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.
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.
Since ancient times, cacao has been believed to be one of nature’s medicines with various health benefits. Aztec texts from the 1500s tell us that their Emperor kept a botanical garden specifically for growing and experimenting with different plants in hopes to discover their unique medicinal abilities. Cacao was one of their successful trials, as they eventually came to understand its ability to help treat stomach problems, cure infections, end fevers, and help control coughing.1 Most of these cures and treatments required combining cacao with another substance, but this would prove to be only the beginning of exploring the medical potential of pure cacao and eventually chocolate in its many forms that we enjoy today. The investigation of chocolate’s medicinal value continued as the Spanish came into contact with the pleasing food and proceeded to spread it across Europe. However, only recently has the depth and scientifically sound research of chocolate’s effects on the human body began to unfold in its true immensity. In 2013, a composition of work from 89 contributing experts was produced titled Chocolate in Health and Nutrition, measuring 542 pages in length and consisting of 40 separate chapters thoroughly exploring a broad spectrum of information on chocolate.2 The scale of this collaborative piece provides some perspective on the complexity of chocolate and its effects, and people’s magnificent efforts to explore and understand them. Perhaps one of the most exciting recent developments in this research is understanding cacao’s effect on the human nervous system. It has long been known that consuming chocolate can affect our mood, but in the last ten years it has been revealed that chocolate can actually provide a temporary boost to cognitive function, thus leading to extensive studies in attempts to know how and why this happens, and how it can be applied medicinally.3 I will provide detailed insight to this recently discovered effect of chocolate consumption on the human brain, as well as explore its potential medicinal applications as a unique benefit of cacao, and finally consider the consequences that this discovery can have on the contemporary state of the cacao-chocolate industry.
First, we need to understand how eating chocolate increases our cognitive function. Ian Macdonald, professor of metabolic physiology at The University of Nottingham, led a study in which he found that consuming a chocolate drink increased blood flow to specific areas of the participant’s brain for up to three hours. The chocolate drink was “rich in flavanols — a key ingredient of dark chocolate,” which he predicted to produce such a response.4 The boost in blood flow to specific areas of the brain is what allowed participants in the study to display increased cognitive performance in specific tasks through improved alertness. Macdonald was also able to monitor brain activity in the participants by using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), through which he saw an increase of activity after the individuals consumed the cocoa. He attributes this to a response to the flavanols in which cerebral blood vessels dilate and allow more blood to reach the vital areas of the brain, improving oxygen delivery and therefore increasing cognitive function.4 One limitation to these findings comes from the fact that the level of cacao flavanol that the participants consumed during the study is significantly higher than that normally found in chocolate products. However, this doesn’t negate the significance of the findings, it simply means that you won’t experience such strong effects by having a bite of your favorite chocolate bar, at least not yet. Such doses of cacao flavanols and their affects may be explored as a possibility within commercially produced consumer products or even in purely medicinal forms in the near future, but this will be discussed in more detail later in the essay. For now, we know that even small doses of cacao flavanols, such as those found in a typical chocolate product, improved cognitive performance in young adults during a separate study. The participants experienced enhanced spatial memory and reaction times.5 These new findings leave us with seemingly countless potential medicinal applications.
We’ve seen that cacao flavanols have been scientifically proven to sharpen the mind in a temporary boost of cognitive abilities, scalable with greater effects at higher doses. But how can we use this knowledge in medicinal purpose to help people? The most obvious opportunity is in helping to treat fatigue. The idea of using chocolate to battle fatigue is far from new, as it has long been known that chocolate has small amounts of caffeine in it. Aztec Emperor Montezuma II is quoted acknowledging these effects of cocoa: “…the divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day…”.11 It has now been scientifically proven that something other than caffeine within chocolate is contributing to the boost it gives you, and perhaps these flavanols could be isolated and ingested specifically for the improved cognitive function they provide. Researchers have already found that consistent consumption of chocolate that is rich in flavanols “significantly improved symptoms of chronic fatigue after 8 weeks.”2 This means that cocoa flavanols could theoretically be used to help combat the effects of increased fatigue due to aging, as well as within the general population to help battle sleep deprivation. Another potential medicinal use could be to create a chocolate based drink that is rich in the relevant flavanols (and not caffeine) as an alternate to coffee. This could help people avoid some of the negative effects that coffee can have when consumed consistently or in high quantities, as many people will need a substitute for their ritualistic boost from a hot drink.6
Now imagine your favorite chocolate product, but with the understanding that consuming it will not only bring you the delicious pleasure it normally does, but also help you perform better on the final exam you’re about to take, respond better to questions during your job interview, or compete better in your chess tournament. What if the cognitive boosts from potential new flavanol-rich chocolate based products or medicines could help treat attention deficit disorders? The Centers for Disease Control reports that as of 2011, rates had risen to 11% of children in the United States being diagnosed and treated for ADHD.7 Typical medications for ADHD have many known and consistently prevalent negative side affects, some of which are shown in the image below alongside the side effects of caffeine.
If chocolate-based products can be created and brought to market that offer safe alternatives to these fatigue or cognitive function related medicines and remedies, the already massive chocolate industry would take on a vast new amount of demand. The study by professor Macdonald mentioned earlier in the essay also proved that the temporary cognitive function enhancement from cacao flavanols can be achieved without any effect on the subject’s heat rate after ingestion.4 This is an immediate improvement on the dangers of common ADHD medications as well as high doses of caffeine. Such medicinal chocolate-based products could also be aimed at safe recreational use by consumers such as college students who currently look to illicitly abuse prescription stimulants. A 2006 study found that over 8% of college students were illicitly using prescription stimulants, such as ADHD medications, as mental performance enhancers for assignment completion, studying, or exam taking.9 It is feasible that before long, food scientists will be able to develop chocolate-based products that can safely and legally fill that role for students looking for a cognitive boost during stressful deadlines or tests. The prospective applications for such cognitive improvements through consuming chocolate products are abundant. The following statement from Chocolate in Health and Nutrition elucidates the substantiality of the research and findings on this subject, and offers insight to the many ways it could be utilized:
“Overall, five… studies that examined the effects of cocoa- and chocolate-related products in humans found that the products were associated with significant enhancement/improvement of certain aspects of individuals’ neurocognitive functioning, and, in particular, on tasks assessing simple reaction time, rapid visual information processing, energetic arousal, episodic memory, cognitive processing speed and sequential abilities, perceptual speed, global cognition, access to semantic memory, Serial Threes subtractions, visual contrast sensitivity, detection of motion direction, visual spatial working memory, choice reaction time, and mental fatigue.”2
However, chocolate and its ability for cognitive function enhancement don’t have to be limited to medicinal substitutes for existing cures. As shown below, coffee is a multibillion dollar global industry, and happens to be a common pairing with chocolate. The two products can be marketed together as a way to provide an ultimate mental boost, in a variety of new coffee beverages mixed with flavanol rich chocolate.
