"Ideas should be clear and chocolate thick."

Spanish proverb

CHOCOLATE, HEALTHFOOD of the GODS

a book by Phillip Minton, M.D.

Home
About Author
About Book
Chapter Outline
Excerpts by Topic
Cardiovascular diseases
Dementia and brain function
Cancer
Diabetes
Aphrodisiac
History of chocolate
Order book
Phillip Minton, M.D. Blog

Recommend to a friend


Print version

Today, in our enlightened modern world, chocolate is revered for its’ delicious taste and texture, for its’ health giving properties, and yes, even for its’ romantic… almost otherworldly qualities.  It is associated with love, romance and a sense of well being.  Alongside red roses, what other gift says I love you in quite the same way on Valentines Day?

To the ancients, those who discovered and first enjoyed the luxurious taste, texture and smell of chocolate, it was revered even more intensely than in the modern world.  The ancients valued it so greatly that they told generation after generation that it had been gifted to them by God.  The ancient Mayan word for chocolate actually translates “food of the Gods”.

Even our modern scientific name for chocolate, theobroma cacao, literally translates from the Greek language as meaning “food of the Gods”.

When we stop to consider the many wonderful benefits of chocolate to the health, enjoyment, nutrition and wellbeing of mankind, it certainly does seem that it must have been a gift from God.  To the ancients, who believed that a pantheon of Gods lived together in paradise, what better food could one imagine that they enjoyed?  Certainly no other earthly food is more suitable for paradise than is chocolate!

Theobroma cacao – Food of the Gods

“An invention so noble, that it should be the nourishment of the gods, rather than nectar or ambrosia.” – Jospeh Bachot, Parisian physician – 1684 (cited in Coe and Coe, 1996)
Deep in the rainforests of Central and South America, attracted by the vivid colours of a ripe cacao pod, a tree-dwelling monkey discovers the wonders of the cacao bean and the sweetly acid white pulp in which it is embedded.

While surely our distant primate cousins were the first to experience the complex flavours of the cacao bean, it is not known exactly when chocolate first tantalised the tastebuds of the human tongue. It is thought that the early civilisations of South America were grinding cacao beans and mixing the resulting cocoa powder into a drink with water as long ago as a thousand years before the birth of Christ. The Olmecs, one of the earliest Mesoamerican civilisations, lived in the tropical forests of the Gulf of Mexico. Some historians believe that they were the first to cultivate the cacao tree.
About three or four hundred years AD and several centuries after the Olmec civilisation disappeared, the Mayan civilisation occupied the land from the Yucatan peninsula in the east to the Pacific coast of present day Guatemala. The Mayans cultivated the cacao tree in the hot, humid climate of the rainforest and believed that the tree had been gifted to them by the gods. They made a bitter drink from ground cacao beans, and records of the Mayan use of cacao survive as paintings on pottery and earthen ware vessels; cacao residues have even been discovered inside some of the vessels. Surviving remnants of a hieroglyphic text devised by the Mayans often refer to cacao as the food of gods.

After the fall of the Mayan empire the Aztecs from Mexico colonised the former Mayan territory, assimilated cacao into their society and continued the cultivation of the tree. By the time the Spaniards conquered the New World in the 16th century, chocolate was a staple food, a spicy beverage and a medicine, and held an important place in the secular and religious lives of the people of Central and South America.

Just it is not known who discovered chocolate as a beverage, it is also difficult to establish exactly where the name “chocolate” originated. Some authors believe that it is derived from a combination of the Mayan word “xocoatl” and the Aztec word “cacahuatl” meaning “food of the gods”. Others believe that it comes from “choco” (foam) “atl” (water) signifying the cold, frothy drink that the Mesoamericans made when mixing ground cacao beans with cold water.

However it came by the name chocolate, we do know that in 1753 the famous Swedish naturalist, Carl Von Linné (Linnaeus), named the tree Theobroma cacao, Theobroma from the Greek “food of the gods”. Parisian physician, Joseph Bachot, said that chocolate should be the nourishment of the gods in preference to nectar or ambrosia, and Linnaeus himself was said to be quite fond of chocolate. In two and a half centuries no-one has refuted this description vigorously enough to force a change of name. Chocolate – “Food of the Gods” it remains!

