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.
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!
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!
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.