We consume sugar in our everyday lives without even thinking about it. From our morning coffees to our afternoon snacks and evening dinners, sugar is an integral part of the food we ingest, if not constituting the food itself. However, only relatively recently has sugar accessibility and consumption become so widespread. When sugar first was introduced into Europe, it was a very expensive and rare commodity. Over time, the increased availability and affordability of sugar not only drastically increased its consumption, but also shaped many changes in its social perception and usage.
Early Sugar: Spice and Medicine
Sugar was introduced to Europe in around 1100, and at first, it was considered a spice alongside ingredients like nutmeg, pepper, and ginger. These types of spices were treated as “rare and tropical…imports, used sparingly by those who could afford them at all” (Mintz 79), and sugar was regarded in the same way. Because it was so rare and expensive, sugar was “prized among the wealthy and powerful of western Europe” as something that made diets “more digestible, varied, [and] contrastive” (Mintz 80) – due to its expensive nature, its consumption was a luxury reserved for the elite, but because it was so rare, its main uses were for practical and important needs, and in small amounts.
The other main function of sugar from the beginning of its consumption in Europe was as a medicine, but unlike its use as a spice, its medicinal uses sustained for much longer. These two functions were actually quite related – as Fischler explains, “literally all spices were believed to have some kind of medicinal significance” (5), which makes sense given that spices were used in food partially to improve digestibility (7). Its medicinal ability was introduced to Europe through Arab pharmacology, though its utility had already long been established in the Islamic world (British Library). Throughout the 13th-18th centuries in Europe, sugar became so useful in medicine that the phrase “like an apothecary without sugar” was coined (Fischler 5).
These early uses of sugar were shaped by its availability (or lack thereof) as a material in the sense that its main, most common uses were for important and essential purposes – to cure illness or to aid digestibility of food – and often in sparing amounts. As sugar trade became more widespread, however, this allowed sugar to be treated as more commonplace and take on more indulgent purposes. A religious debate sparked in the 12th century over whether it counted as a food that broke fast reflected the shifting attitude at the time toward the everyday uses and roles sugar had.
Developments in Sugar: A Symbol of Elite Status
As time went on, sugar remained expensive but became increasingly accessible. Mintz describes that “during the thirteenth century, sugar was sold both by the loaf and by the pound, and though its price put it beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest, it could be procured even in remote towns” (82). As it grew more accessible among the rich, its uses morphed to include decoration. Sugar pastes could be used to form sculptures which were not only aesthetic, but also self-preserving and of course, edible. These pastes were often made from combining sugar with oil, crushed nuts, and vegetable gums, which resulted in a clay-like substance that could be molded (Mintz 88). Once formed, the sculptures were baked and hardened.
These sugar sculptures were often displayed at celebratory events or feasts, such as royal French feasts starting in the 13th century (Mintz 88). Though they were appreciated and eaten, they did not serve the role of the main food entrées, but rather as transitions between banquet courses (Mintz 88). The displays, called “subtleties,” often represented animals, objects, or buildings and later evolved to take on political symbolism (Mintz 89), establishing them as an art form that could be used to express ideas. At this point, sugar was able to be used not for essential needs, but as an accessory and an artistic medium.
In its role as a decoration and art form, sugar also took on socioeconomic meaning. Because the ingredient was precious and used in large quantities, its decorative use was at first limited to kings (Mintz 90). The material was so rare that no others could even afford quantities substantial enough to create sculptures out of. Thus, it was viewed as a display of “wealth, power, and status” for a host to be able to procure such valuable food for guests, and guests eating these symbols validated that status (Mintz 90).
Sugar importation stabilized in the 14th century, and this practice had trickled down to merchants and nobility by the 16th century (Mintz 90). By the late 16th century, it had permeated families who were not considered noble or particularly wealthy, even if they were still in England’s higher socioeconomic levels (Mintz 91). Recipes for sugar pastes began to appear in cookbooks and became increasingly widespread (Mintz 92), indicating their use among more common households. As sugar sculptures continued to trickle downward, they inevitably became less grand, compared to what kings might have displayed previously. This was also in part because as recipes became more common, they adapted to the more commonplace needs and resources of consumers. For example, one adaptation in Mrs. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery described “jumballs” and “hedgehogs,” which were little dough confections cut into pretty figures that were meant to be admired and eaten (Mintz 93). The focus became less on the ability to spin art and decoration out of sugar, and more on providing quantities of sugar to guests.
Though today, sugar does not carry the same signal of status, these ornamental practices still persist to some degree. We still often use sugar as a decoration on treats, albeit on a much smaller scale and solely for the purpose of aesthetics. And on special holidays or occasions, we still seem to turn to sugar to symbolize our feelings.
Sugar Today: Food Staple
As sugar’s symbolic importance to the elite declined, its importance in the general population increased, contributing to how we consume it today. Today, sugar is no longer expensive as it once was, and it is very easily acquirable. Though it has lost its original meaning as a status symbol, the increased accessibility has allowed it to rise up as a household staple. It is an integral part of many food recipes, and in many cases, sugar is the main food itself – whether we are consuming it as dessert, as a sweet snack, or as a candy treat. Often, we consume sugar without even thinking about it or even realizing that we are. In fact, in many countries, sugar is consumed on the order of many tens of kilograms per person per year, on average. Thus, as sugar has shed its previous defining limitations of expensiveness and scarcity, it has become fully integrated with everyday life, spanning consumption purposes which vary from the medicinal to the decorative to the nourishing.
When chocolate won the hearts of Baroque Europe in the 17th century, Cosimo de Medici III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, was not one to be left out. Medici was one who “spared no expense to summon the rarest and most precious condiments from all sections of the globe to his table” (Coe & Coe, 2013, p.142); chocolate was surely one of these condiments. The best-known recipe that came out of the Medici court was the coveted and covert jasmine chocolate, concocted by Medici’s physician, Francesco Redi. The jasmine chocolate recipe came to fame, not only because of chocolate’s supposed health benefits, but also because of its status as a culinary innovation and social power in Baroque Europe. To date, the jasmine chocolate recipe—and flavored chocolates at large—plays a role in our consumer culture and relationship with chocolate.
Chocolate itself made its entry to Europe under the guise of a panacea. The Spaniards stripped the original spiritual and ritual implications chocolate held for the Mesoamericans, labelling chocolate as a medicine fitting in the Galen humoral theory, which was popular in the Baroque Age (Coe & Coe, 2013, p.126-128). Paolo Zacchia, a Roman physician, suggested that drinking chocolate in the morning helps comfort the stomach and aid digestion (Coe & Coe, 2013, p.138). It was under such health claims that chocolate made its entrance. While chocolate was introduced as a medicine, its usage expanded as it gained popularity around royal courts.
Yet while chocolate has its health benefits, this alone did not explain why Redi’s jasmine chocolate recipe was so sought after. Flavoring chocolate was not a novelty. In fact, flavoring often had to be used to conceal the taste of the high fat content of cacao beans, the precursor of drinking chocolate (Schulte Beerbühl, 2014, p.14). The flavor that chocolate takes on was often a homage to regional and national taste preferences: Spaniards and French preferred vanilla, Englishmen treasured mint (Schulte Beerbühl, 2014, p.15), and the originators of chocolate—Mesoamericans—included spices like chili (Martin, 2020).
Redi himself was a curator and innovator of flavors. Redi produced his own twist on chocolate by introducing novel European ingredients—“the fresh peel of citrons, and lemons, and the very genteel odour of jasmine” (Coe & Coe, 2013, p.145). Redi believed that together with more traditional Mesoamerican flavorings like cinnamon and vanilla, these exquisite scents have a “prodigious effect” towards consuming chocolate (Coe & Coe, 2013, p.145). In other words, these scents elevated the already wonderful chocolate tasting experience. As a spice, chili was not popular in Italy. However, other flavor elements viewed as more baroque (and perhaps Eurocentric) were highly coveted and popular in the European courts.
While Redi was willing to divulge his recipes for chocolate laden with citron, lemon, and ambergris scents, he guarded his jasmine chocolate recipe jealously, politely refusing requests from nobles for sharing the recipe (Coe & Coe, 2013, p.145). When the recipe was finally made public after Redi’s death, it was still incredibly challenging to recreate. The recipe required picking a significant number of fresh jasmine buds in the morning, layering it with cacao nibs, and allowing the buds to bloom while mingling with the scent of cacao. Modern recipes estimate that around 250 jasmine flowers were required per kilogram of cacao nibs per day (Amore, 2014). To add on to the laborious process, this layering technique needs to be repeated for 10-12 days (Segnit, 2018; Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 146).
