Category Archives: Extension Model Essay

Sweet Medicine: The science of chocolate and health



Chocolate had used as medicine since its inception. The Aztec king Montezuma is said to have consume anywhere from 20 to 50 glasses in order to remain virile. In more recent times, scientists have been looking into whether there are some medical treasures hidden in this scrumptious treat. Naturally, scientists have been zooming in on what it is in chocolate that gives it its health benefits. Scientists now believe these compounds in chocolate, called flavanols, have antioxidant properties and could help treat a variety of conditions and fight a variety of diseases. This has led to a lot of good research being done. There have been studies done that look at chocolate’s impact in fighting heart disease, diabetes, and cancer[1]. There have been studies looking at chocolate’s effect on cognitive function, memory, and blood pressure.  However, before you run to the pantry to self-medicate with chocolate be forewarned; this research, like all medical research, in fact like all science, has caveats. This particular group of research has a good deal of caveats, though not every study has the exact same caveats. Those depend on the strengths and failings of each individual study.

There is one caveat though that applies to this entire group of research; all the chocolate in these studies is all dark chocolate, that is to say to that it is at least sixty percent cacao solids. Milk chocolate is not included and for good reason. US law states that chocolate only needs to contain ten percent cacao in order to legally qualify as chocolate, the rest is mainly sugar, fat, and a few other things such as milk. According to professor Carla Martin, lecturer at Harvard University and director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, “A Hershey’s Kiss typically contains about, I think, 11 percent cacao content”. To put that in perspective, if you had a bar of typical milk chocolate that weighed one hundred grams (about the weight of an iPhone 5S[2]), then the actual amount of chocolate in the bar would be only about ten grams, or the weight of two nickels. The fact that milk chocolate has barely any actual chocolate means that milk chocolate has barely any of those cacao flavanols that are thought to provide the health benefits. Thus, anyone, scientist or otherwise, looking towards chocolate for health benefits has to look towards chocolate with a high cacao content.

Chocolate flavanols table
Figure 1


There are many pitfalls a research study can fall into. One of these is having a limited and/or small sample size.  Multiple studies on the effect of chocolate on health have had sample sizes of less than a couple hundred people. One such study, the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study had only ninety participants. The study found that regular cocoa flavanol consumption can reduce some measures of age-related cognitive dysfunction, but given such small sample size it is difficult to draw any large generalized conclusions for the general population, since there is a wide variety of differences across populations. Moreover, the CoCoA study limited their sample size in an attempt at prove clearer causation; because this was a study on aging all the participant were elderly, and the study also excluded Current smokers, habitual users of antioxidant supplements (including vitamins C and E), habitual consumers of chocolate or other cocoa products (daily consumption of any amount), or individuals prescribed medications known to have antioxidant properties (including statins and glitazones) or to interfere with cognitive functions (including benzodiazepines and antidepressants). This means for populations outside the participant group, the research has limited application, since the researcher did not look at how cocoa flavanol intake affects people with these additional variables. It has to be remembered that studies like this are jumping off point, they prove that there is something there that needs to be looked into, but further research is required in order to the proper applications and implications of the initial research.

Continue reading Sweet Medicine: The science of chocolate and health

Guilty Pleasure: The Dark Side of the Chocolate Supply Chain in West Africa

If you were to stop a few strangers on the street and ask them to name their guilty pleasure you probably wouldn’t be surprised if they all answered chocolate.  The pleasure that chocolate brings to many is undeniable;  French doctor Hervé Robert confirmed that chocolate contains caffeine, theobromine, serotonin and phenylalanine, all of which are known to have mood-enhancing, and possibly aphrodisiac, effects (Coe & Coe, 2013).  But to focus on these health benefits alone is to overlook a darker side of chocolate.  The history of chocolate includes centuries of controversy, particularly in the supply chain and particularly on the African continent. One of the most salient scandals that has continued to plague chocolate production for hundreds of years is the involvement of child labor in the cultivation of cacao in West Africa.  Forced and unpaid labor has long plagued the chocolate industry and today  controversy in the supply chain continues as around 300,000 children in West Africa work on cacao farms (Berlan, 2013).  Fortunately public awareness of this issue is continuing to grow and some present-day chocolate companies have incorporated a zero tolerance policy towards conditions of slavery and child labor involved in their sourcing of cacao.  Nevertheless, recognizing the sobering reality of how many modern brands of chocolate are manufactured with forced labor adds a new dimension to the concept of chocolate as a guilty pleasure.

