Tag Archives: medicine

Chocolate: Good for the soul, but good for your health?



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.


Early History

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

Chilam Balam

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

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Diagram of the four humor and how they balance each other 

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.



Modern Day

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.

Image result for nutella healthy ad
This advertisement from Nutella is deceptive and not totally honest about its healthiness.

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.


Works Cited

Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” 2012. pp.


Bodily Fluids” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 22 November 2010.


“Chilam Balam de Chumayel” Web. 26 August 2010. Melinda Stuart.


“Chocolate at the check out is a risk for public health” New England Medical Journal, BMJ


Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition.

Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

D’Antonio, Michael D. 2006. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth,

Empire, and Utopian Dreams. pp. 106-126

Goody, Jack. “Industrial Food: towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” Cooking,

Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 154–174. Themes in the Social Sciences.

Kawash, Samira. Candy: a Century of Panic and Pleasure. Faber & Faber, 2013.

Laudan, Rachel. “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast,

Processed Food.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, University of California Press

Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food.” Nutrients5.5 (2013):

1573–1584. PMC. Web. 8 May 2018.

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods”. Harvard University, AAAS

E-119. Cambridge, MA. Lecture.

Martin, Carla “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market.” Harvard

University, AAAS E-119. Cambridge, MA. Lecture.

“Nutella 2010 Ad” Web. 1 October 2013


“Surprise, Nutella is more unhealthy than you might think.” Tech Insider, 8 June 2017,


Tello, Monique. “Can dark chocolate improve vision?” Harvard Health Publishing,


Arab-Islamic Civilization and Sugar: Laying the Foundation of Modern Sweets and World Food Culture

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)

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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).

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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).

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 11.19.40 PM.png Continue reading Arab-Islamic Civilization and Sugar: Laying the Foundation of Modern Sweets and World Food Culture

The Cacao Cure

We hastened indoors after a long morning of sledding. Rhode Island public schools had all been cancelled for a snow day, and the hills around my hometown were cluttered with sheer exuberance. My brothers and I had been outside for hours, so we’d finally returned home to enjoy a much-anticipated cup of hot chocolate. After shuffling through the door, we bolted into the kitchen and wrapped our hands around the warm mugs that awaited us. But just moments later, my mother rushed in. Boys. Somebody needs to go close the front door—now. Money doesn’t grow on trees! 

Looking back on this phrase my mother commonly used, I can’t help but laugh at the multi-layered irony. First, it actually did grow on trees (though it’s not technically used as money anymore), and I was drinking it. And second, the hot chocolate I had really didn’t deserve to be called chocolate at all. In actuality, I was drinking chocolate-flavored milk and sugar, and it’d be years before I’d taste an authentic piece of chocolate or raw cacao. Although they’re not classic Mesoamerican vessels, the cups below demonstrate the simplicity and delicacy of the drink compared to our Americanized whipped-cream smothered cups of pure sugar. But still, there is one thing this cup of “cocoa” did for our frozen cores and stuffy noses, regardless of the actual cacao content. It healed us.

Mesoamerican drinking chocolate (Bowe)

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!

Hypothetical depiction of chocolate as a vaccine (Thompson)

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!


Works Cited

Bowe, Tucker. “The Legend and Lore of Hot Chocolate.” Gear Patrol, Gear Patrol, LLC, 18 Dec. 2015.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., vol. 1, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Keen, Carl L. “Chocolate: Food as Medicine/Medicine as Food.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, vol. 20, no. 5, 21 June 2013, pp. 436–439. Taylor & Francis.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3, 1 June 2006, pp. 660–691. Oxford Academic.

St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” HeritageDaily, Heritage Foundation, 9 Feb. 2018.

Thompson, Helen. “Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015.

Image Links

  1. https://gearpatrol.com/2014/12/12/legend-lore-hot-chocolate/
  2. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/healers-once-prescribed-chocolate-aspirin-180954189/


The Tea Habit and The Dramatic Increase in British Sugar Consumption in the 17th and 18th Centuries

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.

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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.

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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.


