The discovery of the “New World” by European explorers was notable for introducing the European continent to a variety of new plants and foods. Chocolate became one of the most popular imports from the Mesoamerican region as it was commonly used for its medicinal properties in the Galenic practice of medicine (Coe 122). Eventually the theory of medical treatment as advocated by Galen was disproved by William Harvey (Ribatti). At the same time, Chocolate enjoyed a dramatic surge in popularity and consumption (Coe 233); it was the fall of the Galenic system of medicine which permitted the rise of chocolate as a popularly consumed commodity in Europe.
During the time of the exploration of the North and South American continents, European medical practice relied on the theories developed by Aelius Galen, a physician born in modern-day Greece in the second century A.D. (Coe 121). Galen’s theory relied on maintaining an adequate balance of the “four humours” within the body, regulating the levels of blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile to ensure that the patient remained healthy; it revolved around the treatment of maladies with opposite treatments (i.e. a “dry” illness could be cured by “wet” medicine) (Coe 121). A useful illustration can be found in this 15th century sketch of the various areas of the body which can be bled to treat a sanguineous (bloody) ailment. Galenic theory posited that if a patient were too sanguineous, they could be treated through bleeding (Greenstone). Losing blood would allow equilibrium among the humors to be reached in the body, and so this chart would be useful to medieval doctors for locating the best areas where a patient can be bled. In this painting by an unknown painter from Finland, the practice of bloodletting is depicted, illustrating the methods used by Galenic doctors and providing a depiction of the patient’s experience of bloodletting.
The Spanish sent a variety of men to the New World in the hopes of learning about the environment of the Caribbean and of Mesoamerica; they discovered that cacao and chocolate proved useful in medical treatment. One of these men was King Phillip II’s personal physician, Francisco Hernández, who studied many of Mesoamerica’s plants and foods, “slavishly” applying Galenic theory to everything he encountered (Coe 122). The True History of Chocolate describes Hernández’ description of chocolate’s medicinal properties:
“The cacao seed is ‘temperate in nature’…but leaning to the ‘cold and humid’; on the whole it is very nourishing. Because of its ‘cool’ nature, drinks made from it are good in hot weather, and to cure fevers. Adding ‘hot’ native flavorings ‘warms the stomach, perfumes the breath…[and] combats poisons, alleviates intestinal pains and colics’ [sic]” (Coe 122)
Chocolate’s medicinal properties were established in 1591 when Juan de Cárdenas published a treatise of New World foods which analyzed the various properties of cacao, praising its “sustaining” properties. By the end of the 16th century, chocolate had taken root in the Spanish system.
William Harvey’s discovery of the body’s circulatory system disproved the Galenic theory. In 1628, Harvey authored Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, referred to by the public as De Motu Cordis. In De Motu Cordis, Harvey, the “physician extraordinary” to James I of England, explored how blood flows within the body, studying the various components of the human circulatory system and using vivisection, dissection, and mathematics to dispel the Galenic theory that the heart sucked blood from the rest of the body (Ribatti). Harvey’s work, which proved that the body created and circulated new blood within the body, provided scientific evidence to disprove the Galenic theory; although he was initially condemned as a heretic by the scientific community, Harvey’s findings were acknowledged as being scientific fact by the end of the 17th century (Wells).
Harvey’s disproval of the Galenic humoral theories practiced in European medical treatments contributed to the rise of chocolate as a popularly consumed good. As time went on, Harvey’s discoveries described in De Motu Cordis spread and became widely understood among the people, and by the 19th century, “nobody believed in the therapeutic virtues attributed to chocolate any more…No longer did they have to fret over whether chocolate or its flavorings were ‘hot,’ ‘cold,’ or ‘temperate,’ dry or moist” (Coe 233-234). Because consuming chocolate no longer had an effect on the body’s health, the people were free to consume chocolate for pleasure; Sophie and Michael Coe note that at about the same time that the medical implications of Harvey’s research spread throughout Europe, consumption of chocolate surged dramatically. A scene titled “Miracle Max”, from the 1987 movie The Princess Bride, provides an example of chocolate’s transformation from medicine to delicacy:
In it, a local doctor coats a pill in chocolate, explaining that the chocolate’s purpose is “to help [the pill] go down”, rather than being used for medicinal purposes. The side-by-side use of chocolate with medicine in the “Miracle Max” scene is an interesting way to consider chocolate’s transition from a doctor’s tool to a luxury food because in the scene, chocolate is used not for its healing properties, but because people like to eat it.
Coe, Sophie and Coe, Michael. “The True History of Chocolate”. Thames and Hudson. London, England. 1996. Print.
Greenstone, Gerry M.D.. “The History of Bloodletting”. BC Medical Journal. Vol 52, No. 1. January/February 2010. Print.
Mintz, Sidney W. “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History”. Penguin Books. Middlesex, England. 1986. Print.
Owain, Gutun. “Bloodletting Sketch”. The National Library of Wales. 1488-1489. Web.
Presilla, Maricel E. “The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes”. Ten Speed Press. Berkeley, California. 2001. Print.
The Princess Bride. Dir. Rob Reiner. 20th Century Fox. 1987. Film.
Ribatti, Domenico. “William Harvey and the Discovery of the Circulation of Blood”. Journal of Angiogenesis Research. Published 21 September 2009. Print.
Unknown Artist. “A surgeon letting blood from a woman’s arm as a physician looks on”. Oil painting. 18th century. Wellcome Library, London.
Wells, S. D. “Much of What Science Knows Today About Blood Circulation was discovered by Dr. William Harvey in the 1600s, but was Initially Considered Heresy”. Naturalnews.com. 11 October 2013. Web.
In The Prisoner of Azkaban, as Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts to begin his third year at school, his train is ambushed by a group of wraiths. One of them attacks Harry, leaving him cold and shaking at the floor of his compartment. Luckily for the young wizard, a fellow traveler hands Harry a piece of chocolate; Harry then “took a bite and to his great surprise felt warmth spread suddenly to the tips of his fingers and toes” (86).
In a world where wizards and witches travel by broomstick, mend wounds with a wave of a wand, and slay larger-than-life beasts, it is chocolate that heals an ailing wizard? Maybe chocolate’s history has something to bear on this interpretation: might there be clues in the cultural history of chocolate why this substance has special powers of health?
In its first uses by Europeans, chocolate was associated with medicine, credited with healing a variety number of human ailments. Part of this is because chocolate, containing caffeine and theobromine (both stimulants) does have a measurable effect on mood—but its status as an elixir can be traced back to Europeans’ early understanding of the product.
Seventeenth-century Europeans understood their own bodies as composed of four humors; you’re healthy when they’re in balance. In this precarious scale, it was important to know where your foods fit in: were they moist, cold, hot, dry? For sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europeans, chocolate (along with sugar and coffee and tea) presented a profound problem of classification, as they were encountering it for the first time (Coe 128).
Perhaps chocolate was medicine, good for your humors if you took it correctly. Many pages of the 1652 publication “Chocolate: Or, An Indian Drinke,” an English translation of a Spanish text that extols the benefits of chocolate, are devoted to debating the food’s true properties: Is it dry, or wet? Is it hot, or cool? The author concedes that chocolate is sometimes hot and sometimes cool, sometimes moist and sometimes dry. Moderation is key—it’s bound to be good for you under the right conditions. Can you add cinnamon, or would that be too hot? Are there times of the year where it might be more beneficial? In the following passage, he advises the seasons to drink it: “You may take it till the Moneth of May, especially in temperate dayes. But I doe not approve, that in the Dogdayes it should be taken in Spaine, unlesse it be one, who by custome of taking it, receives no prejudice by it” (37). In other words, don’t drink it when it’s hot out, unless you like to drink it when it’s hot out.
As the food historian Ken Albala has pointed out, physicians had financial incentive to promote chocolate as a pharmaceutical: “In thriving competition with those who sold chocolate for mere pleasure, physicians insisted that chocolate is more properly a medicine than a food and they utilized any available explanatory system to bolster their arguments” (Albala 54). Indeed, the mental calisthenics of classifying foods to these categories pushed Nicolas Blegny, the physician to King Louis XIV, to complain about the “useless reasoning of one who comes to the conclusion that chocolate is cold, the arguments of another who sustains that it’s hot, in a word which leads to another pretending to prove that it’s tempered”(quoted in Albala 67). And this problem, combined with the ever-expanding medicinal uses of chocolate and the uptick in its recreational use, would slowly erode the product’s early stature as a powerful medicine.
While medicine may have provided chocolate with a point of entry into the European household, historians point out that therapeutic uses of cacao quickly gave way to recreational ones. Sophie and Michael Coe write, “soon [chocolate] became a medicine that was appreciated for its taste, its filling nature, and its stimulation” (126). Sidney Mintz takes a similarly utilitarian view of sugar—another new, exotic food entering European diets—that can be applied to chocolate as well: “The former medicinal purposes of sugar were now assimilated into a new function, that of a source of calories” (Mintz 108). These historians claim that by the late 17th century, these new, possibly miraculous substances introduced into Europe just decades before had become demystified. Once potential drugs and dangers, they became food.
But can we leave the story there? After sugar became merely a source of calories and chocolate became merely a consumer good, the forces of industrialization and commercialization began to pick up some of the threads where early medicine left off. Advertisements, not physicians, could make new claims about the health benefits chocolate had to offer. In this way, chocolate companies the new physicians, eager to sell exclusive formulas to an audience eager for novel concoctions.
A popular strategy to market chocolate was to promote its contributions to health.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, candymakers made claims about the virtues of chocolate for children, for workers, for women. A 1900 Hershey’s advertisement called their bars “more sustaining than meat.” Another from the early 20th century depicts children climbing chocolate jars on their way to better health. Another advertisement from Baker’s makes the claim that doctors are recommending the chocolate to fight fatigue. Maybe all of these strategies, which now seem wrongheaded, come from the same tradition of promoting chocolate as something to restore our humors, reset our balance, when deployed correctly. They want to draw on the uncertain line between medicine and food.
After all, if chocolate can restore vitality to the world’s most famous wizard, imagine what it can do for us muggles.
Albala, Ken. “The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory,” 2007 Food and Foodways, 15:1-2 (2007): 53-74.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Colmenero de Ledesma, Antonio, Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke By the wise and Moderate use whereof, Health is preserved, Sicknesse Diverted, and Cured, especially the Plague of the Guts; vulgarly called The New Disease; Fluxes, Consumptions, & Coughs of the Lungs, with sundry other desperate Diseases. By it also, Conception is Caused, the Birth Hastened and facilitated, Beauty Gain’d and continued. Trans. James Wadsworth. London: John Dakins, 1652. Available from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21271/21271-h/21271-h.htm (Accessed March 10, 2017).