The use of forced labor is believed to exist in many parts of Africa today.  However, the use of forced labor in cocoa production is hardly novel. The involvement of involuntary laborers working in the cacao industry is documented in many regions worldwide including Mesoamerica, South America, Africa and the Caribbean from as early as the 1650s and into the 21st century (Clarence-Smith, 2000).  In the 20th century, the use of forced labor was uncovered on the island of Fernando Po (now Bioko) off of the West Coast of Africa and in Cameroon, on German plantations (Berlan, 2013).  According to Anti-Slavery International (2004), the use of slaves from Angola was common on Portuguese plantations on the islands of Sao Tome and Principe from the 1880s and continued until 1962. 

Interestingly, some chocolate manufacturers who opposed the use of forced labor in certain cocoa-producing nations seem to have played a role in initiating a custom of child labor elsewhere.  For example, in 1908, William Cadbury switched his supplier from Sao Tome and Principe to Ghana, known then as the Gold Coast, which provided better labor conditions for its workers.  The government there had a policy against slavery and slave trading and the cocoa crop was grown by smallholders rather than plantations, making its production less contentious. However, as demand for chocolate increased farmers relied on using their family labor, including the use of children as unpaid laborers (Berlan, 2013).  Today, the custom continues.  The widespread use of children in cultivation of cacao is sometimes harmless and non-exploitative.  At other times, however, children are exposed to hazardous activities, including handling of toxic chemical pesticides and use of dangerous equipment, as well as child-trafficking (Coe & Coe, 2013)

(A child uses a machete to open a cocoa pod in eastern Ivory Coast) (Lowy, 2016)

Today, child labor in the cacao industry exists in a variety of locations and in a variety of forms throughout the African continent.  Just exactly what constitutes child labor in Africa is confounding to many on both sides of the issue.  The International Labor Organization, or ILO, defined the worst forms of child labor as including slavery and hazardous work including “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of the child”.  Furthermore, the definition includes children who are not in school, who are forced to withdraw from school because of long hours spent working or who have to combine school attendance with heavy work or long hours (Berlan, 2013). On the cocoa plantation, child labor often involves the use of dangerous machinery or equipment, handling heavy loads and exposure to toxic chemicals and/or pesticides.  The IFO refers to child laborers are those who are either under 15 and are economically active or who are between 15 and 17 and engage in dangerous work (Ryan, 2011). 

Estimates vary regarding the prevalence of child labor in the African cacao industry.  In 2000 a British documentary released by the BBC brought the topic to the public’s attention when it suggested that 90% of cacao farms in Cote D’Ivoire used slave labor, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of adults and approximately 15,000 children in Cote D’Ivoire alone were enslaved (Ryan, 2011).  This statement received an onslaught of backlash from the Ivorian cacao industry, however, which claimed that the estimate was inflated and a subsequent study by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture suggested that forced child labor was present on only 2% of cacao farms in the nation. 

Much of the confusion regarding the prevalence of child labor in West Africa comes from the unclear language which defines the matter.  For example, many in the cacao industry responded to the BBC’s allegations by claiming that child labor should not be conflated with child work.  They claimed,

“traditionally working on family farms and with family enterprises is seen as part of the process by which children are trained towards adulthood…Children’s involvement in the production of cocoa is an age old-tradition which constitutes a traditional way of imparting cocoa farming skills to them” (Berlan, 2013, p. 1090).

Accordingly, the IITA’s study found that child labor is highly prevalent in cocoa farms in West Africa; Results revealed that today 284,000 children work in hazardous conditions on cacao farms in West Africa and two-thirds of them are in Cote D’Ivoire, often working with toxic chemicals or with dangerous equipment.  However, most of these children worked under the supervision of their parents or relatives, disqualifying them from the category of child laborers since they were technically carrying out “chores”. 

Nevertheless the IITA also found that 12,000 children, the 2% in the study’s results, worked on farms where they had no relatives and 2,500 of them were suspected of being smuggled into Cote D’Ivoire for the purpose of toiling on the cacao farms, suggesting that these were the true child laborers by definition (Off, 2006).  Regardless of the nuances surrounding the definition of child labor, evidence suggests that children do labor throughout West Africa.  A study commissioned by the Ghanian government found that in 2005 and 2006 children aged 5 through 12 were indeed involved in tasks such as the spraying of insecticides, application of fertilizer, felling trees and burning brush (Berlan, 2013).  This revelation is particularly concerning because it is clearly in violation of the ILO’s definition of child labor and because Ghana produces the majority of the world’s cacao (O’Keefe, 2016).

