Tag Archives: four humors

The Cacao Cure

We hastened indoors after a long morning of sledding. Rhode Island public schools had all been cancelled for a snow day, and the hills around my hometown were cluttered with sheer exuberance. My brothers and I had been outside for hours, so we’d finally returned home to enjoy a much-anticipated cup of hot chocolate. After shuffling through the door, we bolted into the kitchen and wrapped our hands around the warm mugs that awaited us. But just moments later, my mother rushed in. Boys. Somebody needs to go close the front door—now. Money doesn’t grow on trees! 

Looking back on this phrase my mother commonly used, I can’t help but laugh at the multi-layered irony. First, it actually did grow on trees (though it’s not technically used as money anymore), and I was drinking it. And second, the hot chocolate I had really didn’t deserve to be called chocolate at all. In actuality, I was drinking chocolate-flavored milk and sugar, and it’d be years before I’d taste an authentic piece of chocolate or raw cacao. Although they’re not classic Mesoamerican vessels, the cups below demonstrate the simplicity and delicacy of the drink compared to our Americanized whipped-cream smothered cups of pure sugar. But still, there is one thing this cup of “cocoa” did for our frozen cores and stuffy noses, regardless of the actual cacao content. It healed us.

Mesoamerican drinking chocolate (Bowe)

Before I get into what I mean by this, let’s take a brief step back in history. The warm, liquid “hot chocolate” we drink today is far different from the Mesoamerican drinking chocolate whose origins lie deep in the rainforests of Central and South America (St Jean). Dating back to about 1900 BC, people followed a multi-step process to treat the beans, which were ground into a chocolate liquor and mixed with water along with various spices. The finished, frothy drink was prized in a wide variety of occasions, one of which happened to be in a medical setting. If you’re interested in a unique timeline, you’ll surely be mesmerized by the rollercoaster of cacao’s use as medicine across time.

From early to modern times, cacao has been used in three unique stages with respect to medicine: a flavorful disguise for actual medicines, a preventative and remedial cure-all for a variety of ailments via the humoral system, and a targeted, well-researched concentrate. Many speculators actually assume that the early success of chocolate, not unlike other stimulant beverages, was due to its acceptance as a medicine, claiming that it was only later appreciated as an object of recreation and pleasure (Norton 36).

In the first “stage” I’ve referenced above, cacao was typically used as a medicinal disguise for “real” medications. According to the Florentine Codex, a study compiled by priest Bernardino de Sahagún back in 1590, the Aztecs brewed a drink from cacao and silk cotton tree bark to treat infections starting around 1400. Additionally, children suffering from diarrhea received a drink made from ground cacao beans and healing plant roots (Thompson). Again, the cacao was used here to disguise the bad flavors of additives.

During this same time period, Aztecs used cacao to mask unsavory flavors of medicinal ingredients such as roots used to treat fevers and “giant bones” used to treat urinary bleeding. This manuscript of Maya curative chants suggests that, after chanting, patients consumed a cacao-flavored concoction of herbs that treated skin rashes, fevers, and seizures (Thompson). Thus, perhaps the fact that was cacao was so commonly associated with healing is the real reason it eventually became known as a curative food itself.

This brings us to the second “stage.” After Maya dignitaries introduced chocolate to Spain in 1552, cacao really took on a medicinal role in society. Whether or not chocolate was good, bad, or indifferent for one’s health was a vital topic for many Spaniards, who were “at the mercy of a worthless and often destructive constellation of medical theories which had held the Western world in its grip for almost two millennia” (Coe et al 120). It’s important to note that, at this point in time, European medicine still drew heavily on the philosophy of classical scholars Hippocrates and Galen (Coe et al 120).

Hippocrates held that the body contained four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Whenever these humors fell out of balance, disease ensued (Thompson). Diseases could be “hot” or “cold” and “wet” or “dry,” and physicians typically treated them with oppositely classified pharmaceuticals. Though cold by nature and therefore normally used in this state, cacao could be prepared in hot or cold forms, depending on necessity (Thompson). As a side note, I’m surprised that chocolate was considered “cold” given it was strongly flavored and quite bitter (Coe et al 128).