Before hastily racing to expand the chocolate industry’s scope into a new line of products marketed specifically for cognitive enhancement, we must first consider the possibility that such products may come with their own health risks for consumers. There are several potential issues with the possibility of this endeavor in concerns to consumer health risks. Firstly, it remains unclear whether or not the high concentration of the necessary flavanols needed for a noticeable cognitive enhancement come with their own set of unrealized side effects. Experts collaborating to produce Chocolate in Health and Nutrition agreed that further animal and human testing needs to be conducted in order to determine the lowest level of cacao flavanol consumption that can be proven both effective and safe.2 Moreover, it is reasonable to expect that the most successful products marketed with this feature as a highlight will likely be many of the same chocolate products that are top sellers today, simply with supplemented amounts of the necessary flavanols for a temporary cognitive boost. This added benefit would likely increase the addictiveness of such products significantly. We already know that chocolate products are one of the many culprits contributing to the prevalence of obesity and diabetes among Americans due to the often high amounts of added sugar. This could be a major concern and potentially lead to pushback on such products from certain groups.
Perhaps the use of chocolate for the medicinal purpose of a temporary cognitive boost could instead be limited to a very niche product of high purity cacao, and marketed to true chocolate lovers looking for a bundle of health benefits. This video from Fox News13 acknowledges some of the many other health benefits attributed to cacao, including cardiovascular health benefits proven in a study of the Kuna people of Panama led by Harvard Medical School’s Norman Hollenberg .14 If appropriate measures are taken to ensure safe consumable chocolate products are offered that can provide a noticeable temporary cognitive function enhancement, the chocolate industry may have found a massive untapped market for itself. Several studies have scientifically proven that chocolate, an already tremendously popular food item, indeed has the ability to provide us with a brief mental sharpening. Time will tell if it is possible to supplement the relevant compounds in a way that makes them noticeably affective without negatively affecting the taste or safety of chocolate products.
1 Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007 . The True History of Chocolate.
2 Ronald Watson et al. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Humana Press, 2013. Springer. Web. 05 May 2017.
3 Katz DL, Doughty K, Ali A. Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2011; 15
4 Macdonald, Ian. Boosting Brain Power – With Chocolate. Am Assoc Adv Sci. 2007. Web. 05 May 2017.
5 Field DT, Williams CM, Butler LT. Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in an acute improvement in visual and cognitive functions. Physiol Behav. 2011; 103
6 Maughan, R. J., and J. Griffin. “Caffeine Ingestion and Fluid Balance: A Review.” Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics : The Official Journal of the British Dietetic Association. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2003. Web. 05 May 2017.
7 “Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Feb. 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.
9 Teter, Christian J., Sean Esteban McCabe, Kristy LaGrange, James A. Cranford, and Carol J. Boyd. Illicit Use of Specific Prescription Stimulants Among College Students: Prevalence, Motives, and Routes of Administration. Pharmacotherapy: The Journal of Human Pharmacology and Drug Therapy. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 06 Jan. 2012. Web. 05 May 2017.
14 Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. University of California Press Journals, 01 Feb. 2012. Web. 06 May 2017.
One step into Cambridge Naturals, a community natural health store in Cambridge, MA, and the market for organic, fair-trade, vegan, bean-to-bar, local, non-gmo, paleo, environmentally friendly and ethically sourced chocolate products is on full display. A meeting with the store’s manager & grocery lead adds another term to the list of qualities their consumer base is looking for when they step into the store – functional chocolate. This trend shows a probable correlation between what customers are willing to spend on chocolate that makes health claims, based on the way the cacao is processed and additional ingredients added that are promoted to provide nutritional benefits. The functional chocolate trend begs the question – are these health claims regarding various methods of cacao processing and healthful additives substantiated by scientific research, or are they merely a marketing gimmick? This article will analyze recent research on the health benefits of chocolate as a functional food, look at fermentation and processing differences from a nutrient perspective, and consider additional benefits of medicinal additives to chocolate in order to best answer this question.
How are functional foods different from healthy foods?
In a study published in the Academic Food Journal/Akademik (2014) that looked at the development of functional chocolate, the differences between health foods and functional foods were defined as the following:
“Functional foods are a new category of products that promise consumers improvements in targeted physiological functions” (Albak, Fatma, & Tekin, 2014, p. 19).
Whereas, “conventional ‘healthy’ foods are typically presented as types of foods contributing to a healthy diet, e.g. low-fat products, high-fibre products, or vegetables, without emphasizing the role of any single product” (Albak, Fatma, & Tekin, 2014, p. 19).
Functional foods share these characteristics:
Health benefits that can be linked to a specific product
Well-defined physiological effects are directly connected with particular components in the specific product
Scientific evidence about health effects that is used to develop specific functional products
There is novelty for the consumer with the promised benefits
Modern technology is often needed to manufacture the functional foods due to specific components being added, modified or removed (Albak, et al., 2014).
Demand for Functional Foods
The market for functional foods exists in large part due to the rising popularity of healthier products by consumers (Albak, et al., 2014). One contributor to interest in healthy products is their use as a remedy to detrimental lifestyle factors that can contribute to unyielding high levels of inflammation in the body (Jain, Parag, Pandey, & Shukla, 2015). In the book, Inflammation and Lifestyle (2015), the connection between diet and inflammation is emphasized.
