Do you remember the last time you had a cup of hot chocolate? Was it served in a mug, topped with whipped cream? Or maybe you sipped it from a to-go cup from your favorite drive-thru restaurant. Most of the time we don’t fuss with what we’re drinking our hot chocolate from because we’re too busy enjoying the aroma and experience this time honored beverage provides us. Yet, ancient cultures, alike the Mayans, respected their cacao drinking methods and admired the cup they drank from just as much as they prized the drink itself. In many cases, cacao wouldn’t have been drunk if it wasn’t out of an artistically treasured and symbolized vessel… a far cry from how we view and present our version of hot chocolate today. Nevertheless, this customary beverage and the material in which it was once presented in was systematically ritualized throughout the ancient Classic Maya culture, proving a frothy cup of cacao was more than just something to cheers with.
The Classic Maya period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.) was considered to be the most influential and profound stage of the ancient Mayan civilization. Fabulous accomplishments, such as towering pyramids and vast palaces throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, beautifully decorated ceramics, and a distinguishable writing system flourished during this time. This was also a time when the Maya elite prospered, and their admiration for the finer things in life influenced their daily lives and dietary intake, ritualizing items such as cacao and the vessels they were ingested from. David Stuart, an archaeologist and epigrapher who specializes in Mesoamerican cultures, describes in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, the ways in which the Maya civilization upheld the role of cacao within their society. Stuart suggests, “The importance of cacao in Classic Maya society was not widely appreciated until the decipherment of glyphic texts on ceramics in the 1980s, when it became clear that seemingly countless ceramic vessels were inscribed with a dedicatory formula identifying them as drinking vessels for chocolate” (Stuart 184).
Around the same time those descriptive discoveries were uncovered, much excitement arose when two vessels were found in Guatemala containing chemical remains of cacao (Theobromine), a study that was performed by W. Jeffery Hurst, a chemist at the Hershey Foods Technical Center (Carla D. Martin, Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods,” January 31, 2018). By identifying the Maya word and glyph for cacao (ka-ka-wa), including the remains of Theobromine, archaeologists soon realized the extensive amount of Maya vessels which were artistically depicted with the kakaw glyph, symbolizing the importance of cacao within their culture, alongside the vessels in which they were consumed from (Stuart 184). In most early cases, a vessel that depicted the kakaw glyph was considered to be apart of a Maya elites collection, illustrating the consumption of cacao was reserved for those of importance within the community.
Maricel E. Presilla, a cultural historian, chef, and author of the book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, reviews the ways in which the kakaw glyph was depicted on Maya pots and drinking vessels, and goes on to say, “Dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars, included along with other furnishings in burial chambers, depict chocolate as a crucial, central element of opulent feasts” (Presilla 12). Archaeologists have also come to believe that the vessel in which the cacao drink was drunk from had different levels of significance and cultural value, through the means of the artwork depicted on the cup and the individuals utilizing this piece of material culture (Presilla 12). Realizations as such have contributed to many other professionals from a plethora of academic fields, such as anthropologists and art curators, into the mix, creating a vast amount of research conducted around this specific topic. Dr. Dorie Reents-Budet, an Art Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, describes the functionality of these impressive vessels in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, and considers these vessels, “Function as containers for edibles and also as portable props whose myths-political imagery lent power and prestige to their owners and the event during which they were used” (Reents-Budet 210).
As a result, these elaborate cacao drinking vessels served up a frothy-drink of dualism between the vessel itself and the individual enjoying this influential beverage. Illustrations of exclusive banquets held by the Maya elite were plentiful, and according to Reents-Budet, these elite banquets which included fantastic kakaw serving vessels, “Transcended their primary function as food service wares and were transformed into indispensable status markers and essential gifts; that is, they became social currency” (Reents-Budet 213). The aftereffect of these frequent banquets lead to those creative kakaw drinking vessels to be perceived as social currency and a higher status, and soon after, production of cacao drinking vessels by “highly trained artisans and renewed painters” (Reents-Budet 214) was off and running.
As a result of this newfound kakaw drinking vessel popularity, the Maya civilization never looked back, and the ideals around this foamy, ritualized beverage flourished for the rest of their reign. Through mysterious circumstances, the decline of the Maya culture happened sometime between the late eighth and ninth century, creating a sense of wonder around this distinguished ancient civilization. While we may never know what truly happened to the Mayans and their artistic culture, the remnants of their treasured vessels and love for cacao has overcome their deterioration, and continues to thrive in our modern day society through academic means and pure curiosity for what was once a fascinating and complex society.
The purpose of this small-scale ethnography is to examine the social significance of chocolate from a cross-cultural perspective. Through interviewing various members of my local community that were born in different regions of Mexico and Central America, I document here their experiences and observances of chocolate.
Experienced through consumption or non-consumption, and observed through their emic perspective, there are underscoring themes exposed amongst the roles in which chocolate has played throughout each of their own lives. Within the context of those personal relationships with chocolate, an interaction between social and economic functions of their state and country may be contemporaneous to their outlook. Although this simultaneity is not always the circumstance, motifs emerge as their uniqueness transpires. Effectually, their contributed insight has actualized a microcosm of chocolates’ socio-cultural diversity and likenesses.
While conducting the interviews with members of my community, the aim was to first listen to their observances, and to then ask questions of clarification to assist in their thought process. The framework of my Q&A was designed this way to acquire a qualitative study, so that this retelling would reflect the individual perspectives of each subject, synchronously providing a glimpse into the societal experience. To depict those experiences through a cultural historical lens, that of which illustrated itself during most of the interviews already, I asked questions about their culture as a whole and how they thought chocolate was generally regarded in their own communities.
This study is not meant to define those relationships, but to highlight multiplicities within these individual cross- cultural accounts. Over reflections of my own and of the human subjects in this ethnographic study, I hope to provide sufficient imagery of historic milieu within the functional roles chocolate has played in personal experience and in society.
Theobroma Cacao, or the Food-of-the-God’s Cacao, is widely accepted by botanists and scholars as indigenous to Mesoamerica. Evidence of its cultivation is indicative of the role it played in ancient civilizations like the Mixe-Zoquean-speaking Olmecs (1500 BCE – 400 BCE). At the famed Olmec archaeological site in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, evidence has been found of the term “Kakawa” used by the Olmec as early as 1000 BCE (Coe & Coe, 1996). See on the map below, San Lorenzo is west of present day Guatemala, and north of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.
We find in the archaeological record, the ways in which early civilizations illustrated cacao, or “Kakawa” on their pottery. This being a significant attribute to understand the role chocolate played in their livelihoods and rituals. According to Maricel Presilla in her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, “it was the Maya who brought chocolate making to a high art… building on the foundation left behind by other Mesoamerican cultures”, like that of the Olmecs and other sibling tribes (2009).
See this Classic Maya vase from the seventh century portraying the Maize God in an “unending dance, symbolizing both the creation of the universe and also his cycle of death and rebirth” (Takushi, Pioneer Press).
Maya Classic period (250 – 900 CE) vessels show quite literally the function of cacao as it was for drinking, as well as the relative role it played in Mayan life though various representations of the divine.
This is one of the many Classic period vessels that was found to contain cacao residues inside. We know it was used to hold chocolate because cacao is the only plant in the region with both the compounds Theobromine and Caffeine, “a unique marker for the presence of cacao in pre-Columbian artifacts” (Cheong, 2011). To verify the vessels were used to hold chocolate was an important piece to the archaeological record. It provided contextual knowledge when deciphering the imagery or glyphs depicted on the vessels.
Affirmed in the glyphs of drinking vessels from this period, there is evidence of “well established cacao-chocolate terminology”. On the Buenavista vase shown above, we see “tree-fresh cacao” inscribed. From the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) of the glyphs you see banded around the top of the vessel, the characters that make the Maya name for cacao, “Ka-Ka-Wa” were deciphered. What strikes me the most about this piece is the seemingly relative “tree-fresh cacao” to the Maize God’s cyclical existence. (Presilla, 2009)
I particularly find this vessel so interesting when we look at the role of chocolate in culture because it reflects a cyclical ideology of their ecological relationship to their land; in the sustenance it provides, the concept of time through death and rebirth, and their Gods all-encompassing role within those cycles.