As later culinary documentations agreed, Redi’s creation was truly an innovation, as it is incredibly challengiing to create and retain a floral note in chocolates—and food in general. Notably, this unique and delicate jasmine flavor was completely natural, as it was flavored with Jasminum sambac, a species of jasmine native to southern Asia, India, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka (Lippi, 2009, p. 1102). Imaginably, it was likely challenging and expensive to acquire such flower. As a shortcut to achieving flavor, people use absolutes, also known as essential oils, nowadays. It was perhaps the challenge of creating this jasmine chocolate that earned its fame, garnering the title of the most “baroque” of all chocolate.
Beyond a gastronomic feat, or perhaps because of this culinary innovation, exquisitely flavored chocolates became a symbol of status and prestige. Cosimo III’s jasmine chocolate was often sent to other European courts as a gift (Lippi, 2009). It was also used to rival the products of other courts, such as the Spanish chocolate paste (Lippi, 2009). In a lavish court like the Grand Duke’s, one can imagine how this tightly guarded recipe was a showcase of the ability to produce rare commodities, in turn displaying the opulence of the court. Chocolate was not merely a medicine or a delicacy to enjoy: it was a statement of power. It was under the name of fame that chocolate elevated beyond medicinal.
This trend was not unique to Italy. When it entered Baroque Europe, chocolate was first associated with royalty and nobility— as a delicacy that was inaccessible to the public. With the innovations of floral chocolates, it was not soon before the “Gift of Gods” (Martin, 2020) was given as a gift of power around Baroque Europe.
As it transcends to modern times, what is the significance of jasmine chocolate to us? Importantly, the social significance of the jasmine chocolate and flavored chocolate at large still remain today. It is no surprise that we have taken some hints from Baroque Europe, as chocolate continues to serve as gifts during special and daily occasions.
As a testament to jasmine chocolate’s popularity, people still attempt recreate this painstaking recipe. A quick Google search for “jasmine chocolate” returns both recipes and products. The website “It’s Tuscany” boasts a small piece of the famed jasmine chocolate from “Granduca de Toscana” for 5 euros. Beyond jasmine, the recipe also contains cinnamon and candied orange and appears to use some flavor extracts of vanilla and jasmine (we do not know if this is artificial or natural). If Redi were alive, he would not have approved this usage.
Towards a more laborious attempt, Italy magazine reveals the below recipe recreating the famed jasmine chocolate during “La festa dei Gelsomini” (The Jasmine Festival) (Amore, 2014). The process documented the amount of labour and care devoted to such a work of art. As evidenced in this recipe, the historical influences of chocolate have a strong hold on our present view, relationship with, and preferences of chocolates. And yes, jasmine chocolate still has the popularity it had back in Baroque Europe.
For its significance in gastronomical innovation, health, and politics, the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s jasmine chocolate recipe is one to be remembered. While chocolate was introduced as a medicine to the European courts, it was quickly popularized, and the innovation of floral scents elevated the Tuscan court’s social status. Redi perhaps did not forsee the long-lasting popularity of his chocolate through present day, yet he inspired a lasting elevation in technique, in flavor, and in power. As Redi aptly stated: e secondo l’arte si fa il cioccolato—chocolate is made, according to art (Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, 2014)
The Renowned Jasmine Chocolate of The Grand Duke of Tuscany
(Recipe from Coe & Coe, 2013, p146)
10lb [4.5kg] toasted cacao beans, cleaned and coarsely crushed
Fresh jasmine flowers
8lb [3.6kg] white sugar, well-dried
3oz [85g] “perfect” vanilla beans
4 to 6 oz [115 to 170g] “perfect” cinnamon
2 scruples [1/12 oz, 2.5g] ambergris
In a box or similar utesil, alternate layers of jasmine with layers of the crushed cacao, and let it sit for 24 hours. Then mix these up, and add more alternating layers of flowers and cacao, followed by the same treatment. This must be done ten or twelve times, so as to permeate the cacao with the odor of the jasmine. Next, take the remaining ingredients and add them to the mixed cacao and jasmine, and grind them together on a slightly warm metate; if the metate be too hot, the odor might be lost.
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion”. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. Feb. 12, 2020. Class Lecture 3.
Schulte Beerbühl, M. (2014). Diffusion, Innovation and Transnational Cooperation: Chocolate in Europe (c. Eighteenth–Twentieth Centuries). Food and History, 12(1), 9–32. https://doi.org/10.1484/J.FOOD.5.105141
When we think of chocolate and sugar, the first words that usually pop into our heads are ones like “sweetness”, “indulgence”, and “love”. However, rarely do we ever think about them in the context of medicine, but the historical associations of chocolate and sugar with healing disease are critical in understanding their popularity in the modern era. Examining the history of chocolate and sugar as medicinal substances shows that the European obsession with perceived therapeutic qualities of both allowed for their popularization and eventual exploitative systems that persist to present day. The versatility of chocolate and sugar allowed it to remain widely sought after in Europe and led to their natural development into staple commodities.
Mesoamerican societies such as the Mayans, Olmecs, and Aztecs all consumed cacao and it had great value as medicine. Helen Thompson of the Smithsonian Magazine explains that Mayan “patients consumed a cacao-based concoction to treat skin rashes, fever and seizures” following ceremonial chants. A translated version of a Mayan ceremonial chant with mention of cacao can be found here: http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/grammar/section32.html. She also details how Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagún noted that the Aztecs “brewed a drink from cacao and silk cotton tree bark (Castilla elastica) to treat infections,” another indication that cacao was popular in medicinal contexts. As Europeans began to encounter Mesoamerican civilization, there was great fascination with the medicinal properties of cacao. Thompson uses the example of a Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma who in 1631 writes that cacao “provokes urine, cures the stone, and expels poison, and preserves from all infection disease” (Thompson 2015). Spanish physician Agustin Farfán in his book, Tratado breve de medicina y de todas las enfermedades que a cada passo se ofrecen describes the use of cacao as medicine, and this served as an influential piece of work for European cacao consumption (Martin 2020, Lecture 3). Similar accounts can be consistently found throughout European writings about cacao and the Aztec civilization. To those living in Europe without having direct contact with the people preparing and consuming cacao, the only source of information about cacao was through these writings.
Upon arrival in Europe, cacao was viewed and used as a therapeutic food modeling the practices of the Aztecs. Michael and Sophie Coe write that the to the Spanish, cacao was “a drug, medicine, in the humoral system to which they all adhered” (Coe and Coe 2013, 126). The prevailing medical science of the day was Galen’s humoral theory that posited that the four humors had qualities of being hot, cold, wet, or dry. Substances were treated similarly, and cacao was argued to have cold and dry qualities that could help to treat hot diseases (Lippi 2013). This medical association of cacao was critical to its longevity in Europe that allowed it to develop into a common food and kitchen staple. As cacao persisted around European society, there was more time for experimentation and creation of recipes that slowly allowed for the transition from cacao as medicine to cacao as food. As people began to discover chocolate recipes that were highly palatable and marketable, the focus shifted to making it something accessible to all of European society. It has now grown to become an important cultural symbol for sweetness and delicacy, and an incredibly profitable market that has little association with medical properties. However, if not for the initial medical applications of cacao, it is difficult to envision that cacao would have been around long enough for it to evolve into what it has become.
The story of sugar’s introduction into European societies is similar. Mintz explains that one of sugar’s primary uses in its early days in Europe was as a medicine and says that, “white sugar was commonly prescribed in medicines, and combinations of white foods at times enjoyed a popularity out of all proportion to their therapeutic efficacy” (Mintz 1985, 87). This use as a medicine was not serendipitous, but rather a replication of African and Arabic practices. Mintz details how sugar’s “medical utility had already been firmly established by physicians of the time…and it entered slowly into European medical practice via Arab pharmacology” (Mintz 1985, 80). Though sugar was also being used as a spice and as a sweetener, it was not the only ingredient that was prevalent at the time. In fact, Mintz highlights that for a long time, sugar was a commodity only enjoyed by the wealthy and elite of society. Given this information, one must question whether sugar could have stayed as relevant and popular if not for the fact that it was perceived to have medicinal properties. The common prescription of sugar as a medicine allowed it to permeate through the upper class, and it became a critical ingredient in recipes. Both cacao and sugar underwent progressions from rare, highly prized medical commodities to common culinary staples that we cannot envision society without.