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of chocolate in the media as a means of weight loss, body transformation, and pursuing a healthy lifestyle. Individuals have flocked to this fad, willing to integrate chocolate into their diet in the hopes of physical improvement. The Flat Belly Diet states, “The Flat Belly diet does not offer magic….but it does offer science” (xi) and proceeds to coin the term “MUFAS”, mono unsaturated fatty acids, as the science behind the subject (5), citing dark chocolate specifically as a MUFA to be utilized on a daily basis throughout the diet program (27). Before and after pictures of thrilled women, finally rid of their belly fat once and for all wave gleefully from the pages of the self-help book.
For many, this may seem like a wholly novel idea. However, in light of deeper research, it becomes clear that the authors of this diet plan are simply tapping into the age-old penchant that humans have for turning to chocolate for medicinal purposes. In the following blog post, I will examine that phenomenon, tracing chocolate’s journey as a medical agent throughout history. I theorize that this continued use is due to both its chemical makeup and its esteemed position in social history.
To begin, it is crucial to look at the beginning of chocolate’s historical journey as a remedy. Presilla and de los Santos explain that chocolate was used for religious offerings and elite ceremonies by the Aztec and Mayan communities pre-European invasion (20). By making offerings to the gods and drinking cacao at ceremonies, the Mayans and Aztecs implicitly indicated an association of chocolate use with longevity and health. Additionally, as explained by Dillinger et al., missionary Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex explicitly named chocolate as an Aztec remedy. In his written account of Aztec customs, he named chocolate as a therapy used by the civilization for everything from infection and fever to diarrhea or excessive phlegm (2060). However, Europeans took this practice to an even further level. Historians Sophie and Michael Coe describe how the Europeans “stripped it [chocolate] of the spiritual meaning which it had for the Mesoamericans, and imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya… it was a drug, a medicine” (Chapter 5).
With medicine in the 16th century being speculative at best, incorporating this holy, revered substance into the medical repertoire was an attractive option. When chocolate was discovered, the medical world at the time revolved around bleeding, deadly surgery without anesthetic, and other foul remedies meant to balance the “humors” (Dillinger, 2059). Therefore, the reports of Aztec medical expertise were more than enough to catch the attention of King Phillip II, who sent his royal physician, Francisco Hernández to investigate (Coe and Coe, Chapter 4). Hernández quickly adapted the Aztec rituals to fit within the European system of the four humors. This publicity caused many others to follow suit. Notable Spanish doctor Antonio Comero de Ladesma claimed that it “preserved health” and made the user “amiable” while Englishmen Thomas Gage and Adam Stubbes also endorsed the product ((Dillinger et al 2064). Thanks to this widespread publicity touting the efficacy of chocolate, by the Baroque period, chocolate, had fanned across Europe as a viable medication, endorsed by royalty and beloved by individuals of the highest class (Coe and Coe, Chapter 5). Of course, this was soon met with controversy, as by the 18th century medical professionals were also warning the public of the dangers of chocolate, claiming that excessive use could result in hyperactivity, discomfort, and even death (Coe and Coe, Chapter 7). While these claims were eventually disputed, chocolate’s role as a medicine was beginning to be contested.
By the turn of the 19th century, modern medicine was on the rise and chocolate’s medicinal value was in a nosedive. As data and facts replaced assumptions and ideas, chocolate was replaced by the scientifically supported medicines we see today (Coe and Coe, Chapter 8). This is due to the fact that modern science found the health benefits of chocolate to be modest. However it is important to note that chocolate can cause several physical effects. First of all, its chemical makeup which include caffeine means that chocolate consumption does give a slight energy boost, and it is addicting (Presilla and De Los Santos, 10). Additionally, a recent study conducted by Joke van Wensen and colleagues found that over time, certain doses of dark chocolate can have health benefits such as lower blood pressure (1). Another study found that chocolate consumption increases total plasma antioxidant capacity (Halliwell 787). However, in these studies, and many more, the effect of chocolate is minimal, and it is yet to be seen if the results are long lasting and prove causation rather than simply correlation.
In light of these facts, it is incredible that situations like the one in this article are still occurring. How is it possible that chocolate keeps on being disproved as a healthcare option, but continues making dramatic resurgences as medicine? First of all, it seems clear that chocolate’s chemical makeup is a huge contributor. It has addictive qualities and does give a small boost of energy, so it is easy for a consumer to fall into the habit of eating it, and to believe that they are physically benefitting. However, cocaine, cigarettes and french fries are all products that give a physical boost and are addicting, but no one operates under the assumption that they are medically valuable. The crucial difference here is that, as described above, chocolate has been revered and storied by experts and the highest castes of society for centuries, from the Aztec warriors to the Kings and Queens of European society. Chocolate has carried social power for centuries, and this is a powerful thing in the human brain. It is a treasured part of Western culture, and it seems clear that the social context of chocolate continues to outweigh medical opinion. For this combination of reasons, it is very likely that chocolate will never lose its allure as a healthcare option.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Cohen, Paula. “How the “chocolate Diet” Hoax Fooled Millions.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 29 May 2015. Web. 1 Mar. 2017
Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escárcega, Jimenez Martha, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis Gravetti. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.”The Journal of Nutrition 130.8 (2000): 2057S-072S. Journal of Nutrition. The Journal of Nutrition, 01 Aug. 2000. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.
Duncan, M. Wholesome Advice against the Abuse of Hot Liquors. Digital image. Folger Digital Collection. Printed for H. Rhodes, and A. Bell, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.
“General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino De Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book X: The People, Their Virtues and Vices, and Other Nations.” WDL RSS. World Digital Library, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.
We see the articles pop up from time to time – chocolate is the new cure for every health affliction. It lowers this, supports that and treats everything else. This concept of using chocolate to heal isn’t novel. The origins of it’s healing properties date back to Mesoamerica and have evolved over the subsequent centuries. But as chocolate became consumed by the masses thanks to producers who brought chocolate to the masses, the negative effects of consuming the confection have been talked about just as much as the positive effects. Ultimately, is chocolate an elixir or a poison?
Chocolate was ingrained in almost every part of the lives of Mesoamericans. Among many of the uses for cacao, there were a variety of medicinal applications. Cacao was believed to help digestion, aid in inflammation, boost energy and was used as an anesthetic. Application of medicinal cacao used for afflictions found in Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams include 50 ways of curing and healing to address skin eruptions, fevers, and seizures. Remedies were a combination of cacao and other botanical ingredients, like avocado, that are considered to be “superfoods” in modern society. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods” 75-76) Traditional Aztec healers cured many ailments that we consider to be commonplace today with various forms of chocolate. For example, a stomachache for an Aztec would be treated with pure, unmixed chocolate (Grivetti and Shapiro 100), which seemed as commonplace in their society as it might be to reach for Pepto Bismol in our society today.
When the Spanish began noticing the powers of cacao after landing in Mesoamerica, they began adopting it for their own healing uses. They noticed that it boosted energy and saw that Mesoamerican warriors who consumed cacao were made stronger. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods'” 58) The Anonymous Conqueror said in his description of Tenochtitlan in 1556 that, “this drink [cacao] is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.” (Coe, and Coe, 86-88)
It’s clear that the Spanish saw that cacao was prized by Mesoamericans for a variety of reasons. They began using cacao for their own healing purposes such as improved probability of conception, quality of breast milk, reversing the effects of exhaustion, impotence, vision-quest hangovers, mental illness, fevers, poison, skin eruptions, lung problems, agitation, diarrhea, indigestion, and flatulence. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods'” 76) Like the Mesoamericans, they used chocolate as a cure-all, further supporting the belief in chocolate’s healing and medicinal powers.
In the 1500’s when cacao made it’s way to Spain, Francisco Hernández & Dr. Juan de Cárdenas began working on incorporating adapting the use of cacao as medicine from
Mesoamerican into “civilized” frameworks. “An apothecary based on Humoral Medicine subscribes that cacao 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.” (“A Concise History of Chocolate”) Fifty years later, we saw the first of many flags that will come in the following centuries about whether chocolate is healthy or harmful when Dr. Santiago Valverde Turices published the first guide on chocolate, Un Discurso de Chocolate, in 1624. (“A Concise History of Chocolate”) Almost 400 years later, we still debate this question.
MODERN-DAY PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION
As time progressed, chocolate became more industrialized. Coenraad Johannes Van Houten manufactured cocoa powder in Holland in 1828, followed by Joseph Fry manufacturing of first chocolate bars for consumption in 1847. (Martin, “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal” 42, 44) Chocolate got a bad rap as a “poison” not long after when some companies began tampering with chocolate by mixing in inedible ingredients (like crushed red brick) in order to decrease costs. In the mid-1800’s, consumers’ distrust for processed foods, like chocolate, brought new meaning to the “poison” label. The British government was inspired to pass a number of food adulteration acts to make such practices illegal and to reassure consumers that their food was pure. (Martin, “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal” 18) This distrust of corrupt or poisoned foods, while mostly forgotten after corporations became more committed to ensuring the quality of their products, still endures in our modern society, especially with chocolate and candy consumption.
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Ingredients
Ingredients for Homemade Peanut Butter Cups
While food adulteration has subsided over the subsequent decades, companies have used other tactics to decrease chocolate production costs. Chocolate is rarely seen mass-produced in a simple and pure form. Big Chocolate, such as Mars and Hershey, use additives and have created offerings that use minimal chocolate, relying on the addition of cheaper ingredients to defray costs. Compare the ingredients in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup versus a recipe for a homemade version of the treat in the above. The mass-produced cup includes chemicals and ingredients not usually – if ever – found in a kitchen. When you compare the botanical ingredients Mesoamericans used to mix with cacao and the ingredients that Big Chocolate uses in their production, it’s staggering to see the progression of chocolate product ingredients.
DOES CHOCOLATE HEAL OR HURT?
It’s clear based on many early texts that chocolate in its purest cacao form was believed (without scientific conclusion) that it had healing and strengthening properties. The wide adoption of chocolate as a health elixir during the 1500’s and before leads us to believe that the primitive results that Mesoamericans and Spanish explorers saw when using cacao did cure their ailments.