In a 1631 treatise, Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma gave a glowing description of cacao as a wide-reaching medicinal food: “It quite takes away the Morpheus, cleaneth the teeth, and sweeteneth the breath, provokes urine, cures the stone, and expels poison, and preserves from all infectious diseases” (Thompson). Later, in the 1700s, many doctors began the transition to focusing cacao on specific ailments, incorporating chocolate into smallpox treatments as a way to prevent weight loss associated with the disease. Richard Saunders—a pen name for Benjamin Franklin—references the benefits of chocolate against smallpox in the 1761 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac (Thompson). Can you imagine walking into the doctors office and getting a shot of chocolate to treat something? I know I’d be “sick” every day!

Hypothetical depiction of chocolate as a vaccine (Thompson)

This brings us to “stage” three. I’ll start by reluctantly admitting that, dutching—a process by which chocolate is treated with an alkalizing agent that modifies color and gives a more mild taste—has removed dark chocolate’s acidity and flavanoids since it began in the 1800s (Thompson). This can be explained by the fact that many people started adding cocoa butter back into processed chocolate to make bars, along with dairy and sugar that are now widespread across modern chocolate candy, and dutching simply made it taste better when combined with these other sweet additives. Ironically, however, these manufacturing methods likely made chocolate more of a medical hindrance than help.

But there’s a bright side. Recently, raw, unadulterated cacao has been re-recognized as a so-called “superfood” that boasts healthful sources of phytochemicals including procyanidin, flavonoids, catechin, and epicatechin (Keen 436). Note that I say re-recognized given that, even though the Aztecs and Maya appeared to be shooting in the dark with their many claims about cacao’s medicinal properties, they were actually quite brilliant. In fact, they’re now joined in their claims by leading institutions such as Harvard, which are even looking closely at using cacao for treating serious ailments. If this study on using cacao to protect against heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes produces positive results, these scientists definitely can’t take all the credit.

I’ve left my chocolate-flavored sugar days in the past, now savoring dark chocolate each and every day, and it’s particularly comforting to know that this delicious treat is still being proven as a healthy food hundreds of years after it was first claimed to be so. Now, I’ll embrace my new saying: A cacao bean a day keeps the doctor away!


Works Cited

Bowe, Tucker. “The Legend and Lore of Hot Chocolate.” Gear Patrol, Gear Patrol, LLC, 18 Dec. 2015.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., vol. 1, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Keen, Carl L. “Chocolate: Food as Medicine/Medicine as Food.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, vol. 20, no. 5, 21 June 2013, pp. 436–439. Taylor & Francis.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3, 1 June 2006, pp. 660–691. Oxford Academic.

St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” HeritageDaily, Heritage Foundation, 9 Feb. 2018.

Thompson, Helen. “Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015.

Image Links

  1. https://gearpatrol.com/2014/12/12/legend-lore-hot-chocolate/
  2. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/healers-once-prescribed-chocolate-aspirin-180954189/


Chocolate: Healing powers of the original superfood

The term superfood, a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being, was first used in 1915 (Merriam-Webster.com). However, the seemingly unending search for the best, most potent cure-all or health-promoting remedy (be it food, drink, or supplement) is not solely a modern obsession; even though it may seem to be a product of our times with increasing sedentary lifestyles and higher caloric intake. As we look back through the history of chocolate, we can see that there has been a long-term love affair and belief in the healing powers of this proposed superfood.

Chocolate: Theobroma cacao or “food of the gods”, as is was named by the 18th century Swedish scientist, Carl von Linné, nearly 250 years after it was introduced to the Old World (Coe and Coe 17-18), had been a cultural mainstay for thousands of years. In fact, evidence of its production and consumption predates the Classic Maya and has been tracked as far back as 1900-1500BC through traces of chocolate found in barra ceramics (Coe and Coe 36-37).

