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Chocolate: Good for the soul, but good for your health?



For many people, including myself, chocolate is the ultimate treat. Like most other treats, however, I try to enjoy in moderation because although it would increase my happiness, it would probably increase my waistline as well. Sometimes, I am able to justify it because I see studies in the news saying that dark chocolate can be good for you, or that by buying this fair trade, ethically sourced, organic, and environmentally conscious chocolate will help save the world! There’s a lot of conflicting information for consumers about whether or not chocolate is healthy for you. And after taking this class, I have realized that chocolate’s relationship with health has shifted and changed since chocolate has been consumed. From early Mesoamerican medicinal uses of chocolate and Baroque Europe’s interpretation of chocolate and humors, to modern industrialization of chocolate, scientific research on chocolate, and confusing and conflicting marketing for chocolate, our understanding and use of chocolate as medicine and as a health food has evolved over time. As different societies and cultures discovered cacao over time, they had to ask themselves if “chocolate good, bad, or indifferent for one’s health” (Coe 122)? Even though we have made enormous strides in understanding medicine and health, this question is still relevant for all chocolate consumers today as we try and navigate science, research, and our own desire for justifying our chocolate consumption. Chocolate has completely morphed from a highly regarded medicinal tool to a mostly over-processed commonplace treat whose deceptive marketing confuses consumers and clouds their judgement in making healthy decisions and takes away from the health benefits that can come from consuming high quality chocolate in moderation.


Early History

Cacao has been seen as a medicinal tool since the beginning of its consumption with the Mesoamericans. Cacao at this time was a powerful substance that not only had “economic and gastronomic value […] but deep symbolic meaning as well” (Coe 101). Cacao had immense value in many aspects of Mesoamerican life besides just basic sustenance. The Popol Vuh, an old Mayan text depicting traditional Mayan myths, often references cacao in its various tales and sheds light on how highly valued cacao was for their culture.  Because of this immense value placed on cacao, cacao infiltrated their understanding of religion, sustenance, class, and rituals. This deep relationship with chocolate also manifested itself in their medicine, and cacao was used to help cure ailments that ranged anywhere from digestive issues to skin issues to seizures (Martin, Lecture). Chilam Balam, an eighteenth century manuscript copied from Mesoamerican

Chilam Balam

codices, highlights the various ailments that cacao can treat and helps to demonstrate how highly valued it was in curing people from a massive range of health issues. Unlike much of modern medicine, medicine at this time was much more holistic and cacao was just botanical piece of a much larger of a health puzzle that incorporated religion, rituals, class, and botany. Like many treasured and cherished substances, cacao was often reserved for the elite and was not fully accessible to all walks of life (Lippi). Although modern medicine and science would suggest that cacao would not necessarily be a powerful medicine with lots of healing success, Maya “royal rulers consumed vast quantities of it in their banquets, and archaeology has proved that they were in better health and lived far longer than their chocolate-deprived subjects” (Coe 32). The Mesoamericans were some of the first people to value and consume cacao, and truly believed in its powers to help heal.



Cacao started to take on a new cultural and medicinal meaning once it arrived in

File:4 body fluids.PNG
Diagram of the four humor and how they balance each other 

Baroque Europe. One of the biggest changes was that “the Spaniards… stripped it of the spiritual meaning which it had for the Mesoamericans, and imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya: for the invaders, it was a drug, medicine, in the humoral system to which they all adhered” (Coe 126). For the Mesoamericans, cacao had cultural, religious, ritualistic, and medicinal uses, whereas when it made its way over to Europe it was just used for sustenance and medicine. Further, the way in which the Spaniards used it for medicine was completely different than the way that the Mesoamericans used it. The Galenic theory of humors, which was a large driving force for understanding health and medicine at this time, suggests that the body contains four humors: hot or cold, and dry or moist (Coe 127). A healthy body must have all four humors balanced, and the Spaniards used cacao as a tool to find balance within their bodies. Philip II’s Rolyan Physician Francisco Hernandez after learning more about cacao, found it to be a powerful medicinal tool because “The cacao seed is ‘temperate in nature,’ but leaning to the ‘cold and humid’; on the whole, it is very nourishing” (Coe 122). Because cacao on its own was considered cool, it was believed at the time that drinking cacao could help cure someone when they were too hot or had a fever. However, because it was considered relatively neutral, it could be manipulated to cure other ailments but adding different spices. For example, adding a spice like mecaxochitl would make the cacao ‘hotter’ and therefore could be used to cure other ailments associated with being too cool (Coe 122). The Europeans during this period interpreted cacao as medicine in a completely different way than their cacao consuming predecessors did; by dropping the religious significance and viewing cacao as a tool to balance out the body they morphed cacao’s medical use and significance to something of their own.