“Our diet is one of the leading sources of these chronic illnesses, and changing the diet is the key to prevention and cure. A number of dietary factors, including fiber-rich foods, whole grains, fruits (especially berries), omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidant vitamins (e.g., C and E), and certain trace minerals (e.g., zinc), have been documented to reduce blood concentrations of inflammatory markers. The best way to correct and eliminate inflammation is to improve comprehensive lifestyle and dietary changes rather than taking pharmaceutical drugs, the latter of which can cause unintended harm in the form of damaging side effects” (Jain, et al., 2015, p. 143).
The authors provide this graphic to illustrate what an anti-inflammatory diet pyramid looks like in terms of specific food groups. Note that dark chocolate is positioned on the top of the pyramid.
An introduction to the benefits of superfoods and their role in an anti-inflammatory diet are explained in the publication. “An anti-inflammatory diet is one that is low in processed foods and high in fresh fruits and vegetables, seeds, sprouts, nuts and superfoods. Maca, spirulina, purple corn, wheatgrass, coconut butter and raw chocolate are a few of the health promoting superfoods that are gaining international interest” (Jain, et al., 2015, p. 144). The inclusion of “raw chocolate” in the category of superfoods versus “chocolate” warrants further examination and will be explored later in this article, but the position remains clear that evidence supports the protective benefits of chocolate as a part of a healthy diet.
Chocolate as a Functional Food
Under the category of functional foods as previously defined, chocolate, as will be further described, fulfills all the requisite characteristics. Even though the term functional food is relatively recent, the practice of consuming chocolate for its specific health benefits is centuries old. “Chocolate has been consumed as confection, aphrodisiac, and folk medicine for many years before science proved its potential health benefiting effects. Main compounds of cocoa and chocolate which contribute to human health are polyphenols that act as antioxidants and have potential anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, antihepatotoxic, antibacterial, antiviral, antiallergenic, and anticarcinogenic properties” (Ackar, Djurdjica, Lendić, Valek,… & Nedić, 2013, p. 1). The studied physiological effects of chocolate include “reported health benefits of cocoa and dark chocolate particularly focus on cardiovascular diseases (but also showing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects), including increased blood flow at the brachial artery and the left descending coronary artery, decreased blood pressure, decreased platelet aggregation and increased HDL cholesterol” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 840). Numerous research discoveries have shed light on the complex nature of how these protective benefits of cacao are reduced or encouraged by different methods of sourcing, processing and consuming chocolate (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008).
Polyphenols are found in many food sources including, “vegetables and fruits, green and black tea, red wine, coffee, chocolate, olives, and some herbs and spices, as well as nuts and algae” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). However, “chocolate is one of the most polyphenol-rich foods along with tea and wine” where, “results [have] indicated that dark chocolate exhibited the highest polyphenol content” (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008, p. 2194). In unfermented cacao beans, there are three main groups of polyphenols, “flavan-3-ols or catechins, anthocyanins, and proanthocyanidins” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Differences in cacao genetics or varieties and country of origin show varying levels of polyphenols by up to 4-fold (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008). “Criollo cultivars contained higher levels of procyanidins than Forastero and Trinitario beans. In addition, crop season and country of origin have impact on polyphenols in cocoa beans” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Findings regarding polyphenol level by country of origin are contentious but include, “highest phenolic content was in Malaysian beans followed by Sulawesian, Ghanian and Côte d’Ivore” (Jalil, & Ismail, 2008, p. 2201) and “cocoa beans and processed products from Ecuador showed the highest levels of anthocyanins, followed by Nigeria and Cameroon” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 840). Due to additional factors besides country of origin and genetic variation influencing the polyphenols in cacao, inclusion of the effects of processing cacao on flavor and polyphenol content is important to understand health claims made regarding the finished product, chocolate.
Processing cacao beans (namely the stages of fermentation and drying), and roasting in the chocolate making process greatly affect polyphenol content of the finished product (Ackar, et al., 2013; Bordiga, et al., 2015). “Due to these factors, the ratio and types of these components found in cocoa beans are unlikely to be the same as those found in the finished products” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 841). For functional chocolate enthusiasts driving market trends, the balance between healthy and protective benefits of polyphenols and the effects on their levels through processing are of particular interest. “All these processes are needed to develop characteristic cocoa aroma. Polyphenols give astringent and bitter aroma to cocoa and contribute to reduced perception of “cocoa flavour” by sensory panel. However, nowadays processes are conducted in such manner to preserve as much polyphenol as possible with maintaining satisfactory aroma” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). The debate about the purpose of chocolate is hereby noted between the sensory experience – the aroma development, especially in the roasting stages, versus consumption for health effects with less regard to smell, taste and gustatory pleasure.
The search for a sweet spot between these poles is a lucrative area for producers and retail establishments. As described earlier, development of functional food into specific products uses scientific evidence about health effects, where modern technology is often needed to manufacture those products, in order to observe targeted physiological effects or functions (Albak, et al., 2014).
“Generally, as cocoa beans were further processed, the levels of anthocyanins and flavan-3-ols decreased. The largest observed losses of phenolics occurred during roasting. A progressive decreasing trend in polyphenol concentration was observed in the other processed samples as well. Despite the original content of polyphenols in raw cocoa beans, technological processes imply a significant impact on cocoa quality, confirming the need of specific optimisation to obtain high value chocolate” (Bordiga, et al., 2015, p. 840).
In order to preserve antioxidant quality through dark-chocolate products with “high flavonoid contents…these chocolates are produced by controlling bean selection, fermentation, and reduced heat and alkalization treatments” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2201). Although one of the most detrimental effects of processing on polyphenol and antioxidant levels is alkalization (or dutching) of cocoa powder (Ackar, et al., 2013; Jalil, et al., 2008), even the fermentation process significantly reduces flavonoid levels by up to 90% (Jalil, et al., 2008). However, in the search for the sweet spot between flavor and health benefits, fermentation presents a way to reduce bitter compounds due to the presence of flavonoids and polyphenols (Jalil, et al., 2008) and enhance flavor before roasting or further processing like alkalization. For example, some “manufacturers tend to remove [flavonoids] in large quantities to enhance taste quality… the manufacturers tend to prefer Ghanian cocoa beans, which are well-fermented and flavorful than that of Dominican or Indonesian beans, which are considered as less fermented and have low quality cocoa flavor” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2203). In Crafack’s study (2013), besides genetic flavor potentials of cacao beans, fermentation is cited as the most important factor influencing cocoa’s flavor potential.