The great irony here is that modern research has shown excessive consumption of chocolate and sugar can have serious health consequences. Studies have shown that sugar is a key contributor to and a risk factor for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (Harvard Health Publishing 2017). Doctors and health professionals generally call for a reduction in sugar and chocolate intake, but 17th and 18th century Europeans would be shocked at the transformation in the perception of cacao and sugar for health. The popularity of chocolate and sugar in contemporary society has blossomed to the point that the evidence for negative health consequences will not be a driving force for its demise if it were to ever come. It is important to recognize, though, that the perceived therapeutic effect of both foods was critical in their popularization. Along with it came the consequences of exploitative practices, and as consumers today, we must question if the apparent health benefits of food outweigh the potential abuses that may come with its production and consumption.
Today, we tend to think of cannabis and cacao consumption as a treat or indulgence. Yet, the use and cultivation of these two plants date back through antiquity. Back then, the beliefs about the purpose of cannabis and cacao consumption was much different and far less restrained by negative social or biological implications.
While much of the eurocentric understanding of cacao is extrapolated from studying the Aztecs, the Mesoamerican origins of cacao can be traced back even further to the Olmec civilization. The Olmecs, possible ancestors of the Mayans, created a flourishing society in the humid lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast around 1500 BC. The humid, tropical rainforest climate created ideal conditions for growing the Theobroma Cacao Tree, but terrible conditions for archeological preservation. That being said, linguistics experts have deduced the origins of the word “cacao” to the Mixe-Zoquean language used by the Olmecs in 1000 BC. Further, excavators discovered a stone bowl with chemical remnants of cacao (theobromine) at the Olmec capital city (San Lorenzo) and reasonably conclude they were among the first to discover the chocolate process (Coe & Coe, 84).
Postdating the Olmecs, The Maya existed from 250 AD until its collapse in the ninth century. The Maya thoroughly advanced wisdom and is remembered particularly for its contributions to agriculture, food, and spirituality. Cacao, then pronounced “kakaw,” played an important social role for Mayans, even earning its own hieroglyph. Archaeologists find cacao heavily present in the primary source database, especially in connection with the gods. In visual and written documents, cacao is presented in a sacred light—something consumed by the gods to support supernatural vitality. Specifically, this is evidenced in the Dresden Codex and Popul Vuh, which both feature cacao in direct connection with the gods. For this reason, many historians refer to cacao as “the food of the gods.” Drinking chocolate was the premier means of cacao consumption in Mayan society, serving a certain symbolic importance in marriage and fertility rituals. Beyond its connection with the gods, cacao was also considered to be of medicinal value in Mayan society; the Maya used cacao for its digestive, anaesthetic, anti-inflammatory, and energy related benefits (Martin).
The Aztecs, from 1300-1521 AD, also believed cocoa had a religious significance. The Theobroma cacao tree was considered divine—a bridge between earth and heaven. Beyond the ritualistic significance of cacao consumption to connect the Aztecs with the supernatural world, they also used chocolate for medical purposes. Archaeologists have uncovered Aztec documentation of healing rites including cacao in ancient codices. Two manuscripts specifically, Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams, describe the proper medicinal applications of cacao for physical ailments and spiritual afflictions (Martin). Cacao was administered in a variety of different ways to treat a range of illnesses, including skin eruptions, fevers and seizures. Above all, chocolate was believed to foster vitality and improve love.
The use and cultivation of cannabis dates back through antiquity as well. In ancient China, 2700 BC, Emperor Shen Neng prescribed tea with cannabis dissolved in it to treat a number of illnesses. Marijuana was popular as a medicine, not a delicacy. Its effectiveness led to the proliferation of cannabis as medicine throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (Stack). Primarily, cannabis was used as a stress and pain relief medication—especially effective during childbirth (Prioreschi). Ancient documents reveal a caveat to the overconsumption of marijuana, marking its negative side effects as impotence, blindness and seeing demons. By the late 18th century, cannabis as medicine made its way to the occidental world as a remedy for inflamed skin, incontinence and venereal disease. Specifically, one Irish doctor named William O’Shaughnessy praised the medicinal benefits of marijuana and preached about its ability to effectively alleviate pain and nausea (Stack).
While cacao played a sacred role in their society, there is ample evidence the Maya used cannabis to understand the universe as well. Mayan hieroglyphs and art also depict the act of smoking, whether it be tobacco or marijuana. Archaeologists contend the Maya cultivated marijuana in farms and ground cannabis to create psychoactive beverages. As alluded to earlier, drinking was also the preferred method for cacao consumption in their ancient society. The psychoactive effects of cannabis allowed the Mayans to communicate with the gods and pray off demons. Similar to the medicinal uses of cacao, cannabis was used to treat bug bites, snake bites, and alleviate other physical ailments (Civilized).
Today, just as our perception of these ancient civilizations, our realms of knowledge surrounding cacao and cannabis are quite different. As we move forward from ancient times through history, we begin to see the understanding of cannabis and cacao develop alongside disciplines of knowledge. For example, the further development of scientific methods and documentation of natural phenomena continues to help society understand these plants with a more robust fact base. While it has been treated as an illicit drug in America for hundreds of years, cannabis has recently been proven to remedy severe medical impairments, such as epilepsy, and alleviate chronic pain, especially for chemotherapy patients (Zurer).
Scientists have found many similarities between chocolate and marijuana. In 1996, researchers found cacao consumption to activate cannabinoid receptors in the human brain providing users a subtle “high” similar to the effects of marijuana. While three substances in cacao were proven to activate cannabinoid receptors, the most prevalent finding was an increase in anandamide levels. The paper explains, “anandamide is a lipid that binds to cannabinoid receptors and mimics the psychoactive effects of the drug” (James). Because chocolate is believed to enhance the effects of cannabis consumption, these findings imply that medical marijuana can be cushioned and moderated by combining the dose with cacao (Zurer).
These findings have affected not only the medical realm, but the legal realm as well; one lawyer sought to recuse his client by arguing the client tested positive for cannabis due to high levels of chocolate consumption (Tytgat, J., Van Boven, M. & Daenens, P.). While this bogus argument was refuted, it still goes to show the sociopolitical landscape is changing as science elucidates more and more botanical similarities between these two plants. Perhaps it is time we retreated from our perception of chocolate and marijuana consumption as gluttonous indulgences back to the ancient purpose of fostering wellness.
One could say the history of chocolate is quite rich, pun intended. Throughout history, chocolate has been enjoyed and employed in an endless amount of creative ways. In contemporary society we view chocolate as nothing more than a delicious indulgence. However, chocolate has had numerous implications in medicine since its genesis, and is even proven to have health benefits today. The utilization of chocolate in medicine has evolved tremendously throughout history. The aim of this blog post is to explore and analyze this evolution of chocolate in medicine through a historical lens.
The earliest evidence regarding the medical uses of chocolate can be traced back to early Mesoamerican civilizations. At this time cocao was prepared as a beverage, and had many different uses. The most common use of the cocao in early Mesoamerica was by crushing cocao into a powder or paste and mixing it with spices, occasionally maiz, and water (Wilson 2012). The Spanish monk we discussed in class, Bernardino de Sahagun, collected extensive information on Mexican medical practices and culture. He documented that Mesoamericans would use the cocao concoction as a therapeutic medication, treating ailments that involved inflammation and pain (Wilson 2012). He warned against consuming copious amounts of a particular form of the beverage in which the beans used were unroasted. Short-term adverse health effects could be observed in which the user was found to be deranged and confused. When consumed in moderation, the cocao drink was supposedly invigorating. This chocolate beverage was seen as one-stop-shop therapeutic drink for any and all ailments (Nutrients 2013). Circa 1528, the Spanish conquistador Herman Cortes brought cocoa beans back to Spain. Understanding its commercial value, Cortes quite literally realized the “fruits” of his labor.