Modern researchers, such as those at Harvard, claim that “ingredients in cocoa can be healthy, but the high-calorie chocolate bars that contain it aren’t necessarily good for you.” The flavonoids found in chocolate “have beneficial effects on heart disease risks, as well as on blood flow to the brain. Chocolate is the candy that’s made by adding sugar, milk, and other ingredients to cocoa powder. Those ingredients also add fat and sugar, which counteract some of cacao’s health benefits.” (Chocolate: Pros and Cons of This Sweet Treat, Harvard Health Publications) It seems that chocolate in it’s simplest form and in moderation does, in fact, have positive health benefits. The modern research on the food would seem to support the positive response that Mesoamericans saw when they used cacao as a health supplement.
“Chocolate: Pros and Cons of This Sweet Treat.” Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. 86-88. Print.
“A Concise History of Chocolate.” The C-Spot. The C-Spot, 1 Mar. 2017. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Grivetti, Louis, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 100. Print.
“Homemade Peanut Butter Cups.” Taste of Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”.” 01 Feb. 2017. Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” 9 Mar. 2017. Lecture.
Chocolate has elicited interest as a possible medicine across time for early Mesoamericans to Renaissance Europeans to modern Americans. Renaissance Europeans, desperate for medical solutions, attempted to fit chocolate into their rudimentary medical theory and touted it as a cure for a wide array of maladies. A medicinal framing of chocolate facilitated its journey to Europe where it expanded its influence into culture. Despite continued debate, chocolate’s medical potential opened a gateway that allowed chocolate to enter and become largely accepted in European society. This interest and debate continues with a modern resurgence of interest in chocolate as medicine. Today researchers investigate the health benefits of chocolate while health bloggers proliferate their own sometimes exaggerated perspectives.
Chocolate held spiritual and monetary value for the Mayan and Aztec peoples of Mesoamerica. However, it also fit into their medical theory. Mesoamericans believed disease and illness was born from imbalances of hot and cold. The Florentine Codex of 1590, created by a Spanish priest, noted that Mesoamericans drank chocolate to ease stomach pain and cure infections. It also played a role in treating diarrhea, fevers, and coughs (Dillinger, et al).
Europeans had a framework for understanding illness that traces back to the ancient Greek “Humoral Theory of Disease and Nutrition.” This theory holds that the body contains four humors– wet, dry, hot and cold. Like the Mesoamericans, they believed ill health stemmed from imbalance. In 130 AD Galen advanced the idea that disease could be treated by applying the opposite humor (a hot disease can be cured with a cold medicine, and so on). Europeans like Franciso Hernandez worked to fit chocolate into the medical theory of humors. Hernandez decided that chocolate should be classified as a “cold” drug (Coe & Coe, 122).
The medical potential of chocolate was appealing to Europeans, who were routinely affected by infections, diseases, and plagues for which they had no effective cure. In addition, a medical use provided a convenient rationale for drinking chocolate, for Christian Europeans were suspicious of substances like chocolate, coffee and tea that might “upset moral behaviors” because of their “amorous properties and exciting effects” (Lippi). As a result, chocolate entered Europe cloaked as medicine that fit into the humoral theory of disease. However, like many other “drugs” such as coffee and tea, its role transformed into one of recreation. (Coe & Coe, 126). Doctors in each country debated its virtues and drawbacks while chocolate continued to develop a cultural role.
Chocolate began its European journeys in the Spanish court in the 17th century. Marie de Villars, wife of the French ambassador to Spain, provides evidence that the elite believed in the health benefits of chocolate. De Villars writes “I observe my chocolate diet, to which I believe I owe my health…” (Coe & Coe). Chocolate transformed into a drink that conveyed elite status and became common in the Spanish court. Chocolate likely entered Italy, France and England as medicine as well. Bonaventure d’ Argonne wrote that “…the Cardinal of Lyon was the first in France to use this drug… he uses it to moderate the vapors of his spleen” (Coe & Coe, 152). Chocolate became popular in French court while physicians continued to debate its medical properties. When chocolate arrived in England, a newspaper advertisement from 1659 claims that chocolate “cures and preserves the body of many diseases” (165). In England, chocolate expanded its cultural role beyond just the elite, as it was served to commoners in coffee houses. However, the popular chocolate drink, which was mixed with sugar, arose medical suspicions. Martin Lister wrote that after taking chocolate, “your Stomach is faint, craving and feels hollow and empty… it wears it [the gut] out.” Dr. Henry Stubbes felt that chocolate on its own was healthy, but the added sugar was not (170).
Like Henry Stubbes, modern people also do not view chocolate as healthy because it is associated with sugar, and awareness of sugar’s negative health impacts has grown in recent years. In the 2016 Huffington Post article “Sugar is Not Only a Drug, but a Poison Too” author David Samadi explains that “Too much sugar is harmful to the body and promotes inflammation and disease” and “sugar consumption is also a ma
jor risk factor for the development of other health conditions such as obesity and heart disease.”
The popular food blogger known as “The Food Babe” criticizes our modern chocolate for additives beyond just sugar. She shares concerns about the negative health impacts of corn syrup, trans fats, and artificial flavors and preservatives.
With negative attention like this in the media, it is easy to see why chocolate is perceived as unhealthy. However, modern medical researchers have renewed interest in the health benefits of chocolate as a stand alone ingredient, unadulterated by sugar and additives.
In 2011, researchers studied the heart health of 4970 participants aged 25-93 and recorded their chocolate intake. They found that participants who consumed chocolate had a decreased risk for coronary heart disease (Djousse, et al). Another 2011 study assessed other studies of chocolate and heart health. These researchers found that five out of seven studies showed chocolate to correlate with heart health. The most significant finding was that chocolate was associated with a 37% reduction in heart disease (Buitrago-Lopez, et al).
Medical research has revealed benefits beyond heart health as well. In 2013, a study revealed that polyphenols in chocolate correlate to positive mood. Participants who consumed chocolate reported an increase in calmness and contentment (Pase, et al).
Health bloggers and news sites often pick up on these research studies and present them for the average reader. However, their articles often simplify or exaggerate the health benefits of chocolate, and fail to clearly explain the meaning of recent research.
These articles sound encouraging, but Harvard Women’s Health Watch reminds us to remain skeptical because “while some observational studies have linked chocolate consumption to reductions in heart disease and dementia, they don’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship” (Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?). Further research is needed to confirm that the antioxidants in chocolate are truly protecting us against disease.
Chocolate originally crossed the ocean to Europe as medicine, allowing it to overcome Christian suspicions around the moral permissibility of such an “exciting” drink. In Spain, Italy and France chocolate became a recreational drink for the elite and in England it expanded its reach to the common people. Chocolate’s recreational role eclipsed its medicinal and chocolate became commonplace in Western culture as a dessert; however, the debate over chocolate’s medical value never disappeared. Today we are witnessing a rebirth of curiosity in chocolate as medicine, as modern researchers aim to use scientific method to confirm what we all hope– that chocolate is more than just a delicious treat, but a healthy one too!
Buitrago-Lopez, et al. “Chocolate Consumption and Cardiometabolic Disorders: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.). U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.
Dillinger, et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” American Society for Nutritional Sciences. 2000. Web.
Djousse, et al. “Chocolate Consumption Is Inversely Associated with Prevalent Coronary Heart Disease: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Family Heart Study.” Clinical Nutrition. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.
“Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?” Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School, Sept. 2015. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.
Pase, et al. “Cocoa Polyphenols Enhance Positive Mood States but Not Cognitive Performance: A Randomized, Placebo-controlled Trial.” Journal of Psychopharmacology. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.
Sophie D. Coe & Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 1996.
Chocolate has fallen from its archaic divinity; as industrial chocolate manufactures, such as Hershey, Ghirardelli, Cadbury, Mars, L.A. Burdick and the multitudes of other small and large confectionary manufactures have strategically subverted religion and evaded the creation of a static definition of what can be classified as health food (Off, 2008). This has been done on a global scale (Allen, 2010). Yet, for all of the exploitation of natural and human labor resources in the mad capitalist race to net exponentially larger profits, methods of chocolate consumption have changed. Chocolate has invaded every home in America and continues to spread into even the most remote regions of the world were chocolate is merely grown as a exported market good (and the farmers have never tasted the finished product) (Leissle, 2012) (Martin 2016) (Stuckey, 2012). Modern chocolate consumption has continuously increased and transformed from a relished delicacy into an addiction, one that has fostered a cultic fanaticism in its omnipresence in American culture (Martin, 2016). Chocolate addiction has been fostered by dynamic consumption practices, various health benefits, ideals of beauty, sexualization of female chocolate consumption, and the reframing of sales advertisements to secularize and/or create holidays revolving around chocolate consumption (Leissle, 2012) (Howe, 2012) (Robertson, 2009) (Martin, 2016). Addiction is an all encompassing cultural mindset which has gone further in the continued liminal state of chocolate’s meaning to contemporary American society (Benton, 2004) (Robertson, 2009). Average American households often are not aware that their chocolate consumption is irrevocably linked to the various external methods of ideological implantation of chocolate as a religious iconographic good. A brief ethnographic analysis of an average New England household, comprising of my future in-laws, engenders a radical deviation from chocolate as a coveted, addictive necessity and furthers chocolate’s ideological transformation by coming full circle to again reify chocolate’s worship as a physical manifestation of divinity.
Cacao, or Kakawa, is a substance similar to maize, corn, in its purveyance in Mesoamerican culture and religious iconography (Coe & Coe, 2013). Cacao is also shown in Mayan iconography to have been conflated with the Maize god, this has rendered archaeological interpretations of cacao as the food of the gods (Coe & Coe, 2013). Ancient associations of cacao with the food of divinity has not been lost in modern methods of advertisement (Leissle, 2012). Even analyses of chocolate advertisements can be interpreted to illustrate that chocolate and divinity are intrinsically linked. Capitalism has not so subtlety transformed and secularized religious holidays by constructing the consumption of chocolate as a ritualized activity, in which participants (consumers) will be glorified and feel euphoria through acts the giving and receiving chocolates (Martin, 2016) (Robertson, 2009). Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and even the forty days of Lent have all become associated with chocolate consumption (Coe & Coe, 2013). Lent is the most indicative of chocolate’s association with divinity, through its construction as a vice (particularly for women) which should be avoided so as to liken oneself to the divinity of Christ’s fast and then temptation by Lucifer in the desert. My fiancée’s (F) family is traditionally Irish-Catholic, like much of the greater Boston area, and has their roots firmly set in the nomenclature of religious etiquette. However, like many religious followers, they merely retain a religiously linked ethnic identity. This is not to say that they do not follow a set of religious rituals that underpin their daily lives, but the god (chocolate) to which they devote both cognitive and subconscious worship, is revealed through the family’s vocalization and ritualization of chocolate consumption. Through almost a year of total emersion into their household I have observed both passively and actively their emphasis on the importance of ritual chocolate consumption. By cooking, and baking, with the father (FD); observing F’s sister’s food habits (FS); and through consensual approval to inquire about their chocolate habits during informally structured interviews, I have captured a snapshot of the ethnographic phenomenon by which chocolate has been re-deified.