Works Cited

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

Godoy, Maria. “Tea Tuesdays – How Tea + Sugar Reshaped the British Empire” The Salt. NPR. 7 April 2015.  22 Feb 2018. https://www.npr.org.sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire

“Tea – A Brief History of the Nations Favorite Beverage” UK Tea and Infusions Association 2018.  22 Feb 2018. http://www.tea.co.uk

Ward, J.R. “Oxford History of the British Empire.  The Eighteenth Century. The British West Indies, 1748-1815” Oxford University Press.  New York. 1998 https://books.google.de/books?



Bipolar Self-Medication with Chocolate: How Science Has Confirmed Chocolate’s Place as a Mood-Enhancer

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.

Depicting many of the psychological effects attributed to chocolate consumption in the modern age, this particular image is used by Fondant Chocolate, a premier chocolate company in India, as part of its marketing. This demonstrates how the modern chocolate market benefits from public belief in the positive psychological effects of chocolate consumption.

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.

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This medically reviewed article on Healthline shows that not only do bipolar people self-medicate and crave chocolate, but it is actually being medically recommended as a remedy for bipolar symptoms. (Krans)

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 craving chocolate not as a quick mood enhancer but as a medication. I was, in all reality, actually self-medicating my bipolar with chocolate.

Star Wars star Carrie Fisher, outspoken about her bipolar disorder until the day she died, describes in her second memoir Shockaholic her “craving for salad– chocolate salad.” (Fisher)

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.




“About Us – Fondant Chocolate.” Fondant Chocolate. Fondant Chocolate, n.d. Web. 10 May 2017.
Angst, Jules, and Andreas Marneros. “Bipolarity from Ancient to Modern Times: Conception, Birth and Rebirth.” Journal of Affective Disorders 67.1-3 (2001): 3-19. Web.
Baker, Kelley Thorpe. “Until I Pop: Emotional Eating and Bipolar Disorder.” Blog post. Bipolar Hope. Bipolar Magazine, 26 May 2015. Web. 10 May 2017.
Chitale, Radha, and ABC News Medical Unit. “You Feel What You Eat.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 05 Mar. 2008. Web. 10 May 2017.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
Fisher, Carrie. Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill eat chocolate. Digital image. Daily Mail. Daily Mail, 9 May 2014. Web. 10 May 2017.
Fisher, Carrie. Shockaholic. London: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Print.
“Good Mood Foods: Some Flavors in Some Foods Resemble a Prescription Mood Stabilizer.” American Chemical Society. American Chemical Society, 19 Aug. 2012. Web. 10 May 2017.
Krans, Brian. “7 Foods That Help to Calm Your Nerves During Bipolar Mania.” Healthline. Healthline Media, 12 Sept. 2016. Web. 10 May 2017.
Lake, James. “Integrative Treatment of Bipolar Disorder: A Review of the Evidence and Recommendations: Page 2 of 4.” Psychiatric Times. UBM Medica, 03 July 2013. Web. 10 May 2017.
“Learn.” International Bipolar Foundation. International Bipolar Foundation, 2017. Web. 10 May 2017.
Mental Benefits of Chocolate Consumption. Digital image. Fondant Chocolate. Fondant Chocolate, n.d. Web. 10 May 2017.
Peeke, Dr. Pamela. “Mood, Food and Bipolar Disorder: A New Prescription.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 21 July 2014. Web. 10 May 2017.
Rodrigues-Silva, Nuno. “Chocolate: Psychopharmological Aspects, Mood, and Addiction.” Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Ed. Ronald Ross. Watson, Victor R. Preedy, and Sherma Zibadi. Totowa, NJ: Humana, 2013. 421-36. Print.
Thompson, Dennis, Jr. “Sugar and Bipolar Disorder.” EverydayHealth.com. Everyday Health Media, LLC, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 May 2017.
UNH Staff. “2 Chocolate Benefits for Your Brain: Improves Memory and Mood.” University Health News. Belvoir Media Group, 20 Apr. 2017. Web. 10 May 2017.
Yu, Douglas. “Happiness Factor: Emotional Benefits Are Top Chocolate Sales Drivers, Says Mintel.” ConfectioneryNews.com. William Read, 29 Mar. 2016. Web. 10 May 2017.