Once the cocao bean reached Spain, it quickly became known as the “brown gold,” and rapidly spread across Europe. The video below outlines the geographical movement of chocolate and how it was regarded across Spain and Europe.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, many accounts of the miracle bean advertised the medicinal benefits of cocao in Spain (Journal 2015). The Court of Madrid, which served as the capital of the Kingdom of Phillip II, was the vehicle through which chocolate would make its grand debut across Europe. Phillip II sent his royal physician, Francisco Hernandez, to the new world so that he may study the flora and gather information about plants with medicinal potential. Hernandez returned and was among the first in Europe to consider chocolate as regulator in allopathic medicine. He claimed that chocolate would fortify health by ensuring the body and its elements were in balance (Journal 2015). Through these beginnings, chocolate became a major topic of research and discussion in the medical community as its popularity spread across Europe. Many studies such as those conducted by Colmenero de Ledesma, a physician from Andalusia, documented the health benefits of cocao. As chocolate made its way across the world and evolved into the sweet treat we know today, the medical community learned more about the real effects of chocolate.
Before we begin our discussion about the contemporary evidence about the health effects of chocolate, it is important to delineate the differences between processed milk chocolate and purer forms of cocao. As chocolate became industrialized, the processed sugars and additive ingredients created a totally different product than the purer forms of cocao seen in history. It is no secret that the processed sugars found within most milk chocolates act as a detriment to our health (Albritton 2012). However, contemporary evidence suggests that there are benefits associated with the consumption of cocoa. Studies have shown that cocoa can prevent certain cardiovascular diseases by lowering oxidative stress and blood pressure (Van Wensem 2015). The video found in the embedded website URL below outlines some of the potential health benefits of consuming cocoa.
Several studies have uncovered that cocoa does in fact act as a regulatory medication for the body. It has been documented that cocoa has anti-inflammatory effects, anti-obesity effects, and helps the body recover from exercise and strenuous activity more efficiently. These benefits are realized due to the compounds found within cocoa called flavonoids, which provide defense against free radicals (Van Wensem 2015). It seems as though some of the benefits that medical professionals in early Europe theorized were actually true. Although there is significant scientific evidence to support the potential physical and health benefits of cocoa, there remains much uncertainty. Especially since the cocoa that is popularly consumed today is processed with sugar and mixed with several additives and sweeteners for widespread production. Health professionals have reached a general consensus that the beneficial dosage is about ten grams of dark chocolate per day, with as high of a cocoa concentration as possible (Van Wensem 2015). e
The history of chocolate is rich indeed, and its historical and contemporary presence in the medical field is undoubtedly prevalent. Medical professionals in early Spain and Europe advertised chocolate as healthy with medicinal properties. Cocoa’s uses in medicine evolved throughout history, yet cocoa is used in vastly different ways today than was prescribed in early Europe. It seems that contemporary evidence supports a significant amount of these claims in a nutshell, or should I say bean pod? P
Albritton, Robert. 2012. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” pp. 342-354
Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food.” Nutrients, vol. 5, no. 5, 2013, pp. 1573–1584.
Lippi, Donatella. “Sin and Pleasure: the History of Chocolate in Medicine.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, vol. 63, no. 45, 2015, pp. 9936–41.
Van Wensem, Joke. “Overview of Scientific Evidence for Chocolate Health Benefits.” Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, vol. 11, no. 1, 2015, pp. 176–177.
Wilson, Philip K, et al. “Chocolate as Medicine: A Changing Framework of Evidence Throughout History.” Chocolate and Health, Springer Milan, Milano, 2012, pp. 1–16.
*Note: Works Cited only for scholarly articles, multimedia sources are cited in-text per MLA format.
For many people, including myself, chocolate is the ultimate treat. Like most other treats, however, I try to enjoy in moderation because although it would increase my happiness, it would probably increase my waistline as well. Sometimes, I am able to justify it because I see studies in the news saying that dark chocolate can be good for you, or that by buying this fair trade, ethically sourced, organic, and environmentally conscious chocolate will help save the world! There’s a lot of conflicting information for consumers about whether or not chocolate is healthy for you. And after taking this class, I have realized that chocolate’s relationship with health has shifted and changed since chocolate has been consumed. From early Mesoamerican medicinal uses of chocolate and Baroque Europe’s interpretation of chocolate and humors, to modern industrialization of chocolate, scientific research on chocolate, and confusing and conflicting marketing for chocolate, our understanding and use of chocolate as medicine and as a health food has evolved over time. As different societies and cultures discovered cacao over time, they had to ask themselves if “chocolate good, bad, or indifferent for one’s health” (Coe 122)? Even though we have made enormous strides in understanding medicine and health, this question is still relevant for all chocolate consumers today as we try and navigate science, research, and our own desire for justifying our chocolate consumption. Chocolate has completely morphed from a highly regarded medicinal tool to a mostly over-processed commonplace treat whose deceptive marketing confuses consumers and clouds their judgement in making healthy decisions and takes away from the health benefits that can come from consuming high quality chocolate in moderation.
Cacao has been seen as a medicinal tool since the beginning of its consumption with the Mesoamericans. Cacao at this time was a powerful substance that not only had “economic and gastronomic value […] but deep symbolic meaning as well” (Coe 101). Cacao had immense value in many aspects of Mesoamerican life besides just basic sustenance. The Popol Vuh, an old Mayan text depicting traditional Mayan myths, often references cacao in its various tales and sheds light on how highly valued cacao was for their culture. Because of this immense value placed on cacao, cacao infiltrated their understanding of religion, sustenance, class, and rituals. This deep relationship with chocolate also manifested itself in their medicine, and cacao was used to help cure ailments that ranged anywhere from digestive issues to skin issues to seizures (Martin, Lecture). Chilam Balam, an eighteenth century manuscript copied from Mesoamerican
codices, highlights the various ailments that cacao can treat and helps to demonstrate how highly valued it was in curing people from a massive range of health issues. Unlike much of modern medicine, medicine at this time was much more holistic and cacao was just botanical piece of a much larger of a health puzzle that incorporated religion, rituals, class, and botany. Like many treasured and cherished substances, cacao was often reserved for the elite and was not fully accessible to all walks of life (Lippi). Although modern medicine and science would suggest that cacao would not necessarily be a powerful medicine with lots of healing success, Maya “royal rulers consumed vast quantities of it in their banquets, and archaeology has proved that they were in better health and lived far longer than their chocolate-deprived subjects” (Coe 32). The Mesoamericans were some of the first people to value and consume cacao, and truly believed in its powers to help heal.
Cacao started to take on a new cultural and medicinal meaning once it arrived in
Baroque Europe. One of the biggest changes was that “the Spaniards… stripped it of the spiritual meaning which it had for the Mesoamericans, and imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya: for the invaders, it was a drug, medicine, in the humoral system to which they all adhered” (Coe 126). For the Mesoamericans, cacao had cultural, religious, ritualistic, and medicinal uses, whereas when it made its way over to Europe it was just used for sustenance and medicine. Further, the way in which the Spaniards used it for medicine was completely different than the way that the Mesoamericans used it. The Galenic theory of humors, which was a large driving force for understanding health and medicine at this time, suggests that the body contains four humors: hot or cold, and dry or moist (Coe 127). A healthy body must have all four humors balanced, and the Spaniards used cacao as a tool to find balance within their bodies. Philip II’s Rolyan Physician Francisco Hernandez after learning more about cacao, found it to be a powerful medicinal tool because “The cacao seed is ‘temperate in nature,’ but leaning to the ‘cold and humid’; on the whole, it is very nourishing” (Coe 122). Because cacao on its own was considered cool, it was believed at the time that drinking cacao could help cure someone when they were too hot or had a fever. However, because it was considered relatively neutral, it could be manipulated to cure other ailments but adding different spices. For example, adding a spice like mecaxochitl would make the cacao ‘hotter’ and therefore could be used to cure other ailments associated with being too cool (Coe 122). The Europeans during this period interpreted cacao as medicine in a completely different way than their cacao consuming predecessors did; by dropping the religious significance and viewing cacao as a tool to balance out the body they morphed cacao’s medical use and significance to something of their own.
As history progressed, cacao’s role in medicine became less and less prominent. With the development and advancement of medicine, cacao was no longer used as medicine. Further, with the widespread accessibility to chocolate due to manufacturing, chocolate completely morphed from the days of sugarless cacao beverages to the chocolate that we know and love today. Chocolate’s cultural significance slowly changed and morphed into a more commonplace, everyday treat because of various factors like accessibility, change in the way its produced, and change in what ingredients go into it. Before modern medicine developed, it made sense that cacao was used as a medicinal tool. Now, however, our society thinks about chocolate more holistically in terms of how it affects our overall health rather than a cure for an ailment.