Modern Day

As history progressed, cacao’s role in medicine became less and less prominent. With the development and advancement of medicine, cacao was no longer used as medicine. Further, with the widespread accessibility to chocolate due to manufacturing, chocolate completely morphed from the days of sugarless cacao beverages to the chocolate that we know and love today. Chocolate’s cultural significance slowly changed and morphed into a more commonplace, everyday treat because of various factors like accessibility, change in the way its produced, and change in what ingredients go into it. Before modern medicine developed, it made sense that cacao was used as a medicinal tool. Now, however, our society thinks about chocolate more holistically in terms of how it affects our overall health rather than a cure for an ailment.


One of the biggest changes for chocolate that made it more accessible was the commodification and industrialization of chocolate. It was not until the late nineteenth century that the food industry became industrialized with the development of preservation, mechanization, retailing, and transportation (Goody 72). Foods were now able to be preserved for longer with canning and refrigeration, could be standardized and have easier, consistent packaging with mechanization, were sold in closed stores instead of open markets, and could be transported all across the country for more accessibility to the masses (Martin, Lecture). These changes not only made food much more accessible to the masses, but also made it significantly cheaper and “in 1898 in the United States a dollar bought forty-two percent more milk, fifty-one percent more coffee, a third more beef, twice as much sugar, and twice as much flour as in 1872” (Laudan 41). For example, Milton Hershey’s Hershey’s chocolate was able to grow into the brand that it is today because of industrialization. After Hershey was able to find their perfect recipe that differed greatly from traditional European chocolate, they worked on “refining the process and adapting it for large scale production. By the winter, the new factory building alongside Spring Creek was covered by a roof and workers were quickly outfitting the interior. Two railroad spurs were being built to connect the plant to Philadelphia and Reading Railroad” (D’Antonio 108). Industrialization gave Hershey the ability to produce and distribute its chocolate quickly and cheaper; however, this did sacrifice the quality. Chocolate products tried to figure out how to minimize the amount of actual cacao that was in them, and the result was that “these hyperpalatable products get the bulk of their calories from a few cheap commodities (corn, soy, wheat) flavored with cheap fats and cheap sweeteners” (Kawash 26). Rather than consuming high quality chocolate with a high percentage of cacao, it was easier and cheaper to load up these products with sugar and transform much of chocolate into candy. By decreasing the cacao and increasing the sugar and fat, mass produced big chocolate has become unhealthy.


Chocolate’s popularity began to shift in the mid twentieth century and people began to view chocolate as unhealthy and dangerous. For most of chocolate’s history it was thought to be medicinal, healing, or simply neutral/not having much influence on one’s health, but for the first time it was viewed as unhealthy and bad for you. The temperance movement, which was very anti-alcohol and intoxication slowly began to include chocolate and people believed that chocolate could act as a gateway to other dangerous habits like drinking and gambling (Martin, Lecture). Although believing that consuming chocolate and candy would lead to a life of sin seems dramatic today, chocolate and candy have maintained a somewhat of negative reputation since. Today, eating too much chocolate or candy can be seen as a slippery slope toward obesity rather than other bad habits like drinking. Ever since people began to view chocolate as unhealthy, whether it is because of its connection to the the temperance movement or to obesity, the conversation has shifted about how to enjoy in moderation.  


Is chocolate healthy?

Today, however, there is a lot of conflicting information about whether or not chocolate contributes to health. I asked some of my peers and family members whether they not they thought chocolate was healthy, and there were conflicting answers. A lot of them followed up by asking what kind of chocolate was I talking about? My mom, for example, said that “it’s good if you stay away from the Hershey’s crap, but dark chocolate is good for you!” When I pressed and asked her to elaborate on how it’s good for you, she sheepishly admitted that she didn’t actually know and had just “read stuff.” Before taking this class, I would likely have said the same answer, however, there are various studies that confidently show that consuming some chocolate can have health benefits. For example, chocolate can improve cardiovascular health since there is an inverse association between chocolate flavonoid intake and coronary heart disease mortality in men and women by several studies over many countries” (Albritton 345). These kinds of studies are common, and there is no shortage of research sharing chocolate’s health  benefits. Harvard this past month even cited an article on the Harvard Medical School Harvard Health Blog suggesting that chocolate can help with vision because the “cocoa flavanols enhance availability of oxygen and nutrients to the blood vessels of the eye and brain” (Tello 2018). It is important to note that most of these studies are looking at dark chocolate, rather than the chocolate candy that comes to mind when we think of chocolate. The early consumers of chocolate clearly had the right idea in mind when consuming chocolate as medicine, and now we have scientific studies that do demonstrate chocolate’s health benefits.