A few years ago in 2013 I came to know a few young men and women from the northern Mexican state of Sonora – (follow the link to read a brief history of Seri Indians of Sonora). They were working and studying here on visa’s while we were employed at a busy restaurant in the heart of downtown Boston. What better place than behind the bar to nose around and pick into people’s lives for cultural insights! Just kidding on the nose-picking… but seriously, even minute conversations with guests created thought-provoking observations. During their multiple terms of residency in Boston over the years, these talented intellectual Sonoran natives and I connected on Mexican – American culture alike, and apart. Upon reaching out to ask if anyone would be interested in participating in this modest ethnographic study, my request was received most graciously. They have all elected to omit fully identifying information, so for the purposes of this study, I will refer to them by their first name only. Below I have included their perspectives on the role chocolate has played throughout their lives.
Andrés began by explaining Mexico as a large country where the culture is full of diversity. “Every state has their own culture about everything – food, traditional parties, our dialect and slang”. With that being said, in the state of Sonora where he lives he doesn’t use chocolate and cacao the way he knows it is used in the southern states of the country like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and Tabasco. Andrés has observed the influence of cacao beans in southern Mexico because the cacao growing region produces a lot of recipes that involve cacao and chocolate.
When I asked what he knows about Mesoamerican uses for cacao, he remembers learning from childhood that they used it as currency, and he understood they sometimes would use it in beauty treatments. On that note, I recollect a fortuitous conversation about skin care had between myself and a female of Mexican ancestry I met while servicing wedding hair and makeup to her cousin’s bridal party, circa summer 2015 in East Boston – Indeed, I am not only an aspiring Anthropologist, also a Cosmetologist. My thoughts are usually occupied by anthropological inquiry on a daily basis, which inevitably grants unique opportunity for cultural discussions with the people I meet. Although not a part of this ethnography, she let me know back then about her family recipe for a skin care regimen that contains cacao. Her grandmother and her aunts would grind down cacao beans into a powder, “cocoa powder” minus the hydraulic press. They would mix the antioxidant rich powder with other grinded down local herbs, add water to create a paste-like texture and apply generously to the skin.
“Lather. Dry. Rinse. Repeat.” – she persisted. Yum.
For the purposes of this study, I was curious about chocolate in spa treatments, as I have heard echoes of the luxury before. Take a look at The Spa At The Hotel Hershey or examples of just a few contemporary accommodations created for chocolate in the beauty industry.
Andrés expressed to me that Sonora being just below Arizona, his culture is more- so “American” than the way Mexicans live in the south. It is in his experience and observation the misconception of Mexican culture as being one. I think any educated person understands culture, language, economy, etc. vary across spaces of human population. Yet, for those who generalize a nation’s people by its borders, Andrés and his community experience the bias. He grew up with a collection of influences “by the things Americans do”. For example, one of his earliest memories of eating chocolate was during Halloween. They’re also heavily influenced by “spring break madness”, as he defined the season. He grew up consuming chocolate predominantly made by the big corporations, like Mars. His notable favorites being the Snicker and M&Ms. “In the south they don’t have that influence, they don’t experience American Halloween as we do”.
Carlos V chocolate bars are the Nestlé- proclaimed “# 1 chocolate brand in Mexico with over 70 years in the market!… Because of its unique and mild flavor, it is considered the reference of chocolate for Mexicans.” The Aztec stylized imagery first designed to brand the chocolate before it was bought by Nestlé sometime in the 1980’s was created by Fabrica de Chocolates La Azteca, S.A. de C.V. Jason Liebig on his blog, Collecting Candy chronicles his findings in the L.M. Kallok Confectioners Collection of antique packaging. Most notable about the evolution of the branding is first the Aztec styling alongside the “Imperial Coat of Arms” for “by the grace of God, Carolus V Imperator (emporer)”. Then with the English labeling introduced we see a change in the ingredients as well (which was apparent of each label seen in Leibig’s compilation from the beginning to the end. “A tie-in with the film Toy Story, which tells us La Azteca was still the brand’s sole owner as late as 1995″ is interesting where we see Quaker Oats leaving its insignia on the label by the late 1990’s.
Not one of the Sonoran’s I interviewed has tried a Carlos V chocolate bar but they have all heard of it at some point in their life through advertisements. Eduardo attests to Andrés’ personal account of diversity from the southern regions in Mexico. Dia de los Muertos is “not celebrated as much as the south, but we do things like going to the cemetery”, Andrés says. Eduardo told me that they celebrate Dia de los Muertos on November 2. “We celebrate in memory of the people who are no longer with us and usually at the tombstones we put special things they liked when they were alive. Chocolates is usually one of them”. Both Andrés and Eduardo did not have a definitive sense of the historical reason for chocolate being placed on gravesites, but they both know it as a long- standing tradition and ritual in celebrating their deceased ancestors. Fernanda, another Sonoran native, added some insight to this practice of memorial. She told me that usually the graveyards are managed by local churches or publicly owned so in contrast to the majority of graveyards that are privately owned in the US, the families play a greater role in gravesite maintenance of their deceased. In this way, chocolate serves a social function in their celebrations.
Shown below, Dr. Martin presented in class this semester some of the ways Maya and Mixtec society visually depicted the functions that cacao played within their cultural practices and belief systems. Royal marriages necessitated the use of currency in the negotiation, so we see in the Codex Nuttall how cacao was a part of the price for the bride. Eduardo remembers learning in school that Mayans used to used the cacao “as a coin to buy everything, from goods to wives”. A relative topic for further study would be in the ways chocolate was introduced to the elite. Diffused out of Mesoamerica first by the Spanish, the Europeans assimilated to its royal regard and used chocolate in the women’s dowry through royal inter-marriages – that of which played a great role in spreading chocolate throughout Europe.
Another example (seen below) comes from the Madrid Codex where we see cacao being exchanged, portraying a give-and-take linkage between their concepts of cyclical time (lunar goddess) and their environment (rain god). I find this imagery especially expressive to their belief of the divine relationship to their human existence and sustenance on earth. Lastly, from the Codex Nuttall we see a royal funerary procession in “Twelve Movements”. Within the tomb depicted at the bottom right of the artwork lies a “vessel of foaming cacao beverage… to ease the soul’s journey to the underworld”. (Martin)
Eduardo recounts drinking cups of hot chocolate since he can remember. While traveling south to Puebla state he tried their “typical meal, mole, and it’s made of cacao”. What he knows about the Maya and cacao is how they used to prepare beverages and meals like the Puebla “mole”. “We have different tribes and culture but we learned about it in school and I experiences it myself while traveling south. Cacao is still a huge deal in south Mexico.”
See the dozen or more ingredients to make the traditional “thick, baroque sauce, mole” from Xalapa, Veracruz (Presilla), north of Puebla state in Mexico. Presilla notes that each ingredient is “processed in sequence, each at its own time” (2009).
As the mole is diverse in ingredients, and rich in unique Mesoamerican culture, so too – as these contemporary perspectives have illustrated, are the people of the region diversely interwoven with it’s history and unique place on Earth’s sphere.
Today, due to the commonality of chocolate as an everyday treat, except for the most expensive, finest-quality chocolates consumed by the those with “well-lined pockets,” (Coe 95), it might be difficult to imagine chocolate as “the emperor’s banquet” (Coe 96). However, pre-Columbian customs reflect a history of chocolate as “the drink of the elite” (Coe 95). The history of this truth lies in glyphs and memoirs recounted by sources who bore witness to this luxury. Chocolate held a place in society by which commoners rarely partook. The historical significance of this custom allows one to trace the history of chocolate as it has evolved for today’s culture to appreciate. History often does not offer palatable derivation.
To extrapolate upon this history, one has imagined that the cacao bean is “the bean of the gods.”
The Aztec elite – the royal house, lords and nobility, long-distance merchants, and warriors (Coe 95) imbibed chocolate, adding to the glory of their imperial existence. With exception, soldiers were welcomed to join, but chocolate was mostly confined to the noble class. This distinction also excluded priests. Coe contends that this chocolate ritual might resemble champagne toasts among today’s elite. This insertion might help present-day society understand the importance of the historical feast that these rulers enjoyed: for champagne is not the usual drink of twenty-first century patrons.
One should note that chocolate was served at the end of the meal. Much like tobacco, brandy, and cigars, chocolate was a delicacy to be appreciated at banquet’s end (Coe 95). Every cultural norm deserves study as one envisions the life of those who celebrated these rites. It is purported that Aztec Emperor Montezuma drank more than his fair share of chocolate!
