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CHC: The Medicinal and Social Perception of Cannabis and Cacao Consumption

Cacao and Cannabis

Today, we tend to think of cannabis and cacao consumption as a treat or indulgence.  Yet, the use and cultivation of these two plants date back through antiquity. Back then, the beliefs about the purpose of cannabis and cacao consumption was much different and far less restrained by negative social or biological implications.  

While much of the eurocentric understanding of cacao is extrapolated from studying the Aztecs, the Mesoamerican origins of cacao can be traced back even further to the Olmec civilization.  The Olmecs, possible ancestors of the Mayans, created a flourishing society in the humid lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast around 1500 BC. The humid, tropical rainforest climate created ideal conditions for growing the Theobroma Cacao Tree, but terrible conditions for archeological preservation.  That being said, linguistics experts have deduced the origins of the word “cacao” to the Mixe-Zoquean language used by the Olmecs in 1000 BC. Further, excavators discovered a stone bowl with chemical remnants of cacao (theobromine) at the Olmec capital city (San Lorenzo) and reasonably conclude they were among the first to discover the chocolate process (Coe & Coe, 84).    

Postdating the Olmecs, The Maya existed from 250 AD until its collapse in the ninth century.  The Maya thoroughly advanced wisdom and is remembered particularly for its contributions to agriculture, food, and spirituality.  Cacao, then pronounced “kakaw,” played an important social role for Mayans, even earning its own hieroglyph. Archaeologists find cacao heavily present in the primary source database, especially in connection with the gods.  In visual and written documents, cacao is presented in a sacred light—something consumed by the gods to support supernatural vitality. Specifically, this is evidenced in the Dresden Codex and Popul Vuh, which both feature cacao in direct connection with the gods.  For this reason, many historians refer to cacao as “the food of the gods.” Drinking chocolate was the premier means of cacao consumption in Mayan society, serving a certain symbolic importance in marriage and fertility rituals. Beyond its connection with the gods, cacao was also considered to be of medicinal value in Mayan society; the Maya used cacao for its digestive, anaesthetic, anti-inflammatory, and energy related benefits (Martin).   

The Aztecs, from 1300-1521 AD, also believed cocoa had a religious significance.  The Theobroma cacao tree was considered divine—a bridge between earth and heaven.  Beyond the ritualistic significance of cacao consumption to connect the Aztecs with the supernatural world, they also used chocolate for medical purposes.  Archaeologists have uncovered Aztec documentation of healing rites including cacao in ancient codices. Two manuscripts specifically, Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams, describe the proper medicinal applications of cacao for physical ailments and spiritual afflictions (Martin).  Cacao was administered in a variety of different ways to treat a range of illnesses, including skin eruptions, fevers and seizures.  Above all, chocolate was believed to foster vitality and improve love.

Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams

The use and cultivation of cannabis dates back through antiquity as well.  In ancient China, 2700 BC, Emperor Shen Neng prescribed tea with cannabis dissolved in it to treat a number of illnesses.  Marijuana was popular as a medicine, not a delicacy. Its effectiveness led to the proliferation of cannabis as medicine throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (Stack).  Primarily, cannabis was used as a stress and pain relief medication—especially effective during childbirth (Prioreschi). Ancient documents reveal a caveat to the overconsumption of marijuana, marking its negative side effects as impotence, blindness and seeing demons.  By the late 18th century, cannabis as medicine made its way to the occidental world as a remedy for inflamed skin, incontinence and venereal disease. Specifically, one Irish doctor named William O’Shaughnessy praised the medicinal benefits of marijuana and preached about its ability to effectively alleviate pain and nausea (Stack).

While cacao played a sacred role in their society, there is ample evidence the Maya used cannabis to understand the universe as well.  Mayan hieroglyphs and art also depict the act of smoking, whether it be tobacco or marijuana. Archaeologists contend the Maya cultivated marijuana in farms and ground cannabis to create psychoactive beverages.  As alluded to earlier, drinking was also the preferred method for cacao consumption in their ancient society. The psychoactive effects of cannabis allowed the Mayans to communicate with the gods and pray off demons.  Similar to the medicinal uses of cacao, cannabis was used to treat bug bites, snake bites, and alleviate other physical ailments (Civilized).

Today, just as our perception of these ancient civilizations, our realms of knowledge surrounding cacao and cannabis are quite different.  As we move forward from ancient times through history, we begin to see the understanding of cannabis and cacao develop alongside disciplines of knowledge.  For example, the further development of scientific methods and documentation of natural phenomena continues to help society understand these plants with a more robust fact base.  While it has been treated as an illicit drug in America for hundreds of years, cannabis has recently been proven to remedy severe medical impairments, such as epilepsy, and alleviate chronic pain, especially for chemotherapy patients (Zurer).


Scientists have found many similarities between chocolate and marijuana.  In 1996, researchers found cacao consumption to activate cannabinoid receptors in the human brain providing users a subtle “high” similar to the effects of marijuana.  While three substances in cacao were proven to activate cannabinoid receptors, the most prevalent finding was an increase in anandamide levels. The paper explains, “anandamide is a lipid that binds to cannabinoid receptors and mimics the psychoactive effects of the drug” (James).  Because chocolate is believed to enhance the effects of cannabis consumption, these findings imply that medical marijuana can be cushioned and moderated by combining the dose with cacao (Zurer).