This is a drawing of the barra ceramics which provided evidence of ancient civilization use of chocolate (Coe and Coe 89).

The Maya

The Maya used cacao for medicinal purposes, believing it provided power and strength in addition to digestive and anti-inflammatory remedies. Historical evidence shows that the ancient Maya consumed chocolate as a beverage, often mixed with ingredients such as flowers and spices, that it was shared socially, and had ritualistic significance (C. Martin “Sugar”).

Mayan warrior_C. Martin_Mesoamerica
Pictured here is a Mayan warrior wearing cacao pods as amulets (C. Martin “Mesoamerica”).

The Aztecs

The Aztecs also believed in the strong healing powers of chocolate. They not only consumed it as a beverage, but mixed it with other ingredients and applied it to the skin. According to pre-Columbian era medicinal recipes documented in Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage by Louis Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro, the Aztecs would drink “Chocolate (unmixed with other products; very bitter) … to treat stomach and intestinal complaints; when combined with liquid extruded from the bark of the silk cotton tree … this beverage was use by traditional healers to cure infections. In another recipe prescribed to reduce fever and prevent fainting, 8-10 cacao beans were ground along with dried maize kernels; this powder then was mixed with tlacoxoshitl…and the resulting beverage was drunk” (100).

This image depicts Aztec broken bodies, perhaps as a result of illnesses introduced from Europe (C. Martin “Mesoamerica”).

New Medicine Introduced to the Old World

Though perhaps a dubious account, rumored to be written in a 1556 letter by an “Anonymous Conquistadore”, the medicinal properties of chocolate were proclaimed to provide a drink that was “the most wholesome and substantial of any food or beverage in the world, because whoever drinks a cup of this liquor can go thru a whole day without taking anything else even if on a cross-country journey…” (C-spot).

There was great interest in power of this potential medicine, but there was also concern about its potency, and the fact that it was an unfamiliar and exotic substance. Spanish Royal Physician to Philip II, Francisco Hernandez, crossed the Atlantic in 1570 to determine how to “incorporate cacáo into a ‘civilized’ framework: an apothecary based on Humoral Medicine subscribes that cacáo contains healing-properties encompassing 3 & perhaps all 4 elements – air (fat), fire (bitter), earth (thick) & maybe water (sweet) – to yield a neutral temperament leaning ‘wet-cool’, thus making it acceptable. (Unbeknownst to Europeans, native medicine also treated cacáo as similarly ‘cool’, applying it as an emollient in hot illnesses such as fevers & dysentery.)” (C-spot).

4 Humors_C.Martin_Sugar
Depiction of the four temperaments based on the humoral schemed devised by Hippocrates and Galen (C. Martin “Sugar”).

Once brought to Spain, it was introduced across borders as a medicine and quickly gained popularity across Europe. For example, the following account was published in 1713 in Bonaventure d’Argonne’s Melanges d’Histoire et de Litterature: “We know that Cardinal Brancaccio wrote a treatise on Chocolate, but perhaps we do not know that Cardinal of Lyon, Alphonse de Richelieu, was the first in France to use this drug. I heard from one of his servants that he used it to moderate the vapors of his spleen, and that he had the secret from some Spanish monks who brought it to France” (Coe and Coe 152).

Chocolate Today

Coe and Coe write that, in addition to media highlights, there has been an abundance of medical and nutritional literature published in the last decade advocating the beneficial health effects of chocolate; primarily due to alkaloids caffeine and theobromine (30). Through these recent medical studies, it is known that caffeine levels are low and that bromine “is said to be mood-enhancing, and is a known stimulant, vasodilator, and diuretic” (Coe and Coe 31).

 As can be seen after thousands of years of collective (if sometimes controversial) scientific, medicinal, religious, and cultural evidence, chocolate does indeed seem to have healing powers and just may be the original superfood.

Works Cited

A Concise History Of Chocolate. C-spot. http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/. N.p. N.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

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

Grivetti, Louis Evan. and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage. Wiley:New York, 2009. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3 Feb. 2016. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 17 Feb. 2016. Class Lecture.