Theobroma cacao is a fussy tree. It is very hard to please, as is befitting a tree of such importance and status. It is a spindly specimen of between 12 and 16 feet tall, and flourishes in the shade of its gigantic rainforest neighbours. It steadfastly refuses to produce the coveted cacao bean pods outside of a narrow band 20 degrees north and south of the equator, and likewise, will not grow at higher altitudes where it is too dry and too cold. It likes to stand in the rich humus of decaying leaves and other organic material on the forest floor, and prefers the hot moist air of the equatorial rainforest.

Theobroma cacao has bright green lanceolate leaves and bears small, almost odourless pinkish red flowers that grow in dense clusters directly on the trunk and branches on little raised cushions. The almond shape pods are about the size of your hand; they vary in colour from bright red, to green, purple and yellow, changing hue as they ripen. Inside these vibrant pods between 20 and 40 almond sized cacao beans rest within a sweetly acidic pulp. Each tree yields about 50 or 60 pods per season.

Although Theobroma is grown in plantations, the best flavoured beans come from the trees grown in the rainforest, one of the most delicious arguments for preserving what is left of it. And, in a world overrun by technology, a world in which human toil is fast becoming obsolete, the harvesting of cacao beans is still done by hand. Mechanical harvesting has so far proved impossible, as it is important that the delicate flowers growing near the ripe pods are not damaged. Even the opening of the pods and removal of the cacao beans is still done by hand.

“They are not at all beautiful, nor so agreeable to the Eye, as the Fruit is to the Palate of them that love Chocolatto.” – From Philosophical Translations: An accurate description of the Cacao-tree, and the way of its curing and husbandry, given by an Intelligent Person now residing in Jamaica (1673).

The Divine Drink from the New World

“The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.” – Motecuzhoma, Aztec Emperor (c. 1480-1520)
The cold, frothy, spicy, bitter chocolate drink of Cortez’s New World is far removed from the hot chocolate and “choco-latté” of the 21st century. Chocolate was an important part of both religious and secular life in Aztec and Mayan civilisation. Chocolate was associated with ritual sacrifice in both communities and the Mayans believed that cacao had been given to them by the god Sovereign Plumed Serpent. Aztecs held similar beliefs about the tree’s origins: cacao had been brought to Earth from Paradise by the god Quetzalcoatl-Tlahuizcalpantcutli who taught the Aztecs how to cultivate the tree.

In both societies, the drinking of chocolate was largely restricted to the aristocracy and the elite – emperors, noblemen, priests and soldiers. The cacao bean occupied such a position of importance in Aztec society that it was also used as currency. A slave could be bought for one hundred cacao beans, a horse or mule for fifty, the services of a prostitute for ten and a rabbit for four.
While knowledge of cacao was passed down through the centuries from generation to generation of Aztecs and Mayans through oral histories, stonework, pottery and intricate, multi-colored documents called codices, the use of chocolate was first recorded in the modern sense by the very earliest Spanish explorers.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to come into contact with cacao. On his fourth and final journey to the New World in 1502, Colombus encountered a trading canoe between Costa Rica and Nicuragua, filled with cacao beans and probably on route to Mexico. Possessed by a pre-occupation with gold, Columbus had little interest in the small and innocuous looking beans, little realizing the important economic worth both for the inhabitants of the New World and for the global inhabitants of the future.

So it was, that in 1519, when Hernén Cortéz and his entourage arrived in what is now Mexico, they “discovered” Aztec chocolate, recorded its place in society as a food, medicine, currency and religious symbol, and introduced the beguiling bean to Europe.

Having failed in his attempt to find “El Dorado” Cortéz soon realized the potential of the spicy chocolate beverage and the cacao beans from which it was made. When he returned to Spain in 1528, he took many samples of the New World’s agricultural and mineral riches with him, including cacao beans. He set up cacao plantations around the Carribean and shipped the processed cacao to Europe. In 1580 the first chocolate-processing plant on European soil was built in Spain and trade routes were established. In the last fifteen to twenty years of the 16th century chocolate found its way to northern Europe, Great Britain and then back across the Atlantic to North America.

