and research to evaluate the benefits in the biological makeup of the substance.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw huge departures from the ideology of “food as medicine” in the Western world. Due to leaps in modern medicine, the boom of industrialization and mass-production, and the commercialization of chocolate as a luxury (to name a few), chocolate became a sweet commodity (Coe & Coe 233). Though research was still conducted to assess the chemical compositions and health benefits during the 20th century in particular, these studies were produced within the lens of the chocolate industry (Wilson). For instance, in the 1950s, the chief chemist of the Hershey Company hailed the nutritional benefits of chocolate (of course, there is no bias here!):

All “activities of the human body” were known to “require a constant expenditure of energy” and an “interchange of material”. Chocolate products—particularly Hershey’s chocolate products—were offered to the public “with the knowledge that they contain the highest grade ingredients prepared under rigid sanitary conditions and … [prepared with] the finest [chocolate] that can be made”. Noting these products to be “sources of highly concentrated food energy”, chocolate was deemed to have earned a “rightful place” alongside “all well-known and well-prepared foods” (Wilson).

Following this claim, the U.S. Chocolate Manufacturers Association further reinforced chocolate as an integral part of a balanced diet in 1975, when they supported its inclusion to “maintain a daily balance when combined with other foods such as milk, almonds, peanuts and peanut butter” (Wilson). Since the 1990s there has been growing scrutiny towards this sort of promotion, prompting a new era of scientific research dedicated to the plausibility of chocolate as a health food. Researchers are focusing on the chemical composition of cocoa, more specifically on the positive effects of its polyphenols (Castel 266). These polyphenols include flavanols such as catechin, epicatechin, and pro-cyanidins, as they are the source of chocolates antioxidants (as seen across food markets, the buzz term “antioxidants” is widely popular in marketing health) (Wilson).

Also of note are the tannins present in cocoa, which can also be antioxidants and can assist with both heart and digestive health (tannins can also be found in wine, pomegranates, tea, and certain berries); however, the effectiveness of the antioxidants have been disputed when the addition of milk of milk is factored in (Castel 266). Chocolate also contains many chemicals that affect our mood, such as caffeine, theobromine, tyramine, and phenylethylamine—these have been linked to raising serotonin and endorphin levels, thus creating a pleasant effect (Castel 269). As Dr. Castel states, these results are not unanimous. Other claims she mentions include the enhancement of antioxidant defenses quickly after ingestion, and in vitro anti-inflammatory and anti-tumoral effects (Castel 265).

In 2009, the New York Times published an article focusing on a Swedish study finding evidence that those who consumed chocolate had higher heart attack survival rates. These 1,169 participants consisted of non-diabetic men and women who took part in an eight year study, where researchers took note of characteristics such as age, sex, smoking, and obesity. As promising as these results were, Nicholas Bakalar (the author) cautions readers that the study was observational rather than randomized, and it did not account for other variables such as the type of chocolate, the mental health of the participants, or for the quantity of chocolate consumed. A co-author of the study, Dr. Kenneth J. Mukamal of Harvard University, also warns that while the findings are promising, chocolate should still be consumed with moderation and in supplementation of a healthy, balanced diet.

Another paper published in 2009 by Dr. Normal Hollenberg of Harvard Medical School and Boston Brigham and Women’s Hospital, follows a study of the indigenous Kuna (or Tule) population of the Caribbean Coast of Panama to research chocolate’s effects on hypertension. Hollenberg was struck by how low their blood pressure was in relation to the great amount of cocoa they drank per week and the large of amount of sodium they incorporated into their diet (Howe 46). After visiting them in the 1990s—and after noting the different sub-populations within the Kuna—he came to the conclusion that good genetics was not the cause of their low blood pressure, but rather, it was the environment (Hollenberg). After performing randomized controlled clinical trials on both island-living Kuna and urban-living Kuna, Hollenberg asserted that there was definite merit to be assigned to the flavanoids in chocolate— epicatechin, in particular.

Led by Dominique Persoon, the famed Belgian chocolatier, this video shows two Kuna preparing a chocolate drink.