The sources upon which this tradition rests include eye-witness accounts of grandiosity and extravagance. Keep in mind that these centuries-old tales were often passed down by the emperors themselves. One story from Bernal Diaz del Castillo involves a “colossal event” in which “300 dishes were prepared especially for him” (Coe 95). Coe adds that Bernal Diaz was in his eighties when he recollected this celebration. Coe also suggests that the hyperbolic manner in which this tale is presented includes other dubious statements in his testimony. However, other accounts, including one from Fray Bartolome de la Casa, might seem more reliable as he, a Dominican friar, was less removed from this glory (Coe 96). According to Las Casas, chocolate was drank from calabash, painted vessels, from the gourds of the calabash tree (Presilla 12) and not from chalices of gold and silver. Regardless of the storyteller, Aztec artifacts confirm that chocolate was not for mere mortals but rather that of the upper class. These artifacts include glyphs and painted pictures that told a story of chocolate’s history. Vessels have been discovered with these artifacts, proving this legacy.
Many desired this social standing: for the pochteca, long-distance traders, regularly enjoyed chocolate drink (Coe 96). Those merchants who aspired to be among those ranks were obliged to host expensive banquets to prove their ability to maintain this economic status (Coe 97). This obligation deserves attention because it is a reflection of “climbing up the ranks” by which today’s society is held. Chocolate was synonymous with “luxury and status” (Presilla 14), but the costliness of this endeavor is a price that many sacrificed. This membership with its costly expenditures was tied to chocolate etiquette (Coe 98). Without this history, one might not appreciate the value of Aztec goods.
Coe, Sophie D. & Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2013.
Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2001.
You may be surprised to find out that the chocolate that we know today is a relatively new, tasty discovery- one that came about from the Industrial Age.
When the Industrial Revolution took place, the world revolutionized with it, and industries of all kinds were forever altered. The chocolate industry, still in the Mayan age, sprouted into a new field and its effects can still be traced today. The technology in the Industrial Revolution provided the tools to advance the field of chocolate, which allowed for mass consumption and commercialization, giving way to the “Chocolate Age.”
Chocolate’s “God-Like” Beginnings
Cacao was considered the “food of the gods,” and was treated as such: before the Industrial Age, chocolate was made the traditional way that the Mayans made it with a long, drawn-out process of cracking shells and traditional grinding to create a bitter chocolate drink (unlike the chocolate of today) (Szogyi, 1997).
Modern Mayan woman demonstrating how her ancestors
would grind cacao (Smithsonian)
This treat was considered to be a drink that was both a commodity and spiritual experience; although it was available to the masses, the wealthy certainly had more access to the treat because they could afford it. Cacao was taken as such a serious product that the Mayans used its seeds as currency; further, it was used to promote fertility and life, and cacao pods are found all over elite and ancient artifacts, temples, and palaces. Clearly, these uses and techniques demonstrate how luxurious chocolate was to them; these processes stayed this way even during the era of the Aztec empire and many centuries later (Horn, 2016 & Szogyi).
The Industrial Difference
This process of chocolate was so revered that it essentially did not change until the Industrial Age with a ground-breaking invention for grinding that used the newly-innovated steam and hydraulic process; in 1778, Doret, a Frenchman, invented a hydraulic machine that grinds cocoa beans into a paste (Beckett, Horn). Before then, the process of grinding was long and tedious and this machine allowed the process to become easier to create for the masses. Soon after, more inventions came along for grinding that further made consumption more popular. For instance, Dubuisson invented a steam chocolate grinder in France because it was even cheaper to replicate than Doret’s product, which allowed for an even higher level of mass consumption of chocolate. The Industrial Age created the environment to allow for this change – without steam and hydraulics, and the friendly and booming business atmosphere for support, Doret and Dubuisson would certainly not have been able to create these inventions. Where would be chocolate be today? One could reasonably predict that we could have eventually have had these technologies, but it is safe to assume that it would have taken the chocolate industry much longer to reach its glory.
The steam engine and hydraulic system are considered staples of this Industrial Age with new technologies across the boards for trains, factories, and buildings, but we can also appreciate how these technologies allowed for the advancement of chocolate technology. The value of chocolate significantly decreased because it was accessible to everyone; from here on, it was no longer an “elite” product or just a “food of the gods,” but, rather, a food for everyone. Thus, the Industrial Age that changed the world on so many fronts quickly churned into the “Chocolate Age” as well.
The idea of the mass consumption of chocolate from the Industrial Age can be traced along the later part of the history of chocolate. Quickly after the revelation with the cocoa beans came a new way to make chocolate an even more accessible product with commercialization – via “dutching” (Squiciarinni & Swinnen, 2016). In 1828, Van Houten, a Dutch chemist, invented a method to press cocoa by separating the cocoa butter by pressing it with alkali, making the matter soften up enough to produce cocoa powder, which was light and fluffy; unlike the current chocolate of that time, dutching made chocolate highly digestible, which would attract new consumers and open up a whole new market for chocolate – just like these technologies helped do so in other industries such as the construction field (i.e. making materials more affordable and attractive for building).
Van Houten’s cocoa press (World Standards)
Additionally, cocoa powder was the secret ingredient needed for the chocolate industry and companies to seamlessly make solid chocolate bars and coat them as well as bring in new flavors such as white chocolate. From there, a second wave of the Chocolate Age had been set and was about to take place.
A Second Wave of the Age – Mass Commercialization and the Chocolate Bar
With the mass consumption of chocolate from these new Industrial technologies came mass commercialization. Quite simply, we can see that chocolate companies would not be what they are today without this commercial influence; specifically, the dutching process sparked a spread of commercialization across Europe, which allowed for the worldwide chocolate industry we have come to know and love. For example, Cadbury, one of the largest chocolate companies today, and Joseph Fry (founder of what is known as Mondolez International today) bought the dutching press; these two companies are credited to be the first companies to create and sell the chocolate bar. They also made the chocolate bar a highly accessible treat with aggressive advertising; this marketing scheme raked in millions of dollars for these companies (Beckett, Horn). It was the catalyst behind the beginning of giant factories built to keep up with this demand.
Thus, the chocolate bar became (and still is) a symbol for a quick, delicious treat for everyone and anyone.
Fry’s chocolate bar packaging (Foods of England)
Moreover, the dutching system then inspired the chocolate exportation business that brought chocolate on to an international stage – a few decades after the start of the chocolate bar, the Van Houten presses became powered by steam engines, and, just like with the Dubuisson’s steam engine, came with another Chocolate Revolution. The mass consumption and commercialization of chocolate began in European countries such as Germany and France, which eventually led its way to the United States (Beckett, Szogyi). These countries then started their own chocolate giants such as Hershey’s and Nestlé, which embody the same mass consumption and commercialization ideals that have advanced the history of chocolate along and allowed it to further churn.
Without the Industrial age, chocolate would just not be the same. It is literally unrecognizable from its Olmec and Mayan roots. From the Industrial Age, the Chocolate Age churned on and on – all starting with the advancements in steam and hydraulics.
Beckett, S.T, et al. Industrial Chocolate – Manufacture and Use. Wiley Publishers: Hoboken.
Horn, Jeff. The Industrial Revolution: History, Documents, and Key Questions. (2016). ABC-CLIO: Santa Barbara.
Squicciarini, Mara P & Swinnen, Johan. (2016). The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Smithsonian. Retrieved from http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/power-chocolate-reveals-true-roots-celebrated-food
Szogyi, Alex. (1997). Chocolate: Food of the Gods. Greenwood Publishing Group: Westport.
The Foods of England. Retrieved from http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/chocolate.htm
World Standards. Retrieved from http://www.worldstandards.eu/chocolate%20-%20history.html
It can be hard to look back on the thousands of years that chocolate has evolved from a simple Mesoamerican beverage into what it is today, and say that chocolate has devolved in a downward spiral. Today in some forms it is simultaneously a rare and expensive delicacy, and a ubiquitous cheap candy that is readily available at a degraded quality available to even in the most poverty-stricken economies around the world. When chocolate was confined to the Mesoamerica region, it was considered to be food of the gods and was regarded so highly that is was ceremoniously attributed to good health and well-being.