One of the biggest changes for chocolate that made it more accessible was the commodification and industrialization of chocolate. It was not until the late nineteenth century that the food industry became industrialized with the development of preservation, mechanization, retailing, and transportation (Goody 72). Foods were now able to be preserved for longer with canning and refrigeration, could be standardized and have easier, consistent packaging with mechanization, were sold in closed stores instead of open markets, and could be transported all across the country for more accessibility to the masses (Martin, Lecture). These changes not only made food much more accessible to the masses, but also made it significantly cheaper and “in 1898 in the United States a dollar bought forty-two percent more milk, fifty-one percent more coffee, a third more beef, twice as much sugar, and twice as much flour as in 1872” (Laudan 41). For example, Milton Hershey’s Hershey’s chocolate was able to grow into the brand that it is today because of industrialization. After Hershey was able to find their perfect recipe that differed greatly from traditional European chocolate, they worked on “refining the process and adapting it for large scale production. By the winter, the new factory building alongside Spring Creek was covered by a roof and workers were quickly outfitting the interior. Two railroad spurs were being built to connect the plant to Philadelphia and Reading Railroad” (D’Antonio 108). Industrialization gave Hershey the ability to produce and distribute its chocolate quickly and cheaper; however, this did sacrifice the quality. Chocolate products tried to figure out how to minimize the amount of actual cacao that was in them, and the result was that “these hyperpalatable products get the bulk of their calories from a few cheap commodities (corn, soy, wheat) flavored with cheap fats and cheap sweeteners” (Kawash 26). Rather than consuming high quality chocolate with a high percentage of cacao, it was easier and cheaper to load up these products with sugar and transform much of chocolate into candy. By decreasing the cacao and increasing the sugar and fat, mass produced big chocolate has become unhealthy.
Chocolate’s popularity began to shift in the mid twentieth century and people began to view chocolate as unhealthy and dangerous. For most of chocolate’s history it was thought to be medicinal, healing, or simply neutral/not having much influence on one’s health, but for the first time it was viewed as unhealthy and bad for you. The temperance movement, which was very anti-alcohol and intoxication slowly began to include chocolate and people believed that chocolate could act as a gateway to other dangerous habits like drinking and gambling (Martin, Lecture). Although believing that consuming chocolate and candy would lead to a life of sin seems dramatic today, chocolate and candy have maintained a somewhat of negative reputation since. Today, eating too much chocolate or candy can be seen as a slippery slope toward obesity rather than other bad habits like drinking. Ever since people began to view chocolate as unhealthy, whether it is because of its connection to the the temperance movement or to obesity, the conversation has shifted about how to enjoy in moderation.
Is chocolate healthy?
Today, however, there is a lot of conflicting information about whether or not chocolate contributes to health. I asked some of my peers and family members whether they not they thought chocolate was healthy, and there were conflicting answers. A lot of them followed up by asking what kind of chocolate was I talking about? My mom, for example, said that “it’s good if you stay away from the Hershey’s crap, but dark chocolate is good for you!” When I pressed and asked her to elaborate on how it’s good for you, she sheepishly admitted that she didn’t actually know and had just “read stuff.” Before taking this class, I would likely have said the same answer, however, there are various studies that confidently show that consuming some chocolate can have health benefits. For example, chocolate can improve cardiovascular health since there is an inverse association between chocolate flavonoid intake and coronary heart disease mortality in men and women by several studies over many countries” (Albritton 345). These kinds of studies are common, and there is no shortage of research sharing chocolate’s health benefits. Harvard this past month even cited an article on the Harvard Medical School Harvard Health Blog suggesting that chocolate can help with vision because the “cocoa flavanols enhance availability of oxygen and nutrients to the blood vessels of the eye and brain” (Tello 2018). It is important to note that most of these studies are looking at dark chocolate, rather than the chocolate candy that comes to mind when we think of chocolate. The early consumers of chocolate clearly had the right idea in mind when consuming chocolate as medicine, and now we have scientific studies that do demonstrate chocolate’s health benefits.
Even though chocolate has many great health benefits, most of the chocolate that Americans consume is detrimental for their health. Marketers take advantage of these studies on dark chocolate in moderation and hope that consumers assume that it applies to the kinds of candy bars that line the aisles of supermarkets, gas stations, and vending machines. By placing chocolate in these highly visible areas, marketers are taking advantage of “impulse marketing” that “deliberately encourage consumption” (New England Medical Journal 8). Candy and chocolate manufacturers are putting consumers at risk for over consuming highly processed chocolate and not giving them the full understanding of the potential health risks of overconsumption.
For example, this advertisement from Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread, suggests to consumers that Nutella is a healthy food that kids can eat for balanced and nutritious breakfast. They even list the ingredients and tell the consumers that it’s mostly hazelnuts with just “a hint of cocoa.” However, if you look at the nutrition facts and do a little more digging, like this particular video did, it becomes apparent that Nutella is not the kind of balanced breakfast you would want your children to eat. Although chocolate does have some health benefits, consumers are more often consuming too much of the bad kind of chocolate because they’re overwhelmed with misinformation.
Overall, chocolate and cacao have had an interesting relationship with health since the beginning of its consumption. Early cacao lovers had deep cultural and ritualistic ties to cacao, and truly believed in its ability to heal and act as medicine. As time progressed, chocolate lost much of its cultural and medicinal significance and when it became industrialized it completely changed chocolate. This new chocolate was cheaper, accessible, and contained less chocolate and more sugar and fat. This lead to an increase in skepticism of chocolate’s health, and people believed that over consuming chocolate had dangerous risks for both one’s health and one’s lifestyle. Even though consuming chocolate in moderation is still a good rule of thumb for healthy chocolate consumption, modern science now shows that there are positive health benefits to consuming chocolate. However, most chocolate consumers are over consuming the over processed chocolate because of the deceptive marketing from chocolate companies. Chocolate’s relationship to health has been complicated since the beginning, and that still rings true for today. However, even though modern chocolate can have some health issues, it is a relief to know that chocolate can benefit the body just as it benefits the soul.
Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” 2012. pp.
Bodily Fluids” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 22 November 2010.
The Arab-Islamic Civilization spread the cultivation and consumption of sugar, changing worldwide habits and trends in food culture and creations to the modern day. Straddling three continents, Islamic empires in the medieval era allowed an intermingling of cultures and traditions, from East to West. “The Arab expansion westward marked a turning point in the European experience of sugar…the Arabs introduced sugar cane, its cultivation, the art of sugar making, and a taste for this different kind of sweetness.” (Mintz, 23) It would change the course of history and affect lands and peoples much far away; laying the foundations of large scale plantations that would eventually be established in the Americas and Caribbean Islands.
In a few centuries, sugar went from being a scarce spice and medicine, to a widely consumed, daily staple product of people of all economic standing, all over the world. The crystallization of sugar first started in India and was used in Persia by the sixth century. After the rise of Islam, the Arabs entered Persia and were introduced to the age-old process of sugar produced from cane, adopting and further developing these techniques. They planted sugar-cane in plantations across their empires, in Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, Al-Andalus (Spain and Portugal), and by the tenth century the Arabs were growing the crop in Sicily, all the while perfecting the process of refining it in sugar mills. (Salloum, 4)
Picture 1: Map Showing Sugar Cultivation by Muslims
In the lands of the Mediterranean, Arabs developed agriculture and introduced new crops to the land, such as, orange, lemon, banana, saffron, fig, date trees, and most importantly, sugar cane. Wherever the Arabs went, they brought sugar, the product and technology of its production with them, to the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Crete and Malta. (Mintz, 25) During the Muslim rule in Spain, there was numerous contributions of irrigation, soil management, and scholarly efforts in farming innovation. (Hughes, 68) These plants were used not only in agriculture, but for pharmacy, gardens, luxury trade, and arts.