Tried and True or Fitness Fad: An Investigation into the Health and Medicinal Attributes of Chocolate

Is chocolate healthy?  While this question still pops up all over media today, it has been grappled with in every civilization in which chocolate was consumed.  Despite the overwhelming acknowledgement that candy is unhealthy for humans today, specialty chocolate bars can be found wedged between acai bowls and kale salads at the fitness food cafes Embody Fitness Gourmet and Hu Kitchen in Connecticut and Manhattan, respectively.  This investigation seeks to contextualize these contemporary healthy chocolate bars by understanding how chocolate’s health and medicinal attributes were perceived over time by the people that consumed chocolate.  In order to understand how chocolate ended up in a fitness café today, we must examine how chocolate historically has come to be viewed as healthy, and how the “healthy” chocolate of today fits into this narrative.  Ultimately, contemporary chocolate is just as susceptible as past chocolate to being shaped by cultural and societal conceptions of health.

Interior of Embody Fitness Gourmet in New Canaan, CT

Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”

Mesoamerican civilizations not only understood cacao in cultural and religious contexts, but also recognized its applications in medicine and health.  Chemical analysis conducted on archaeological ceramics from Mesoamerica show that “chocolate has an antiquity that stretches 38 centuries back into the past, to predate even the San Lorenzo Olmecs” who lived from approximately 1500 BCE to 400 BCE (Coe & Coe, 36).  Pre-Columbian Maya documents written in hieroglyphics, such as the Dresden Codex, often depict cacao being consumed by gods in ritual activities (Coe & Coe, 41).  Furthermore, the Popol Vuh, or “Book of Counsel,” is a colonial document recorded by a Franciscan friar which contains the oldest Maya myth recorded in its entirety.  In the Popol Vuh, cacao is shown in a variety of contexts, sometimes possessing a godly quality while sometimes being shown in commonplace scenarios (Coe & Coe, 40).  Drinking cacao was part of ritual and celebratory acts, including marriage rituals and rites of death.

Mayan warrior decorated in cacao pods

Mesoamericans recognized cacao’s applications in medicine and health.  The ancient Maya believed chocolate to be very healthy, which stands as one of the many reasons royal rulers consumed vast quantities of cacao at their banquets; archaeological investigations even proved that rulers were in “better health and lived far longer than their chocolate-deprived subjects!” (Coe & Coe, 32).  Mayan warriors decorated their armor with cacao pods and would eat cacao to boost energy, perceiving themselves to be invisible and protected in battle after consuming cacao (Lecture, food of the gods).  Cacao was not only used to maintain and enhance health, but also was employed for its perceived curative properties in healing rites involving cacao.  In the 18th century manuscripts copied from ancient Mayan codices called Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams, applications of medicinal cacao are shown to treat a wide variety of afflictions, including fevers and seizures (Martin, Feb. 1 Lecture).  Additionally, cacao served as an ingredient in botanical remedies, and was often combined with pepper, honey, avocado, and other natural substances (Martin, Feb. 1 Lecture).  Cacao intervened in all facets of ancient Mesoamerican life, especially in health and medicine.


European Perception of Chocolate through Humoral Theory

The introduction of cacao from Mesoamerica into Europe necessitated contextualizing cacao within the European understanding of medicine and health.  When ships loaded with cacao beans reached the ports of Spain, the Spanish population and the populations of the other European powers “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 & Coe, 120).  To achieve pervasive acceptance of this exotic beverage, cacao needed to be fit “into this fallacious scheme” (Coe & Coe, 120).