Despite the confusion regarding what constitutes child labor in West Africa, the accounts of those who have lived through it provide evidence of the atrocities of the practice.  One report shared the stories of two Malian boys, aged 12 and 14, who were enticed by promises of paid apprenticeships to travel from Mali to Cote d’Ivoire.  After two years the boys were found sharing a windowless mud hut hoping to escape but held in check under threats of violence and eventual payment (which never came) (Manzo, 2005).  The former Malian consul general, Abdoulaye Macko, recounted similar atrocities including situations in which very young boys worked at gunpoint, were starved to near death, were locked in bunk houses at night and endured sores due to both carrying heavy bags of cocoa as well as from physical abuse.  According to Macko, often times Cote D’Ivoire police were aware of the injustices but were bribed to overlook them (Off, 2006).

(Part of an investigative CNN report from 2014 about child trafficking in Mali in the cacao industry.) (CNN, 2015)

Child labor exists in the West African cacao supply chain for reasons both economic and cultural in nature.  Smallholders, small farmers who farm commodities, generally do not own or control the land they work on.  As a result, their profits are small and they suffer when the price of their commodity plummets on the world market.  In order to stay competitive farmers must cut labor costs and they do so using two methods: Increasing their reliance on unpaid family labor in response to a fall in cocoa prices and increasing their reliance on slaves in order to lower costs in an increasingly competitive global market (Anti-Slavery International, 2004).  Families who send their children away in hopes of economic gain do so with the hopes that they are sending their kids off to work, to prosper, and will see them return shortly with earnings to bring back, rather than admitting that they had sold their children into slavery (Off, 2006).

It is easy to wonder whether one way to end forced child labor in the chocolate industry would be to pay more for the beans.  According to Off (2006) this would not work for several reasons.  First, the attorneys for the chocolate companies would claim that this was illegal price-fixing.  Likewise, the prime minister of Cote D’Ivoire claimed that if cocoa companies really wanted to end child labor they would have to pay up to ten times more for the cacao than they were already paying which would certainly eat into their profits if not bankrupt them.  Alternatively, banning the import of cacao until the injustices in the supply chain are rectified might seem like a humane and motivating response but when this happens the very workers who protesters hope to protect are further harmed.  For example, the Harkin Bill was introduced into Congress in 1992 and aimed to prohibit importing products made by children younger than 15.  When the garment industry of Bangladesh, which exported 60% of their goods to the US, found out about the bill they immediately fired child workers and most went on to live in even worse conditions due to their lack of income (Ryan, 2011). 

Cultural factors also influence the continued use of child labor in cacao in West Africa.  Parents are likely to base their decision to involve their children in cacao farming based on their belief that work has a formative value, whether their local school was any good and the economic trade-off made between sending their child to school versus investing in a farm.  In other cases, when parents went through a divorce if mothers remarried it was quite common for the new husband to refuse to pay for the child’s upkeep, which had an impact on whether or not the child entered the workforce  to support himself (Berlan, 2013).  In cases like these, child labor is not forced as in slavery but is instead shaped by sociocultural factors surrounding the child.

Just who is to blame for the existence of child labor in chocolate?  While the answer is hard to pinpoint because of all of the diverse factors influencing the topic, one culpable party might include the government.  When public outrage began to surface in the early 2000’s in response to reports about child trafficking in Mali, Ghanian and Ivorian officials largely shut down these rumors claiming that few children were trafficked on farms and that most of them were taking part in an apprenticeship overseen by their own parents.  Their claims were backed up by a study out of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that found that not all children working in cacao were exploited; In fact when some were returned to their homes by charity workers they left right away to pursue work elsewhere (Ryan, 2011).  However, as child labor has continued to exist in light of the government’s non-involvement, perhaps the government could continue to work with smallholders to find ways for them to cultivate their cacao without depriving their children of an education or selling them into slavery.