James Howe wrote his own perspective on Hollenberg’s widely acclaimed study, providing a critical review of Hollenberg’s findings. In his article “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered,” Howe recounts his many visits with the Kuna people, disparaging the oversimplification of Hollenberg’s depiction of their lifestyle, noting that the Kuna in fact consumed a variety of drinks of which cocoa was indeed a large part of; they also incorporated coffee, oatmeal, bananas, plantains, and even soursop fruit (Howe 46). His overall concerns with the initial Kuna studies were that Hollenberg created a caricature of the true Kuna culture to advance his findings, and even if those results do hold merit, his investigation was truly skewed (Howe 50).

In critique of resurgence of the “miracle power of chocolate,” Harvard Women’s Health watch published “Is chocolate really a health food? in 2015. The article explores the wide variety of claims recent studies have marketed towards consumers. Before the article begins, there is a note to the reader cautioning that the “treat is fine in small quantities, but its benefits for heart and brain health are still unproven” (HWH). The text does acknowledge the studies that link flavanols in chocolate to cardiovascular health and reductions in dementia, while offering readers chocolate options that portray just how many flavinols are present in each product.

In addition, it offers insight from Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital on the logical next steps, calling for a large-scale randomized trial to assess their effectiveness (HWH). Her study is enrolling 18,000 participants of women 65 or older and men 60 or older who will be administered 750 milligrams of cocoa flavanols per day (or a placebo). This experiment, named the Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS), will take four years to complete and will look at the total amount of heart attacks, strokes, and deaths of their subjects (HWH). Where the article succeeds is that it seeks to educate its readers on future steps of this research, as well as how to best find products which contain these positive traits. Most importantly, it does so without pushing the oversimplified belief that “chocolate is good for you.”

These studies are but a few in a large pool of research, much of which is still taking place today. With all these factors considered, how is one to believe the results of current studies when there are no definitive answers? Just as the likes of Stubbe and Linnaeus struggled to define cocoa in medical context, current researchers are facing the same questions amongst their peers concerning the validity of chocolate as an actual health food. While modern conceptions of medicine are greatly more advanced than those of the 17th and 18th century doctors, results are still being contested for the large amount of uncontrollable variables that disvalue current findings. The only way to come to some sort of definitive conclusion is to continue the work that has taken place for over two millennia. Perhaps our hope of finding a food that is both as nutritious as it is seductive is held in vain, but as long as the chocolate industry reigns supreme, we will always try to justify our penchant for cocoa goodness.


Works Cited:

Albala, Ken. “The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory.”Food and Foodways 15.1-2 (2007): 53-74. Web.

Bakalar, Nicholas. “In One Study, a Heart Benefit for Chocolate.” The New York Times. 14 Sept. 2009. Web.

Castell, Margarida, Francisco Jose Pérez-Cano, and Jean-François Bisson. “Clinical Benefits of Cocoa: An Overview.” Chocolate in Health and Nutrition (2012): 265-75. Web.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Esgarcega, Martha Jiminez, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis E. Grivetti. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition 3.2 (July 2004). Web.

“Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?” Harvard Women’s Health Watch. Harvard Health Publications/Harvard Medical School, 1 Oct. 2014. Web.

Healthy Chocolate Brands [Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12.1 (2012): 43-52. Web.

“Kuna Indians & Chocolate Dress Dominique Persoone.” YouTube. Web. 05 May 2016.

Lippi, Donatella. Table 2.1. Digital image. History of the Medical Use of Chocolate. R.R. Watson Et Al. (eds.), Chocolate in Health and Nutrition, Nutrition and Health 7. Web.

Lippi, Donatella. “History of the Medical Use of Chocolate.” Chocolate in Health and Nutrition (2012): 11-21. Web.

Neptune, B. (n.d.). Juanita with her Cocoa Bean [Photograph found in SAID’s Development Credit Authority]. Retrieved from×335.jpg

Norman, Hollenberg K., M.D., Ph.D., Naomi D.L. Fisher, M.D., and Marjorie L. McCullough, Sc.D., R.D. “Flavanols, the Kuna, Cocoa Consumption, and Nitric Oxide.” Journal of the American Society of Hypertension 3.2 (2009): 105-12. HSS Public Access. Web.