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

Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes”. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html. Lynne Olver 2000. 1 March 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2016

“Superfood.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web. 19 February 2016.

Food of the Gods, Medicine of the People: Cacao as Medicine in Mesoamerica and Europe


The significance of cacao to the pre-Colombian peoples of Mesoamerica goes almost without saying—it is well known that cacao beverages were assigned great cultural importance in ritual and as status symbols in both Maya and Aztec society. What is much less well represented in the (often sensationalized) popular conceptions of these cultures is the high level of sophistication and complexity that their theorizations about their world attained. Both the Aztec and Maya had intricate and refined theories of health and medicine, and the cultural importance of cacao extended into this area in both cases (Dillinger, 2). Therefore, when Europeans encountered cacao consumption in Mesoamerica, the strange and entrancing new product confronted them as both food and medicine—and, perhaps surprisingly, European cultures appropriated chocolate as both, despite a vastly different paradigm of medical theory (Lippi).


Maya and Aztec Theories of Medicine


Medicine in Maya culture was practiced by priests, who passed down both their profession and the knowledge thereof through inheritance. This body of medical knowledge was based on both scientific and religious tenants, and was quite elaborate and sophisticated. In addition to advanced procedures for the setting of fractures, filling of teeth, suturing of wounds, and unnumbered surgeries (conducted with tremendously sharp obsidian knives), the Maya prescribed over 1500 different plants for various ailments. The underlying theory of internal medicine equated health with balance, and illness or disease with imbalance—although “balance” was hardly a universal constant, being peculiar to individuals according to their age, sex, disposition, and environmental conditions (especially temperature.) The maintenance of balance was very much tied to one’s diet, so among the 1500 or so plants with medicinal value, some were applied to the skin or otherwise introduced to the afflicted body, many were eaten in special preparations. One of the most important medicinal plants was, of course, cacao, which was used both as a medicine in itself and as a vehicle for the administration of other remedies. This use is documented as far back as the Preclassic era. Cacao was used to aid emaciated patients in gaining weight, stimulating the nervous system, improving digestion and bowel health, anemia, lack of appetite, underproduction of breast milk, tuberculosis, kidney disorders, sexual dysfunction, gout, and fever. In addition to its uses when orally administered, preparations of the bark, leaves, and flowers of the cacao plant were employed in treating irritations and injuries of the skin. The appealing taste of cacao paste was also often used to mask fouler-tasting medicines (“Maya”).


Aztec medicine was founded mainly on religion—sickness was regarded as a punishment by the gods for sins. Every major disease was strictly and specifically associated with one or another god, which helped dictate both the cause and the remedy. For example, the god of waters, Tlaloc, was responsible for ailments the Aztecs associated with water, such as rheumatism and gout, and patients of these ailments would seek to alleviate their disease by leaving offerings near a river (Guerra, 10). Such rituals did not exist to the exclusion of medical treatments more focused on the patient’s body, however. The Aztecs’ healing rituals were carried out in conjunction with a variety of medical practices, based in a body of knowledge that had absorbed much from the medicines of conquered peoples. Medicine was practiced by people of both genders, and despite the religious associations of the profession it held a social standing on par with that of carpenters, scribes, and cooks. Medical practitioners were knowledgeable both in the use of various plant remedies and in the effects of astrology on health (Guerra, 11). Diagnosis consisted of determining both the pathological and the supernatural effects at work in the patient’s disease, and therefore demanded both medical examination and a sort of horoscopy. There is little indication that the Aztecs subscribed to any all-encompassing theory or mechanism of disease analogous to the Maya theory of balances or (to be discussed below) the European theory of humors (Guerra, 14). In any case, it is certainly clear that cacao was considered a potent medicine. Surviving ancient texts refer to remedies made from mixing cacao with a variety of other ingredients to treat such diverse ailments as constipation, infection, and cough, as well as to make other medicines more palatable, as the Maya did (Dillinger, 4).