Figure 1: $250 Each. Stuffed with a French Perigord truffle and crafted from 71-percent single-bean Ecuadorean dark-chocolate. Follow link for additional expensive chocolates. Fox News
Has chocolate evolved over time from simple watery cacao drink enjoyed by the historical Olmec culture, into sought after delicacies such as the $250 Knipschildt Chocolatier’s Madeline truffle? (figure 1) Or, has chocolate devolved from a glorious beverage with positive health properties, to an adulterated cacao bi-product lacking purity, and is ever distant from its original roots such as the Hershey’s White Chocolate (figure 2) that contains 0% cacao (Bratskeir)? While the recipes have changed over time, it has remained true that chocolate has been sought after as a comfort food, a medicine, a gift, an offering, or consumed with a greater purpose that to satisfy hunger.
Figure 2: White chocolate: often used as an ingredient for baking in cookies, shown here as Hershey’s Cookies & Crème white chocolate bar. Hershey’s Chocolate bars
Originating in Mesoamerica, the Olmec culture cultivated the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) and declared it “a gift of the gods” (Bruinsma and Taren). Appropriately, the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus (1707-78) gave the scientific name Theobroma cacao. Cacao is Greek and means food of the gods (Coe and Coe, 18). This godly association isn’t too difficult to understand when studying their perceptions of the effects that cacao had on them. This gift from the gods was considered an aphrodisiac and was often associated with medicinal values (Bruinsma and Taren). This belief has more recently been verified by means of Mayan archeology that has proved they were in better health and lived longer than their chocolate deprived subjects (Coe and Coe, 32). There is more recent science published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that shows chocolate can even satisfy magnesium deficiencies (Bruinsma and Taren). The cacao plant from which chocolate is derived has foliage that is also valuable to many for other products. The leaves of the cacao plant can be used to create a tea used in the treatment of altitude sickness. The leaves are even used in the production of cocaine (Coe and Coe, 19).
A plant with such medicinal value was naturally monetarily valuable as well in the 16th century and therefore associated with social and economic classes, and elite rulers. It was prepared for and consumed at banquets, weddings, and other ceremonies (Coe and Coe, 97). As a valuable commodity, it was often exchanged as currency (figure 3) (Coe and Coe, 99). Despite being a currency that did in fact grow on trees, the beans were even counterfeit by the Aztecs. Such careful attention was given by the Mayan people to this highly regarded commodity that Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus noted when “the [cacao] fell, they all stopped to pick up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe and Coe, 109). Was Columbus’s fascination with cacao the beginning the degradation of a high regard for chocolate?
Figure 3: A visual depiction of the exchange values cacao beans had in 1541. Photo from Cornell University.
It was with Christopher Columbus’s voyages that chocolate was introduced to European culture. It was at this point, chocolate took a drastic European turn and became more like the chocolate we know today. Would the Olmec people and others from the Mesoamerican era consider our modern chocolate blaspheme as a disgrace to their original food of the gods? (figure 4) Chocolate was originally drunk as a beverage by the Mesoamerican cultures (Coe and Coe, 33). We actually have learned that the transformation began before Columbus. Sophie and Michael Coe demonstrate in the True History of Chocolate that the Spaniards had stripped chocolate of the spiritual meaning and “imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya. It was nothing more than a drug, a medicine in humoral system” (Coe and Coe, 126).
The transformations of the former cacao beverage into what we know today as chocolate continued over the course of the centuries after Columbus introduced cacao to Europe. One of the most historical was the first chocolate bar invented in 1847 by the Fry Brothers in Bristol, England (Coe and Coe, 241). Milk chocolate was first made successfully in 1879, after Daniel Peter, a Swiss chocolate manufacturer, thought to try making it with the powdered milk invented by his neighbor, Henri Nestlé, 30 years earlier (Coe and Coe 247). In his book, The New Taste of Chocolate, Presilla explains that “the practice of adding dried milk to the chocolate mass to make milk chocolate put another layer of distance between the consumer and the direct flavor of good and bad cacao” (Hansen; Presilla, 43). Now under the cheap guise of milk flavor, it was from this point we began to see the adulteration of chocolate, many of which have not improved much.
One such adulteration starts at the source of the cacao. Lead contamination in chocolate was brought to attention when the Food and Drug Administration identified unacceptable levels of lead (Coe and Coe, 32). Although the lead contamination was thought to be related to negligence or accidental contamination, other adulterations have been intentional. The Cadbury company became known in the 19th century for being the reason the government had to implement the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872. At the time, they mixed flour and starch into their product, red ocher (crushed red brick), red lead, and vermilion (Coe and Coe, 244). With the exception of the ocher, and toxic lead and vermilion, the flour and other adulterations have become an acceptable and common pairing with chocolate today. Chocolate is often times paired with nuts, fruits, caramel, and other less expensive fillers to aid in the reduction of cacao necessary to provide a sizable chocolate bar. These cheapened products are consumed in mass quantities by even the most struggling economies.A far progression from the exclusive food of the gods enjoyed by the most elite.
Even with the addition of ingredients, as the quality and recipes have changed over time, one constant about chocolate has remained true throughout the course of history. Chocolate isn’t consumed for nourishment or in admiration of the gift from the gods. It is consumed to alter a spiritual, emotional, or mental state of being. It has been sought after as a comfort food, medicine, a gift, an offering, or consumed with greater purpose than to satisfy hunger. This has been a recorded purpose as earlier on as 3,000 BC and is still true today. Chocolate has not only remained highly regarded by more people than ever before, but the cheap and adulterated chocolate that seeks to imitate the food of the gods is flattery to the delicacy that is high quality chocolate.
Bratskeir, Kate. “What Exactly Is White Chocolate.” Huffington Post 10/28/14. Web.
Bruinsma, Kristen, and Douglas L. Taren. “Chocolate: Food or Drug?” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99.10 (1999): 1249-56. Print.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third edition. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.
Hansen, Kristine. “6 of the World’s Most Expensive Chocolates.” Fox News. 2/6/15. Web.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate : A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st rev. ed. Berkeley Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.
Chocolate is a favorite treat for many in modern times, but it was also a favorite for the people in ancient Mesoamerica. Today, in the U.S.A., we can easily purchase chocolate from establishments ranging from grocery stores to gas stations, and chocolate is a popular ingredient in foods such as candy and many beverages. We are able to easily purchase our chocolate treats, in all forms, without ever seeing, touching, processing, or preparing our treats from the plant itself. In ancient times the fruit of Theobroma spp. was collected and processed by the inhabitants of many ancient civilizations. When scholars investigate the origins of the use of Theobroma spp. many questions arise such as, “How was this plant used by ancient cultures?” and “Which parts of the plant were consumed?” These questions are answered through the use of many scientific facets such as analyses of ancient writings and the examination of ancient artifacts through chemical analyses. Through these efforts, scientists are able to piece together a timeline detailing the earliest known use of this plant by ancient societies. This post will examine how the discovery of ancient pottery demonstrated that ancient civilizations used the fruits of Theobroma spp. to produce alcoholic beverages, and how this discovery allowed for the incorporation of chocolate into a modern day beer “Theobroma” developed and produced by the company Dogfish Head.
What is Theobroma spp? The genus Theobroma is located in the family Malvaceae and contains ~20 species (“Theobroma” n.d.). The most familiar species within the genus is Theobroma cacao which translates to “food of the gods”. The seeds from this plant are used to make chocolate. This evergreen, shade grown, amazing tree is unique in that the flowers and fruit grow directly on the trunk (cauliflory). The fruit, once ripe, contains the prized seeds which are used for the modern day production of chocolate. It is truly a beautiful plant which has had a tremendous impact on human culture as described by many researchers who have searched for, recorded, and shared their finding detailing the use of this plant ancient times.
When researchers uncovered shards of pottery at the northern Honduran site of Puerto Escondido they were about to redefine the history of chocolate and inspire the creation of a “new to the modern world” chocolate drink. Archeologist identified these vessel shards at the site as having a “long neck” (think “long neck” beer bottles). The presence of the “neck” was an indicator that foam was not a component of the liquid stored within this container (Henderson 3). The process of pouring the cacao mixture between two containers to create foam was previously believed to be the way in which cacao drinks were first consumed (Henderson 3). The sample of a spouted (“long neck”) vessel (4DK-136 – Type name: Barraca Brown), based on radiocarbon dating, showed that the process of consumption involved fermentation to produce an alcoholic beverage (beer). This would now be the earliest known use of cacao from anywhere in the world, and via radiocarbon dating, scientists could now date this vessel to the Ocotillo phase (1400-1100 B.C.) (Henderson 2). Further chemical analysis of this vessel, using chromatographic and mass spectrometric analyses showed the presence if theobromine and caffeine (Henderson 3). These two compounds are found in Theobroma spp. and proved that these vessels once held a drink made from the plant Theobroma. The research conducted by John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick McGovern not only shifted the date for first cacao consumption (by humans) back 500 years, but they also established that, in all likelihood, that the method for the consumption of cacao began with the fermentation of the pulp to create an alcoholic beverage, and that the use of the cacao seeds, and the method for producing “foam”, did not occur until hundreds of years later.