The Princeton Vase, Late Classic, Maya (‘Codex’ Style). A.D. 670–750. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, with remnants of painted stucco. Princeton University Art Museum, Nakbé Region, Mirador Basin, Petén, Guatemala.

Wilson, Philip K. “Chapter 1. Chocolate in Science, Nutrition and Therapy: An Historical Perspective.” Chocolate and Health: 1-27. Web.

Sexuality as a central force in chocolate marketing


Sex sells.

Whether you are advertising a car, a cheeseburger, or a pair of sneakers, sex always sells.

We’ve seen it time and time again—a woman, caught in a moment of pure, rapturous ecstasy, unable to control her own limbs, all because of a single morsel of chocolate. Ideally, that would be the case every time one bit into a chocolate bar, but the reality is that most of the time, chocolate is a thing of comfort. Whether it’s been a long day at the office, or you’re mourning a lost love, or perhaps you finally have house to yourself for a night, a bit of chocolate does seem to make it all better (at least momentarily). This isn’t to say that chocolate cannot be a very sensual delight. However, it is unrealistic to assume the every-day, modern woman has a few hours to spare in the evening to draw a bath and soak, all for the sake of enjoying her sinful moment of cocoa bliss (Figure 1).


Figure 1: 1991 Cadbury’s Flake Advertisement Feat. Rachel Brown



This contorted, sexualized depiction of chocolate consumption is evident in the DOVE Chocolate advertisement (Figure 2) titled, “Senses.” As part of the “My Moment. My DOVE.” branding campaign, the commercial utilizes the notion of this raw, sexual consumption of the food to advertise their product. The shot opens to a brunette beauty, scantily clad in a chocolate-colored chemise gown as sultry music plays in the background. The commercial voiceover remarks: “Only a chocolate this pure can be this silky…” just as the woman takes a bite; she then smiles to show the instant gratification she experiences the moment it touches her lips. As the “tantalizing” taste of silk chocolate ensnares her senses, a rain of chocolate silk envelops her body, and the voice continues “…and make you savor, sigh, [and] melt.” Her last look to the viewer is one of complete satisfaction, sighing as the screen fades to the product sitting on a bed of brown silk. “…DOVE pure silk chocolate, now with a tantalizing crunch of almond.”


Figure 2: DOVE Silk Chocolate “Senses” Commercial


There is a duality in the imagery of this advertisement, as the implications of what the company depicts can be analyzed both literally and figuratively. In a direct interpretation of the advert, the woman takes a bite of the chocolate, the falling fabric representing the “silky” nature of the product. She smiles because the chocolate is delicious. In a deeper investigation, the portrayal addresses the viewer on a much more sensual, carnal level.

At first glance, chocolate advertising appears to cater to base appetites, but it simultaneously arouses appetites of a social nature by promising to satisfy viewers’ deep-seated desires for sexual fulfillment and higher class status (Fahim 1).

“Senses” taps into the subject of female sexuality, relying heavily on the dynamic of the recipient and the source. As Emma Robertson asserts in her book Chocolate, women, and empire, there is an orgasmic pleasure that is brought about by the woman’s need to consume chocolate, and those natural responses to sexual gratification are what such commercials depict (35). Mars (owner of the DOVE brand) is not alone—big manufacturers such as Cadbury and Ferrero are culprits as well, using primarily women (and sometimes men, as seen in Figure 3) for marketing purposes. Robertson states that western identifications of chocolate as “luxurious, hedonistic and sensual” are the primary foundations of advertisement; those concepts unquestionably ring true in the examples shown below (3).


Figure 3: 1960’s Cadbury’s “Waterfall” Flake Advertisement



Figure 4: Nestle Aero Bubbles Advertisement Feat. Jason Lewis


My aim in rebranding this DOVE campaign is to honestly portray the normalcy of the food in a way that is relatable to all women (and men, for that matter).  Robertson claims that we use goods as a means of expressing our own sense of identity, and advertisements are a mechanism in which we can “say things about ourselves, our families, [and] our social world” (19). In my still advert, my intent was to do just that.