European Theory of Medicine: The Four Humors


When cacao was introduced to Europeans, its uses as both food and medicine in Mesoamerica had been described and reported by the explorers stationed there. However, the reigning paradigm of medical thought in Europe was vastly different from those which explained and justified the medical use of cacao in Mesoamerica, and before cacao could be adopted or rejected as medicine by the cultures of Europe, it had to be reconciled with and incorporated into this paradigm: that of the four “humors” of the body. Attributed variously to Hippocrates and Galen, the Humoral theory held that there were four substances whose balance within the body determined health and disposition: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. These corresponded in turn to the four combinations possible from the attributes of wet, dry, hot, and cold (Phisick). The below diagram shows the humors arranged in a chart along these axes:


Image Credit: “Humorism.” Wikipedia. Accessed 02/20/14. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Humorism.svg&gt;

Different foods and medicines were thought to contain elements correspondent to these attributes of humidity and temperature, and medical treatments most often consisted of determining which humor was in excess or lack and prescribing something with the proper attributes to correct this imbalance (Phisick). Cacao, as a newly “discovered” plant, did not have an extant place in this framework. Europeans seeking to determine its fitness for consumption had to first determine how to classify it: was it wet or dry? Hot or cold?


Francisco Hernandez, a physician/botanist under Philip II, argued that cacao was cold and dry, and therefore suitable to treat such “hot” diseases as fever. Santiago de Valverde Turices, who wrote on the subject in 1624, made a distinction between chocolate and cocoa: chocolate was hot, not cold like cacao, and was therefore beneficial for ailments of the chest in large quantities and of the stomach in small ones. Interestingly, he made sure to note that “cold” ingredients had to be added to chocolate to counterbalance its “hot” quality before it could be consumed safely by healthy people. Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, a physician from Andalusia, wrote a book on chocolate in 1631 in which he extolls chocolate as beneficial to the health in innumerable ways, arguing that it fit in perfectly with Humoral theory and was, in fact, a near-miraculous medicinal drink (Lippi). His work attributes to chocolate the ability to aid digestion, cure cough, inflammation, and obstructions, clean one’s teeth, and induce conception and easier birth in women (Ledesma). (A transcript of the book, in a truly delightful English translation from 1651, is found below)

A page from Colmenero de Ledesma’s book:

Image Credit: “Health Food of Baroque Era.” Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University. Accessed 02/20/14. <http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/baroqueera.php&gt;

Transcript of “Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke” by Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21271/21271-h/21271-h.htm


We see, then, that as cacao crossed the cultural lines between Mesoamerica and Europe, it had to be reinterpreted in accordance with the vastly different schemes of medical thought. Although we see medicine in an entirely different way from any of those described above today, one notes that the debate over chocolate’s healthful qualities and the possible reasons therefore rages on.






Works Cited


Ledesma, Antonio Colmenero de. “Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke.” Trans. James Wadsworth, 1651. Written 1631. Accessed via Project Gutenberg, 02/20/14. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21271/21271-h/21271-h.htm&gt;


Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food.” Published online 2013 May 14. Accessed via the National Center for Biotechnology Information, through the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 02/20/14. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3708337/#B2-nutrients-05-01573&gt;


“Maya Medicine.” AuthenticMaya.com. Accessed 02/20/14. <http://www.authenticmaya.com/maya_medicine.htm&gt;


“Humoral Theory.” Phisick. November 17, 2011. Accessed 02/20/14. <http://phisick.com/article/humoral-theory/&gt;


Dillinger, Teresa, et.al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity?” Journal of Nutrition, August 1, 2000 vol. 130 no. 8 2057S-2072S. The American Society for Nutritional Sciences. Accessed 02/20/14. Downloaded via <http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S#cited-by&gt;


Guerra, Fransisco. “Aztec Medicine.” Med Hist. 1966 October; 10(4): 315–338. Accessed 02/20/14 via <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1033639/&gt;