Anonymity Disclaimer: all proper names are changed to protect anonymity and personal privacy.
The demographic biological sex ratio in my fiancée’s family, including myself, is three females to two males. I entered their household in June 2015, as it was the most convenient way to save up money for our wedding and attend school. My fiancée and her sister both have severe cases of mental illnesses, and have self-proclaimed themselves vegetarians, which has inhibited their ability to consume a wide variety of food products. Prior to my debut, F’s family cooked for and brought FS any food that FS desired, while FS was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe agoraphobia. During this period and into the first several months of living with the F-in-laws, the father (FD) and mother (FM) brought FS mass quantities of sweets (per her request)- the vast majority of which contained chocolate in some form. These sweets were then incorporated into FS’s daily diet through both home cooked treats and purchased delicacies. So pervasive was chocolate into the kitchen and pantry, I could not open the refrigerator without stumbling upon 8 out of 10 items containing chocolate. Even F considered pancakes unsatisfying is they did not contain chocolate chips, accompanied by chocolate milk, and chocolate croissants, from FD’s crafting or purchased from the local French bakery. Upon my alien perspective into this near total emersion of chocolate into every aspect of nutrition, as I prefer recipe purity without the forced inclusion of chocolate, F’s mother (FM) made it quite clear that the extant to which chocolate was considered medicinal. Even long-standing family recipes, such as their grandmother’s scone recipe, that originally contained fruit changed to substitute chocolate chips; this was celebrated not only by F’s immediate family but the extended relatives as well. F, FD, and FM prefer dark chocolate; FS prefers milk chocolate. Methods of dietary consumption are among the easiest to witness, but also the amount to which F’s family purchases or crafts feminine hygiene products known to contain cocoa butter, and the amount of objects, utensils, and other paraphernalia used in the consumption, production, promotion, or distribution of chocolate.
Saying that their mass consumption of all things chocolate is a product of the historical engendering of chocolate as healthy for dietary consumption limits the extent to which FM’s concept of medicinal use resonates with the subjectivity of healthy consumption (Albritton, 2012) (Watson, Preedy, & Zibadi, 2013). FS suffered tremendous weight gain from overconsumption of carbohydrates and sugars (Albritton, 2012), most in the form of chocolate pastries and confections, but FM continued to supply these “medicinal” chocolates. In accordance with popular conceptions of the medicinal use of chocolate, it historically has been linked to a healthy state of mind and postulated to aid the treatment of mental illnesses such as “hypochondriac melancholy“(Watson, Preedy, & Zibadi, 2013). FM’s utilization of chocolate as a medical ritual to expedite the healing of FS’s mental faculties echoes: the Mesoamerican use of cacao as a restorative of the deities, the early European adoption of cacao as a similar but secularized restorative devoid of divine embodiment, and contemporary literature on chocolate’s ability to illicit pleasure responses from the brain. Contemporary concepts of chocolate’s medicinal use illuminate the chocolate industry’s persistent norms of advertisement and the increase of processed sugar consumption and sugar additives into nearly all forms of processed foodstuffs. Yet FM’s use goes beyond these analyses and parallels the sentiments that “‘chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea, and universal medicine'” (Coe & Coe, 2013: 206). While FM’s use may be a product of the historical connections of chocolate and sugar with pleasure and medicine, through the incorporation of chocolate into the entirety of the family’s diet, chocolate has been ritualized and elevated beyond the simple medicinal binary to that of a religious deity, with whom daily worship will foster inner-peace, health, and happiness in its followers. FM’s deification of chocolate retains striking parallels to the Christian description of a personal daily relationship with God, as advertised by the Bible.
F’s family’s ritual utilization of chocolate’s medicinal benefits are the product of historical polemics concerning the increase of sugar consumption, the socio-economic shift of chocolate from Mesoamerican stable to European luxury to plebian stable, and subliminally engendering advertisements (Coe & Coe, 2013). Sugar has been directly linked to diabetes, obesity, and increasing addictive behaviors, akin to drug addiction, through it’s association with pleasurable reinforcement as a reward (Benton, 2004)(Mintz, 1985). The historical shift in utilizing sugar as a preservative (Goody, 2013) directly led to the chocolate industry’s use of sugar as a stabilizing agent which also happened to increase sweetness aka. desirability, and thus “unintentionally” producing a method of engendering consumer addiction for chocolates at a early stage of industrialization (Brenner, 1999) (D’Antonio, 2006: 107) (Mintz, 1985). By keeping in context the link between sugar and addiction, the increase of sugar in chocolate opened new possibilities of advertising. Not only was chocolate now sweet, it also had been historically constructed as medicinal; it could now be produced in vast quantities previously unavailable until the industrial revolution (Brenner, 1999) (Coe & Coe, 2013). Chocolate could now be produced cheaply, containing adulterated products and sweeteners, masking the purity of the roasted cacao bean’s savory nature, and enabled new advertising strategies, informed by chocolate’s newly found socio-economic versatility (Stuckey, 2012) (Allen, 2010). These advertising campaigns have been able to pander to chocolate’s versatility in its ability to render multiple positive responses from consumers. F’s family utilization of chocolate as a restorative “cure-all” is the product of sugar’s addictive qualities, but their daily, weekly, monthly consumption of chocolate as a dietary necessity (only in the manner to which it produces a mental release of endorphins via the sugar and the Pavlovian association of chocolate with sugar) goes beyond this sweet binary to echo the mental and physical rejuvenation that religious ritual produces (Benton, 2004).
Mars’ Snickers campaign “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry, Snickers Satisfies” illustrates the multi-faceted approach that the Mars company takes in its marketing (Brenner, 1999). Mars’ advertisements embody the concept of satisfaction through one of it’s original marketing strategies to simply make a larger candy bar cost the same as the competition’s small one, through the incorporation of peanuts, caramel, and nougat (the primary ingredient of two of these is sugar)(Brenner, 1999). The campaign simultaneously engenders the concept that the Snickers’ bar will satisfy the physical manifestation of hunger and that the consumption of the candy will elevate the psyche back to normalcy (Benton, 2004). This engenders the ritualization of chocolate consumption as a divine facilitator of both inner (mental) and outer (physical hunger) peace; thus similarly paralleling the act of taking communion at Catholic Mass, this advertisement reifies a foodstuff to miraculously facilitate the divine restoration of the mortal self. F’s family reflects this theological embodiment of chocolate consumption as a canonized ritual, yet this advertisement does not alone explain why the three women are so captivated by chocolate’s allure.
Hershey’s Dove chocolate campaign (above) has a clear agenda engendering a gender stereotype of women being the primary consumers of chocolate (Robertson, 2009). F’s family represents this as the three women (F, FS, and FM) are the primary consumers of chocolate, while FD is the primary facilitator of consumption through his production of meals and snacks that prominently incorporate chocolate. This stereotype of women as chocoholics is rooted in historical contexts and has long been debunked as an “[addiction not] to chocolate but to sugar” (Robertson, 2009) (Coe & Coe, 2013: 260) (Benton, 2004). However, no matter the scientific or psychological realities of sugar addicts (Benton, 2004), this advertisement embodies chocolate’s reconstructed relationship with divinity by directly linking the consumption of Dove chocolate with the Mesoamerican concept of deification of oneself through the consumption of divine foodstuffs: particularly in their artistic conflation of the Maize god with cacao trees (Coe & Coe, 2013: 39), and through Mayan recipes mixing maize and cacao (Tokovinine, 2015). The Maya considered all objects to be of divine embodiment (Tokovinine, 2015), particularly those containing maize, which they believed was the physical embodiment of their physical selves as they were created from sacred Maize, stated in their sacred origin text the Popul Vuh, and were also divinely given the sacred crops of maize and cacao for consumption (Coe & Coe, 2013). By conflating the Maize god with a cacao pod the Mayans set a ritual precedent for the divine consumption of chocolate as enabling humanity to transcend into a divine state of epiphany. The Dove advertisement then conflates this ancient cultic practice with the more modern concept of women as the primary consumers of chocolate. Women, constructed in the advertisement as the downtrodden and oppressed gender (Bourdieu, 2001), can escape this existence through consuming chocolate and experiencing their own “moment” or existential epiphany outside of this oppression (Robertson, 2009). F’s family’s near unilaterally gender-stratified consumption of chocolate represents the religious epiphany of transcendental existence, which also reinforces the earlier discourse concerning chocolate as a parallel of Communion. Chocolate consumption now enables modern humanity to embody divinity.
Hershey furthers this gender binary of chocolate consumption through Dove’s “Only Human” advertisement campaign, which in chocolate consumption provides and escape from being female (Benton, 2004). The women are shown to be weak and “Only Human,” but Dove chocolate then provides a “real” comfort from the harsh realities of femininity (Benton, 2004). Going beyond this advertisement’s sexist engenderment, chocolate can now be associated with another of religion’s coveted abilities: the offerance of sanctuary. Chocolate makes the difficulties of human existence tolerable by offering brief sanctuaries, at the ‘moment’ of consumption, meta-physically separated from the human experience. The sanctuary that chocolate provides in these ‘moments’ parallels the sanctuary offered to praticioners of prayer, which provide a ‘moment’ with divinity meant to rejuvenate and make right the pain of a human existence. F’s family’s incorporation of chocolate into nearly all foodstuffs is now clearly representative of ritual prayers for protection from the evils and difficulties of a modern human, explicitly female, existence.
Other modes of ritual chocolate consumption are woven throughout the family’s daily lives: that of hygienic products. It has been well documented that cocoa butter, made from hydraulically pressing cacao liquor (Coe & Coe, 2013: 255), is highly effective in the treatment and prevention of various skin, and hair ailments. Placement of cocoa butter into hygienic products echoes both Baptism and the Catholic ritual of the Anointment of the Sick. Both of these religious rituals engage in a ritual purification of the body and soul. Chocolate can be religiously vindicated through the purification of the human existence, and divinely heal the physical manifestations of the human condition. Dissenters, who would disagree with this statement, are to be reminded of the Christian Science movement, whose belief in the healing power of prayer is thought to heal all physical ailments (thought to be sins’ physical manifestations), and scientific medical treatments are spurred as sinful disregard of God’s will (Norton, 1899). Thus a conflated argument to be made is that the consumption of chocolate is equal to prayer, regardless of the science behind cocoa butter’s ability to remedy topical ailments of the skin and hair. Even through dissent, contemporary chocolate consumption has reified itself as divine through F’s family’s hygienic self anointment with sacred cocoa butter.