Pre-modern European medical understanding and practice was dominated by humoral theory, which was created by the ancient Greeks and maintained its acceptance in Western civilization until modern medicine and understanding of physiology emerged in the early 19th century.  Formulated by Hippocrates (460-377 BCE), this theory of disease and nutrition asserted that the human body consisted of four humors—black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm— which needed to be maintained in the correct combination to ensure good health (Coe & Coe, 121).  If the ratio of these humors deviated, diseases and other afflictions were expected to occur.  Galen, another ancient Greek born in approximately 130 A.D., “expanded [Hippocrates’s theory] by adding the notion of humors, diseases, and the drugs to cure disease could also be hot or cold, and moist or dry” (Coe & Coe, 121).  Under this extension of Hippocrates’s theory, phlegm was considered moist and cold while blood was considered moist and hot.

Adoption of cacao in Europe required that it be classified within humoral theory.  In 1570, King Philip II of Spain directed his Royal Physician Francisco Hernández to travel across the Atlantic to classify plants in the Americas under humoral theory.  Claiming cacao to be very nourishing, Hernández believed the cacao bean to be “temperate in nature” yet should be considered more “cold and humid” (Coe & Coe, 122).  Due to its cool nature, cacao drinks could be used to cure fevers and provide a cooling relief from hot weather.  Many of the cacao spices used by Mesoamericans, such as mecaxochitl flavoring, were considered “hot” under humoral theory.  Given that Hernández classified plants with strong odor and taste as “hot” and those with little odor or taste as “cold”, he believed the spices that Mesoamericans included in their chocolate drinks were “hot” and carried medicinal applications by “warm[ing] the stomach, perfum[ing] the breath… [and] combat[ing] poisons, alleviat[ing] intestinal pains and colics” (Coe & Coe, 122).  Ultimately, Hernández classified cacao drinks as “cold” most likely because the Aztecs considered their beverage cold, consumed the drink at room temperature or colder, and used the drink to replenish the body and avoid fatigue (Coe & Coe, 122).

Just as Galen expanded on Hippocrates’s humoral theory, so too did Juan de Cárdenas expand on Hernández’s analysis of chocolate and classification of cacao under humoral theory by publishing a treatise on New World foods in 1591.  Cárdenas details that chocolate can be unhealthy if prepared or taken improperly.  He asserts that “green” chocolate, most likely referring to unripe cacao beans, causes health symptoms such as melancholy, irregular heartbeats, and paroxysms, and can harm digestion (Coe & Coe, 123).  Conversely, Cárdenas contends that cacao can aid in digestion, be nutritious, and imbue happiness and strength if the cacao is prepared properly, including grinding and toasting, as well as is mixed with substances like atole gruel (Coe & Coe, 123).  He recognized the health and medicinal value of the substances that Mesoamericans added into chocolate, such as hueinacaztli, or ear flower, which “comforts the liver, stimulates digestion, and extirpates windiness” (Coe & Coe, 123).

Cárdenas echoed many of Hernández’s claims regarding chocolate, including that drinking chocolate is a good method for avoiding fatigue, cooling off, and replenishing the body.  However, Cárdenas did deviate from Hernández’s humoral description of cacao and chocolate.  Cárdenas believed chocolate to consist of three main parts: a “cold”, “earthy”, and “dry part; a “warm and humid” oily part; and a head-ache inducing, bitter-tasting, “hot” part (Coe & Coe, 123).  Culinary historian Maricel E. Presilla shares her opinion of Cárdenas’s treatise: “In a way Cárdenas was rationalizing his own enjoyment and acceptance of the way chocolate was made in the Americas and putting it in the scientific context of the times.  And we find that the techniques and practices he considered wise and healthy have been used from his day to the present in Latin America and Spain” (Presilla, 27).  Now that cacao was properly classified under humoral theory and considered healthy in Europe, it could be consumed by all who had access to the luxurious drink.

In essence, Europeans took cacao beans and detached the religious and cultural significance Mesoamericans had for them while fitting this new commodity into Europe’s humoral belief system as a medicine and a drug.  It was under this categorization as a medicine, a drug, and a healthful product, that chocolate travelled in Europe, “from one court to another, from noble house to noble house, from monastery to monastery” (Coe & Coe, 126).  Chocolate became a symbol of luxury, consumed by the nobility of Europe, but also appreciated for its medicinal properties.  In fact, Alphonse de Richelieu (1634-1680) is suspected to be the first person to bring chocolate to France to be consumed as a medical treatment for his spleen (Coe & Coe, 153).