“A properly conducted fermentation process is considered a prerequisite for the production of high quality chocolates since inadequately fermented cocoa beans will fail to produce cocoa specific aroma compounds during subsequent processing” (Crafack, Petersen, Eskildsen, Petersen, Heimdal, & Nielsen, 2013, p. 1).
In a later study by Crafack (2014), microorganism differences between fermentation practices are shown to produce variations in cacao flavor profiles. “Despite the importance of a properly conducted fermentation process, poor post-harvest practices, in combination with the unpredictable spontaneous nature of the fermentations, often results in sub-optimal flavour development…A microbial fermentation process therefore seems essential for developing the full complexity of compounds which characterises cocoa aroma. In conclusion, the results of the present study show that the volatile aroma profile of chocolate can be influenced using starter cultures” (Crafack, 2014, p. 1). Further research that builds on Crafack’s findings was published by Kadow (2015), explaining the role of multiple factors in the country of origin that characterize the fermentation process.
“During this in most cases spontaneous fermentation of the fruit pulp surrounding the seeds, the pulp is degraded by yeasts and bacteria. This degradation results in heat and organic acid formation. Heat effect and tissue acidification are the key parameters guiding flavour precursor formation. Accordingly, not microorganisms themselves but exclusively their metabolites are necessary for successful fermentation” (Kadow, Niemenak, Rohn, and Lieberei, 2015, p. 357).
This study aimed to further the development of standardization and mechanization of cocoa fermentation for the benefit of cacao production quality purposes. On the ranges of heat tested from fermenting heaps of cacao beans, 30 °C to a maximum of 50 °C was obtained after 24 h of fermentation at the inner part of the heap (Jespersen, Nielsen, Hønholt, and Jakobsen, 2005).
Finally, as an interesting note about polyphenol changes in cacao during fermentation, although “unripe and ripe cacao pods contain solely (−)-epicatechin and (+)-catechin. During fermentation, levels of both of these compounds were reduced, but (−)-catechin was formed due to heat-induced epimerization” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). These findings warrant more studies on the changes that happen during cacao fermentation, where although certain protective antioxidant levels decrease, other chemical compounds are formed due to the process of heat due to microorganism metabolites and acidification to the bean tissue.
After fermentation, the beans are dried to reduce water content for safe transport and storage of the cacao before further processing by chocolate manufactures. “During drying, additional loss of polyphenol occurs, mainly due to nonenzymatic browning reactions” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2) where “high temperatures and prolonged processing times will decrease the amount of catechins” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p.2203). The dried cacao is then shipped to the chocolate manufacturer where roasting is often performed. The roasting and generally the further processing of cacao degrades the levels of polyphenols by triggering the oxidation process (Ackar, et al., 2013; Bordiga, et al., 2015).
Conching is a process of agitation of chocolate mass at temperatures above 50 °C that is used to refine both the cocoa solids and sugar crystals to change the taste, smell, flavor, texture (mouthfeel) and viscosity of chocolate (Chocolate Alchemy, 2016; Di Mattia, Martuscelli, Sacchetti, Beheydt, Mastrocola, & Pittia, 2014) Different procedures for conching exist, including Long Time Conching (LTC) and Short Time Conching (STC). A study by Di Mattia (2014) done on these two conching processes and the implications for bioactive compounds and antioxidant activity found interesting results. The publication stressed the importance of time/temperature combinations as process parameters “to modulate and increase the functional properties of some foods” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, pp.367-368). In the study, STC consisted of “a dry step at 90 °C for 6 h and then a wet step at 60°C for 1h,” while LTC involved, “a dry step at 60°C for 6 h and a then wet step at the same conditions (60 °C, 6 h)” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, p. 368). The results of the analysis on phenolic content, antioxidant values defined as radical scavenging properties showed, “that the conching process, and the LTC in particular, determined an improvement of the antiradical and reducing properties of chocolate” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, p.372). Recommendation for further studies was suggested to “optimize the conching process for the modulation of the functional properties,” (Di Mattia, et al., 2014, p.372) but the results remain in favor of longer time and lower temperature processing to preserve health benefits in chocolate during the conching phase.
From the perspective of chocolate makers, assessing combinations of ingredients/additives that can either help or hinder protective compounds in chocolate – including polyphenols and bioavailability, is important. Jalil, & Ismail’s review (2008), considered, “both bioavailability and antioxidant status [important] in determining the relationship between cocoa flavonoids and health benefits” (Jalil, et al., 2008, pp. 2194-2195). Studies focused on epicatechin from chocolate found the polyphenols, “rapidly absorbed by humans, with plasma levels detected after 30min of oral digestion, peaking after 2-3 h and returning to baseline after 6–8 h. In addition, cumulative effect in high daily doses was recorded” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Interestingly, an argument for the benefits of chocolate’s sweetened and rich composition – if cocoa butter and some type of sweetener is used in processing – is explained where the “presence of sugars and oils generally increases bioavailability of polyphenols, while proteins, on the other hand, decrease it” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2). Milk chocolate lovers may be disappointed to find that, “milk proteins reduce bioavailability of epicatechin in chocolate confectionary…[with] reported inhibition of in vivo antioxidant activity of chocolate by addition of milk either during manufacturing process or during ingestion” (Ackar, et al., 2013, p. 2).
Additional health properties of cacao found especially in dark chocolate, apart from polyphenols, may have a role to play in reports of chocolate cravings and their use as functional food. Theses beneficial components include “methylxanthines, namely caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2197) “peptides, and minerals” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2200). “Theobromine is a psychoactive compound without diuretic effects” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2198). “Cocoa is also rich in proteins. Cocoa peptides are generally responsible for the flavour precursor formation” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2199). Lastly, “minerals are one of the important components in cocoa and cocoa products. Cocoa and cocoa products contained relatively higher amount of magnesium compared to black tea, red wine, and apples” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2200).