The invention of a new “ancient beer” could not have happened without the collaboration between Dr. Patrick McGovern (the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology) and the folks from Dogfish Head Brewery. Dr. McGovern is not only an incredible archeologist, but he is also reproducing drinks of the past for modern day consumption. The collaboration between Dr. McGovern and the brewers from Dogfish Head demonstrates how science and intuition, blended together, can have amazing results.
“Since it proved impossible to transport the fresh fruit without spoilage from Honduras, we did the next best thing. We were able to obtain chocolate nibs and powder from the premier area of Aztec chocolate production, Soconusco, the first such dark chocolate to be imported into the States in centuries (Askinosie Chocolate in Missouri). As you drink this luscious beverage–almost like a fine Scotch or Port–you will pick up the aroma of the cacao and hints of the ancho chili in the aftertaste. Any bitterness of the chocolate is offset by the honey and corn. Achiote colors it red. It was fermented with an American ale yeast.” (Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, “Theobroma”).
Do we now have in our possession the ancient recipe used to brew beer with cacao? The recipe used to create “Theobroma” beer uses the wealth of knowledge gained by understanding and studying ancient artifacts, writings, and through chemical analyses conducted on the pottery uncovered during archeological excavations and historical studies, but even with this wealth of knowledge, we will never know for sure how the drinks prepared by the ancients tasted or the precise measurements and ingredients used to create them. However, with the use of science and craftsmanship we can certainly come close to tasting these “ancient brews”.
Theobroma was a limited release from Dogfish Head, but please enjoy the following video in which Dogfish Head brewer Sam Calagione describes how lovely this ancient brew tastes.
Video 1: Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione on the brewery’s Ancient Ale Theobroma.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Acad Sciences, 16 Nov. 2007 http://www.pnas.org/content/104/48/18937 Accessed on 8 March 2017
Cacao and chocolate were important aspects of Mesoamerican civilizations’ customs and beliefs. In addition to drinking chocolate, Mayan societies utilized cacao for ritualistic purposes, an interesting aspect of chocolate’s history that deserves further exploration. While the Olmecs, active from 1500 to 400 BCE, were most likely the first to make chocolate from cacao beans, the focus will be on the Mayans’ utilization of chocolate. Evidence suggests that cacao was an integral part of their society as it was embedded in their religious beliefs. Understanding these historical uses and origins of cacao illuminates the reasons chocolate is represented as a luxurious item in today’s society. The representation of cacao in the Mayan religion established chocolate as a powerful entity, which shaped the ways that chocolate was utilized, and contributed to its essence of purity.
The common association of cacao with godly figures derives from its origin story. According to Mayan religious beliefs, their gods discovered cacao. Consequently, cacao, or chocolate, is termed “food of the gods.” There are two Mayan Gods worth mentioning to emphasize the importance of cacao in their society. The first, Ek Chuah, was supposedly honored by the Maya in an annual festival. While some chocolate historians term Ek Chuah the Maya Merchant God, others refer to Ek Chuah as the Cacao God. Regardless, Ek Chuah was an important deity to the Mayans, and commonly presented with cacao or a cacao tree. The second, the Maize God, was an important deity, as maize was necessary to sustain life. The image below illustrates the Maize God, on the right, presumably conversing with the figure on the left (Image 1). The Maize God is depicted as older and in control of the discussion, compared to the younger, timid being on the left, suggests he is authoritative in the Mayan religion. In another recreation of the Maize God, he is portrayed as a cacao tree. That cacao is associated with this powerful god signifies the importance of cacao in Mayan religion and justifies its use in significant Mayan rituals.
The strong connection between cacao and the gods established chocolate as a mystical and highly valued substance. Records from Mayan society, written in hieroglyphics, reveal the significance of cacao in the Mayan rituals. One document, called the Dresden Codex, describes rituals in which the gods consume cacao. Another document, called Popol Vuh, also mentions cacao in combination with godly rituals. That cacao was used by divine beings qualifies chocolate as a divine entity as well. Labeling chocolate as “food of the gods” implicates cacao as a substance worthy to unworldly beings, which has resulted in mystical and pure connotations being attached to cacao. These associations have extended to the present-day, demonstrated by the chocolate named “Food of the Gods,” displayed in the image below (Image 2). This brand name implies this chocolate is pure and of high quality. That this phrase and idea is employed in chocolate marketing strategies today validates the historical significance of cacao’s divine origins, and is representative of expectations that chocolate is pure and of high value.
The symbolic importance of cacao is exemplified by the Mayas’ incorporation of chocolate pottery vessels in their burial rituals. Cacao was included in numerous different ceremonies in Mayan society, including baptisms, banquets, weddings, and funerals. Fascinatingly, archaeological excavation of ancient Mayan graves found tombs filled with chocolate pottery vessels. Noteworthy, these vessels are only found in tombs of the Mayan elite presumably because only those in the highest social circles consumed chocolate. The image below pictures a pottery vessel from Classic Maya society that contained chocolate (Image 3). This presents a characteristic chocolate pottery vessel buried in a tomb of a Mayan elite. The delicate shape and intricacy of the images on the side of the vessel indicate that not only was chocolate highly valued, but the container the substance was consumed from was also of high value, probably only affordable by the wealthiest Mayans. The purpose of burying these formerly cacao-filled pottery vessels with the deceased resided in the Mayan belief that chocolate assisted the soul’s travel to death. Perhaps Mayan society only buried these pottery vessels with the elite because they were the only individuals worthy of cacao’s powers in the afterlife. Again, this represents the mystical abilities of cacao, attributable to its divine origins and association with the gods.
The use of chocolate for medicinal purposes in Mayan society also exemplifies the mystical abilities associated with cacao, attributable to its discovery by the gods. In most modern western societies today, chocolate is not used as a medical treatment, but rather is detrimental to health when consumed in large quantities. The Mayans utilized chocolate for health ailments such as digestive issues, fatigue, and inflammation. Similar to the argument made for chocolate’s powers in the afterlife, the belief in cacao’s healing powers also arguably originates from its divine origins. The belief that chocolate possessed healing abilities portrays it as a mystical substance. This is historically significant because while the Mayans may have been the first society to utilize cacao for medicinal purposes, it is certainly not unique to their society now, as this treatment was adopted by cultures and societies as cacao spread throughout the world in subsequent centuries. The Aztecs and even doctors in 16th and 17th century Europe placed faith in the healing powers of cacao. The medicinal use of cacao helped cement the illusion of chocolate as a pure, mystical, and powerful substance, These mystical abilities established chocolate as a special, highly-valued, and pure substance, perceptions of cacao that have persisted to the present-day.
Thinking of chocolate probably triggers happy memories for most people, but for most individuals in modern western societies today, it most likely does not elicit symbolic or religious meaning. However, for the Mayans, chocolate was strongly associated with their gods and played an active role in their rituals. Cacao possessed powerful skills, able to help the dead pass into the afterlife, and cure health ailments. The association of cacao with divine beings established chocolate as a special substance, and set a precedent for it as a highly-valued, pure, and luxurious item, only to be consumed by worthy, elite individuals. The symbolic significance and use of cacao in Mayan society plays an important historical role in how chocolate would be used and by whom in the following centuries, and the connotations attached to it in present-day cultures.
 Teresa L. Dillinger, Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escarcega, Martha Jimenez, 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 American Society for Nutritional Sciences 130 (2000): 2057-72, accessed March 7, 2017, http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.full.pdf+html.
 Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, “The Tree of the Food of the Gods,” in The True History of Chocolate, (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013), 33-64.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods.” In The True History of Chocolate, 33-64. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.
Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escarcega, Martha Jimenez, 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 American Society for Nutritional Sciences 130 (2000): 2057-72. Accessed March 7, 2017. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.full.pdf+html.
