The crackdown on sugar and high-calorie foods garnered a lot of media attention in 2010 with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and the proposed ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks in New York and it brought a public health crisis into the spotlight. Chocolate as we know it today is itself an example of a sugary food with high caloric content common in the diets of many Americans. Dark chocolate, which often tastes bitter because it has higher cacao content and less sugar, contains an average of 14 grams of sugar per ounce (USDA). That said, most candy bars that contain chocolate far exceed that amount. Although a number of research studies conducted in the last two decades have highlighted potential health benefits of chocolate consumption (specifically dark chocolate), chocolate is often referred to as a “guilty pleasure” and it is seen in the public eye as something unhealthy associated with weight gain. We know that this was not the case throughout much of history, when cacao and chocolate were considered healthy and, in a few societies, as medicine. I find this shift in public opinion interesting and believe it to be a direct result of the democratization of chocolate and its high sugar content. By winding back the clock and analyzing changing perceptions of cacao and chocolate in different areas of the world with a focus on health, we can better understand when and why this transition happened.
Mesoamerican attitudes towards cacao (c. 600 C.E. – 1500 C.E.)
People in Central America and Mexico during the height of the Mayan and Aztec empires used cacao as an offering in healing rituals, to ensure successful travel, and during social unions such as banquets, baptisms, burials, weddings, and ceremonies to confirm the legitimacy of dynasties (Martin and Sampeck 39). The importance of cacao and its link to the gods can be found in the Dresden Codex, a Mayan book and the oldest surviving from the Americas, where “gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe and Coe 42). In addition, cacao had several medicinal uses, including help with indigestion, inflammation, and fertility. Other applications of medicinal cacao used for afflictions can be found in Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams (18th century manuscripts recopied from ancient codices). Cacao was also prepared as a beverage using distinctive tools such as the molinillo, the steep-sided cup, and the spouted pot and ingredients including chile, custard apple, maize, achiote, and more ingredients specific to colonial Mesoamerica (Martin and Sampeck 42). Notably, the amount of sugar was much lower and the list of ingredients is wildly different from that of modern-day chocolate.
French attitudes towards chocolate (c. 1600 C.E. – 1800 C.E.)
Chocolate was likely introduced in France from Spain as a drug by Alphonse de Richelieu, who, as we learned in class, believed it could be used as a medicine for his spleen. Prevailing theories in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe credited chocolate as being “a generally nutritious, energizing, fortifying beverage” that was also “credited as being an antidepressant, an aphrodisiac, a laxative, an agent to strengthen the heart, liver, and lungs, and a treatment for hemorrhoids” (Cather Studies 285). By 1690, chocolate was a regular offering at Louis XIV’s court at Versailles and was popular among the aristocracy (Coe and Coe 157-60). There were, of course, conflicting opinions about chocolate and its merits, but nonetheless a culture developed around it among the wealthy such that when Thomas Jefferson assumed the role of Minister to France in 1785, he wrote the following in a letter to John Adams from Paris:
Chocolate. [T]his article when ready made, and also the [c]acao becomes so soon rancid, and the difficulties of getting it fresh have been so great in America that it’s use has spread but little … by getting it good in quality, and cheap in price, the superiority of the article both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea & coffee in America which it has in Spain.”RC (MHi: Adams Family Papers). PoC (DLC). Published in PTJ, 9:62–3.
American attitudes towards chocolate (c. 1700 C.E. – 1950 C.E.)
Chocolate, although very rare at the time, had made its way into what would later become the state of Massachusetts, and more specifically onto Judge Samuel Sewall’s breakfast plate, by the year 1697. George Washington was apparently fond of chocolate, and “…connections to the drink have been attributed to patriot luminaries like Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, [and] Thomas Jefferson” (Laiskonis). Notably, however, chocolate was provided to the troops in the French and Indian War. Six pounds of chocolate was offered to each officer by Benjamin Franklin, who “…saw chocolate as a compact, energizing, and tasty food that could be easily carried and boosted morale” (National Geographic Partners 20). By 1800, chocolate was affordable for most colonists (while it was still an expensive drink reserved for the nobility in France) because they (the colonists) imported cacao beans directly from the Caribbean rather than buying them from the British to evade the cost of taxes (National Geographic Partners 18). The cost was further brought down with the rise of mechanization and changes in transportation. Chocolate went from being consumed primarily as a drink to a solid with the development of new techniques, namely pressing and tempering, and became less gritty with the invention of the conch in 1879. Major chocolate companies like Hershey’s, Nestlé, Mars, Cadbury, and Lindt became so successful by standardizing their recipes, scaling up their operations, investing in effective marketing techniques, extending the shelf life of their products, and eventually gaining control of the supply chain. Hershey’s and Nestlé also reaped the benefits of war by providing chocolate for U.S. army rations during WWII (Jacobson). Up until about 1945, therefore, chocolate was still viewed largely the same as it had been by Benjamin Franklin two centuries prior. The idea that chocolate could restore one’s strength, on the other hand, went all the way back to the Maya.
So, what caused the change in public opinion of chocolate after 1950? I believe that it was a combination of wide availability of chocolate back at home after WWII and the heavy advertising that chocolate companies did during the war. Additionally, our lives today are significantly more sedentary, and we consume more food/calories now than before. I would argue that all these factors shifted the focus from the benefits of chocolate to its sugar content as we became more aware of the grip of high calorie foods on our diet. It seems that tide is turning now, with research supporting some potential health benefits of chocolate.
Works / References Cited
Belluz, Julia. Silhouette eating a bar of chocolate. Vox, 20 August 2018, www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/10/18/15995478/chocolate-health-benefits- heart-disease.
Cather Studies. “Willa Cather: A Writer’s Worlds; Vol. 8 of Cather Studies.” University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The True History of Chocolate.” Thames & Hudson, 28 June 2013.
Jacobson, Sean. “”Chocolate is a Fighting Food!” – Chocolate bars in the Second World War.” National Museum of American History (Behring Center), 24 October 2016, https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/chocolate-bars-second-world-war
Jefferson, Thomas. Extract of letter to John Adams. Massachusetts Historical Society of Boston, 27 Nov. 1785, tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1789
Laiskonis, Michael. “In Search of Chocolate in Old New York City.” Institute of Culinary Education, 19 August 2016, www.ice.edu/blog/search-chocolate-old-new-york
Mancerina dish from the Royal Factory of Alcora. Museo Nacional de Ceramica y Artes, 18th century, artsandculture.google.com/asset/mancerina-dish-from-the-royal-factory-of-alcora/lwF_ttm8ODc2Sg.
Mars, Inc. and National Geographic Partners. “Great Moments in World History: Global Stories Where Chocolate Sparked Discovery, Innovation, and Imagination.” Mars, 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/pdf/chocolate-ed-guide.pdf
Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.bu, DoI: 10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37
Opossum God Carrying Rain God. The Possomery, members.peak.org/~jeremy/possomery/
United States Department of Agriculture. “Chocolate, dark, 45- 59% cacao solids.” 1 April 2019, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170271/nutrients
Wilbur, Lawrence. “Nestlé’s advertisement; “Chocolate is a fighting food.”.” World War II Advertisements – 1942. WCSU Archives, 9 July 2019, archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/show/4576