For nearly eight centuries, under her (Muslim) rulers, Spain set to all of Europe a shining example of a civilized and enlightened State. Her fertile provinces, rendered doubly prolific by the industry and engineering skill of her conquerors, bore fruit an hundredfold. Cities innumerable sprang up in the rich valleys of the Guadalquivir and the Guadiana, whose names, and names only, still commemorate the vanished glories of their past. (Lane-Poole, vii)
Irrigation and agricultural practices established then has had a lasting impact. “The knowledge, handwork, commodities, and luxuries of the East were brought by caravans to the farther East, and came by shipping from the Levant to the Mediterranean ports of Spain. Seeds and plants were thus transported; thus, came rice and cotton and the sugar-cane”. (Coppee, 397) Sugar was cultivated as far north as Castellon, which is probably the most northerly point of its commercial cultivation. To the south, it was grown in Arabia Felix, Abyssinia, and the islands and the mainland of East Africa from the ninth century. From Arabia Felix, or directly from Oman, the plant was brought to Zanzibar, where it was reported the finest sugar came. From Zanzibar, the plant could have been taken to Madagascar. (Watson, 30)
Sugar was at first regarded an important spice and medicinal component and was consumed in large quantities in the Middle East. It was used by physicians from India to Spain, slowly entering European medical practice via Arab Pharmacology. (Mintz, 80) As early as the eleventh century a treatise on sugar was written by a Baghdadi doctor. (Watson, 27) In addition to the medicinal component, Arabs had a rich development of recipes and cuisine that strongly featured sugar at the time of its movement to Europe. In the Medieval Islamic world, sugar enriched many dishes: sour foods, fish, meats, and stews. Of course, pastries and jams especially were a “paradise of sugar”, using syrups made of white sugar and crystals of colored sugar. Specific sweets using sugar such as stuffed cannoli, squash jam, caramelized semolina, jelly, among others. In Europe, the names of a number of several medieval dishes reveal their Arab origin. (Zaouali, 44)
“The decades that followed the Moors’ conquest of the Iberian Peninsula brought in a dominant Arab influence—in culture, food, and drink, but especially in the introduction of sugarcane-based sweet treats… And there the foundation was laid for sugar-cane based sweet treats of the world as well…In the history of sweet treats, few “events” had the impact on Western civilizations as did the near-800-year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Muslim peoples. Their main sweet treat legacy—sugarcane” (Roufs, 304)
There was a further East to West transmission of food culture as well. Figures such as Ziryab, credited with the renewal of the culinary arts in Spain and Europe. In the ninth century, he moved from Abbasid Baghdad to the ruler’s court in Cordoba. He led a renewal of culinary understanding and elegance, introducing low tables, tablecloths, cups made from glass, and the succession of courses in a definite order, ending with a sweet dessert. (Zaouali, 41).
Picture 2: Fourteenth century manuscript document from Ibn al-Bitar’s “Book of Simples” depicting sugar cane.
The dispersal of Arab inspired sweets left a mark especially on Southern Europe, Spain, Portugal, and Sicily; also transmitted to the Americas with later conquests of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Sweet dishes found in Mexico and Latin America such Bunuelos, Alfajores, and Arroz con Leche, were inherited from the medieval Arab chefs in Damascus and Baghdad. (Salloum, 8) The Arab legacy on sweet foods remains in modern day commodities, many deriving their name directly from the Arabic language. The word ‘Candy’ comes from the Arabic qandi, stemming from the Sanskrit khanda (piece of sugar). Sherbet, Syrup and Sorbet derive from the Arabic word shariba or sharab (to drink). The ubiquitous drinks Soda Suwwad (saltwort), Coffee (qahwa), and Alcohol are all derived from Arabic. Other food term that originate from Arabic, include fruits and vegetables such as Lemon, Lime, Orange, Shaddock, Apricot, Artichoke, Spinach, as well as spices such as Sumac, Saffron, Carob, Caraway, and Tamarind. Rice and pasta were also transmitted to Europe via the Arabs (Watson, 23). Marzipan and sugar decorations were documented in the Middle East centuries before its appearance in Europe, especially in festive times such as Ramadan. (Mintz, 88).
We hastened indoors after a long morning of sledding. Rhode Island public schools had all been cancelled for a snow day, and the hills around my hometown were cluttered with sheer exuberance. My brothers and I had been outside for hours, so we’d finally returned home to enjoy a much-anticipated cup of hot chocolate. After shuffling through the door, we bolted into the kitchen and wrapped our hands around the warm mugs that awaited us. But just moments later, my mother rushed in. Boys. Somebody needs to go close the front door—now. Money doesn’t grow on trees!
Looking back on this phrase my mother commonly used, I can’t help but laugh at the multi-layered irony. First, it actually did grow on trees (though it’s not technically used as money anymore), and I was drinking it. And second, the hot chocolate I had really didn’t deserve to be calledchocolate at all. In actuality, I was drinking chocolate-flavored milk and sugar, and it’d be years before I’d taste an authentic piece of chocolate or raw cacao. Although they’re not classic Mesoamerican vessels, the cups below demonstrate the simplicity and delicacy of the drink compared to our Americanized whipped-cream smothered cups of pure sugar. But still, there is one thing this cup of “cocoa” did for our frozen cores and stuffy noses, regardless of the actual cacao content. It healed us.
Before I get into what I mean by this, let’s take a brief step back in history. The warm, liquid “hot chocolate” we drink today is far different from the Mesoamerican drinking chocolate whose origins lie deep in the rainforests of Central and South America (St Jean). Dating back to about 1900 BC, people followed a multi-step process to treat the beans, which were ground into a chocolate liquor and mixed with water along with various spices. The finished, frothy drink was prized in a wide variety of occasions, one of which happened to be in a medical setting. If you’re interested in a unique timeline, you’ll surely be mesmerized by the rollercoaster of cacao’s use as medicine across time.
From early to modern times, cacao has been used in three unique stages with respect to medicine: a flavorful disguise for actual medicines, a preventative and remedial cure-all for a variety of ailments via the humoral system, and a targeted, well-researched concentrate. Many speculators actually assume that the early success of chocolate, not unlike other stimulant beverages, was due to its acceptance as a medicine, claiming that it was only later appreciated as an object of recreation and pleasure (Norton 36).
In the first “stage” I’ve referenced above, cacao was typically used as a medicinal disguise for “real” medications. According to the Florentine Codex, a study compiled by priest Bernardino de Sahagún back in 1590, the Aztecs brewed a drink from cacao and silk cotton tree bark to treat infections starting around 1400. Additionally, children suffering from diarrhea received a drink made from ground cacao beans and healing plant roots (Thompson). Again, the cacao was used here to disguise the bad flavors of additives.
During this same time period, Aztecs used cacao to mask unsavory flavors of medicinal ingredients such as roots used to treat fevers and “giant bones” used to treat urinary bleeding. This manuscript of Maya curative chants suggests that, after chanting, patients consumed a cacao-flavored concoction of herbs that treated skin rashes, fevers, and seizures (Thompson). Thus, perhaps the fact that was cacao was so commonly associated with healing is the real reason it eventually became known as a curative food itself.
This brings us to the second “stage.” After Maya dignitaries introduced chocolate to Spain in 1552, cacao really took on a medicinal role in society. Whether or not chocolate was good, bad, or indifferent for one’s health was a vital topic for many Spaniards, who were “at the mercy of a worthless and often destructive constellation of medical theories which had held the Western world in its grip for almost two millennia” (Coe et al 120). It’s important to note that, at this point in time, European medicine still drew heavily on the philosophy of classical scholars Hippocrates and Galen (Coe et al 120).
Hippocrates held that the body contained four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Whenever these humors fell out of balance, disease ensued (Thompson). Diseases could be “hot” or “cold” and “wet” or “dry,” and physicians typically treated them with oppositely classified pharmaceuticals. Though cold by nature and therefore normally used in this state, cacao could be prepared in hot or cold forms, depending on necessity (Thompson). As a side note, I’m surprised that chocolate was considered “cold” given it was strongly flavored and quite bitter (Coe et al 128).
In a 1631 treatise, Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma gave a glowing description of cacao as a wide-reaching medicinal food: “It quite takes away the Morpheus, cleaneth the teeth, and sweeteneth the breath, provokes urine, cures the stone, and expels poison, and preserves from all infectious diseases” (Thompson). Later, in the 1700s, many doctors began the transition to focusing cacao on specific ailments, incorporating chocolate into smallpox treatments as a way to prevent weight loss associated with the disease. Richard Saunders—a pen name for Benjamin Franklin—references the benefits of chocolate against smallpox in the 1761 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac (Thompson). Can you imagine walking into the doctors office and getting a shot of chocolate to treat something? I know I’d be “sick” every day!