Lippi, Donatella. “Sin and Pleasure: The History of Chocolate in Medicine.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 63 (2015): 9936-9941. Accessed March 7, 2017. Doi: 10.1021/acs.jafc.5b00829.
Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods.’” Lecture for Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food course, Cambridge, MA, February, 1, 2017.
This course has delightfully transformed me into a chocolate crazed connoisseur! I am fascinated by everything cacao – the botanical and natural history, the ethics of fair trade, and the economics of slave trade. So much so that I have decided to throw a chocolate dinner party! Imagine an intimate, romantic five course dinner with delicate chocolate appearances for young, married couples under the trees and lights of an outdoor garden that reveals the truths and mysteries about one of the world’s most highly consumed delicacies. I’ve decided to host a chocolate event as a way of concluding my most inspirational class yet – Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. I feel compelled to share, with as many people as possible, the historical and social value of cacao and what a true bean to bar experience tastes like through an elaborately planned and informative dinner. Also, who doesn’t look for a great excuse to splurge on gourmet chocolate for a good cause? So, join me in the preparation of May 14th’s most delicious extravaganza!
As guests arrive, they’ll notice each place setting with a custom made chocolate tasting mat. I really want to start the dinner off with the bean to bar experience as it’s so fitting for the theme of our party; to carefully make our way from the origin of cacao to its place in the world today. Inspired by Professor Carla Martin’s choices in chocolates, I too have selected a few from her collection, as well as a personal white chocolate favorite of my own. We’ll begin with the transformation from cacao to chocolate as we begin our first course with cacao pulp. The past is too far complex to assume that cacao just transforms into chocolate. The botanical and natural history of cacao is so deep-rooted into the South American lowlands, we’ll need to take a look at the logical green anarchy in order to make the connection from cacao to chocolate. From choreographing life on a plantation to the passing of quality tests, cacao must undergo an extensive journey before finally arriving to a chocolate factory. Cacao trees are no exception to the tedious farming of crops. Farmers don’t just plant the trees, they also choreograph their surroundings. “Some plots simply make use of existing forest cover, but there comes a time when new cover trees have to be created from scratch” (Presilla 46). The beginning stages of a cacao tree’s establishment in its sector are imperative to its growth success. The blossoming and bearing of fruit depend on the tree’s healthy habitat. Everything from proper shading to the insect life that helps pollinate are imperative in this stage.
Fermenting is another important step in the historical cacao to chocolate process. After picking out anything that doesn’t belong, the pulp is placed on wooden bins to begin an interesting transformation. “The temperature of the mass rises while the pH goes down, which cause the hulls and the germ tip to soften and allow acid to penetrate. These factors together kill the germ or embryo within the bean. Meanwhile, the semisolid baba spontaneously melts into a liquid vinegar that drains off of its own accord to leave the slightly darkened beans free, though still full of moisture” (Presilla 55). The cacao beans are now experiencing a chemical process that changes the flavor from bitter to not so harsh, which is important for quality’s sake. After proper aeration of the fermented beans has completed, the drying stage begins. Since rain is typically expected at some point during this time, drying on mobile wooden shelves or platforms is encouraged. “During this period, they are periodically turned with wooden rakes. At night they are pulled into sheds for protection or covered by clear plastic roofing materials. In about five to six days, the chemical changes within the beans gradually slow down and then stop when the moisture content has dropped to less than 8 percent by weight” (Presilla 56). How scientific! With the lack of technology to handle such intricate details, one could easily conclude these farmers knew their stuff.
We’re not finished yet. Classification according to size for trading begins after the beans have fermented and dried. “This is an important moment in the life of chocolate. The trade classifies beans according to size and quality. Only specialty or high-quality beans are sold at premium prices. The assorted beans are then placed in burlap bags and weighed” (Presilla 59). The burlap bags will then eventually make their way into the hands of prospective buyers who will sell them to a chocolate company to produce their version of chocolate. This is the part in the dinner where we will sample the cacao nibs and different selections of chocolate. As we go through the samples of chocolate, I’ll impart the same taste testing knowledge as Professor Martin did when we sampled chocolates during class. My go-to samples will be Sommerville Chocolate’s White Chocolate with nibs from Belize, Green & Black’s Dark 85% chocolate, Theo Chocolate, Whole Food’s Chocolate, and Taza Chocolate. I will also be offering apple slices and crackers for the in between bites as palate cleansers so my guests can truly get the most out of each savory tasting!
As we go through each piece of chocolate, I intend on going through each of the certifications and their meanings. “Fair Trade is but the most recent example of another sophisticated ‘scam’ by the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market. This noble endeavor for the salvation of the free market was tamed and domesticated by the very forces it wanted to fight” (Sylla 17). I’ll go into what exactly Fair Trade is and what Fair Trade USA promises as well as how it promotes itself. Common critiques such as how little money reaches the developing world, less money reaches the farmers, and the cost of the Fair Trade certification that is shouldered by the farmers is quite high will all be mentioned and expounded upon. “All Organic” is a popular lifestyle in here in California so it will be my pleasure to enlighten my guests the meaning behind the seal. According to the USDA National Organic Program (NOP),
“Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled as “organic” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet the USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.”
After I give that lengthy PR statement, I’ll speak about the Organic certification critiques such as the obstacles to small independent producers, the manipulative use of regulations, and the false assurance of quality. My goal when discussing these certifications is not to deter my guests from buying food with these labels but instead to inform them of the other side; the one that doesn’t always get shown to the average consumer.
So, at this point in the dinner the chocolate taste testing of each sample has been concluded. I will now allow my guests to talk amongst themselves as they enjoy a Spinach and Strawberry Salad with Chocolate Balsamic Vinaigrette. After they’ve once again cleansed their palate, this time with a scoop of lavender sorbet in a chocolate cacao pod mold, we’re well on our way to the main dish: Duck Breast with Cherry Chocolate Sauce on top of a bed of Risotto and Sugar Snap Peas. It’s at this moment that I will talk about a topic close to my heart: slave labor.
What began as a food of the gods has turned into a food of the slaves. Herman Merivale, the prominent British colonial administrator, wrote “Every trader who carries on commerce with those countries, from the great house that which lends its name and funds to support the credit of the American bank, down to the Birmingham merchant who makes a shipment of shackles to Cuba or the coast of Africa, is in his own way an upholder of slavery: and I do not see how any consumer who drinks coffee or wears cotton can escape from the same sweeping charge” (Merivale 113). It’s this concept of which everyone is implicated. In relation to cacao, we’re all intertwined in the involvement of inequality.
Mintz writes, “We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events, for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things. What commodities are, and what commodities mean, would thereafter be forever different. And for that same reason, what persons are, and what being a person means, changed accordingly. In understanding the relationship between commodity and person, we unearth anew the history of ourselves” (Mintz 214). Mintz is referring to the indigenous slaves being forced into cheap labor. He is arguing the way people have altered their relationship with goods by commoditizing them. Conditions of production and the conditions of consumption can vary and when people or companies don’t have an understanding of labor abuses going on in order to make that commodity achievable, it then becomes a “false commodity”. The slaves were also purchased and sold for their capacity to yield another generation of enslaved “people-commodities.”
Even years after the abolition of slave labor, inequality and cheap labor still exist. Perhaps we can’t title it “slavery” because it doesn’t quite fit the mold, but our lack of public knowledge holds us all captive to the cruelties of this billion dollar industry. My goal with this dinner is to break the chains of ignorance and shed light on this issue. If we could just consider how much any of us can claim to know about the productive forces that help give shape to our lives, the products we consume, and the living conditions of the producers, maybe then we can finally break free. Somewhere along the line, we stopped looking at where cacao came from and how chocolate came about because of the negative connotation that drew from its history.
Dessert and coffee has been served as the sun has gone down on our dinner party. A low murmur of conversation can be heard as couples exchange insights and opinions with the new truths and mysterious of cacao. My goal for this dinner party is to shed light on those truths but to also offer both sides of a chocolate story. Hopefully, my guests can now make educated consumer decisions since I have shared a few of the historical and social values of cacao and what a true bean to bar experience tastes like through an elaborately planned and informative dinner. Besides, who doesn’t look for a great excuse to splurge on gourmet chocolate for a good cause?
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.
Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. London: Zed, 1983. Print.
Sylla, Ndongo Samba., and David Clément. Leye. The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Print.