Another culpable party includes Big Chocolate itself.  The industry needs to make changes to its practices in order to reduce the incidence of child labor.  According to Ryan (2013) one major problem is the lack of involvement that Big Chocolate has with its smallholders.  Bill Guyton, the president of the World Cocoa Foundation claimed that by having about 2 million small-scale farmers it was hard for large chocolate companies to know what was happening on their farms everyday.  Also, as few bars are made from beans that are all from the same producer it is hard to claim that any one bar of chocolate doesn’t contain ingredients produced by children (Ryan, 2013).  One solution, however, could be the use of certification practices in which a third-party verifies that responsible and sustainable practices are used in the production of chocolate.  For example, the American cocoa processor Cargill works with Utz Certified to train their farmers in responsible practices and checks each farmer every year, with the aim to eliminate the involvement of children in the cocoa supply.  In requiring standards like this for all large chocolate companies, Big Chocolate could at least attempt to solve the child labor crisis.


(UTZ certification: A promise to combat child labor in the cacao supply chain) (Utz, 2017)

In response to the media coverage that child labor in chocolate has received in recent years, many efforts have been made at different levels to end this practice.  At the political level, governments of both cacao-producing and cacao-importing nations have made some steps towards this end.  For example, in the US Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Eliot Engel both proposed a no child labor label for cacao brought into the US.  While it failed to pass due to lobbying by the  industry, the effort did result in the Harkin-Engels protocol, a voluntary agreement into which chocolate manufacturers could enter with the aim of reducing involuntary labor by underage children (Coe & Coe, 2013).  The governments of West African nations have also gotten involved; In 2000 Cote D’Ivoire signed an agreement with Mali to punish people who used and exploited child workers and to send the trafficked children back to Mali (Chanthavong, 2002).

Responses to the child labor crisis have come also from the industrial and the societal levels.  As previously mentioned, companies like Cargill have made steps towards reducing the involvement of this practice in the manufacturing of their own chocolate by using certification like Utz.  Other certifications, like Fair Trade International, ensure that forced labor, child labor and child trafficking are not involved in the manufacturing of the product (Fair Trade International, 2017).  While these certifications are not completely without flaws, companies that choose to align with them are attempting to ensure children’s rights and displace child labor from the cacao supply chain. 

Some chocolate companies have fully committed themselves to excluding child labor from their supply chain altogether.  One such company is Green & Black.  Jo Fairley, who founded the company, contracted a co-operative of Kekchi Maya living in Belize to grow cacao without the use of pesticides and fertilizers by paying them almost double the price for cacao on the world market.  In doing so, she enabled the workers to make enough money to send their children to school, thus decreasing the need for their involvement in labor of any kind (Coe, 2013).  Similarly, Rain Republic, a chocolate company based out of Guatemala, refuses to use child labor and instead focuses on bringing literacy and education to the children of the cacao suppliers involved with the company. 


(Rain Republic and Green & Black: Two chocolate companies which pledge not to use child labor in their supply chains) (Left: Montes, 2016) (Right: Green & Black’s, n.d.)

Chocolate is a commodity which has the power to truly polarize people; Consumers consider fine chocolate to be a luxury and an indulgence while the worst off of its producers endure daily human rights abuses to cultivate it.  Despite the existence of the egregious malpractice which is child labor labor in the cacao industry, it would be a disservice to represent the entire industry of chocolate and cacao as scandalous.  Chocolate brings happiness to many of its consumers.  And for its producers it provides much needed income, particularly in the nations of West Africa.  But the evidence seems to suggest that the industry as a whole could benefit from more intervention and oversight at the governmental, societal and industrial level.  The use of more certifications in the industry could hold producers to a higher standard and the introduction of more ethical businesses, like Green & Black and Rain Republic, could turn the tide of chocolate from an industry that exploits children into one which funds their educations and ultimately their futures.

Works Cited:

Anti-Slavery International. (2004).  The cocoa industry in West Africa: A history of exploitation.  London: Anti-Slavery International.

Berlan, A. (2013). Social sustainability in agriculture: An anthropological perspective on child labour in cocoa production in Ghana.  The Journal of Developmental Studies, 49, 1088-1100.

Clarence-Smith, W.G. (2000).  Cocoa and chocolate, 1765-1914.  London, UK: Routledge.