"[cacao beans] which they use as money, and is produced on a moderately sized tree that flourishes only in very warm and shady localities... The fruit is like almonds, lying in a shell resembling a gourd in size. It ripens in a year, and being plucked when the season has arrived, they pick out the kernels and lay them on the mats to dry; then when thy wish for the beverage, they roast them in an earthen pan over the fire, and grind them with the stones which they use for preparing bread [metate]. Finally, they put the paste into cups… and mixing it gradually with water, some times adding a little of their spice, they drink it, though it seems more suited for pigs than men. I was upwards of a year in that country without ever being induced to taste this beverage, and when I passed through a tribe, if an Indian wished occasionally to give me some, he was very much surprised to see me refuse it and went away laughing. But subsequently, wine failing, and unwilling to drink nothing but water, I did as others did. The flavor is somewhat bitter, but it satisfies and refreshes the body without intoxicating: the Indians esteem it above everything, wherever they are accustomed to it.” – Girolamo Benzoni, History of the New World (1565)

Taking Europe by Storm

There are numerous stories about how chocolate came to infiltrate the lives and loves of the Europeans and historians differ on how chocolate was introduced into each country. Despite the fact that the Spanish tried to keep chocolate a secret from the rest of the world for almost a century, the obsession with chocolate soon spread, first to the Netherlands, then to Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria, and Great Britain.

It is believed that chocolate was brought into Italy in the middle of the 16th century as a medicine through convents and monasteries. A number of chocolate companies started up in northern Italy and they, in turn, introduced the rest of Europe to chocolate through exporting their products. Chocolate appears to have reached France in 1615 when Louis XIII married Anne of Austria when both were only fourteen years old. It was a marriage of political convenience and it seems that the teenage Anne, younger daughter of King Philip II of Spain, was more passionate about her chocolate than her husband. The beverage soon became very popular among the members of the royal court and French nobility. Despite chocolate enjoying a considerable reputation as an aphrodisiac, Louis XIII remained “morbidly cold” towards his young wife and he died without heir in 1642.

As it was in the New World, chocolate was largely a drink consumed by the nobility and aristocracy. It also held a position within the Church, and the role of the Church in the introduction and dispersal of chocolate through Europe should not be underestimated. While Cortéz was the one to “discover” chocolate, his entourage included Jesuit missionaries who, both at the time of the conquest and over the following decades, played a huge role in recording the daily life and ritual of the Aztecs. It is most likely that the Jesuit missionaries, through a network of international convents and monasteries, were responsible for the rapid spread of chocolate through Europe.

After much debate the Catholic Church approved of chocolate and allowed chocolate to be consumed during Lent. In1662 Cardinal Francesco Maria Brancaccio declared that “drinks do not break a fast; wine, though nourishing, does not break it in the least. The same applies to chocolate, which is undeniably nourishing but is not, for all that, a food.” Thus it was popular with nuns and monks and they drank it to sustain them through long periods of fasting. In fact, some historians credit monks and nuns with being the first to add sugar to chocolate, vastly improving its flavour for the European palate.

In the 18th century, according to the journals of Fransesco Valesio, chocolate was the preferred drink of the cardinals of Rome, and during the 1740 conclave for the election of Pope Benedict XIV, 30lbs of chocolate was delivered to the Sistine Chapel to sustain the cardinals. Thirtyfour years later, upon the death of Pope Clement XIV in 1774, Sir Horace Mann was convinced that the Pope had been poisoned. He wrote that “…the murder of the Pope has been proved by the clearest evidence. A slow poison was given him by his own innocent credenziere [confectioner] in a dish of chocolate last Holy Thursday at the Vatican…”

Beguiling Beverage to Fabulous Food

Up until the nineteenth century chocolate had been predominantly a drink, originally consumed cold by the Mayans and Aztecs, and later as a hot drink by the Europeans with the addition of sugar and other flavourings to improve the taste and remove the bitterness. While chocolate was added to rolls and cakes from about the mid 17th century, it wasn’t until the 19th century and the industrial revolution that chocolate, as we know it today, came into existence.

Prior to this time, makers of chocolate had unsuccessfully tried to separate the cacao butter from the paste, or liquor, made from grinding the cacao beans. When made into a drink the cacao butter would float to the top in greasy pools. The problem was solved to a certain extent by adding starchy substances that absorbed the fat, much as the Aztecs had done centuries before when they added ground maize to the cacao and water mixture.

In 1828, Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten invented an hydraulic press which enabled the extraction of cacao butter from the liquor, leaving a refined, cake-like residue that was then ground to make what we know as cocoa powder. By adding alkaline salts to the cocoa powder, Van Houten improved the miscibility of the cocoa powder, making it much easier to mix the powder with water to form chocolate drink.