A well supported rule of thumb for finding high antioxidant capacity functional chocolate is to look for the percentage of non-fat cocoa solids (NFCS) in chocolate products to determine total phenolic content (Jalil, et al., 2008; Vinson, & Motisi, 2015) “Dark chocolates contain the highest NFCS among the different types of chocolates” (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2204) However, due to percentages of cocoa solids on on chocolate labels including polyphenol-free cocoa butter, the accuracy of this measure is not always correct and can lead to overestimating polyphenol content in certain types of chocolate (Jalil, et al., 2008, p. 2204). That said, a recent study by Vinson and Motisi (2015), performed on commercial chocolate bars found “a significant and linear relationship between label % cocoa solids and the antioxidant assays as well as the sum of the monomers.” From which they concluded that, “consumers can thus rationally choose chocolate bars based on % cocoa solids on the label” (Vinson, & Motisi, 2015, p. 526).
Additions to Functional Chocolate
In health food stores like Cambridge Naturals and Deborah’s Natural Gourmet in Concord, MA, the presence of functional chocolate with additional health boosting ingredients is prevalent. The validity of these claims to improve focus, enhance libido and energy, and other desirable improved physiological functions, based on herbs, powders and additional superfoods mixed with cacao, is intriguing. A study by Albak and Tekin (2014), found that mixing aniseed, ginger, and cinnamon into the dark chocolate mix before conching, “increased the total polyphenol content while they decreased the melting properties of dark chocolate after conching” (Albak, et al., 2014, p. 19).
Other resources that further elucidate specific findings on these superfoods, herbs and spices include:
Afolabi Clement Akinmoladun, Mary, Tolulope Olaleye, and Ebenezer Olatunde Farombi. “Cardiotoxicity and Cardioprotective Effects of African Medicinal Plants.” Toxicological Survey of African Medicinal Plants (2014): 395. This publication includes information on gingko, turmeric among other additives to functional chocolate and how protective vascular effects are formed.
Some consideration for the popularity of raw chocolate, which is used as the base of many functional chocolate products, deserves attention. As explained, there are many reasons chocolate can be considered a functional food, especially due to specific health promoting compounds like polyphenols and flavonoids, peptides, theobromine and minerals present in cacao and in chocolate. Unfortunately, overwhelming scientific evidence points to the detrimental effects on these compounds from processing, especially by heat. “Flavanols largely disappear once the cocoa bean is heated, fermented and processed into chocolate. In other words, making chocolate destroys the very ingredient that is supposed to make it healthy” (Crowe, 2015). Raw chocolate, by the standards of raw foodism, means that food is not supposed to be heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit in order to preserve enzymes. This seems tricky to prove especially when chocolate makers receive cocoa beans from various countries of origin where fermenting and drying practices are not under their direct supervision. Some companies remedy this issue with bean-to-bar practices that ensure they have seen and approved the process that cacao beans undergo before shipment to the company’s own processing facilities, where low temperature winnowing, grinding and conching is under their complete control. The bean-to-bar method (See Taza’s Bean-to-Bar and Direct Trade process) also provides assurance that cacao is ethically (sometimes for organic and wild-crafted cacao if so desired) sourced. These initiatives often promote more sustainable and better processed cacao, which means higher quality cacao for both the farmer, manufacturer and consumer. For these reasons, the popularity of raw cacao seems to fit into the development of functional foods where the consumer is able to enjoy a sometimes more bitter, medicinal tasting chocolate in the anticipation of a powerful physiological boost and a clearer conscience due to sourcing methods.
In the case of Yes Cacao, their Karma MellOwl botanical chocolate bar contains 41% cacao butter, and 59% botanicals which results in a deliciously complex, albeit golden colored bar due to the cocoa butter and turmeric content. Non-fat cacao solids which provide the main anti-inflammatory benefits of cacao are missing, but are replaced with other superfoods, spices and adaptogenic herbs like lucuma, maca, yacon, lion’s mane mushrooms, gingko, turmeric, pine pollen, cinnamon, bacopa, and gynostemma. The creators of the bars deem them functional medicine, as they combine cacao solids and sundried cane juice as a base for superfood and medicinal enhancements. In this video, Justin Frank Polgar recommends that Yes Cacao bars are eaten daily as a staple enhancement for ideal human functionality.
Other raw chocolate companies that are focus on functional chocolate using additional superfoods, spices and herbs include:
Trends in functional foods heading in the direction of ‘naturally healthy’
From the perspective of growers, producers and consumers who want a high quality, healthful and good tasting chocolate product, the scientific findings that support the ideal balance between flavor and preservation of health promoting properties of cacao, are significant. The ideal way to conserve protective, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits warrants consideration with the changes in polyphenol content during processing of cacao from raw bean, through fermentation to roasting, conching and mixing with other ingredients. Raw chocolate seems a good way to navigate this balance. Meanwhile, mass produced commercial chocolate companies or “big chocolate” continue to move their products in the direction of high quality premium chocolate and adopting new manufacturing processes in order to preserve cacao’s protective effects. The overarching trend uniting premium, natural and healthful ingredients is referred to in the food industry as naturally healthy foods. “This idea of using food to manage health may, in part, help explain growing consumer interest in fresh, natural and organic products”(Gagliardi, 2015). The melding of healthy, natural and functional foods to chocolate production reflects consumer preferences and industry recognition of the role diet plays on health and provides insights into the future of food. For now, medicinally enhanced, raw, naturally healthy, and functional chocolate seems light years ahead of other natural foods on the market today.
Author’s Note: While researching and writing this article the author happily consumed a great deal of functional, raw and medicinal chocolate and can attest to the powerful effects that far surpass conventional and even ‘premium chocolates’.