CNN. (2015). Chocolate’s child slaves. [Video]. URL: world/2015/05/26/chocolate-child-slaves-ivory-coast-spc-cfp.cnn

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

Fair Trade International. (2017).  Fair Trade International: Child and Forced Labor.  Web.  URL:

Green & Black’s. Web. URL:

Lowy, B. (2016). A young boy uses a machete to break cocoa pods at a farm near Abengourou in eastern Ivory Coast in December.  [Photograph]. URL:

Manzo, K. (2005).  Modern slavery, global capitalism & deproletarianism in West Africa.  Review of African Political Economy, 32, 521-534.

Montes, Erick. (2016). Rain republic branding and packaging.  Web. URL:

O’Keefe, B. (2016).  Big chocolate child labor.  Fortune Magazine. Web.  URL:

Off, C. (2006).  Bitter chocolate: The dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet.  New York, New York: Random House Publishing.

Ryan, O. (2011).  Chocolate nations: Living and dying for cocoa in West Africa.  London, UK: Zed Books.

UTZ. (2017). Child labor. [Photograph].  URL:




Extension Graduate Model Essay: “Food of the Gods,” or Chocolate and the Sacred in Ancient Mayan Culture

Republished with the permission of the author as an Extension Graduate Model Essay.

In Aztecs: An Interpretation, Inga Clendinnen explains that “the beverage most coveted by the Mexica lords was…chocolatl: the ground beans of the cacao tree beaten to a sweet foamy froth with honey and maize gruel, then gently warmed” (195). While Clendinnen mistakenly attributes the fondness of the Maya for warm chocolate to the Aztecs, who most commonly took their chocolate cool (Coe and Coe 84), she is otherwise correct in her account of Mesoamerican chocolate. Cool or warm, this beverage played a major role in many spiritual observances for the ancient Maya.1 Based on the archaeological record available to us—incorporating both literary and material sources—the Mayas did indeed treat chocolate as a “food of the gods,”2 shown by a strong relationship between their deities and the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree.

Theobroma cacao (red pods - Haiti)
Pictured here are cacao pods growing directly from the tree trunk (Hobgood) as cacao is a member of the botanical category of cauliflory (C. Martin “Sugar”). In order to interpret Mayan depictions of cacao in relation to their gods, it is necessary to understand how the pods grow.
Although one should not make assumptions about ancient spiritual practices based on contemporary concepts of religion, it is equally important to respect the significance of this belief system for the ancient Maya. In order to understand what are [partially] historical belief systems,3 a reasonably broad definition of religion is needed; conveniently, Charles Long defines religion as “how one comes to terms with…one’s place in the world” (qtd by C. Martin “Mesoamerica”). Mayan religious ritual, which we know through codices and art, provided a sense of meaning for the people, particularly in context of a system ruled by kings who “acted with sacred authority” (Schele and Miller 42). Using this definition, the Mayan belief system certainly counts as a religion for the purposes of analyzing the religious significance of cacao.

This page from the Dresden Codex is a good example of the few extant Mayan texts available today (Wikimedia Commons), many of which depict cacao intertwined with deities.

An interpretation of one such extant text, the Popol Vuh, suggests that cacao was not special among the foods valued by the Maya in their religious stories. Although the gods did use cacao to build humans in this creation myth, it appears in the following extensive list: “yellow corn, white corn, and thick with pataxte…, arid cacao, countless zapotes, anonas, jacotes, nances, matasanos, sweets” (Coe and Coe 39-40). The authors suggest that because cacao is part of this “market basket,” it was “not the revered substance it was to become” (39). That being said, images of cacao appear in the Dresden Codex as the food of the gods and in the Madrid Codex as the food over which four gods spilled their blood (42-43). Furthermore, anthropologist LeCount proposes that Mayan elites likely seized means of cacao production due to its complicated production and corresponding value, supporting the idea of cacao as a signifier with political and religious value (948).4 Even though cacao does rest in the market basket, so to speak, its repeated appearance in the few available sacred texts suggest that it held quite an emphatic place in the Mayan faith.

Mayan - Lidded Vessel - Walters 20092039 - Side B
This Mayan lidded drinking vessel depicts the Maize God wearing a cacao tree headdress, one of many pictorial representations of the deeply rooted relationship between gods and chocolate (Wikimedia Commons).