Even though chocolate has many great health benefits, most of the chocolate that Americans consume is detrimental for their health. Marketers take advantage of these studies on dark chocolate in moderation and hope that consumers assume that it applies to the kinds of candy bars that line the aisles of supermarkets, gas stations, and vending machines. By placing chocolate in these highly visible areas, marketers are taking advantage of “impulse marketing” that “deliberately encourage consumption” (New England Medical Journal 8). Candy and chocolate manufacturers are putting consumers at risk for over consuming highly processed chocolate and not giving them the full understanding of the potential health risks of overconsumption.

Image result for nutella healthy ad
This advertisement from Nutella is deceptive and not totally honest about its healthiness.

For example, this advertisement from Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread, suggests to consumers that Nutella is a healthy food that kids can eat for balanced and nutritious breakfast. They even list the ingredients and tell the consumers that it’s mostly hazelnuts with just “a hint of cocoa.” However, if you look at the nutrition facts and do a little more digging, like this particular video did, it becomes apparent that Nutella is not the kind of balanced breakfast you would want your children to eat. Although chocolate does have some health benefits, consumers are more often consuming too much of the bad kind of chocolate because they’re overwhelmed with misinformation.



Overall, chocolate and cacao have had an interesting relationship with health since the beginning of its consumption. Early cacao lovers had deep cultural and ritualistic ties to cacao, and truly believed in its ability to heal and act as medicine. As time progressed, chocolate lost much of its cultural and medicinal significance and when it became industrialized it completely changed chocolate. This new chocolate was cheaper, accessible, and contained less chocolate and more sugar and fat. This lead to an increase in skepticism of chocolate’s health, and people believed that over consuming chocolate had dangerous risks for both one’s health and one’s lifestyle. Even though consuming chocolate in moderation is still a good rule of thumb for healthy chocolate consumption, modern science now shows that there are positive health benefits to consuming chocolate. However, most chocolate consumers are over consuming the over processed chocolate because of the deceptive marketing from chocolate companies. Chocolate’s relationship to health has been complicated since the beginning, and that still rings true for today. However, even though modern chocolate can have some health issues, it is a relief to know that chocolate can benefit the body just as it benefits the soul.


Works Cited

Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” 2012. pp.


Bodily Fluids” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 22 November 2010.

“Chilam Balam de Chumayel” Web. 26 August 2010. Melinda Stuart.

“Chocolate at the check out is a risk for public health” New England Medical Journal, BMJ


Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition.

Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

D’Antonio, Michael D. 2006. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth,

Empire, and Utopian Dreams. pp. 106-126

Goody, Jack. “Industrial Food: towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” Cooking,

Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 154–174. Themes in the Social Sciences.

Kawash, Samira. Candy: a Century of Panic and Pleasure. Faber & Faber, 2013.

Laudan, Rachel. “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast,

Processed Food.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, University of California Press

Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food.” Nutrients5.5 (2013):

1573–1584. PMC. Web. 8 May 2018.

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods”. Harvard University, AAAS

E-119. Cambridge, MA. Lecture.

Martin, Carla “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market.” Harvard

University, AAAS E-119. Cambridge, MA. Lecture.

“Nutella 2010 Ad” Web. 1 October 2013

“Surprise, Nutella is more unhealthy than you might think.” Tech Insider, 8 June 2017,

Tello, Monique. “Can dark chocolate improve vision?” Harvard Health Publishing,

The Maya link between Cacao and Religion

People and societies are always looking for ways in which to find meaning in their world. Whether it is through creating rituals, forming habits, or connecting with others, humans are constantly looking for ways to find meaning, connection, and a greater purpose. Because of this need to to create values, societies often elevate everyday, mundane aspects of life to something significant and powerful. In Charles Long’s analysis of religion, he explains how religion is about “orientation in the ultimate sense, that is, how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one’s place in the world” (Long 7). In order to create a religion and to find meaning in life, societies must orient themselves using the objects and experiences around them. Each society assigns values to different and unique aspects of their daily lives, and for the ancient Maya civilization cacao became an elevated and important aspect substance. Mayas used cacao as a way to understand their place in the world, which elevated cacao to more than just food for sustenance; it became a lens in which they could see the world through.

As David Carrasco describes, the tree is “rooted in the underworld, has its trunk in the middleworld, and its high branches or top ascending into heaven or the upperworld: (Carrasco 124). The cacao tree acted as useful visual and tool for the Maya as they sought out ways to understand their place in the world.