Ritual can be identified easily through archaeological interpretation of material culture- that is to say, the artifacts by which rituals are carried out with. Chocolate manufacturing has built megalithic structures dedicated to the continual production of chocolate, such that entire communities sprung into existence to support its cultic fanatical production. Milton Hershey’s factory communes illustrate this quite succinctly (Brenner, 1999)(D’Antonio, 2006). Even the consumption of chocolate has ritual implements, such as: stylized porcline serveware, chocolatière, and the appropriated Mesoamerican molinillo (Martin, 2016). F’s family does not have all such ritual implements as modern technology’s updated versions of the chocolatière and molinillo (serving kettle and whisks), but they do have stylized ceramic ware for the sole consumption of chocolate, indicated by the imprinted logo of L.A. Burdick (a chocolatier company). F’s house has designated chocolate cabinets for the storage of preserved “instant” chocolate beverages, edible chocolates, and hygenic cocoa products; while this cabinet space is shared with similar items for drink, eating, and hygeine, the totality of chocolate’s combination with these other products merely increases the variety by which chocolate’s ritual artifacts are incorporated into daily life.
Chocolate’s transtitional state speaks to the originial liminal state by which the Mayans contextualized their existence around divinity. Chocolate has come full circle in the historical utilizations and perperonderances by which chocolate consumption has been stereotyped, redefined, and ritualized. Through the analysis of F and her family’s cultic ritual habits of chocolate, they are revealed to be the ultimate by-product of a centuries-long polemic that has created a new world religion focused on the ritualized production and consumption, based on an engendered, constructed faith that chocolate is divinely able to elevate the human condition out of the mire of oppression, through psychological and physical restoration of peace, harmony, happiness, and self-satisfaction.
Albritton, R. (2012). Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry. In Food and Culture: A Reader (3rd ed., pp. 342-352). S.l.: Routledge.
Allen, L. L. (2010). China and Chocolate: East Meets West. In Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers (pp. 7-39). New York: American Management Association.
Allen, L. L. (2010). Going the Distance: China’s 10L Chocolate Race. In Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers (pp. 201-223). New York: American Management Association.
Allen, L. L. (2010). One Country, Three Centuries. In Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers (pp. 1-6). New York: American Management Association.
Presilla, M. E. (2009). The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes (Revised ed.). Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Robertson, E. (2009). Chapter One: ‘A deep physical reason’: Gender, race, and the nation in chocolate consumption. In Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history (pp. 18-63). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Robertson, E. (2009). Chapter Three: ‘There is no operation involved with cocoa that I didn’t do’: Women’s experiences of cocoa farming. In Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history (pp. 91-131). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Robertson, E. (2009). Chapter Two: ‘The Romance of the Cocoa Bean’: Imperial and colonial histories. In Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history (pp. 64-90). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Food was the first medicine. From relieving indigestion to combating infections and fevers, humans relied primarily on their environmental resources as holistic remedies to alleviate suffering and prolong lifespan. Chocolate holds a particularly long history of use in medical practices, and was used heavily in the civilizations of Mesoamerica—and post-Conquest, in European cultures. Natural therapies have always been prevalent, though the introduction of modern medicine pushed these long-standing customs aside as the leading form of treatment. These monumental leaps in discovery created a rift between the fields of medicine and dietetic practices (Wilson). However, as of late, the use of chocolate and other natural resources has seen a marked resurgence in contemporary health methods. Recent studies have shown that chocolate (when consumed in moderation) may assist in minimizing cardiovascular disease, reducing hypertension, and can even help fight cancer and diabetes (Howe 43). These are bold claims that should be received with skepticism, thus solidifying the need for further research to evaluate the long-term benefits of chocolate consumption in modern diet.
In this essay, the medical benefits of chocolate will be explored through recent studies conducted over the past few decades, while also putting current societal notions in the context of the chocolate’s complicated history. This renaissance of medicine via cuisine poses many questions: why are we seeing a huge shift into holistic medicine when science is making so much progress in the medical field? Is the public growing disenchanted with drug over-prescription and their side effects, as the cost of healthcare is ever rising? Does the movement in producing less processed, more pure chocolate have a direct effect on the public’s consumption of “healthy” candy, and by association, better overall health? Perhaps we simply want our cake and to eat it too. Yet the answer is not so easily determined, as all of these issues could be refueling this fascination with the medical benefits of chocolate.
Before we can examine the contemporary healing notions of chocolate, we must gain a deeper understanding of the rich cultural history of cacao as medicine. From the time of its discovery by the Olmecs of Mesoamerica in 1500 B.C., Theobroma cacao has served many functions, used primarily as a source of food (Coe & Coe 34). Grown in pods attached to the trunk of a rather peculiar looking tree, the Olmecs recognized that there was more than met the eye to this peculiar plant. As they cracked open the pod to reveal a sweet, gelatinous pulp, they took more notice of the seeds within the milky substance, and began to process those seeds to create the very first iteration of cacao, or “kakawa” (Coe & Coe 35). As empires rose and fell, the subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations of the Izapan, Maya, Toltecs, and Aztecs also coveted cacao for its properties. Consumed primarily in the form of a frothed drink, it was a prized possession and available only to the elite—for it was godly potion that would grant energy and power, and was used in many rituals to appease their deities (Coe & Coe 34). These attributes were considered more than simply advantages; in these times, food and prayer were the only sources of medicine (Lippi).
Cacao was administered to treat a variety of maladies, many times paired with corresponding incantations by the practitioner. Documents such as The Badianus Codex (1552), the Florentine Codex (1590), and the Princeton Codex (1965, otherwise known as The Ritual of the Bacabs), have served as the primary sources for researchers to study these ancient medical rituals (Dillinger 2060S). From gastrointestinal issues such as stomach pains, constipation, and diarrhea to life threatening cases of infection, fever, and seizures, the usage of chocolate was integrated into many medicinal tonics (Lippi 1573). The beans were the most utilized part of the cacao tree, yet other parts were used for medicinal purposes as well: bark, leaves, and cocoa butter were all important (Dillinger 2060S). Other components such as honey, vanilla bean, pepper and tobacco juice were also used as part of treatment. In one instance, cacao flowers were used in a perfumed bath to cure fatigue for high-ranking officials (Dillinger 2060S). In a more social respect, the famed Aztec leader Montezuma was rumored to drink large amounts of cacao beverages to properly prepare him for sexual intercourse with his many wives (Lippi 1573). Clearly, current notions of chocolate as an aphrodisiac were also somewhat recognized in Mesoamerica.
When Spanish travelers found their way to the Americas, they were initially resistant to cacao as a food, especially in the native preparation (as it was too bitter and spicy for their European palate) (Coe & Coe 110). Though the invading Europeans made use of the cacao bean as a form of currency with the native culture, time passed and hybridization occurred, prompting a larger interest for cacao as a food. For instance, the Spanish monk Bernardino de Sahagún provided both words of encouragement and caution for the consumption of cacao: he hailed its energizing and revitalizing properties, but warned of drinking too much green cacao (made from unroasted beans), as it was intoxicating to the recipient (Lippi 1573):
“[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 1590, Part 12: 119–120) (Lippi 1573).
As European voyages took cacao and other local commodities across the Atlantic, they were introduced to Spanish royalty and the elite. Apart from the consumption native foods, King Philip II of Spain learned of the medicinal uses of local plants. In 1570, he sent the Royal Physician Francisco Hernandez across the Atlantic to assess the native herbal remedies (Coe & Coe 122). In the 16th century (and as it had been for almost two millennia), European medicine was based in Hippocratic-Galenic theories of the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; to remedy ailments or imbalances of each humor, physicians would prescribe drugs and particular diets in either hot or cold, moist or dry categories (Lippi 14).
James Howe wrote his own perspective on Hollenberg’s widely acclaimed study, providing a critical review of Hollenberg’s findings. In his article “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered,” Howe recounts his many visits with the Kuna people, disparaging the oversimplification of Hollenberg’s depiction of their lifestyle, noting that the Kuna in fact consumed a variety of drinks of which cocoa was indeed a large part of; they also incorporated coffee, oatmeal, bananas, plantains, and even soursop fruit (Howe 46). His overall concerns with the initial Kuna studies were that Hollenberg created a caricature of the true Kuna culture to advance his findings, and even if those results do hold merit, his investigation was truly skewed (Howe 50).
Food was also categorized in this manner, and cacao was subject to this classification when Hernandez made his way to the New World. Through this lens, cacao was categorized differently in its various forms (they would be highly debated and contested over time) (Lippi 14). Hernandez claimed that the cacao seed was “temperate in nature,” but leaned toward “cold and humid,” and was therefore ideal for hot weather and for subsiding fevers (Coe & Coe 122). In 1591, doctor Juan de Cárdenas revisited the cacao classification and stated that “green cacao” was detrimental to one’s health, and only the roasted bean was beneficial (Lippi 14). Cárdenas’s evaluation states that chocolate has three parts: a “cold,” “dry,” and “earthy” part; an oily aspect associated with air which “warm and humid;” and finally, a very “hot” part, bitter to the taste, causing headaches (Coe & Coe 123). What is particularly interesting in Cárdenas’s evaluation is that at this point in time, there was no understanding of the chemical composition of chocolate. In modern times, the presence of caffeine in chocolate is widely known, as is its ability to cause unsavory side effects to those with sensitivity. Coe and Coe suggest that perhaps this, paired with theobromine withdrawal, was the cause of the headaches Cárdenas laments in his description (125).