Industrialization and Chocolate: The Age of Adulteration

By the mid-1900s, chocolate was converted into a solid form, becoming accessible, cheap, and enjoyed by all while firmly breaking the 28 century-old practice in which chocolate was exclusively consumed by wealthy elite (Coe & Coe, 232).  At this point in time, “no longer did [people] have to fret over whether chocolate or its flavorings were ‘hot,’ ‘cold,’ or ‘temperate,’ ‘dry’ or ‘moist’” (Coe & Coe, 234).  The perception that chocolate was healthy persisted until chocolate received more public scrutiny.  However, it was not the chocolate that was considered unhealthy, but rather the adulterants that were being added to chocolate in place of more expensive natural ingredients.  For example, “the expensive cacao butter [was] completely extracted (and sold elsewhere), then replaced with olive oil, egg yolks, or suet of veal or mutton; the resulting product goes rancid very quickly” (Coe & Coe, 243-244).  Starch became a popularly used filler in chocolate.  Methods to uncover the true recipes of chocolate being sold to the public emerged, such as the practice of adding drops of iodine solution into a mixture of melted chocolate and boiling water which would produce a blue color once the mixture was cooled (Coe & Coe, 244).

An 1858 comic cartoon about food adulteration featured in British “Punch”

After hearing claims of chocolate adulteration, media and governments mobilized to investigate these claims and catalyze regulation.  The Lancet, a popular British medical journal, launched a health commission to analyze foods in 1850.  After collecting samples from chocolate producers around England, the health commission discovered that 39 out of 70 samples “had been colored with red ocher from ground bricks” and that “most of the samples contained starch grains from potatoes, or from two tropical plants, Canna giganta and arrowroot” (Coe & Coe, 244).  Similar results were found in French-produced chocolate.  The findings catalyzed the British government to pass the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 as well as the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872 (Coe & Coe, 244).  While chocolate manufacturers no longer put red ocher or potato starch in their chocolate, producers continue to create new ways of lowering costs while trying keeping taste, such as through using artificial flavors and other chemicals.  In the 1900s, “in the interests of economy…the mass producers began skimping on, or even cutting out altogether, the substance that gives the quality to superior chocolates: cacao butter” (Coe & Coe, 257).


Is Chocolate Considered Healthy Today?:  Chocolate as a Gourmet Fitness Food

Today, the healthiness of chocolate is being debated every day.  Generally, mass produced chocolate, especially milk chocolate, is considered unhealthy mostly due to its high sugar content.  Dark chocolate is often considered healthy or neutral.  Coe and Coe explain, “Dark chocolate does not cause diabetes, dental caries, or acne, or produce headaches, as sometimes has been alleged” (Coe & Coe, 31).  The obesity among people who consume chocolate in large quantities is often blamed on milk chocolate as well as other unhealthy lifestyle habits.  While the cacao butter commonly found in chocolate is a saturated fat, cacao butter predominantly consists of stearic triglycerides, “which have been shown to have no effect on blood cholesterol levels” (Coe & Coe, 30).  No direct link has been shown to exist between the development of heart disease and chocolate consumption (Coe & Coe, 30).

The book Chocolate and Health: Chemistry, Nutrition and Therapy edited by Philip Wilson and Jeffrey Hurst offers a comprehensive investigation into and explanation of the health claims made about chocolate.  With experts within each field writing a section regarding chocolate claims in their area of expertise, several conclusions about the true health benefits of chocolate can be made.  Cacao contains the alkaloids theobromine and caffeine which interfere with adenosine receptors, affecting mood and alertness (Wilson & Hurst, Chapter 5).  Cocoa flavanols serve as antioxidants, lower blood pressure, and improve mental processes (Wilson & Hurst, Chapter 5).  Daily consumption of moderate amounts of flavanol-rich cacao products is associated with improved blood pressure in hypertensives and increased insulin sensitivity (Chapter 7).  Chocolate and chocolate food products can be an excellent for post-exercise nutrition by providing the “nutrients necessary to repair muscle protein, replenish glycogen, quench oxidants and elevate mood during the post-exercise recovery interval” (Wilson & Hurst, Chapter 8).