Ackar, Djurdjica, Kristina Valek Lendić, Marina Valek, Drago Šubarić, Borislav Miličević, Jurislav Babić, and Ilija Nedić. “Cocoa polyphenols: can we consider cocoa and chocolate as potential functional food?.” Journal of chemistry 2013 (2013).
Albak, Fatma, and Ali Rıza Tekin. “Development of Functional Chocolate with Spices and Lemon Peel Powder by using Response Surface Method: Development of Functional Chocolate.” Academic Food Journal/Akademik GIDA 12, no. 2 (2014).
Afolabi Clement Akinmoladun, Mary, Tolulope Olaleye, and Ebenezer Olatunde Farombi. “Cardiotoxicity and Cardioprotective Effects of African Medicinal Plants.” Toxicological Survey of African Medicinal Plants (2014): 395.
Bordiga, Matteo, Monica Locatelli, Fabiano Travaglia, Jean Daniel Coïsson, Giuseppe Mazza, and Marco Arlorio. “Evaluation of the effect of processing on cocoa polyphenols: antiradical activity, anthocyanins and procyanidins profiling from raw beans to chocolate.” International Journal of Food Science & Technology 50, no. 3 (2015): 840-848..
Crafack, Michael, Mikael Agerlin Petersen, Carl Emil Aae Eskildsen, G. B. Petersen, H. Heimdal, and Dennis Sandris Nielsen. “Impact of starter cultures and fermentation techniques on the volatile aroma profile of chocolate.” CoCoTea 2013 (2013).
Crafack, Michael. “Influence of Starter Cultures, Fermentation Techniques, and Acetic Acid on the Volatile Aroma and Sensory Profile of Cocoa Liquor and Chocolate.” (2014).
Di Mattia, Carla, Maria Martuscelli, Giampiero Sacchetti, Bram Beheydt, Dino Mastrocola, and Paola Pittia. “Effect of different conching processes on procyanidin content and antioxidant properties of chocolate.” Food Research International 63 (2014): 367-372.
Jain, Parag, Ravindra Pandey, and Shiv Shankar Shukla. “Inflammation and Lifestyle.” Inflammation: Natural Resources and Its Applications. Springer India, 2015. 143-152.
Jalil, Abbe Maleyki Mhd, and Amin Ismail. “Polyphenols in cocoa and cocoa products: is there a link between antioxidant properties and health?.”Molecules 13, no. 9 (2008): 2190-2219.
Jespersen, Lene, Dennis S. Nielsen, Susanne Hønholt, and Mogens Jakobsen. “Occurrence and diversity of yeasts involved in fermentation of West African cocoa beans.” FEMS Yeast Research 5, no. 4-5 (2005): 441-453.
Kadow, Daniel, Nicolas Niemenak, Sascha Rohn, and Reinhard Lieberei. “Fermentation-like incubation of cocoa seeds (Theobroma cacao L.)–Reconstruction and guidance of the fermentation process.” LWT-Food Science and Technology 62, no. 1 (2015): 357-361.
Vinson, Joe A., and Matthew J. Motisi. “Polyphenol antioxidants in commercial chocolate bars: Is the label accurate?.” Journal of Functional Foods 12 (2015): 526-529.
Zhang, Dapeng, and Lambert Motilal. “Origin, Dispersal, and Current Global Distribution of Cacao Genetic Diversity.” In Cacao Diseases, pp. 3-31. Springer International Publishing, 2016.
The story of cacao is an impressive one: its biology, its uses, its meanings, and the evolution of each thread over centuries and continents have woven an elaborate narrative for the modern observer. Despite its geographic and cultural leaps, however, cacao’s evolution from a divine, elite, indigenous foodstuff, “essential to…[one’s] physical, social and spiritual well-being” (Martin, 2016a), to teetering on banishment within a deeply apprehensive Christian Europe, to a now-essential cultural food of the masses has interestingly always included a cyclical pro- and anti-medicinal pattern. For all of its permutations between the Old World and the New, the changing perceptions and traditions of cacao – first as healthy and medicinal, then as unhealthy and dangerous, and returning once again as healthy and medicinal – have actually fluctuated very little within a historically demonstrated tendency to indulge (excitement in the new), overindulge (demonize the unknown), and then equalize (an ‘everything-in-moderation’ approach).
According to similar Mayan and Aztec creation myths, cacao had its roots firmly planted in the realm of the divine, with its earthly application ranging from a crude yet nutritional gruel or pleasurable drink of the male elites, to use in ritualistic ceremonies such as weddings and death rites (Martin, 2016a), to widespread therapeutic and medicinal application throughout Mesoamerica. The examination of iconographic historical sources such as “the Badianus Manuscript, the Princton Codex and [Sahagún’s]…Florentine Codex” (St. Jean, 2015, para. 33) reveal a massive list (upwards of 300) of therapeutic and medicinal applications of cacao in Mesoamerica, “provid[ing] a critical understanding of…disease, nutritional problems and healing techniques” (Lippi, 2013b, p. 1576) of the region and culture. Interestingly, despite its widespread perception as nutritional, pleasurable, and therapeutic as meticulously cataloged by both the Spanish friars and the indigenous peoples themselves, Sahagún made a point to caution against the overuse of certain types of cacao, ultimately settling on an ‘everything in moderation’ approach:
[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, 1951-1969, pp. 119-120)
Making its way across the Atlantic and into the mouth of King Charles of Spain in 1528 by way of the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, by the close of the sixteenth-century, “the first botanical descriptions of the chocolate tree appeared in print in Europe and the first designated shipment of cacao reached Seville, paving the way to the spreading of the use of chocolate in the Old World” (Lippi, 2013b, p. 1574). While still a pleasure of the elites alone in the New World, the concept of cacao as medicinal gained significant traction based upon its rumored therapeutic and pleasurable usages in Mesoamerica. Simultaneously, cacao’s introduction to Christian Europe was also met with suspicion and religious reluctance due to the possible affects on one’s morality, echoing “profound concerns about how to incorporate this exotic, Creole product “of pagan origin” into a shored up Catholic Church” (Martin, 2016b). When the Church declared the drinking of cacao as no threat to the Christian tradition in the late seventeenth-century, chocolate was somewhat corralled into a medicinal-use-only system, whereby the theory of ‘Humoralism’ (Martin, 2016b) from the Hippocratic-Galenic medical tradition took the lead on how cacao could be used. Intriguingly, the Hippocratic-Galenic ‘hot/cold, wet/dry’ medical tradition and cacao’s place in it were not so different from the one encountered by the Spanish upon their arrival in the New World, as “the Mexica medical world was based on paired terms, such as “hot/cold”…“humidity/drought”…[and] health was perceived as “balance,” whereas illness and disease were “imbalance”” (Dillinger et al., 2000, p. 2059S).