These are but a few of the medical evaluations executed by the Spaniards on the humoral nature of cacao, as it was firstly introduced to them primarily as a drug. After gaining popularity as a recreational drink in Spain, chocolate was introduced to other European cultures, such as Portugal, Italy, France, and England. Cacao was met with much controversy and suspicion, but despite that caution, chocolate drinks spread like wildfire during the Baroque Age (Coe & Coe 168). As years passed and medical advancements were made, the conception of chocolate as medicine continued to be questioned and reassessed in light of changing theories. From the 17th century doctors such as the Spanish Barolomeo Marradon and the English Dr. Henry Stubbe to the 18th century practitioners Antonio Lavedan and Carl von Linné (also known as Linnaeus, who in 1753, classified chocolate as Theobroma cacao, or “food of the gods”) there were both new manners of using chocolate as medicine and reinforcements of old practices as well (Lippi 19). Note but a few of those prescriptions in the table below, as detailed by Dr. Donatelli Lippi:
Dr. Lippi continues to describe the eventual schism that occurred in the late 18th century due to the French Enlightenment, where cooking and dietetics were separated from medical texts to develop their own unique literature (20). This included the use of chocolate as medicine, and the next few centuries saw a huge departure from those beliefs; instead, chocolate became a Western candy phenomenon, inciting a gargantuan industry spreading across Europe and the Americas (Albala). It was not until the last few decades that chocolate resurfaced as a legitimate source for health, prompting new scientific studies and research to evaluate the benefits in the biological makeup of the substance.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw huge departures from the ideology of “food as medicine” in the Western world. Due to leaps in modern medicine, the boom of industrialization and mass-production, and the commercialization of chocolate as a luxury (to name a few), chocolate became a sweet commodity (Coe & Coe 233). Though research was still conducted to assess the chemical compositions and health benefits during the 20th century in particular, these studies were produced within the lens of the chocolate industry (Wilson). For instance, in the 1950s, the chief chemist of the Hershey Company hailed the nutritional benefits of chocolate (of course, there is no bias here!):
All “activities of the human body” were known to “require a constant expenditure of energy” and an “interchange of material”. Chocolate products—particularly Hershey’s chocolate products—were offered to the public “with the knowledge that they contain the highest grade ingredients prepared under rigid sanitary conditions and … [prepared with] the finest [chocolate] that can be made”. Noting these products to be “sources of highly concentrated food energy”, chocolate was deemed to have earned a “rightful place” alongside “all well-known and well-prepared foods” (Wilson).
Following this claim, the U.S. Chocolate Manufacturers Association further reinforced chocolate as an integral part of a balanced diet in 1975, when they supported its inclusion to “maintain a daily balance when combined with other foods such as milk, almonds, peanuts and peanut butter” (Wilson). Since the 1990s there has been growing scrutiny towards this sort of promotion, prompting a new era of scientific research dedicated to the plausibility of chocolate as a health food. Researchers are focusing on the chemical composition of cocoa, more specifically on the positive effects of its polyphenols (Castel 266). These polyphenols include flavanols such as catechin, epicatechin, and pro-cyanidins, as they are the source of chocolates antioxidants (as seen across food markets, the buzz term “antioxidants” is widely popular in marketing health) (Wilson).
Also of note are the tannins present in cocoa, which can also be antioxidants and can assist with both heart and digestive health (tannins can also be found in wine, pomegranates, tea, and certain berries); however, the effectiveness of the antioxidants have been disputed when the addition of milk of milk is factored in (Castel 266). Chocolate also contains many chemicals that affect our mood, such as caffeine, theobromine, tyramine, and phenylethylamine—these have been linked to raising serotonin and endorphin levels, thus creating a pleasant effect (Castel 269). As Dr. Castel states, these results are not unanimous. Other claims she mentions include the enhancement of antioxidant defenses quickly after ingestion, and in vitro anti-inflammatory and anti-tumoral effects (Castel 265).
In 2009, the New York Times published an articlefocusing on a Swedish study finding evidence that those who consumed chocolate had higher heart attack survival rates. These 1,169 participants consisted of non-diabetic men and women who took part in an eight year study, where researchers took note of characteristics such as age, sex, smoking, and obesity. As promising as these results were, Nicholas Bakalar (the author) cautions readers that the study was observational rather than randomized, and it did not account for other variables such as the type of chocolate, the mental health of the participants, or for the quantity of chocolate consumed. A co-author of the study, Dr. Kenneth J. Mukamal of Harvard University, also warns that while the findings are promising, chocolate should still be consumed with moderation and in supplementation of a healthy, balanced diet.
Another paper published in 2009 by Dr. Normal Hollenberg of Harvard Medical School and Boston Brigham and Women’s Hospital, follows a study of the indigenous Kuna (or Tule) population of the Caribbean Coast of Panama to research chocolate’s effects on hypertension. Hollenberg was struck by how low their blood pressure was in relation to the great amount of cocoa they drank per week and the large of amount of sodium they incorporated into their diet (Howe 46). After visiting them in the 1990s—and after noting the different sub-populations within the Kuna—he came to the conclusion that good genetics was not the cause of their low blood pressure, but rather, it was the environment (Hollenberg). After performing randomized controlled clinical trials on both island-living Kuna and urban-living Kuna, Hollenberg asserted that there was definite merit to be assigned to the flavanoids in chocolate— epicatechin, in particular.
Led by Dominique Persoon, the famed Belgian chocolatier, this video shows two Kuna preparing a chocolate drink.
James Howe wrote his own perspective on Hollenberg’s widely acclaimed study, providing a critical review of Hollenberg’s findings. In his article “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered,” Howe recounts his many visits with the Kuna people, disparaging the oversimplification of Hollenberg’s depiction of their lifestyle, noting that the Kuna in fact consumed a variety of drinks of which cocoa was indeed a large part of; they also incorporated coffee, oatmeal, bananas, plantains, and even soursop fruit (Howe 46). His overall concerns with the initial Kuna studies were that Hollenberg created a caricature of the true Kuna culture to advance his findings, and even if those results do hold merit, his investigation was truly skewed (Howe 50).
In critique of resurgence of the “miracle power of chocolate,” Harvard Women’s Health watch published “Is chocolate really a health food?” in 2015. The article explores the wide variety of claims recent studies have marketed towards consumers. Before the article begins, there is a note to the reader cautioning that the “treat is fine in small quantities, but its benefits for heart and brain health are still unproven” (HWH). The text does acknowledge the studies that link flavanols in chocolate to cardiovascular health and reductions in dementia, while offering readers chocolate options that portray just how many flavinols are present in each product.
In addition, it offers insight from Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital on the logical next steps, calling for a large-scale randomized trial to assess their effectiveness (HWH). Her study is enrolling 18,000 participants of women 65 or older and men 60 or older who will be administered 750 milligrams of cocoa flavanols per day (or a placebo). This experiment, named the Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS), will take four years to complete and will look at the total amount of heart attacks, strokes, and deaths of their subjects (HWH). Where the article succeeds is that it seeks to educate its readers on future steps of this research, as well as how to best find products which contain these positive traits. Most importantly, it does so without pushing the oversimplified belief that “chocolate is good for you.”
These studies are but a few in a large pool of research, much of which is still taking place today. With all these factors considered, how is one to believe the results of current studies when there are no definitive answers? Just as the likes of Stubbe and Linnaeus struggled to define cocoa in medical context, current researchers are facing the same questions amongst their peers concerning the validity of chocolate as an actual health food. While modern conceptions of medicine are greatly more advanced than those of the 17th and 18th century doctors, results are still being contested for the large amount of uncontrollable variables that disvalue current findings. The only way to come to some sort of definitive conclusion is to continue the work that has taken place for over two millennia. Perhaps our hope of finding a food that is both as nutritious as it is seductive is held in vain, but as long as the chocolate industry reigns supreme, we will always try to justify our penchant for cocoa goodness.
Albala, Ken. “The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory.”Food and Foodways 15.1-2 (2007): 53-74. Web.
Bakalar, Nicholas. “In One Study, a Heart Benefit for Chocolate.” The New York Times. 14 Sept. 2009. Web.
Castell, Margarida, Francisco Jose Pérez-Cano, and Jean-François Bisson. “Clinical Benefits of Cocoa: An Overview.” Chocolate in Health and Nutrition (2012): 265-75. Web.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Esgarcega, Martha Jiminez, 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 3.2 (July 2004). Web.
“Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?” Harvard Women’s Health Watch. Harvard Health Publications/Harvard Medical School, 1 Oct. 2014. Web.
Norman, Hollenberg K., M.D., Ph.D., Naomi D.L. Fisher, M.D., and Marjorie L. McCullough, Sc.D., R.D. “Flavanols, the Kuna, Cocoa Consumption, and Nitric Oxide.” Journal of the American Society of Hypertension 3.2 (2009): 105-12. HSS Public Access. Web.
The Princeton Vase, Late Classic, Maya (‘Codex’ Style). A.D. 670–750. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, with remnants of painted stucco. Princeton University Art Museum, Nakbé Region, Mirador Basin, Petén, Guatemala.
Wilson, Philip K. “Chapter 1. Chocolate in Science, Nutrition and Therapy: An Historical Perspective.” Chocolate and Health: 1-27. Web.
–Invasion of the Body Snatchers Trailer, 1956 gives perspective of invasion through the eyes of a foreign entity. This exaggerated approach is what Pollan argues plants have done for thousands of years.
The idea of alien infiltration into the human race is far fetched from the vista of outer space, but a shift in perspective from the obscure sci-fi view of invasion reveals an entity regional, yet subhuman. One that has been here all along. The alien mother ship, according to the Mayan cultivators of this amazing Amazon Basin plant, are culture bringers; the gods themselves. Their modal is the Theobroma cacao.
In, The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan discusses the symbiotic relationship that humans and plant life share. In his ground breaking book, Pollan exposes the control that intelligent plant life has on the human race. “We don’t give nearly enough credit to plants,” says Pollan. “They’ve been working on us – they’ve been using us – for their own purposes.” (Pollan, 17)
–The Botany of Desire Trailer, 2009 is an academic and modernly eloquent take on the above, Invasion of The Body Snatchers. This media takes the idea of cacao invading the world and makes it plausible.
The idea of plants gratifying specific desires in the human condition reveals their purpose to be a sort of world dominance. The opposing perspective on plant control is deemed by Pollan as a way to satisfy these desires by using humans to disperse themselves around the world. No such plant has been successful in doing so as the cacao tree. It’s versatility in food and health has succeeded in gaining control over human activity throughout centuries of its cultivation.
If this is credible, the conscious character of the cacao pod is not only that of a survivor, but a resilient mastermind who’s ingenious tactic is it’s adeptness to be linked with almost any other ingredient in the world. Through the wiles of consumption and medicinal properties, cacao reigns.
Beginning with the Olmec as the first Meso-American group to cultivate cacao, and following through up until the about 900 CE invasion of colonists, the early caretakers were manipulated by chocolate as they utilized its versatility. Seen in documents such as the Dresden codex, Madrid Codex, and Paris Codex (pre-columbian Maya books written in hieroglyphics) cacao was used as a food, a medicine and even a gift back to the gods who gave it. Our first glimpse into the versatility of chocolate was its use through the practice of Tac Haa, roughly translated as “to serve chocolate”. Early on in its use, chocolate was paired with many other Mayan staples. (Hurst, et al. 2002, 289) It was then drunk communally.