DOVE Silk Bar Original Advert
Original DOVE Silk Chocolate Still Advertisement


Rather than portray the female lead as a perfectly-coiffed, well-dressed model, I drew what I believe to be a realistic representation of the modern woman, enjoying DOVE chocolate in her most relaxed setting. In her “moment”, it is a Friday night after a long day at the office. All the character wants to do is to change into a pair of ratty sweatpants and her college t-shirt, free herself from the suffocating constraints of her Victoria’s Secret bra, and to sit on her couch for the next four hours, just to enjoy a peaceful evening of poorly-rated reality television. Her elevated cuisine consists of microwavable popcorn, a few glasses of Two-Buck Chuck, and lastly, a whole bar (yes, a whole bar) of DOVE Silk Chocolate. She takes out her contact lenses and swaps them for her thick-framed glasses, settles into the concave section of her couch, and revels in the full comfort of being in her own space, her home. The tagline is as modest as the small joys in life the woman experiences in this scene: “My Moment. My DOVE.”


This illustration may not be glamorous, sexy, or edited to perfection, but it is an honest representation of chocolate consumption in this day and age. It most definitely is not the case for all those who enjoy the treat, but the purpose of this advertisement is to alleviate the blatant sexual connotations of most chocolate commercials—it is not to create a blanket statement to dictate how one should experience simple bliss. Perhaps if advertisers focused on realistic representations of their subjects, viewers would share a more meaningful connection with their products. Sex sells, but honesty is a breath of fresh air.





Works Cited:

Fahim, Jamal. Beyond Cravings: Gender and Class Desires in Chocolate Marketing. PhD diss., Occidental College, 2010. OxyScholar.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.

Cadbury’s. “Cadbury’s Flake 1960’s Commercial.” Advertisement. YouTube. Accessed April 3, 2016.

Cadbury’s. “Cadbury’s Flake 1991 Commercial, Featuring Rachel Brown.” Advertisement. YouTube. Accessed April 3, 2016.

DOVE (Mars Company). “Senses.” Advertisement. YouTube.

Nestle. “Nestle Aero Bubbles Commercial, Featuring Actor Jason Lewis.” Advertisement. YouTube.

The Power of Gendered Advertising & Marketing in Chocolate Sales

Though it was customary to consume cacao as a beverage until the mid-19th century, advances made during the Industrial Revolution resulted in a marked shift from cacao beverages to solid chocolate consumption in Europe and North America. Thanks to innovators such as Coenraad Johannes Van Houten and Joseph Fry, cacao was no longer a product simply for the aristocracy; liquid chocolate—though still available in the form of cocoa—became rather antiquated (Swisher 177). Instead, newly produced chocolate candy bars (and an increase in cacao importation from West Africa) cheapened the price of chocolate and made it readily available to consumers from all levels of the economic spectrum (Coe & Coe 197). It was easier to manufacture, easier to transport, and easier to consume; and with the new technological developments in graphic arts and commercial advertising, companies were able to mass-market their products to a larger consumer pool than ever before (Swisher 177).

The new and profitable industry of chocolate candy bars prompted the establishment of chocolate manufacturing companies on a much larger scale. As with all products of mass-consumption, this new capitalist venture incited a wide-variety of marketing schemes to promote cacao purchases in its many forms (Coe & Coe 239). These advertisements targeted men, women and children in different manners. Of particular interest is the approach in which chocolate and cocoa were promoted to the male populous, as the method drew remarkable parallels to the usage of cacao by men of the ancient Aztec civilization of Mesoamerica.


aztec warrior depiction
Aztec warriors, as depicted above in the Codex Mendoza, would consume cacao for strength and energy.


Shown in the form of posters, chocolate advertisements touched upon aspects of both lifestyle and values; they were carefully crafted to evoke certain societal associations from both sexes (Swisher 178). They also addressed varying scandals of the time, such as chocolate modification and adulteration by many reputable manufacturers. As this information came to light, the scandal spurred the “pure chocolate” movement by companies in hopes of regaining the public’s trust (Coe & Coe 243). A prime example of gendered advertising can be found in the Cadbury cocoa poster below, depicting a firefighter dressed in full regalia drinking a saucer of hot cocoa. The text reads, “Cadbury’s cocoa makes strong men stronger,” promising that their product is indeed “the most refreshing, nutritious and sustaining of all cocoas.”