It was some time before the chocolate industry worked out what to do with the cacao butter. In a move that must now be regarded as sheer brilliance, and for which chocoholics around the world must be truly grateful, the Fry family – one of four major chocolate manufacturing families that included the Cadbury’s, Terry’s and Rountree’s – were inspired to melt the cacao butter and mix it with ground cacao beans and sugar.

Modern chocolate was born, and the rest, as they say, is history!

A Cure For Many Ills

“The divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.” – Hernán Cortés, 1519
Imagine a medicine so delicious that you would willingly, happily consume it, no matter whether you were ill or not! Imagine a food so beneficent, so miraculous, that by eating it daily you could medicate yourself against ills of almost every organ or system; against the ills of your flesh and of your soul!

In centuries past chocolate was not only regarded by many as a “Food of the Gods” but as a remedy for many ailments. In the fourth century AD Mayan sorcerers – holding roles as both priests and doctors – prescribed cacao as a stimulant and a soothing balm. It appears from numerous old texts documenting the medicinal use of chocolate and cacao that the cacao tree was a most healthful plant – all parts of the tree were used: the cacao bean or nut, the fruit pulp, the bark, the flowers and the leaves.

The medicinal use of chocolate originated among the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs, possibly as early as one thousand years BC. Numerous texts written between the first half of the 16th century, when the Spaniards invaded central and south America, and the early 20th century document the medicinal use of chocolate particularly among the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilisations. As chocolate took Europe in its thrall, from the mid 1500s onwards Europeans, too, espoused the remarkable effects of chocolate on the health.

Preparations involving cacao on its own, or combined with other plant extracts such as vanilla, cinnamon and peppers or chillis, were used to cure or alleviate everything from haemorrhoids to heartburn, from catarrh to cancer and from toothache to tuberculosis. While in some accounts chocolate is recommend for a narrow range of complaints, other authors waxed lyrical about the incredible powers of chocolate to cure an amazing number of ills.

Medicinal Chocolate and the Ancient Mayans and Aztecs

From about 1529, Spanish priest, Bernadino de Shagún, collected information on the Aztec way of life and wrote the Florentine Codex (published in 1590), in which he documented the health and medical practices among the Aztecs. He described in considerable detail the preparation and use of numerous cacao decoctions.

The Aztecs drank chocolate for stomach and intestinal complaints, and childhood diarrhea was cured with a prescription that used five cacao beans. Shagún wrote of mixtures of various plant and herbal extracts with chocolate or cacao that were used for relieving fever and faintness and a phlegmy cough. The strong taste of chocolate was also used to make horrible preparations more palatable – how today’s children would delight in chocolate flavoured cough syrup!

The Badianus Manuscript, written by a Mexica [sic] teacher in Mexico City in 1536, also documented the use of cacao as a medicine. One such treatment was the use of cacao flowers in a perfumed bath prepared in order to cure fatigue, especially for men who held public office.

A Mayan text, the Ritual of the Bacabs (Princeton Codex), describes an unusual melding of religion or spiritual beliefs with medicine, in which a bowl of medicinal chocolate, or chacah, was drunk by patients who suffered from skin complaints, fevers and seizures, after chants and incantations were spoken over them. This chocolate concoction also contained peppers, honey and tobacco juice.
In his Natural History of Chocolate (1719) Quélus related the story of a woman who could not chew after sustaining damage to her jaw and who was prescribed chocolate by her doctor: “...three dishes of chocolate, prepared after the manner of the country, one in the morning, one at noon, and one at night... [only] cocao [sic] kernels dissolved in hot water, with sugar, and seasoned with a bit of cinnamon... [and] lived a long while since, more lively and robust than before [her] accident.”

Chocolate – the Universal Medicine in Europe

When chocolate was taken to Europe, the French, English and Spanish, at home and in the colonies, took to medicinal chocolate with great enthusiasm. There seems to be an almost endless list of complaints which chocolate, in great or lesser proportions, could remedy. In 1651, an English translation of Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero’s writings on chocolate was published, including the following verse:

“To every Individuall Man, and Woman, Learn’d, or unlearn’d
Honest, or Dishonest: In due praise of Divine Chocolate.
Doctors, lay by your irksome books… leave quacking; and enucleate the virtues of our chocolate.
Let the Universall Medicine
(Mad up of Dead-mens Bones and Skin,)
Be henceforth Illegitimate,
And Yield to Soveraigne-Chocolate.”