We know this due to human disbursement of cacao in differentiating pots, made specifically to house chocolate’s diverse uses. Spices and flowers were added along with maize and other grains. Its broad span reached as far as medicinal through digestive and anti-inflammatory related uses. It was a meal replacement as a gruel. This included maze which would cut hunger and chocolate which would energize. So we see very early on, this clever plant crafting itself to become an indispensable staple.
In her recipe section of “The New Taste of Chocolate, Maricel Presilla remarks on this amazing ingredient as a conductor of a taste symphony. “The following recipes have one quality in common: they showcase the wide-ranging possibilities of chocolate and imaginatively explore its capacity to absorb flavors and harmonize with other flavorings and spices.” (Presilla,143)
Cacao vessels inscribed with hieroglyphs (as to which pot was to be used for which recipe) contained combinations such as cherry, honey and a maize type gruel. These precursors aided chocolate in it’s migration to Europe. “A survey of early colonial cacao beverage recipes shows that early colonial Mesoamerican recipes usually had vanilla and water, and included a variable array of aromatic flavours, such as orejuela (custard apple) and piquant spices, such as chile pepper. Sweetness, by adding honey, occurred, as well. These Mesoamerican colonial recipes also show Europeanization, by the adoption of flavorings such as sesame, almond, and sugar. (Martin and Sampeck 2016, 41)
In order for chocolate to make its way out of the Amazon basin, it must not only appeal to the indigenous cultivators of the pods, but the Europeans who would take it to the world. “Europeans sought to re-create the indigenous chocolate experience in America and Europe. Europeans in the New World and then the Old World somatized native aesthetic values.” writes Marcy Norton. “The migration of the chocolate habit led to the cross-cultural transmission of tastes. Over time, the composition of chocolate did evolve, but this was a gradual process of change linked to the technological and economic challenges posed by long-distance trade rather than a radical rupture in the aesthetic preferences of chocolate consumers.” (Norton 2006, 681)
A turning point for the cacao plant was the invasion of the Spanish and early colonialists who saw very early on the value of this versatile plant. As stated by Michael Pollan, we did exactly what cacao wanted us to do. Took it around the world.
Used originally as food for the elite, it quickly went viral and into everyones home. Seen through non-taste bias perspective, this would appear to be something right out of Little Shop of Horrors. However, in order to sustain its rule as staple in the early centuries of its being, it had to make itself useful in a wide variety of uses for the new world.
It was chocolates versatility that took it from its Meso-American origin to the entire world. By the 1800’s, chocolate’s versatility strikes again. Paired with sugar, chocolate began to be wildly consumed by British people of all social classes.
Food has been a focal point of colonization and labor through cultivation and even revolution throughout history.
Now modern day, the explosion of culinary delights thrives off pairings even the gods didn’t see coming. Chocolate reinvented itself once again. Chocolate can now be found in ingredients such as oysters, bacon and oranges. Is there room for chocolate in future foods? What will cacao do next to maintain it’s survival and master plan of world domination?
Another way chocolate has infiltrated the world is by being beneficial to human health. Health conditions such as indigestion and heart disease are treated with chocolate. These benefits are still early in discovery and insure that chocolate has not seen the end of its plan for world domination.
The future food and health booms see chocolate as an unexplored frontier as far as its variety in pairings and health benefits.
It is said by doctors that even in the 21st century, modern approach to nutrition and health, is similar to what we knew about surgery in the 1600’s, very little. This idea puts the combination of food and science in its very early stages of knowledge and health practices. Cacao for health purposes are then placed as a final frontier in breakthrough medicine, and solidifies the plant’s invasion on the human race as an indispensable crop we will soon be unable to live without. The more we discover, the more we realize the plant’s invasion on the human race, is indispensable.
-“A Square a Day Keeps the Doctor Away” is a modern twist on the historical advertisement boom for apples, “An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away”. The video represents the popularity that cacao is attaining in modern culture as both a food and a medicine.
“The major goal… is to evaluate the variety of clinical benefits of chocolate and especially its polyphenols. Thus, dark chocolate could reduce the risk of heart attack and provide other cardioprotective actions if consumed regularly.” (Watchson et al, 10)
One product simply called “Cacao” is a supplement pill claiming to promote antioxidants such as polyphenols and the basic structure of catching and many other free radical fighting nutrients.
“All natural appetite suppressant, decreases appetite so you eat less. Helps you maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Helps you maintain healthy cholesterol and lipid levels. Provides a variety of antioxidants from two dozen herbs and nutrients. Provides healthy fiber. Balances mood. Improves will power and choice of food selection.” (Cocoa Supplement Pill Benefit, 2015, cocaobean.html)
Chocolate’s versatility has given it a place in modern culture as an indispensable ingredient. By availing its delicious yet medicinal components for all to utilize, it has been involved in every major culinary turning point throughout history. The offerings of cacao that humans have some to rely on, is what has aided it’s longevity over thousands of years. It’s ability to be paired with a vast amount of secondary ingredients have gave it a place throughout the centuries. Chocolate meets demands that modern culinary trends place on it. With chocolate’s adaptability and versatility so vast, it is sure to stand the test of time as one of the most influential ingredients the world has ever seen. Saving and enriching the lives of those who cultivate as well as those whom consume this mysterious plant, cacao has shown it self to truly be a gift of the gods.
Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.
W. Jeffrey Hurst, Stanley M. Tarka, Jr, Terry G. Powis, Fred Valdez, Jr & Thomas R. Hester. “Archaeology: Cacao Usage By The Earliest Maya Civilization Nature” 418, 289-290 (18 July 2002)
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.
Martin, Carla D. ; Sampeck, Kathryn E . “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe” 8300 defect for UNSW Socio.hu, 2015, Issue special issue 3, pp.37-60
Marcy Norton “Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics” The American Historical Review (2006) 111 (3): 660-691
Watson, Ronald R., Victor R. Preedy, and Sherma Zibadi. “Chocolate in Health and Nutrition”. New York: Humana, 2013. Print.
When one thinks of a chocolate, the words “sinful” and “indulgent” often pop into mind. For most people, chocolate and chocolatey desserts are considered beloved treats that must be enjoyed in moderation. Over the last few decades, however, chocolate has increasingly taken on a new characterization – “health food”. Studies linking chocolate consumption to improved cardiovascular health, better memory, and more youthful appearance have been frequently cited by health blogs, sensationalist news sources, and corporations alike. The complexities and caveats in these studies are distilled into one simple message to be pitched to consumers: “consumption of chocolate is good for you”.
The idea that the indulgent treat can offer positive health benefits is so tantalizing that one cannot hope but wish for this claim to be true. Yet when one examines the legitimacy of popular claims regarding the health benefits of chocolate against the actual conclusions drawn from the studies conducted, there is an apparent disconnect between science and media. There is indeed a large body of credible literature on the concentration of antioxidants in chocolate, as well as the health benefits of said antioxidants. But these studies emphasize moderation, high concentration of chocolate liquor, and warn of the counteractive nature of milk and sugar in chocolate. Often, these specifics are glossed over such that only a sliver of selective information reaches the consumer. Where science may find substantive evidence of correlation, media cites evidence of causation. Ultimately this problematic as flawed information is disseminated to eager consumers.
History of Chocolate’s Health Benefits
The belief in that chocolate has medicinal qualities has existed long into antiquity, back when chocolate was first cultivated and consumed in Mesoamerica. Montezuma, famed Aztec emperor, was thought to have a chocolate concoction as an aphrodisiac. In the Badianus Manuscript (1552), a Mexican medicinal textbook of disease and treatments, cocoa derivatives were frequently prescribed used to treat “angina, constipation, tartar-related dental problems, dysentery, dyspepsia, indigestion, fatigue, gout and hemorrhoids” (qtd. in Lippi, 1575). In Europe, cacao was configured into the humoral and allopathic tradition of Hippocratic medicine (Coe and Coe, 121).
The above image is a snippet of an ad for milk chocolate from the 1700s, whereby chocolate was advertised as a cure for various ailments.
In retrospect, these early claims of chocolate seem archaic and misguided. However, it is interesting to note how long the history of chocolate as a health food extends back. Chocolate has not only been a source of great gastronomical intrigue, but was also a medicinal mystery.
Health Benefits of Chocolate
While the early health claims described above are unsubstantiated by modern medicine, currently, there is a growing body of literature on how consumption of chocolate is linked with a variety of health benefits. The most notable of these is the relationship between chocolate consumption and reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Cocoa is identified to contain a wealth of flavonoids, a group of plant metabolites linked to many positive house effects. Regular dietary intake of flavonoids via plant-derived foods and beverages greatly reduce coronary heart disease and stroke, as supported by a large body of epidemiological research published by the American Heart Association (Corti et. al, 1433). The main flavonoid found in cacao is flavan-3-ols and their oligomeric derivatives (Steinberg, et. al, 215).
Graph from Steinberg et al. J Am Diet Assoc 103: 215-23. These graphs illustrate the flavonoid and antioxidant capacity (ORAC) of chocolate, as compared to other high flavonoid foods.
Research on the health benefits of chocolate have centered on this relationship between antioxidant concentration and reduced cardiovascular health. The findings are numerous and often produced astoundingly significant results. The Zutphen Elder Study used data of 470 elderly men surveyed over 15 years and found that the “Compared with the lowest tertile of cocoa intake, the adjusted relative risk for men in the highest tertile was [50%] for cardiovascular mortality and [53%] for all-cause mortality” (Buijsse et. al, 411). The NHLBI Family Heart Study used cross-sectional data on 2217 participants, and found that consumption of the antioxidant-rich cocoa two or more times a week reduced risk of calcified plaque in arteries by 32% (Djoussé et. al, 38).
It should be noted that all of the large studies are observational studies whereby researchers surveyed participants on chocolate intake and health. Surveyed responses are generally less reliable than randomized studies as it is possible a variety of confounding factors like participants’ eating habits, could have contributed to the observed effect. It would take a randomized study whereby certain groups would be administered cacao to intake against a control group to prove causation. Nevertheless, observations studies provide important insights into the relationship between chocolate consumption and improved cardiovascular health. The fact that the large body of literature on the topic are in agreement above the positive relationship between cocoa and reduced risk of CVD is compelling.