This brings us to “stage” three. I’ll start by reluctantly admitting that, dutching—a process by which chocolate is treated with an alkalizing agent that modifies color and gives a more mild taste—has removed dark chocolate’s acidity and flavanoids since it began in the 1800s (Thompson). This can be explained by the fact that many people started adding cocoa butter back into processed chocolate to make bars, along with dairy and sugar that are now widespread across modern chocolate candy, and dutching simply made it taste better when combined with these other sweet additives. Ironically, however, these manufacturing methods likely made chocolate more of a medical hindrance than help.
But there’s a bright side. Recently, raw, unadulterated cacao has been re-recognized as a so-called “superfood” that boasts healthful sources of phytochemicals including procyanidin, flavonoids, catechin, and epicatechin (Keen 436). Note that I say re-recognized given that, even though the Aztecs and Maya appeared to be shooting in the dark with their many claims about cacao’s medicinal properties, they were actually quite brilliant. In fact, they’re now joined in their claims by leading institutions such as Harvard, which are even looking closely at using cacao for treating serious ailments. If this study on using cacao to protect against heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes produces positive results, these scientists definitely can’t take all the credit.
I’ve left my chocolate-flavored sugar days in the past, now savoring dark chocolate each and every day, and it’s particularly comforting to know that this delicious treat is still being proven as a healthy food hundreds of years after it was first claimed to be so. Now, I’ll embrace my new saying: A cacao bean a day keeps the doctor away!
British sugar consumption dramatically escalated in the 17th and 18th centuries. Records show that British per-capita annual consumption grew from 4 lbs. in the early 1700’s to 18 lbs. in the early 1800’s representing a 400 percent increase in just one century (Mintz). While the figures are astonishing, the increase in sugar consumption can be attributed to several things including the decrease in price, the democratization of use, and most notably, the ritualization of drinking tea. Henry James once said, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” And with tea, came sugar.
But let’s go back to sugar’s not so humble beginnings. Initially, sugar was considered a luxury item afforded only by the noble and wealthy. In Britain, sugar served 5 different purposes – as a medicine, a spice, a decorative material, a preservative and as a sweetener. And it commonly served more than one such purpose at a time (Mintz). Cookbooks of the late 16th and early 17th century even treated sugar as a sort of drug to help balance the “humors” — energies that were believed to affect health and mood (Godoy). Like other spices, sugar was used to enhance the flavor of foods. When combined with various ingredients, sugar was molded into fantastic shapes and structures to decorate noble dinner tables as a symbol of the host’s wealth and standing. Sugar’s preservative qualities extended the life of perishable fruits and meats and prevented spoilage. But it was with the introduction of chocolate, coffee and tea that sugar’s use as a sweetener became relevant. Interestingly, the British enjoyed a long-standing familiarity with sweetened beverages such as ale and wine so it is understandable that they would chose to sweeten these otherwise bitter beverages with sugar.
Sugar was expensive and relatively rare, making it a perfect object of conspicuous consumption for the status chasing elite (Goody). Tea, an exotic import first made fashionable by a Portuguese princess, quickly gained popularity with the rise of coffee houses in London. As the price of tea and sugar dropped, they gained wider appeal across all socioeconomic lines and daily consumption per person increased. Over a relatively short period of time, the habit of drinking tea with sugar became ritualized. In the chocolate and coffee houses of London, gentlemen and wealthy merchants took their tea sweetened with sugar. Women of privilege enjoyed tea accompanied by pastries, breads and jam at home with their friends often using their finest china and tea pots.
“We can imagine them then that while seventeenth century men were
at coffee houses drinking tea and exchanging gossip, their wives
gathered at one another’s hoes to do exactly the same thing – justin a more
refined atmosphere” (Tea.co.uk)
The first sugar habit learned by the English poor was part of the tea habit, and the tea habit spread downward from the rulers and outward from cities at a rapid rate (Mintz). For the working class, tea with sugar often served as a break from their backbreaking jobs. In homes of the poor, men who were the primary bread winners dined on meat while their wives and children subsisted on tea with sugar, bread and preserves. Regardless of wealth or social status, the amount of sugar consumed at each meal continued to rise. Tea sweetened with a strong dose of sugar was an affordable luxury: It gave workers a hit of caffeine to get through a long slog of a day, it provided plentiful calories, and it offered the comfort of warmth during a meal that otherwise often consisted only of bread (Godoy).
It is important to acknowledge that the dramatic increase in domestic demand for sugar was intertwined with the rise of the slave trade. Britain relied heavily on her sugar colonies to sustain her rabid consumer base, and forced labor allowed more sugar to be produced at a fraction of the price (Sheridan). They conquered the most colonies and went the farthest and fastest in creating the plantation system to satisfy growing demand for sugar (Mintz). In the British West Indies, the number of enslaved Africans grew to 263,000 by the mid 1700’s (Martin). They were required to work 18 hour days and received only minimal food, clothing and shelter from the plantation owners. As a result, their life expectancy was only 7-8 years (Martin).
Sugar consumption levels continued to rise during and after the Industrial Revolution. By the 1900’s, annual per capita consumption approximated 80 lbs. climbing to an astonishing 120 lbs. in the 2000’s (Martin). As processed food manufacturers gained a better understanding of taste preferences, they increasingly added sugar to everyday consumables like ketchup, cereals and dairy products. Currently, soft drinks are the biggest single source of added sugar for young people, with boys aged 11-18 getting 42% of their intake this way; and for adults aged 19-64, the main sources are also confectionery and jams, soft drinks and cereals (Jeavans). Clearly, the British love for sweet beverages survived and flourished throughout the centuries.
In conclusion, the significant increase in British sugar consumption in the 17th and 18th centuries was a direct result of the increasing affordability of the commodity, the democratization of use, and the ritualization of tea time. Today, the British remain some of the greatest consumers of sugar in the world and are taking great steps to encourage people to limit their daily added sugar intake to ward off obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.
Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 6: Slavery, Abolition and Forced Labor.” Lecture
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York:Penguin, 1985. Print.
Sheridan, Richard B. Sugar and Slavery: An economic history of the British West Indies, 1623-1775. University of West Indies Press, 1974. Web.
Jeavens, Christine. “How Much Sugar Do We Eat?” BBC News, BBC, 26 June 2014. 22 Feb. 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27941325
Ever since the Spaniards discovered the new world, and along with it, discovered chocolate, chocolate consumption has been associated with medicinal benefits.
In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe tell us:
“the Spaniards had stripped [chocolate] of the spiritual meaning which it had for the Mesoamericans, and imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya: for the invaders, it was a drug, a medicine, in the humoral system to which they all adhered. It is hardly surprising to find that it was under this guise that chocolate travelled in Europe, from one court to another, from noble house to noble house, from monastery. But it soon became a medicine that was appreciated for its taste, its filling nature, and its stimulation.” (Coe and Coe 126)
We have several early Spanish attestations to medicinal properties of the newly discovered chocolate. Girolamo Benzoni, author of the History of the New World (1575), was among the first to write of chocolate’s beneficial effects on the body, though he did not exactly liken it to medicine or medicinal effects. He writes that chocolate “satisfies and refreshes the body” (Coe and Coe 110). These generalized benefits of chocolate consumption for the body soon developed into medicinal effects, as the Spanish began to encorporate chocolate consumption into their Galenic views of medicine (Coe and Coe 122). In 1570, Philip II had sent his Royal Physician Francisco Hernández to Mesoamerica on what would ultimately be a seven-year expedition to document native plants so that the Spanish might benefit from Mesoamerican medicinal practices, which were far superior to their own (Coe and Coe 122). Coe and Coe describe Hernández’s incorporation of chocolate into the Galenic system:
“Cacao and chocolate naturally attracted Hernández’s attention. The cacao seed is ‘temperate in nature,’ he says, 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 the mecaxochitl flavoring to chocolate not only gives it an agreeable taste, but because it, like most cacao spices, is ‘hot’ by nature, it ‘warms the stomach, perfumes the breath … [and] combats poisons, alleviates intestinal pains and colics,’ and so on.” (Coe and Coe 122)
Hernández’s description firmly set chocolate in the medicinal conversation of Europe forevermore.