Chocolate has fallen from its archaic divinity; as industrial chocolate manufactures, such as Hershey, Ghirardelli, Cadbury, Mars, L.A. Burdick and the multitudes of other small and large confectionary manufactures have strategically subverted religion and evaded the creation of a static definition of what can be classified as health food (Off, 2008). This has been done on a global scale (Allen, 2010). Yet, for all of the exploitation of natural and human labor resources in the mad capitalist race to net exponentially larger profits, methods of chocolate consumption have changed. Chocolate has invaded every home in America and continues to spread into even the most remote regions of the world were chocolate is merely grown as a exported market good (and the farmers have never tasted the finished product) (Leissle, 2012) (Martin 2016) (Stuckey, 2012). Modern chocolate consumption has continuously increased and transformed from a relished delicacy into an addiction, one that has fostered a cultic fanaticism in its omnipresence in American culture (Martin, 2016). Chocolate addiction has been fostered by dynamic consumption practices, various health benefits, ideals of beauty, sexualization of female chocolate consumption, and the reframing of sales advertisements to secularize and/or create holidays revolving around chocolate consumption (Leissle, 2012) (Howe, 2012) (Robertson, 2009) (Martin, 2016). Addiction is an all encompassing cultural mindset which has gone further in the continued liminal state of chocolate’s meaning to contemporary American society (Benton, 2004) (Robertson, 2009). Average American households often are not aware that their chocolate consumption is irrevocably linked to the various external methods of ideological implantation of chocolate as a religious iconographic good. A brief ethnographic analysis of an average New England household, comprising of my future in-laws, engenders a radical deviation from chocolate as a coveted, addictive necessity and furthers chocolate’s ideological transformation by coming full circle to again reify chocolate’s worship as a physical manifestation of divinity.
Cacao, or Kakawa, is a substance similar to maize, corn, in its purveyance in Mesoamerican culture and religious iconography (Coe & Coe, 2013). Cacao is also shown in Mayan iconography to have been conflated with the Maize god, this has rendered archaeological interpretations of cacao as the food of the gods (Coe & Coe, 2013). Ancient associations of cacao with the food of divinity has not been lost in modern methods of advertisement (Leissle, 2012). Even analyses of chocolate advertisements can be interpreted to illustrate that chocolate and divinity are intrinsically linked. Capitalism has not so subtlety transformed and secularized religious holidays by constructing the consumption of chocolate as a ritualized activity, in which participants (consumers) will be glorified and feel euphoria through acts the giving and receiving chocolates (Martin, 2016) (Robertson, 2009). Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and even the forty days of Lent have all become associated with chocolate consumption (Coe & Coe, 2013). Lent is the most indicative of chocolate’s association with divinity, through its construction as a vice (particularly for women) which should be avoided so as to liken oneself to the divinity of Christ’s fast and then temptation by Lucifer in the desert. My fiancée’s (F) family is traditionally Irish-Catholic, like much of the greater Boston area, and has their roots firmly set in the nomenclature of religious etiquette. However, like many religious followers, they merely retain a religiously linked ethnic identity. This is not to say that they do not follow a set of religious rituals that underpin their daily lives, but the god (chocolate) to which they devote both cognitive and subconscious worship, is revealed through the family’s vocalization and ritualization of chocolate consumption. Through almost a year of total emersion into their household I have observed both passively and actively their emphasis on the importance of ritual chocolate consumption. By cooking, and baking, with the father (FD); observing F’s sister’s food habits (FS); and through consensual approval to inquire about their chocolate habits during informally structured interviews, I have captured a snapshot of the ethnographic phenomenon by which chocolate has been re-deified.
Anonymity Disclaimer: all proper names are changed to protect anonymity and personal privacy.
The demographic biological sex ratio in my fiancée’s family, including myself, is three females to two males. I entered their household in June 2015, as it was the most convenient way to save up money for our wedding and attend school. My fiancée and her sister both have severe cases of mental illnesses, and have self-proclaimed themselves vegetarians, which has inhibited their ability to consume a wide variety of food products. Prior to my debut, F’s family cooked for and brought FS any food that FS desired, while FS was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe agoraphobia. During this period and into the first several months of living with the F-in-laws, the father (FD) and mother (FM) brought FS mass quantities of sweets (per her request)- the vast majority of which contained chocolate in some form. These sweets were then incorporated into FS’s daily diet through both home cooked treats and purchased delicacies. So pervasive was chocolate into the kitchen and pantry, I could not open the refrigerator without stumbling upon 8 out of 10 items containing chocolate. Even F considered pancakes unsatisfying is they did not contain chocolate chips, accompanied by chocolate milk, and chocolate croissants, from FD’s crafting or purchased from the local French bakery. Upon my alien perspective into this near total emersion of chocolate into every aspect of nutrition, as I prefer recipe purity without the forced inclusion of chocolate, F’s mother (FM) made it quite clear that the extant to which chocolate was considered medicinal. Even long-standing family recipes, such as their grandmother’s scone recipe, that originally contained fruit changed to substitute chocolate chips; this was celebrated not only by F’s immediate family but the extended relatives as well. F, FD, and FM prefer dark chocolate; FS prefers milk chocolate. Methods of dietary consumption are among the easiest to witness, but also the amount to which F’s family purchases or crafts feminine hygiene products known to contain cocoa butter, and the amount of objects, utensils, and other paraphernalia used in the consumption, production, promotion, or distribution of chocolate.
Saying that their mass consumption of all things chocolate is a product of the historical engendering of chocolate as healthy for dietary consumption limits the extent to which FM’s concept of medicinal use resonates with the subjectivity of healthy consumption (Albritton, 2012) (Watson, Preedy, & Zibadi, 2013). FS suffered tremendous weight gain from overconsumption of carbohydrates and sugars (Albritton, 2012), most in the form of chocolate pastries and confections, but FM continued to supply these “medicinal” chocolates. In accordance with popular conceptions of the medicinal use of chocolate, it historically has been linked to a healthy state of mind and postulated to aid the treatment of mental illnesses such as “hypochondriac melancholy“(Watson, Preedy, & Zibadi, 2013). FM’s utilization of chocolate as a medical ritual to expedite the healing of FS’s mental faculties echoes: the Mesoamerican use of cacao as a restorative of the deities, the early European adoption of cacao as a similar but secularized restorative devoid of divine embodiment, and contemporary literature on chocolate’s ability to illicit pleasure responses from the brain. Contemporary concepts of chocolate’s medicinal use illuminate the chocolate industry’s persistent norms of advertisement and the increase of processed sugar consumption and sugar additives into nearly all forms of processed foodstuffs. Yet FM’s use goes beyond these analyses and parallels the sentiments that “‘chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea, and universal medicine'” (Coe & Coe, 2013: 206). While FM’s use may be a product of the historical connections of chocolate and sugar with pleasure and medicine, through the incorporation of chocolate into the entirety of the family’s diet, chocolate has been ritualized and elevated beyond the simple medicinal binary to that of a religious deity, with whom daily worship will foster inner-peace, health, and happiness in its followers. FM’s deification of chocolate retains striking parallels to the Christian description of a personal daily relationship with God, as advertised by the Bible.
F’s family’s ritual utilization of chocolate’s medicinal benefits are the product of historical polemics concerning the increase of sugar consumption, the socio-economic shift of chocolate from Mesoamerican stable to European luxury to plebian stable, and subliminally engendering advertisements (Coe & Coe, 2013). Sugar has been directly linked to diabetes, obesity, and increasing addictive behaviors, akin to drug addiction, through it’s association with pleasurable reinforcement as a reward (Benton, 2004)(Mintz, 1985). The historical shift in utilizing sugar as a preservative (Goody, 2013) directly led to the chocolate industry’s use of sugar as a stabilizing agent which also happened to increase sweetness aka. desirability, and thus “unintentionally” producing a method of engendering consumer addiction for chocolates at a early stage of industrialization (Brenner, 1999) (D’Antonio, 2006: 107) (Mintz, 1985). By keeping in context the link between sugar and addiction, the increase of sugar in chocolate opened new possibilities of advertising. Not only was chocolate now sweet, it also had been historically constructed as medicinal; it could now be produced in vast quantities previously unavailable until the industrial revolution (Brenner, 1999) (Coe & Coe, 2013). Chocolate could now be produced cheaply, containing adulterated products and sweeteners, masking the purity of the roasted cacao bean’s savory nature, and enabled new advertising strategies, informed by chocolate’s newly found socio-economic versatility (Stuckey, 2012) (Allen, 2010). These advertising campaigns have been able to pander to chocolate’s versatility in its ability to render multiple positive responses from consumers. F’s family utilization of chocolate as a restorative “cure-all” is the product of sugar’s addictive qualities, but their daily, weekly, monthly consumption of chocolate as a dietary necessity (only in the manner to which it produces a mental release of endorphins via the sugar and the Pavlovian association of chocolate with sugar) goes beyond this sweet binary to echo the mental and physical rejuvenation that religious ritual produces (Benton, 2004).