Beyond the cardiovascular health benefits of ingestion of chocolate, chocolate is becoming an increasingly popular concept in beauty and skin-care products. Many cosmetic companies tout the hydrating and rejuvenating qualities of cocoa butter for the skin as well as highlight the antioxidants to be gained from ingesting chocolate as described above. There is a growing number of studies on these claims as well. Heinrich et. al’s 2006 study assigned 2 groups of women to consume either high flavanol (326 mg/d) or low flavanol (27 mg/d) cocoa powder. They found that flavanols did indeed contribute to photoprotection as participants in the high flavanol group showed a significant decrease of skin roughness after an evaluation of the skin in week 12 of the experiment (Heinrich et. al, 1566).
But Just How Healthy is Chocolate?
Chocolate as a food product comes in many different varieties and intensities. The vast majority of the studies only confirm the benefits of dark chocolate (over 70% intensity).
The image above is a close-up of a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar. The main ingredients are sugar and milk.
Serafini et al. (2003) compared the health benefits of dark and milk chocolate varieties, made from the same batch of cacao beans. Their findings that plain, dark chocolate resulted in an increase in total antioxidant capacity and epicatechin (another dietary flavonoid) is much in line with the results delineated above. However, the increase is significantly reduced when consumed with milk, as is the case with milk chocolate. This suggests that milk negates the potential health benefits, as it may interfere with absorption of antioxidants in vivo. The studies highlight that chocolate’s benefits are primarily derived from the flavanols in pure cacao liquor and not from any extraneous ingredients. Thus, a common misconception is that all chocolates have the same health benefits.
Problematic Portrayal of Chocolate as a Health Food
From the handful of studies highlighted in my discussion, it is clear that each study is different and the conclusions drawn are specific, complex, and nuanced. For example, the Zutphen Elder Study is focused specifically on elderly men of mostly Caucasian descent (given the demographics of the study). Heinrich et. al’s study exclusively recruited female participants. It would be an overstatement to derive from even this collection of studies that “consumption of chocolate is good for cardiovascular health / skin care”, as there are many other confounding factors. Yet this phenomenon of distilling research into marketable advertising is all too prominent. The following are prime examples of how research is capitalized and distilled into a marketable, and often misguiding form.
An ad for Xocai, a “healthy chocolate” brand that sells chocolates, weight loss supplements, and beauty products.
The pamphlet above distills the health benefits of chocolate in a misleading way. The vague references to flavanols and “various studies”, the use of buzzwords, and bare-boned description of nuanced research exemplify how certain corporations capitalize on the characterization of chocolate as a health food. The emphasis is on highlighting a long list of vague, beneficial claims that is marketable to your average consumer. The bold font of each of the 15 bullet point leads consumers to believe that Xocai/chocolate 1. Promotes cardiovascular health, 2. Supports health glucose level…etc. When the reality is that only certain quantities and types of chocolate are correlated with said benefits. This trend of overstating cacao’s health benefits is especially prevalent in the beauty industry.
Description from the website: “Too Faced Co-Founder and Creative Director Jerrod Blandino was inspired to combine the power of antioxidant-rich cocoa powder and makeup while having a chocolate facial and learning about the benefits of cocoa at a Hawaiian spa.”
Amala Rejuvenate Cocoa Bean Advanced Firming Complex ($248): Uses certified organic, fair trade cacao beans. The packaging of the Amala Firm Complex above prominently features the cacao bean, despite the fact that Cacao is not even in the top 10 ingredients.
The eyeshadow palette and rejuvenating masks above both highlight the relationship between cacao and health and elasticity of skin, when neither products feature cacao as the primary ingredient. The alignment of the beauty product with cacao effectively allows the company to capitalize on the reputation cacao has as a health product.
When it comes to chocolate as a health food and a health product, it’s important to recognize when and how the line between science and marketing is blurred. In conducting research on this topic, I found my sources to be polarized between research papers published in established medical journals, and sensationalized health blogs with strategic product placements. What is problematic about how cacao increasingly touted as a “health-food” is not so much the legitimacy and magnitude of the health benefits of cacao, but the blanket advertising of the chocolate as guilt-free health product.
Buijsse B, Feskens EM, Kok FJ, Kromhout D. Cocoa Intake, Blood Pressure, and Cardiovascular Mortality: The Zutphen Elderly Study. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166(4):411-417. doi:10.1001/archinte.166.4.411.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Corti, R., A. J. Flammer, N. K. Hollenberg, and T. F. Luscher. “Cocoa and Cardiovascular Health.” Circulation 119.10 (2009): 1433-441. Web.
Djoussé, Luc, Paul N. Hopkins, Donna K. Arnett, James S. Pankow, Ingrid Borecki, Kari E. North, and R. Curtis Ellison. “Chocolate Consumption Is Inversely Associated with Calcified Atherosclerotic Plaque in the Coronary Arteries: The NHLBI Family Heart Study.” Clinical Nutrition 30.1 (2011): 38-43. Web.
Francene M Steinberg, Monica M Bearden, Carl L Keen, Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: Implications for cardiovascular health, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 103, Issue 2, February 2003, Pages 215-223
Heinrich, Ulrike, Karin Neukam, Hagen Tronnier, Helmut Sies, and Wilhelm Stahl. “Long-Term Ingestion of High Flavanol Cocoa Provides Photoprotection against UV-Induced Erythema and Improves Skin Condition in Women.” American Society for Nutrition (2006). Web. 4 May 2016.
Lippi D. Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food. Nutrients. 2013;5(5):1573-1584. doi:10.3390/nu5051573.
Serafini, Mauro, Rossana Bugianesi, Giuseppe Maiani, Silvia Valtuena, Simone De Santis, and Alan Crozier. “Plasma Antioxidants from Chocolate.” Nature 424.6952 (2003): 1013. Web.
Steinberg FM, Bearden MM, Keen CL: Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: implications for cardiovascular health. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003, 103 (2): 215-223. 10.1053/jada.2003.50028.
Sugar was introduced into the British Empire as a luxury of the rich, over time and across many uses, it found its way into the homes of the average man and also became a staple in the everyday diet. How and why this change occurred is of great importance into understanding the shift in the consumption of sugar. Sugar was introduced as a spice and medicine into the British household, but came to included three other uses: as a decoration, sweetener and preservative. As sugar moved down the list of its uses, it also had social and economic impacts. The progression of sugar usage effected consumption in the British society and caused the shift from sugar as a luxurious good to an opiate of the masses.
In the early decades of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Britain established Caribbean plantations for the sole purpose of growing sugar cane. Britain’s first attempt at doing this occurred upon the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 which was the first English colony in the New World (Mintz 36). Sugar cane was brought in 1619 as were the first African slaves to reach the English colony (Mintz 36). Unfortunately, the sugar cane would not grow. The British Empire was hard pressed to see this mission successful as there was a high demand for sugar at home.
The settlement of Barbados in 1627 proved to be the turning point in British attempts as production with the successful production of “clayed sugars” and “muscovado”. (Mintz 37). “The first British sugar islands was Barbados followed by St Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Jamaica. Grenada and Trinidad were added to the bunch in the late 19th century” (clements.umich.edu). Sugar supply for Britain now came directly from her settlements in the West Indies and added drastically to the consumption of sugar at home as it was now more accessible. “As supply for sugar increased, England’s demands for sugar kept pace. So much so that productions on the islands were barely able to keep up” (Mintz 39). Britain was importing huge amounts of sugar and the condiment in question came to define the “English Character” (Mintz 39).
The sugar trade was successful because it was a highly priced commodity regardless of the volatility of the sugar market, the demands for it rose as consumption did (clements.umich.edu). Sugar production increased as a direct correlation of its consumption. As availability of sugar rose in Britain, so did the many uses of sugar. The British households found new ways to incorporate sugar into their social lives.
Mintz mentions five uses of sugar: 1) as medicine, 2) spice-condiment, 3) decorative material, 4) as a sweetener, 5) as a preservative. The use of sugar in these many forms although coming into usage progressively, also happened interchangeably. Sugar was first introduced into the British household as a Spice and Medicine, in this form, it remained a luxurious good only available to the rich. “The first written mention of sugar was in the pipe scrolls, the official records of royal income and expenditures in 1154-89(Mintz 82). The quantities of sugar at this time were relatively small and since this was an account of the expenditures of the rich, meant that only this class of people could afford to consume sugar. “By the thirteenth century, sugar was still being sold by the loaf and by the pound and although still quite pricey and only accessible to the rich, it was now available even in the remotest areas” (Mintz 82). The shift from a luxury to a commodity available to all would happen in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and with the introduction of other uses of sugar.
In the seventeenth century, the use of sugar as a spice declined and this time period, “saw the prices, supplies and customary uses of sugar change rapidly” (Mintz 86). Sugar featured as a decorative item after this time and was not only available to the noble and rich but now made its way downward to the middle class. As sugar progressed in the list of uses, so did the decline in its exclusiveness and the more prolific it became, the more it was consumed by all. Sugar consumption also had economic ramification as well, “the decline in sugar importance went hand in hand with its increase in economic and dietary importance” (Mintz 95). As sugar became more plentiful, it now became available to the poor.
Sugar became available to the poor in the form of a sweetener and preservative; this accessibility would be responsible for the upward swing of the consumption of sugar. The rise of chocolate, tea and coffee into the British household massively contributed to the large amount of sugar consumption. The use of sugar as a sweetener in tea propelled the “Sugar Equalization Act” which removed the import tariff and lowered the price of sugar of which the direct result was the proliferation of sugar everywhere (clements.umich.edu). The poor used sugar not only as a sweetener but also to supplement their diets as well.
As sugar become more widely used in many forms, it made its way into the household of all citizens regardless of class, this was directly responsible in the shift of sugar consumption in the British society. Sugar in the form of a sweetener and preservative became an everyday commodity, which meant that consumption would greatly rise as it permeated every single dish that was eaten by the British citizens. This standard has come to hold true across the world as sugar features in every single dietary item we consume. However, there is a marked difference in the reception of this commodity, at some point highly revered, sugar is now a social pariah, an evil that has been thrust upon society and should be eradicated.
Clements.umich.edu. Sugar In The Atlantic World. 1923. Document. 21 March 2016.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin, 1985. 274. Print.
brave.info, land of the. Sugar Act. n.d. image. 21 March 2016.
clements.umich.edu. Sugar In The Atlantic World. 1923. image. 21 March 2016.
czarnikow.com. The Inconvenient Truth about Sugar Consumption. 1 May 2014. image. 21 March 2016.