Indeed, the ancient Maya created items decorated with elaborate scenes featuring gods wearing or entwined with cacao pods, often connected to the other fundamental Mayan crop and corresponding god—maize. Both cacao and maize were offerings made to the gods in the hopes of agricultural success (McNeil 14), but cacao held special value. Significantly, Simon Martin argues that cacao, not maize, holds the “privileged position” as the first foodstuff to spring from the Maize God’s body (163). In the Mayan drinking vessel pictured above, cacao pods decorating the Maize God’s headdress can be seen in the top right hand corner. This vessel is not the only Mayan artifact featuring the Maize God and cacao pods in close quarters—Coe and Coe, among others, document two additional images where the cacao plant is part of the god’s anatomy. In the first, the Maize God’s head grows from the trunk of the cacao tree just like its neighboring pods (Coe and Coe 39), and in the second, cacao pods sprout from the god’s body as if he is the tree trunk itself (43). The Maya also prominently displayed the chocolate beverage, often already frothed in an open container, in art featuring the society’s elites, reinforcing the significance of cacao to the Maya (Presilla 13; Coe and Coe 44). Such is the extent of cacao in religious images, that the absence of a cacao god beyond the rare “anthropomorphic cacao tree” and cacao iconography on the Maize God is surprising (Miller and Martin 63).

Despite the ambiguous evidence of the Popol Vuh on the unique status of cacao, its multiple appearances there and in other extant documents and artifacts, particularly the images of cacao interspersed with sacred beings or members of the ruling class, strongly suggest that cacao was an item of religious significance for the Maya. Indeed, the preponderance of cacao images in a spiritual context and the food’s elite status, both religious and social, implies that cacao was a uniquely sacred item.


  1. The Aztecs’ relationship with cacao and their gods is also fascinating; however, the intricacies of those dynamics would require another blog post altogether.
  2. This common saying became canon (or perhaps it was the other way around!) when Carolus Linnaeus classified the tree from whose fruits chocolate is derived, Theobroma cacao, Theobroma: “fruit of the gods,” followed by the “inferior” cacao, derived from the native language (Presilla 5; C. Martin “Sugar”).
  3. I say “[partially] historical belief systems” because the Maya survive to the present day (Schele and Miller 9), and speaking of indigenous peoples in the past tense is highly problematic, holding the potential to erase the realities and the concerns of contemporary Mayans from the public consciousness.
  4. This scenario suggests something of a chicken or egg question—did cacao become valued due to its religious significance, or perhaps, did it take on religious significance due to its high value in Mayan society?

Works Cited

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge UP: Cambridge, UK, 1991. Print.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Hobgood, Nick. “Theobroma cacao (red pods – Haiti).” Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. _Haiti).jpg.

LeCount, Lisa J. “Like Water for Chocolate: Feasting and Political Ritual among the Late Classic Maya at Xunantunich, Belize.” American Anthropologist 103.4 (2001): 935-953. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 4 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 18 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Ed. Cameron L. McNeil. Gainesville, UP of Florida, 2009. 154-183. Print.

McNeil, Cameron L. “Introduction: The Biology, Antiquity, and Modern Uses of the Chocolate Tree.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Ed. Cameron L. McNeil. Gainesville, UP of Florida, 2009. 1-28. Print.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Thames & Hudson: New York, 2004. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009. Print.

Schele, Linda and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. George Braziller, Inc.: New York, 1986. Print.

Unknown Artist. Dresden Codex p09. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.

Unknown Artist. Lidded Vessel. Walters Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.

Extension Undergraduate Model Essay: The Body Cacao: The Intrinsic Link Between Cacao and the Physical Human Body

Republished with the permission of the author as an Extension Undergraduate Model Essay.


Cacao and the physical aspect of humanity have been intrinsically connected throughout recorded history. This connection plays out as a recurring theme in the ancient texts, artifacts, and current evidence, to the point they are notable and essential, if not interdependent. Throughout history, cacao could not be taken without a very physically intimate, hands-on, and laboriously intensive relationship with humans. Rare archaeological documents and artifacts from the earliest times, as far back as the Mayan Codices, and the Popul Vuh (Martin), suggest that humans have divine origin within the cacao tree, and have had to work exhaustively for their nourishment and enjoyment of it. Many in tribal, colonial, and even modern eras, lived their entire lives working in cacao fields, never setting foot outside of cacao culture. Some died alongside cacao in great battle or as a human sacrifice in cacao laden rituals. Thus, the long relationship between physical man and cacao has been one of simultaneous love, respect, and turmoil, and it seems fitting to say, as Michael D. Coe offers in his book, The True History of Chocolate, “It was the best of drinks, it was the worst of drinks” ( 203).