Cadburys Cocoa Advert


This masculine depiction is reminiscent of the ancient Aztec utilization of cacao as an energizer, strengthener, and stimulant; after all, their warriors would reap the benefits of cacao as they prepared for battle (Coe & Coe 73). Chocolate as a reinforcer of masculinity was an excellent marketing tool to bolster sales by men, though women were the most profitable target group for chocolate purchases (as they were responsible for both maintaining the home and caring for their children) (Ross 37). The same principle held true during World War II, when Nestle advertised their chocolate as a “fighting food,” able to provide “maximum nourishment” to the U.S. Army fighting overseas. They even compared energy values of chocolate versus lamb, milk, and eggs!



Nestle WWII


In a more light-hearted tone, another instance of Cadbury’s male-catered marketing is the following advertisement from 1888, illustrating the Bourneville FC rugby team at play, once again promoting the “strength and staying power” of their cocoa.


Cadbury rugby


Featured in The Illustrated London News, the advertisement painted cocoa as a 19th century Gatorade of sorts; instead of “REHYDRATE, REPLENISH, REFUEL™,” Cadbury’s opted for a similar (albeit more illustrative) promotion: “SUSTAINS AGAINST FATIGUE. INCREASES MUSCULAR STRENGTH. GIVES PHYSICAL ENDURANCE AND STAYING POWER.” The energetic properties of these beverages, whether hot cocoa or sports drinks, are marketed in similar fashions. Even 19th century advertisers knew the strength of a great tagline!

These are but a few examples of the gendered advertisements of those periods. As the chocolate business ballooned into the mammoth industry it is today, marketing continued to engage men as customers both for personal consumption and as gifts for their significant others. As pictured in the following mid-20th century Whitman’s advertisement below, chocolate has become a staple for all types of events. Public perception of chocolate as a gift from a man to a woman is now commonplace—expected even—as the commercial focus of holidays such as Valentine’s Day have blossomed into true consumer extravaganzas.


Whitmans sampler


While cacao has certainly gone through many transformations and iterations from the time of the Olmecs, its significance in societal structures has never diminished. If anything, cacao has managed to adapt to serve countless purposes throughout the centuries. With the ever-growing demand for sweet confections, chocolate manufacturers continue to find even more interesting, engaging, and even risqué ways to market their products (follow this link to the Telegraph’s article on the most memorable chocolate advertisements)—at least they keep us interested, right?




Works Cited

Cadbury’s Cocoa Advertisement. Early 20th Century. Poster print.

Cadbury’s Cocoa Rugby Advert, Bourneville FC at Play. 1888. Poster print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Grivetti, Louis Evan, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.

Nestle’s Chocolate Advertisement, World War II. 1940’s. Poster print.

Prohaska, Ray. Color Print Ad for the Whitman’s Sample, a Product by Stephen

  1. Whitman and Son, Inc. of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.1942. Poster print.

Ross, Michael L. Designing Fictions: Literature Confronts Advertising. Print.

The Popularization of Cacao in Europe… and a Little Thing Called Caffeine

It is no secret that as a species, humans are vulnerable to addiction. Granted, character traits and societal acceptance will exacerbate these compulsions, as it has been proven time and time again throughout the course of history, but there are contributing genetic factors that play a role in substance dependence (though the degree of the genetic influence is highly disputed (United States Congress 40). The combination of both social and at times instinctive pressure during an era of extreme wealth through royalty and structured courts resulted in the slow, yet effective European commercialization of one of our most precious commodities today: chocolate.

Chocolate (or rather, cacao in its base form) originated in the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica. The Olmec, Maya, and Aztec empires all depended on cacao in many aspects of their societal structure.  In Aztec culture, soldiers would consume large amounts of cocoa on their journey to battle for endurance and strength—little did they know these wondrous abilities were due to caffeine surging in their bodies (Coe & Coe 95). However, it was not until cacao was introduced to the Spanish courts that the popularization, consumption, and subsequent mechanization in mass production occurred.