Mars’ Snickers campaign “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry, Snickers Satisfies” illustrates the multi-faceted approach that the Mars company takes in its marketing (Brenner, 1999). Mars’ advertisements embody the concept of satisfaction through one of it’s original marketing strategies to simply make a larger candy bar cost the same as the competition’s small one, through the incorporation of peanuts, caramel, and nougat (the primary ingredient of two of these is sugar)(Brenner, 1999). The campaign simultaneously engenders the concept that the Snickers’ bar will satisfy the physical manifestation of hunger and that the consumption of the candy will elevate the psyche back to normalcy (Benton, 2004). This engenders the ritualization of chocolate consumption as a divine facilitator of both inner (mental) and outer (physical hunger) peace; thus similarly paralleling the act of taking communion at Catholic Mass, this advertisement reifies a foodstuff to miraculously facilitate the divine restoration of the mortal self. F’s family reflects this theological embodiment of chocolate consumption as a canonized ritual, yet this advertisement does not alone explain why the three women are so captivated by chocolate’s allure.
Hershey’s Dove chocolate campaign (above) has a clear agenda engendering a gender stereotype of women being the primary consumers of chocolate (Robertson, 2009). F’s family represents this as the three women (F, FS, and FM) are the primary consumers of chocolate, while FD is the primary facilitator of consumption through his production of meals and snacks that prominently incorporate chocolate. This stereotype of women as chocoholics is rooted in historical contexts and has long been debunked as an “[addiction not] to chocolate but to sugar” (Robertson, 2009) (Coe & Coe, 2013: 260) (Benton, 2004). However, no matter the scientific or psychological realities of sugar addicts (Benton, 2004), this advertisement embodies chocolate’s reconstructed relationship with divinity by directly linking the consumption of Dove chocolate with the Mesoamerican concept of deification of oneself through the consumption of divine foodstuffs: particularly in their artistic conflation of the Maize god with cacao trees (Coe & Coe, 2013: 39), and through Mayan recipes mixing maize and cacao (Tokovinine, 2015). The Maya considered all objects to be of divine embodiment (Tokovinine, 2015), particularly those containing maize, which they believed was the physical embodiment of their physical selves as they were created from sacred Maize, stated in their sacred origin text the Popul Vuh, and were also divinely given the sacred crops of maize and cacao for consumption (Coe & Coe, 2013). By conflating the Maize god with a cacao pod the Mayans set a ritual precedent for the divine consumption of chocolate as enabling humanity to transcend into a divine state of epiphany. The Dove advertisement then conflates this ancient cultic practice with the more modern concept of women as the primary consumers of chocolate. Women, constructed in the advertisement as the downtrodden and oppressed gender (Bourdieu, 2001), can escape this existence through consuming chocolate and experiencing their own “moment” or existential epiphany outside of this oppression (Robertson, 2009). F’s family’s near unilaterally gender-stratified consumption of chocolate represents the religious epiphany of transcendental existence, which also reinforces the earlier discourse concerning chocolate as a parallel of Communion. Chocolate consumption now enables modern humanity to embody divinity.
Hershey furthers this gender binary of chocolate consumption through Dove’s “Only Human” advertisement campaign, which in chocolate consumption provides and escape from being female (Benton, 2004). The women are shown to be weak and “Only Human,” but Dove chocolate then provides a “real” comfort from the harsh realities of femininity (Benton, 2004). Going beyond this advertisement’s sexist engenderment, chocolate can now be associated with another of religion’s coveted abilities: the offerance of sanctuary. Chocolate makes the difficulties of human existence tolerable by offering brief sanctuaries, at the ‘moment’ of consumption, meta-physically separated from the human experience. The sanctuary that chocolate provides in these ‘moments’ parallels the sanctuary offered to praticioners of prayer, which provide a ‘moment’ with divinity meant to rejuvenate and make right the pain of a human existence. F’s family’s incorporation of chocolate into nearly all foodstuffs is now clearly representative of ritual prayers for protection from the evils and difficulties of a modern human, explicitly female, existence.
Other modes of ritual chocolate consumption are woven throughout the family’s daily lives: that of hygienic products. It has been well documented that cocoa butter, made from hydraulically pressing cacao liquor (Coe & Coe, 2013: 255), is highly effective in the treatment and prevention of various skin, and hair ailments. Placement of cocoa butter into hygienic products echoes both Baptism and the Catholic ritual of the Anointment of the Sick. Both of these religious rituals engage in a ritual purification of the body and soul. Chocolate can be religiously vindicated through the purification of the human existence, and divinely heal the physical manifestations of the human condition. Dissenters, who would disagree with this statement, are to be reminded of the Christian Science movement, whose belief in the healing power of prayer is thought to heal all physical ailments (thought to be sins’ physical manifestations), and scientific medical treatments are spurred as sinful disregard of God’s will (Norton, 1899). Thus a conflated argument to be made is that the consumption of chocolate is equal to prayer, regardless of the science behind cocoa butter’s ability to remedy topical ailments of the skin and hair. Even through dissent, contemporary chocolate consumption has reified itself as divine through F’s family’s hygienic self anointment with sacred cocoa butter.
Ritual can be identified easily through archaeological interpretation of material culture- that is to say, the artifacts by which rituals are carried out with. Chocolate manufacturing has built megalithic structures dedicated to the continual production of chocolate, such that entire communities sprung into existence to support its cultic fanatical production. Milton Hershey’s factory communes illustrate this quite succinctly (Brenner, 1999)(D’Antonio, 2006). Even the consumption of chocolate has ritual implements, such as: stylized porcline serveware, chocolatière, and the appropriated Mesoamerican molinillo (Martin, 2016). F’s family does not have all such ritual implements as modern technology’s updated versions of the chocolatière and molinillo (serving kettle and whisks), but they do have stylized ceramic ware for the sole consumption of chocolate, indicated by the imprinted logo of L.A. Burdick (a chocolatier company). F’s house has designated chocolate cabinets for the storage of preserved “instant” chocolate beverages, edible chocolates, and hygenic cocoa products; while this cabinet space is shared with similar items for drink, eating, and hygeine, the totality of chocolate’s combination with these other products merely increases the variety by which chocolate’s ritual artifacts are incorporated into daily life.
Chocolate’s transtitional state speaks to the originial liminal state by which the Mayans contextualized their existence around divinity. Chocolate has come full circle in the historical utilizations and perperonderances by which chocolate consumption has been stereotyped, redefined, and ritualized. Through the analysis of F and her family’s cultic ritual habits of chocolate, they are revealed to be the ultimate by-product of a centuries-long polemic that has created a new world religion focused on the ritualized production and consumption, based on an engendered, constructed faith that chocolate is divinely able to elevate the human condition out of the mire of oppression, through psychological and physical restoration of peace, harmony, happiness, and self-satisfaction.
Albritton, R. (2012). Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry. In Food and Culture: A Reader (3rd ed., pp. 342-352). S.l.: Routledge.
Allen, L. L. (2010). China and Chocolate: East Meets West. In Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers (pp. 7-39). New York: American Management Association.
Allen, L. L. (2010). Going the Distance: China’s 10L Chocolate Race. In Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers (pp. 201-223). New York: American Management Association.
Allen, L. L. (2010). One Country, Three Centuries. In Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers (pp. 1-6). New York: American Management Association.
Presilla, M. E. (2009). The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes (Revised ed.). Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Robertson, E. (2009). Chapter One: ‘A deep physical reason’: Gender, race, and the nation in chocolate consumption. In Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history (pp. 18-63). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Robertson, E. (2009). Chapter Three: ‘There is no operation involved with cocoa that I didn’t do’: Women’s experiences of cocoa farming. In Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history (pp. 91-131). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Robertson, E. (2009). Chapter Two: ‘The Romance of the Cocoa Bean’: Imperial and colonial histories. In Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history (pp. 64-90). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
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.
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).
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).
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:
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 articlefocusing 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.
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.
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.