images (3)
Late Classic period polychrome Maya vase, Popol Vuh Museum Guatemala

Cacao was for the elite, and at times it was also common, but it was always creating a sacred bond between gods and humans. “It was the beverage of everyday people and also the food of the rulers and gods,” says Jonathan Haas, curator of the “Chocolate” exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago (Huffington Post). Although the ancient texts of the Mayans and Aztecs differ a bit in their creation story, it is clear that both ancient cultures believed cacao to be a natural element essential to the physical body of mankind. Of the Dresden Codex, which deals with sacred ritual activities,  Michael Coe writes, “seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (42). Coe writes further of the Madrid Codex, that the god’s blood pouring out over the cacao, ” links the godly blood with the cacao beans…” and is to then be consumed by humans (42), suggesting a Trinitarian bond between the physical element of humanity (body), cacao, and the divine.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 6.36.22 PMAdditionally, the Mayans and Aztecs used cacao as daily nourishment for the body, as well as medicinal remedy for a multitude of ailments, which were passed on to the Spaniards, and infused with Galenic medical theory (Coe 121-123). Written by Juan de Cárdenas in 1951, a treatise on New World Foods, advised “cacao, if toasted and ground and mixed with a bit of atole gruel, is fattening and sustaining, aiding the digestion and making one happy and strong (Coe 123).” Of course, there were also warnings by Cárdenas that if taken “green” or too often, it could also lead to poor health and even addiction. This was later reinforced in 1648, by Thomas Gage, who wrote of an account of addiction by a group of white elite woman who swore they could not get through even a single Catholic Mass without taking a drink, and ultimately poisoned the Bishop who had tried to stop them (Coe 180-181).

Mayan sacrifice

Rendering further evidence for the historic linkage between cacao and the human body, this time through ritual, is offered by culinary author and historian, Maricel Presilla. She writes in her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, that ancient Mayan vase paintings depict scenes of chocolate drinking among the governing elites. Presilla advises that the cacao they are drinking is a frothy hot drink, which was reserved as the highest honor and dyed red with Achiote to resemble sacrificial, human blood (13). But, perhaps the greatest of testimony to the bond between cacao and the human body by way of ritual, was in the human sacrifice, of which Presilla writes,The most lavish of all the merchant’s banquets were those involving the sacrifice of slaves and the eating of their flesh (22).”


Cacao trees in cluster

Yet even now the harvesting and processing of cacao is a significant aspect in which the linkage between the physical body and cacao usage can be demonstrated. It is a notoriously labor intensive and physically challenging series of tasks, requiring many hours of human effort to produce cacao in small and large quantities. Chocolate expert, Mark Canizaro writes in his blog,, how the cacao trees are grown in clusters and even today on corporate plantations, are grown in a way that makes it difficult for machinery to harvest. Therefore, the laborers must cut each pod individually, with a swift chop of a sharp blade and let the pod fall to the ground (Canizaro).

See video on today’s cacao harvest methods, compliments of ICF Group:

Although today much of the transport of cacao is done by vehicle, the harvesting remains manual and many corporate landowners have been  accused of kidnapping and enslaving people, including children, to meet the labor demand (Canizaro). In this, we find yet more evidence of the essential link between that of the physical human and cacao. Moreover, it suggests that the historic linkage between cacao and the human body continues; and begs the question whether despite modernity, we continue to value sacred cacao greater than our own sacred kind.

See video on slavery in the cacao trade, compliments of 7th Business:

Works Cited

Canizaro, Mark Chocolate. “The Production of Chocolate from Cacao.” n.d. Web. 20 Feb 2015.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

ICF Group. “How to Harvest Cocoa.” Youtube. Youbute, 3 Mar 2013. 18 Feb 2015.

Martin, Carla D. “Written Record.” Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods.”  Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 04 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, 2009. Print.

“What the Ancient Maya Can Teach Us  About Living Well.” Huff Post: The Third Metric. Huffington, 23 Jan 2014. Web. 19 Feb 2015.

7th Business. “Must See! Disgusting Slavery!” Youtube. Youtube, 2 Jan 2013. Web. 18 Feb 2015.