The use of chocolate as medicine persisted in European history. The medicinal properties of chocolate beverages were cited by Francesco Maria Brancaccio in 1664 as an argument for why chocolate beverages should be permitted during times of ecclesiastical fasting (Coe and Coe 149). Most 18th century authorities believed that, as long as it was not consumed in excess, chocolate was on the whole very beneficial to one’s health.
Though much of the conversation about chocolate as medicine was centered around its physical benefits, people also began to suggest mental benefits of chocolate consumption as well. In his 1591 treatise on New World foods, Juan de Cárdenas asserted that chocolate consumption, among its other properties, could make one “happy” (Coe and Coe 123). Later, in the 1600s, marquise de Sévigné, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, advises a correspondent who was apparently not sleeping that “chocolate will set you up again” (Coe and Coe 155).
These early attestations to beneficial psychological effects of chocolate consumption paved the way for modern beliefs in chocolate’s psychological effects, as a mood enhancer. The public’s belief that consuming chocolate will boost their mood has greatly impacted the modern chocolate market. A recent report by Mintel (2016) “found 24% of British consumers say they have bought chocolate confectionery in the last three months to boost their mood, while 64% of Chinese consumers agree that eating chocolate is an effective way to relieve stress” (Yu). Many chocolate companies advertise in such a way as to capitalize on the mood-enhancing effects of chocolate.
Many people seek out chocolate for its mood-enhancing benefits, but this essay will focus on a group of people who use chocolate for much more than cheering themselves up on a bad day: those diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
For the purposes of this essay, it is useful to give a brief overview of what bipolar disorder, a mood disorder, entails. The International Bipolar Foundation describes:
“Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function. […] Bipolar disorder causes dramatic mood swings– from overly ‘high’ and/or irritable to sad and hopeless, and then back again, often with periods of normal mood in between. Severe changes in energy and behavior go along with these changes in mood. The periods of highs and lows are called episodes of mania and depression.” (“Learn”)
It should also be mentioned that people with bipolar have low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is considered to be a naturally occurring mood stabilizer (Peeke).
First, I will mention that the reason I picked this topic is because I am, myself, bipolar, and I, like many other bipolar people, have used chocolate to self-medicate. Many others with bipolar also use other, actual drugs to self-medicate (such as alcohol, cocaine, and heroin) and often develop substance abuse problems. I, however, never found comfort in a bottle. Chocolate was my self-prescribed mood-stabilizer, long before I had even received my diagnosis. It is my intention to share a little bit about my own use of chocolate as a mood-enhancer, before delving into the science and explicating why the use of chocolate as medicine, though not treating the same ailments as chocolate beginning in the 1500s, may actually have more clout than a simple urban myth.
I am not exactly sure when my bipolar disorder began manifesting symptoms, but in hindsight, I can definitively say that by junior high, it was definitely in full-swing. My pre-teens through early college life were categorized by all the typical signs: extreme mood swings with intermittent periods of normalcy, ‘bipolar rage’ (blind, irrational, near-violent anger with no traceable cause), crippling anxiety, et cetera. I am not sure at what point my childhood love of chocolate became a realization that eating chocolate helped my mood, but at some point, I began to associate my turbulent moods with a solution: the consumption of chocolate. It made me feel better, especially in the moment, but eventually I would come crashing down, as my mood spiraled downward. I would thus seek out more chocolate to ease that depression, and thus I became as dependent on chocolate as an alcoholic is on alcohol to self-medicate. I became so dependent on chocolate as my self-prescribed mood enhancing drug that I actually developed compulsive-eating and binge-eating disorders (see also a blog about another bipolar person’s experience with this). Even my family recognized the power that chocolate had to improve my moods, and when they saw that I was struggling on a given day, their go-to method of cheering me up was giving me something with chocolate in it.
I was not diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was 20 years old, and it took until I was 22 to finally be put on the right dosage of the right medication: lithium. Lithium is arguably the oldest psychiatric medication around (in use during Classical times (Angst and Marneros)) and is a mood-stabilizer. Lithium will be very important in the science on chocolate as a mood-stabilizer that I outline below. Still, even though I am now on the right dose of the right medication, I still have mood swings, and when I do, my family still suggests chocolate as a remedy.
Many studies have been conducted on chocolate as a mood enhancer. According to UNH Staff in their article, “2 Chocolate Benefits for Your Brain: Improves Memory and Mood”, “chocolate has been shown to improve depression and anxiety symptoms and help enhance feelings of calmness and contentedness. Both the flavanols and methylxanthines are believed to play a role in chocolate’s mood enhancing effects” (UNH Staff). In addition, the article cites several studies that showed chocolate consumption improved mood, and another study in which participants “felt more calm and contented after consuming a daily dark chocolate drink containing a high amount of polyphenols” (UNH Staff). These studies show that chocolate does indeed have a connection to ‘good feelings’, much as Juan de Cárdenas had asserted that chocolate could make one happy centuries earlier.
Chocolate also contains phenylethylamines, which are a neurotransmitter that “in low levels, is associated with depression […] Phenylethylamines work by releasing endorphins in the brain and promote feelings of attraction and giddiness” (Chitale and ABC News Medical Unit). Between the low levels of serotonin, which cause cravings for carbs and sweets to spark pleasure centers in the brain and elevate mood (Peeke), and the low levels of phenylethylamines, people with mood disorders may actually be self-medicating with chocolate consumption, which compensates for those low levels.
I must here take a slight detour from the discussion of the science-supported benefits of chocolate to set precedent for my conclusion. The American Chemical Society put out a summary of research that was delivered at one of their meetings, in an article entitled “Good Mood Foods: Some Flavors in Some Foods Resemble a Prescription Mood Stabilizer.” The research is exactly what the title suggests: “New evidence reveals the possibility of mood-enhancing effects associated with some flavors, stemming at least in part from natural ingredients bearing a striking chemical similarity to valproic acid, a widely used prescription mood-stabilizing drug” (“Good Mood Foods”). This suggests that some foods, far from simply providing a quick mood boost, could actually be used to medicate mood disorders, even if it were just as a supplement to actual medications.
Nuno Rodrigues-Silva considers the science behind the question: why do we crave chocolate? One view he considers argues that craving for chocolate is a “homeostatic response to nutrient deficiency (e.g., magnesium deficiency)” (Rodrigues-Silva 430). He goes on to explain why someone with magnesium deficiency would crave chocolate specifically:
“Chocolate has one of the highest magnesium levels reported of all foods, approximately 100 mg/g, except white chocolate which contains magnesium in much lower amounts, about 12 times lower than milk chocolate. Magnesium deficiency results in selective depletion of dopamine in the CNS [central nervous system], a major neurotransmitter involved in euphoria, satisfaction, and addiction. Additionally, magnesium deficiency is related to anxiety, and its administration has been related to reduced hyperexcitability in children and attenuated posttraumatic depression/anxiety in rats.” (Rodrigues-Silva 430)
However, Rodrigues-Silva fails to mention an important function of magnesium: magnesium is frequently used as a supplement to aid in sleep for those with sleep disorders (common for people with bipolar disorder), but most importantly, recent studies suggest that magnesium can produce improvements in bipolar disorder similar to the improvements seen in patients who take lithium (Lake). That would put magnesium on the list of mood-stabilizers.
You might remember how I said that the medication that stabilized my bipolar was lithium, and that before that, I was regulating my mood with chocolate consumption. If I, as a person with bipolar, craved chocolate when my moods were out of control, that would indicate that I might have been experiencing magnesium deficiency, according to Rodrigues-Silva. If magnesium, according to recent research, might be a mood-stabilizer, that would mean that when my bipolar disorder reared its ugly head, I was actually cravingchocolate not as a quick mood enhancer but as a medication. I was, in all reality, actually self-medicating my bipolar with chocolate.
It is not just an urban myth that chocolate will boost your mood — chocolate has, now, a firmly rooted place as a medicine, just as the Europeans had claimed centuries earlier, though for different ailments.
So, what does this mean for the future of the chocolate industry? The chocolate industry already markets to and profits from people who believe that chocolate will boost their mood. Taking daily medications to manage mental illness is a hassle at best and impossible to remember at worst– and many people with bipolar simply do not want to take medication. Imagine if chocolate manufacturers began to market chocolate as an alternative or supplement to traditional mood-stabilizers. How many people would buy into that option? A lot of people, I reckon– and they would also need to consume chocolate en masse in order to get enough of a mood-stabilizing benefit day to day, sky-rocketing sales. It could be a great new direction for the chocolate market.
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