Embody Fitness Gourmet is “a fitness inspired eatery serving a diverse menu of healthy and functional foods” with three locations in Connecticut that provide customers with expensive juices, salads, and Intelligentsia coffee, among other products (Embody Fitness Gourmet Facebook Page).  Embody considers itself progressive and modern in all ways, hopping on every food, fitness, and lifestyle trend.  Embody partners with SoulCycle and offers its products through Uber Eats.  It even strives to be politically progressive and active by having unisex bathrooms labeled “everyone” and posting picture of its bathroom door on Facebook with the caption, “The weather may not make much sense, but some things are pretty clear” (Embody Fitness Gourmet).  Embody offers a wide range of premium-priced products containing superfoods, such as avocado, acai, and kale.  It is here in this health mecca that we find chocolate bars standing as the only product on the long, sleek counter in front of the iPad wielding cashier.

Hu Chocolate as the only item next to iPad wielding cashier

The chocolate is called Hu Chocolate, produced by Hu Kitchen— a similar health food company in Manhattan.  The chocolate comes in eight flavors, including almond butter and puffed quinoa, cashew butter and vanilla bean, hazelnut butter, salty, simple, crunchy mint, banana, and fig nut.  When asked if customers buy a lot of the chocolate, the cashier at Embody replied, “Yeah!  People love it, but it’s pretty pricey at $8.25 per bar.”  While these two fitness food companies are trying to offer their customers a healthy chocolate bar, their efforts reflect a concerted rejection of industrialized chocolate and a desire to be cool and trendy.

The Hu Chocolate bars demonstrate a concerted rejection of industrialized chocolate and processed food of today and of the past.  The packaging lists that it contains no gluten, no dairy, no refined sugar, no cane sugar, no sugar alcohols, no dairy, no GMOs, no emulsifiers, and no soy lecithin (hukitchen.com).  Their website explains their reasons for excluding these ingredients.  For using no refined sugar, Hu Chocolate vilifies big chocolate companies: “Most commercial chocolates are sweetened with low quality refined sugars.  These sugars always made us sluggish and tired, which made us hesitant to eat chocolate.  Hu Chocolate is sweetened with an unrefined organic coconut sugar, which never gave us a crash” (hukitchen.com).  While Hu Chocolate is using healthier ingredients than commercial chocolate companies, it supports its claims on legally-defensible anecdotal evidence, such as that coconut sugar does not give them a sugar crash.  Their slogan to “Get Back to Human” expresses their anti-industry sentiment.

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Hu Chocolate website
Hu Chocolate label exemplifying the brands hatred of industrial food


Both Embody and Hu Chocolate reject the industrialization of food and seek to retreat to more nature ways of making and using food products.  On Embody’s Facebook page, it often posts advertisements from the past to make fun of misconceptions and fads of past generations.  One post includes a “reducing diet menu” that could be supplemented with Domino sugar to lose weight.  The Embody Facebook page dismisses these advertisements immediately as “ridiculous”, instead of explaining or understanding the history of systematically-targets advertisements of sugar at women and children to help prevent fatigue and save money (Mintz, 130).  In essence, these companies reject the ingredients and processes of the modern food industry.  The Hu Chocolate advertises itself as being stone ground dark chocolate, harkening back to the Mesoamerican practice of grinding cacao using a metate and its subsequent replacement by stone mills (Coe & Coe, 115).