While initially consumed in liquid form by the elite in both the Old and New Worlds with an emphasis placed on its nutritional and medicinal ‘cure-all’ qualities, developing industrialized methods for processing cacao in the nineteenth-century began once again to shift the emphasis, beginning with C.J. Van Houten’s hydraulic press. Van Houten’s press extracted the not-so-soluble cocoa butter from cacao – leaving a compressed, cocoa cake that was easily incorporable into other liquids and solids – effectively reducing the cost of cocoa, and making it widely available to the masses (Coe & Coe, 2013). As such, Van Houten’s press and the subsequent series of nineteenth-century inventions transformed “what had been little more than a gruel of cocoa and additives…into a delicious drink and an attractive candy bar by 1900” (Satre, 2005, p. 14). The simultaneous and explosive rise of milk, sugar, and other additives in chocolate throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries also brought about a change in our perception of dietetics versus medicine, and cacao’s station in one over the other:
In the past, when no effective therapeutic means existed, the best possibility for a patient to recover from disease was the use of lifestyle and diet as strategies to ensure physical and mental wellbeing. In this regard, chocolate was used for many purposes; however, when dietetics separated from medicine, chocolate acquired the role of excipient, being associated with different health problems. (Lippi, 2013a, para. 3)
Thus chocolate’s perception in both the public and the scientific/medical community suffered greatly in the twentieth-century, heavily demonized as an unhealthy food; the Old World notion of chocolate-as-medicinal becoming evermore trumped by chocolate-as-junk-food.
The redemption of chocolate’s reputation as medicinally beneficial once again resurfaced in the late twentieth-century with the expansion of clinical studies, the results showing a “richness in carbohydrates, fat and phytonutrient flavonoids, confirming the benefits of dark chocolate in cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal and respiratory disorders and mental health…[as well as] its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties” (Lippi, 2013b, p. 1582). While few foods have gone through such historical iterations of medicinal pros and cons as cacao has (beautifully outlined in The Journal of Nutrition‘s Tables 1, 2, and 3), the gradual if not predictable return of Theobroma cacao to its ancient place as the ‘food of the gods’ with healing powers may finally be one that’s coming full circle, yet again.
Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Dillinger, T. L., Barriga, P., Escárcega, S., Jimenez, M., Lowe, D. S., & Grivetti, L. E. (2000). Food of the gods: Cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(8), 2057S-2072S. Retrieved from http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.full
Folger Shakespeare Library. (2008). Wholesome advice against the abuse of hot liquors [Online image]. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/jyomyse
Sahagún, B. d. (1951-1969). Book 10: The people. In A. J. O. Anderson, & C. E. Dibble (Eds.), Florentine codex: General history of the things of new spain [Historia general de las costas de Nueva España] (A. J. O. Anderson, C E Dibble Trans.). (2nd Edition ed., pp. 119-120). Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press (Originally written in 1575-1577 or 1578-1580).
Satre, L. J. (2005). Chocolate on trial: Slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.
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 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”).
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).
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).
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).
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.
In Baroque Europe, food and medicine were two largely inseparable entities (Moss 27). Most physicians relied on Galen’s system (see Image 1) as a way to divide human physiology into four categories, or “humoural qualities:” sanguine, bilious, phlegmatic, or melancholic (Moss 27). However, many foods encountered in the New World, such as chocolate, could not be logically assigned to this existing structure of medicinal organization, presenting a challenge for physicians and commoners alike (Moss 27). This was arguably the beginning of a larger shift in which medicine and food would eventually occupy two largely separate frameworks. Interestingly enough, in recent years this divide between food and medicine has started to dissolve as nutritional therapies and so-called antioxidant-rich “superfoods” have become popular, and chocolate has certainly not been left out of the equation (Moss 27). By tracing the origins of the conceptual union of food and medicine, specifically focusing on the difficulty of incorporating chocolate into the Humoural System, one can follow the trajectory of this dynamic relationship to contemporary examples of chocolate that can arguably be characterized as a rebirth of “food as medicine.”
The use of medicinal chocolate, and more generally, food as medicine is also found in the Mesoamerican tradition, and the indigenous medicinal framework supporting its use had similarities to that of Galen’s system. Though both Aztec and European perspectives were based on a “hot-cold” system, the Mexica view also blended religion, and the earth was viewed as a plan with four cardinal directions with the Aztec empire in the center. The five localities were all assigned colors and attributes during healing processes (Dillinger, 2059S). Illnesses were also though to be caused by imbalances in the body, and dietary treatments were prescribed accordingly in both indigenous, and eventually European, cultures (Moss, 27).
Though Aztecs seemed to integrate chocolate seamlessly into their framework of medicine, Europeans were somewhat puzzled by its diverse qualities. According to Aztec traditions, chocolate supposedly enhanced the blood through its vital and sacred qualities and was used for a variety of ailments including: reducing fever, increasing breast milk production, cleansing teeth, diminishing timidity, or even preventing syphilis. (Wilson, 158). However, because categorization within the Galen System, was highly logical, this presented a problem. Hot and spicy foods such as pepper and new chiles were considered “hot and dry” and were associated with bilious tendencies, while bland tasting dishes including dairy or grains were thought to promote cool, phlegmatic habits (Moss 27). Chocolate, as it was prepared by the indigenous cultures, was served as a hot drink, therefore hot and moist, yet contained spices which would have classified it as dry and therefore sanguine. (Moss 27). To add to the confusion, when considered as an astringent bean, it would have been “cold and wet,” but as a bitter power, “cold and dry” would have been a more fitting classification (Moss 28). Literature states that even opposing ailments were both thought to be ameliorated by drinking chocolate. For example, it was thought to both encourage sleep and promote energy (Wilson, 158). Due to the inability to fit chocolate, among other New World foodstuffs, into the European “Four Humours” system, I argue that food and medicine began occupying separate spheres within everyday life, a trend that would continue as industry specialization and culinary advances came into play in later years.