These findings have affected not only the medical realm, but the legal realm as well; one lawyer sought to recuse his client by arguing the client tested positive for cannabis due to high levels of chocolate consumption (Tytgat, J., Van Boven, M. & Daenens, P.).  While this bogus argument was refuted, it still goes to show the sociopolitical landscape is changing as science elucidates more and more botanical similarities between these two plants.  Perhaps it is time we retreated from our perception of chocolate and marijuana consumption as gluttonous indulgences back to the ancient purpose of fostering wellness.

Sources:

“Cacao vs Cannabis.” Digital image. Pics for You Evety Day. http://hulufree.top/When-Im-traveling-morning-cacao-and-yoga-is-an-essential-ritual.html.

Civilized. “5 Facts About How Cannabis Was Used by the Mayan People.” YouTube. October 16, 2017. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHwa3NH6pG4.

Coe, Sophie D. “The True History of Chocolate.” iBooks.

Harvard University. “Marijuana: The Latest Scientific Findings and Legalization.” YouTube. April 04, 2017. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvRf_3Bil0A&t=1943s.

James, J S. “Marijuana and Chocolate.” AIDS Treatment News, 1996.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, And The Politics Of Food”. Lecture slides. February 6, 2019.

Peake, Allen. “CNN Documentary on Charlotte’s Web, Medical Marijuana Treating Seizure Disorders.” YouTube. February 09, 2014. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxrKyjeClTk&.

Plinio Prioreschi, and Donald Babin. “Ancient Use of Cannabis.” Nature 364, no. 6439 (1993): 680.

Stack, Patrick, and Claire Suddath. “Medical Marijuana.” Time. October 21, 2009. Accessed March 2019. http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1931247,00.html.

Tytgat, J., Van Boven, M. & Daenens, P. Int J Leg Med (2000) 113: 137. https://doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1007/s004140050284

Zurer, Pamela. “Chocolate May Mimic Marijuana in Brain.” Chemical & Engineering News 74, no. 36 (1996): 31-32.


Chocolate and Health in Harvard’s Dining Halls

Once considered a “food of the Gods” by Aztec and Mayan cultures, chocolate today is an affordable indulgence that appears in almost every establishment where food is served. Harvard’s dining halls are certainly no exception. Through an analysis of the chocolate food selection at Adams Dining Hall on May 16, 2014, it became clear that chocolate has truly grown from a food enjoyed only by elites, to one that has become ubiquitous in the American diet. However, the available  chocolate options were all very high in caloric value and were highly processed, which is a testament to how the buffet-style setup and unhealthy options available in campus dining halls can easily contribute to weight gain in college.

Harvard University Dining Services is responsible for preparing the meals for the College’s more than 6000 students. Given this large undertaking, dining halls are more focused on efficiency and low costs rather than providing haute cuisine. I personally eat all three meals in Adams Dining Hall almost everyday, as it is extremely convenient to be able to eat without stepping foot outside. For every lunch and dinner served, there are always a variety of chocolate options on the menu, available in both liquid and solid forms. On this particular evening, fudge brownies were the main dessert entree. These brownies are one of my favorite treats that HUDS makes. Upon further inspection of the posted ingredients, however, it is noted that these brownies are not particularly healthy, as sugar, trans free margarine, chocolate liquor, and chocolate chips are named as a few of the ingredients.

Fudge brownies were the main dessert entree on May 16.
Fudge brownies were the main dessert entree on May 16.

In addition to the fudge brownies, two other chocolate-flavored entrees were cookies and cream ice cream and chocolate pudding. While these two options are milk-based and lower in fat than the brownies, they are still certainly full of processed sugars. As noted in class lecture, added sugars consumed per capita have increased from 120 pounds in 1980 to 132 pounds in 2010, and the percentage of US adults who are obese was up to a whopping 35.7% in 2010. It is also noted that the pudding and cookies and cream frozen yogurt did their ingredients posted beside their labels, which can contribute to overconsumption if students are not aware of their high caloric content.

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Cookies and cream frozen yogurt and chocolate pudding were among the chocolate-flavored selections in Harvard's Dining Halls.
Cookies and cream frozen yogurt and chocolate pudding were among the chocolate-flavored selections in Harvard’s Dining Halls.

The readily available abundance of food in dining facilities can be a major cause of weight gain. The buffet-style, all-you-can-eat food service can influence poor dietary habits and encourage frequent overconsumption. While there are a large number of healthy choices in the buffet-style dining halls, including a salad bar and grilled chicken, there are also a high number of unhealthful choices such as brownies that can be eaten in large portions. Although many universities have long employed buffet-style student dining systems because of their reduced labor requirements for service, the savings incurred may ultimately be at the expense of students’ health.

Thus, while chocolate is a delicious treat, it should certainly be enjoyed in moderation in order to live a healthy lifestyle and avoid the conditions associated with unhealthy eating habits, such as obesity and diabetes. While it is helpful that HUDS includes ingredients on some of its food labels, it would be even more effective to include full nutritional information, including calories, in order to help students make healthy decisions. Must and colleagues reported that 75% of a group of university students agreed or strongly agreed that knowing the nutrient content of food is important for a healthful diet and nutritional well-being. Overall, this class has certainly made me more aware of noticing what exactly goes into my food rather than simply its flavor. In analyzing chocolate selections and food selections in general, it is important to take into account nutritional value, ingredients, and the values that went into creating the food that we eat.

Works Cited

A. Must, J. Spadano, E.H. Coakley, A.E. Field, G. Colditz, W.H. Dietz. The disease burden associated with overweight and obesity JAMA, 282 (1999), pp. 1523–1529.