First and foremost, The Maya used cacao trees as a framework to conceptualize how their place in the world related to the afterlife and underworld. The different parts of the tree correspond to the the different aspects of life and afterlife, with the roots representing the underworld, the trunk representing the present, everyday life, and the leaves connecting to heaven (Carrasco 124). By thinking about these abstract ideas in terms of a understandable visual, it not only elevates the significance of the tree but also makes lofty and complicated ideas more accessible. Further, cacao was used as a powerful safeguard when people transitioned into the underworld. At a tomb in Río Azul (a Maya city in present day Guatamala), ancient jars with traces of chocolate were discovered, suggesting that “the dead lord began his voyage through the underworld with sustaining portions of what were probably several different chocolate drinks by his side” (Coe & Coe 46). Cacao trees not only had connections to the underworld through its roots, but it was also a resource for individuals as they transitioned into life after death.  By taking cacao and using it as a means of orienting themselves and their understanding of afterlife, it both elevated cacao’s significance and helped the Maya understand their life cycle. Not only did cacao provide a way to understand life and afterlife, it helped Maya transition into the afterlife comfortably.

The Popul Vuh references cacao in a variety of ways, and the story of Hunahpu is just one unique tale demonstrating cacao’s significance.

Additionally, the Maya used cacao as a way to conceptualize passing along traits and characteristics from one generation to the next. The Popol Vuh, one of the oldest documented Maya myths, has many references to cacao and helps to demonstrate how valuable cacao was for the Maya and the way in which they viewed the world. The story in the Popol Vuh of the Maize God, Hunahpu, is a myth that describes the sacrifice of Hunahpu (Martin 163). After Hunahpu was killed, his head was placed in a tree that had never grown fruit, yet once his head became a part of the tree it was able to produce fruit in abundance. Because of this, Hunahpu’s offspring, the Hero Twins, were able to carry his legacy with them. As Simon Martin describes, this tale “sets out the divine origins of cacao, as well as its role as a means of exchange. […] Here the fruit serves the purpose it has in nature: a means of generational descent” (Martin 164). Once again, the Maya were able to take a somewhat abstract religious concept and use cacao as a way to understand it.

The Hero Twins are the offspring of Hunahpu whose characteristics were carried on through the fruits of the tree in which his head was placed (Martin 163).

Finally, the Maya used cacao as a way to provide meaning and significance in various rituals, like baptisms. By bringing cacao into different types of rituals, it extends cacao’s previously established significance in order to assign greater meaning to to new rituals. For example, as Coe & Coe describe, “the pagan Maya had a baptismal rite for boys and girls… The children were gathered together… [and ] then the noble who was giving the ceremony took a bone and wet it in a vessel filled with water made of ‘certain flowers and of cacao pounded and dissolved in virgin water […]’; with this liquid he anointed the children on their foreheads, faces, and in the spaces between their fingers and toes, in complete silence” (Coe & Coe 60). Many religions have baptism rituals, and they each reflect important values within each group of people. For these Maya, cacao is clearly a highly valued and treasured substance that adds greater meaning and connection to this important ceremony.

By using cacao as a way to understand and find meaning in the world from understanding the afterlife to baptisms, cacao’s relevance and power were strengthened and it became an important framework for the Maya to understand the world through. Cacao did not have any meaning until the Maya decided to use it as lens for them to see the world through, which goes to show how powerful societies can be in taking something mundane and using it as a tool to create religion and meaning. The narratives around cacao are so strong that we still today associate the Maya with cacao and recognize its significance. For example, Godiva, a popular premium and mainstream chocolate company, references the Maya’s relationship with with cacao, noting its prominence on many Maya artifacts and its place in Maya ceremonies on their website (Godiva website). The Maya were able to take something seemingly mundane, a fruit bearing tree, and use it as a tool to help them understand and interact with the world. This not only helped the Maya create religious significance in their lives, but it completely changed the way we view cacao today and has shaped our understanding of cacao as special and important.

Works Cited

“Cacao Tree and Seedling.” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 30 August 2012.

Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica, Second Edition. Long Grove:

Waveland Press, Inc, 2013. Print.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition.

Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

“Hero Twins,” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 25 September 2014.

Long, Charles H. Significations: Signs, Symbols, And Images In The Interpretation

Of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986. Print.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in ancient Maya religion: first fruit from the maize free and other

tales from the underworld.” Chocolate In Mesoamerica : a Cultural History of

Cacao. Ed. Cameron L. McNeil: Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

154-183. Print.

“Popol Vuh.” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 17 April 2012.

“The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs.” Godiva Chocolate, Godiva.

Web. 8 March 2018. <