To contemporary physicians and consumers alike, the “Four Humours” system is a thing of the past, a historical artifact of a time period lacking scientific knowledge and modern-day conceptions of medicine. However, recent trends in so-called “paleo diets” superfoods, and nutritional remedies for everyday ailments in some ways seem to reference this “ancient” framework of understanding the how the body functions best. The chocolate industry has wasted no time in jumping on this culinary-medicinal bandwagon, and today companies such as Mars, Inc. are working with organizations such as the American Cocoa Association and other well-renowned labs to study a variety of aspects of chocolate consumption related to health benefits (Presilla, 57). These types of collaborations have undoubtedly had an impact on the branding and marketing spheres of the chocolate industries (Image 2).
As scientists learn more about specific compounds and how to integrate these into our diet in a healthful way, one cannot help but be reminded of the ancient origins of “chocolate as medicine.” The “Four Humours” system is an interesting example that reflects the attitudes and scientific knowledge of people at the time. Though food and medicine would eventually occupy largely separate entities over time, and chocolate gained an identity a dessert commodity, recent inquiries into chocolate’s flavenol content (Presilla 57-59) and how to integrate it healthfully into our diet are reminiscent of the ancient focus on achieving balance as a primary health goal. Though only a thin line separates dietary enhancements from actual pharmaceuticals (Presilla, 59), Hippocrates, a predecessor of Galen, seemed to have come to a similar conclusion, ““Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escárcega, 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 Journal of nutrition 130, no. 8 (2000): 2057S-2072S.
Moss, Sarah, and Alexander Badenoch. Chocolate: a global history. Reaktion Books, 2009.
National Library of Medicine. “The world of Shakespeare’s humors” url: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/shakespeare/fourhumors.html. 19 Sept 2013.
Nieburg, Oliver. “District court will not dismiss Hershey antioxidant labeling suit.” Confectionary News.com. (2013).
Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate revised: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Ten Speed Press. 2009.
Wilson, Philip K. “Centuries of seeking chocolate’s medicinal benefits.” The Lancet 376, no. 9736 (2010): 158-159.
In today’s world, people everywhere consume chocolate and cacao products regularly. Aside from its regular consumption and constant production as a food product, cacao is also a unique biological specimen with a long history of medicinal and therapeutic uses.
Chocolate is produced from cacao, which grows on a tree called Theobroma cacao. This tree is highly distinctive, with finicky growing conditions that trace back to the Amazon River Basin in South America (Presilla 8). Cacao has a difficult time flowering outside of a twenty-degree radius from the equator, above an altitude where temperature can drop below sixty degrees Fahrenheit, or in conditions that are too dry (Coe & Coe, 2013). Besides these extremely specific growing conditions, cacao also grows in a manner that was considered unusual to European onlookers upon visiting the New World. Perhaps a response to the damp, shaded growing conditions, cacao trees flower from the trunk or from thick branches, a phenomenon known as “cauliflory” (Coe & Coe 20-21). Though the tree flowers all year round, it is actually “biologically inefficient”, in that “only 1 to 3 percent [of flowers] actually bear fruit,” (Coe & Coe 21).
The fruits of Theobroma cacao also have important medicinal and therapeutic uses, both in the past and in the present. Chemically, cacao contains two alkaloids that have significant stimulant effects on humans: caffeine and theobromine, a compound found in only nineteen other plants (Coe & Coe 29). On average, chocolate products contain only a small amount of caffeine (0.071 mg/g) but a fair amount of theobromine (0.695 mg/g) (Craig & Nguyen, 1984). Besides acting as a stimulant, cacao also has other popular therapeutic uses. For instance, chocolate is considered to be an aphrodisiac and an anti-depressant, as well as to contain antioxidants that prevent “bad” cholesterol from forming (Coe & Coe 31).
Though ancient peoples who consumed cacao were not explicitly aware of its chemical composition, their perpetual use of cacao for medicinal purposes is consistent with the fact that cacao contains these stimulants. The Mayans, for example, equipped warriors with cacao, and as a result were considered invincible and under spiritual protection. In reality, it is likely that the stimulating nature of the alkaloids in cacao were beneficial during battle. The Aztecs also had therapeutic purposes for cacao, in that they believed serving cacao to people before sacrificing them would comfort them (Dillinger et al., 2000). In addition, The Florentine Codex, put together by Bernardino de Sahagún, described Aztec cultural and medical practices, with highly detailed information on the various medicinal uses for cacao: “Chocolate was drunk by the Mexica to treat stomach and intestinal complaints, and when the cacao was combined with liquid from the bark of the silk cotton tree (Castilla elastic), it was said to cure infections,” (Dillinger et al., 2000).
The medicinal use of cacao occurred in the Old World as well; before modern medicine, treating illness in Europe was based on Galen’s system of humors. This system divided diagnoses into hot, wet, cold, and dry, and treated by balancing opposites. Similarly, Aztec medicine also used a method of contrasting treatments, such as hot vs. cold, that was lost in history but picked up on by Europeans. This led to the use of chocolate in European medicine, which could treat sickness differently in its different product forms. For example, native chocolate flavorings were considered “hot” and could warm the stomach to aid in digestion (Coe & Coe, 2013).
In conclusion, chocolate is made from Theobroma cacao, a plant native to the Amazon River Basin with high specific growing conditions. Cacao contains the alkaloids caffeine and theobromine, which have popularized the use of chocolate in today’s world as a therapeutic with stimulant properties. However, before the chemical composition was understood, the Aztecs and the Mayans both consumed cacao for its medicinal and therapeutic purposes. Europeans, too, picked up on this fact and used cacao as a part of their Galenic humoral system.