When cacao made the transatlantic journey into Spain, the utilitarian aspect of the substance was lost amongst the opulent, as there was no real necessity for its practical uses. Those who drank this luxury did not spend their days battling opposing foes; rather, the elite relished its exotic properties. Though medicinal uses were explored during the waves of exposure in Europe, most enjoyed chocolate in a recreational setting (Albala). In this new environment, cacao was adapted to a life of leisure and affluence, flavored with sweeteners and spices that were more harmonious to the European palate (Coe & Coe 133).

This detail of a painted tile from the 18th century depicts a chocolotada (drinking party) in Valencia, Spain. This preparation varied greatly from the manual frothing of chocolate common in Aztec culture; the beginnings of the mechanization of chocolate production began with the methods above.

While there was a large population that consumed cacao, its acceptance across Europe was by no means an overnight success—the foreign qualities of this otherworldly substance incited both advocates and critics alike (Jamieson 272).

“I want to tell you, my dear child, that chocolate is no longer for me what it was, fashion has led me astray, as it always does. Everyone who spoke well of it now tells me bad things about it; it is cursed, and accused of causing one’s ills, it is the source of vapors and palpitations; it flatters you for a while, and then suddenly lights a continuous fever in you that leads to death…In the name of God, don’t keep it up, and don’t think that it is still the fashion of the fashionable. All the great and the less [great] say as much bad about it as they say good things about you…”

—Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (1926-96)

                                                            (Coe & Coe 155)

As the marquise de Sévigné laments in one of her letters, the effects of caffeine to those unaware and unprepared yielded some unfortunate results; in a very religious Europe, this was considered highly suspect and controversial. Yet not all experiences concluded so unfavorably; for many, the consumption of chocolate elicited positive responses—many hailed it as an aphrodisiac a mood-enhancer (Coe & Coe 160). Ironically, just a few months following her initial rejection of chocolate, the marquise had a change of heart:

“I have reconciled myself to chocolate, I took it the day before yesterday to digest my dinner, to have a good meal, and I took it yesterday to nourish me so that I could fast until evening: it gave me all the effects I wanted. That’s what I like about it: it acts according to my intention.”

 —Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (1926-96)

                                                            (Coe & Coe 155)


Although alcohol was widely popular and its outcomes were well known, caffeine and its effect on the human body were new to Europeans entirely. The jolt of energy, the curb of appetite, and psychological stimulants were but a few of the properties of cacao that piqued the curiosity of the Old World. Caffeinated drinks like chocolate were initially marketed as medicinal beverages to Europeans; however, the drinking of chocolate later became an urbanized ritual rather than a healing staple (Jamieson 279).

One by one, the major forces of Europe adopted the consumption of cacao, until chocolate and caffeine became a cross-continental sensation. This obsession with chocolate migrated from the Spanish Royal Courts to the far reaches of England, prompting the building of establishments like London’s famed Chocolate Houses (Jamieson 272).

In the Club At White’s Coffee House, 1733. Don’t be fooled by the name of this painting by William Hogarth; White’s is considered London’s oldest and most exclusive gentleman’s club and was formally known as White’s Chocolate House. Read more at the

Cacao monopolized the caffeine market for many years in a part of the world to which it was completely geologically foreign (that is, of course, until coffee and tea were introduced). If this strange and alien product somehow did not make it to Spain on that fateful voyage, it is very likely we would not have such easy access to chocolate and it most definitely would not have grown into the mammoth industry it is today.



Works Cited

Albala, Ken. “The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory.” Food

and Foodways 15.1-2 (2007): 53-74. Web.


Biological Components of Substance Abuse and Addiction. Washington, DC: U.S.

Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1993. Print.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames

& Hudson, 2013. Print.


Detail of Painted Tile Panel Depicting a Chocolatada. 18th Cenutry. Valencia, Spain.


Green, Matthew. “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses.”The Telegraph. 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.


Hogarth, William. In the Club at White’s Coffee House. 1733. From the Series ‘The

Rake’s Progress.’


Jamieson, R. W. “The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in the

Early Modern World.” Journal of Social History 35.2 (2001): 269-94. Web.