An 1950s advertisement Embody makes fun of on its Facebook page

To a certain extent, these companies take advantage of current fads to sell their product just as everyone from Mesoamericans to industrial chocolate manufacturers made claims about their chocolate.  Hu Chocolate claims its products are “organic/fair trade” but no information on where they source their ingredients from is available (hukitchen.com).  Furthermore, Hu Chocolate exploits the gluten-free fad by claiming on their label that there is “no gluten” in their chocolate, yet gluten is rarely found in chocolate (hukitchen.com).  Furthermore, it labels its product as “Paleo*”, referring to the paleo diet fad, but the asterisk leads the consumer to the explanation that the chocolate is labeled in this way because “some flavors are primal” (hukitchen.com).  Embody even places chocolate as the one item on its counter, knowing that chocolate is bought as an impulse purchase.  Most of all, these two companies place the chocolate products among superfoods— of course, people are going to think it’s healthy and buy it for a premium price.  Ultimately, both Embody and Hu Chocolate are focused on being relevant by keeping up with trends and fads, just like industrial chocolate and sugar companies of the past.  Additionally, examination of Hu Chocolate as a gourmet fitness product allows us to understand how we perceive the health benefits of chocolate relative to how the Mesoamericans, Baroque-era European, and industrial revolution chocolate manufacturers did.  Ultimately, contemporary chocolate is just as susceptible as past chocolate to being shaped by cultural and societal conceptions of health.

Trendy interior of Embody Fitness Gourmet

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition.         London: Thames & Hudson.

“Comic cartoon about food adulteration, 1858, from Punch.” The British Library. The                 British Library, 06 Feb. 2014. Web. 05 May 2017. < https://www.bl.uk/collection-                   items/comic- cartoon-about-food-adulteration-1858-from-punch>.

DeBra, Corinne. “Chocolate Banquet.” Hu Kitchen- Crunchy Fig Chocolate Bar – Aug. 6,               2015. N.p. 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 05 May 2017.                                                                                    <http://www.chocolatebanquet.com/2015/08/hu-kitchen-crunchy-fig-chocolate-                     bar.html>.

“Embody Fitness Gourmet.” TBT to ridiculous 1950s advertising for… Embody Fitness               Gourmet. N.p., 23 Feb. 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.                                                                               <https://www.facebook.com/embodyfg/photos/a.502839906415719.15976032.466963           940003316/1486796624686704/?type=3&theater>.

“Hu Chocolate.” Hu Kitchen. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2017.                                                                     <https://hukitchen.com/collections/chocolate&gt;.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture and the                Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986 [1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.              New York: Penguin Books.

Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History            of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Wilson, Philip K., and William Jeffrey Hurst. 2015. Chocolate and health: chemistry,                      nutrition and therapy. Cambridge, UK: Royal Society of Chemistry.

From Wonderful Uses to Wonderful Taste: Chocolate and the Significance of the Galenic Theory in its Consumption

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.

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(Unknown Artist)

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.


Works Cited

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.

Chocolate’s Journey from Medicine to Food

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).

Title page from a 1652 pamphlet promoting the health benefits of chocolate prepared and consumed correctly.

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.

1930s Hershey’s advertisement promoting chocolate syrup for health

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.

Early 20th century advertisement for chocolate as a restorative.

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.

Works Cited
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.

Sweet Relief: A History of Chocolate as Medicine

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).

chocolate world digital
Image of Florentine Codex section detailing Aztec medicine. Source

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.

A London doctor warns of the dangers of chocolate. Source

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.

Halliwell, Barry. “Health Benefits of Eating Chocolate?” Nature, vol. 426, no. 6968, 2003, pp. 787-787; discussion 788 Advanced Technologies & Aerospace Database; Agricultural & Environmental Science Database; Earth, Atmospheric & Aquatic Science Database, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/204509938?accountid=11311.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.

Vaccariello, Liz, and Cynthia Sass. Flat Belly Diet!: A Flat Belly Is about Food & Attitude, Period. (not a Single Crunch Required). New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.

van Wensem, J. (2015), Overview of scientific evidence for chocolate health benefits. Integr Environ Assess Manag, 11: 176–177. doi:10.1002/ieam.1594




Chocolate – Elixir or Poison?

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

Galen’s Humoral Scheme

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.




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.

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.


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.