A decade later the French faculty of medicine officially approved of its use as a medicine. However, not all the supposed effects of chocolate were firmly grounded in reality. The Marquise de Sévigné, at first believed chocolate to be a restorative and energiser, as did many people. However, she later attributed to chocolate results more likely to have come about through marital infidelities! She wrote in a letter in October of 1671 that “the Marquise de Coëtlogon took so much chocolate during her pregnancy last year that she produced a …  black baby boy.”

Chocolate was described in the 17th century as having medicinal powers that restore “natural heat, generates pure blood, enlivens the heart, conserves the natural faculties”. It was regarded as an anodyne, or pain killer, and from the latter part of that century physicians prescribed chocolate as a bromide – a cure-all. In The American Physician (or a Treatise of the Roots, Plants, Trees, Shrubs, Fruit, Herbs Growing in the English Plantations in America) published in 1672, William Hughes prescribed it as “exceedingly good to mitigate the pain of gout.” Many doctors also recommended it as a digestive aid and for curing digestive ailments.

While 18th century Europe may not have been quite as enamoured of chocolate as the Aztecs and the Mayans, chocolate was generally regarded as being beneficial if not taken to excess. In 1703 French physician, Daniel Duncan, declared that, in moderation, chocolate was “healthful, but not when abused”. In 1707, Giovanni Maria Lancisi – physician to Pope Clement XI Albani – following concerns that over-consumption of chocolate was dangerous, reported that habitual consumers of chocolate had lived to a ripe old age.

In 1796, Antonio Lavedan, a surgeon in the Spanish Army, said it was especially valuable for the phlegmatic, the old and decrepit and those with tuberculosis.

“ ‘Health Chocolate’ made without aromas is preferable and has the properties to awaken the appetite in those who do not usually drink it. Chocolate is good sustenance for those who typically drink it in the morning... The chocolate drink made with lightly toasted cacao with little or no aromas, is very healthy for those who are suffering from tuberculosis and consumption… Chocolate is a food that repairs and fortifies quickly and therefore it is better for phlegmatic persons that need stimulation... It is possible for chocolate alone to keep a man robust and healthy for many years, if he takes it three times a day, that is, in the morning, at noon and at night, and there are examples of this... Without help from other food, chocolate can prolong life through the great nutrients that it supplies to the body and it restores strength, especially when one mixes an egg yolk with some spoonfuls of meat broth. It is a good stomach remedy, repairing all weaknesses, afflictions, indigestion, vomiting and heart pain, freeing the intestines of flatulence and colic. Those who have weakness of the stomach because of diarrhea or because of some purging substance will experience relief with the chocolate drink. It strengthens those suffering from tuberculosis, who are without hope, and its daily use re-establishes their health more than what could have been expected. For gout or podagra it is of great use — those suffering from gout should drink this nectar of the gods without worrying about any ill effects, for it will be very beneficial to them... it is a universal medicine... not only for preserving health, but to undo many ills, and for this reason it strengthens and increases natural warmth, generating more spirituous blood. It vivifies the substance of the heart, diminishes flatulence, takes away obstructions, helps the stomach, and awakens the appetite, which is a sign of health for those that drink it. It increases virility, slows the growth of white hair, and extends life until decrepitude. To people of any age, including the youngest, it can be given.”

Chocolate was widely used and promoted for restoring energy and Napoleon was reputed to have eaten it for energy when on his military campaigns. French physician, Francois Joseph Victor Broussais, claimed that “this delicious food calms the fever, nourishes adequately the patient and tends to restore him to health. I would even add that I attribute many cures of chronic dyspepsia to the regular use of chocolate.”

In 1825, Anthelme Brilliat-Savarin declared chocolate a panacea for mental stress and a restorative for the weak and sick, soon after which Parisian apothecaries sold chocolate as a remedy for the sickly, scrawny, the nervous and the overweight.

In the 19th century, Baron Justus von Liebig, a German chemist and dietician said that “chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power; but its quality must be good, and it must be carefully prepared. It is highly nourishing and easily digested, and is fitted to repair wasted strength, preserve health, and prolong life. It agrees with dry temperaments and convalescents; with mothers who nurse their children; with those whose occupations oblige them to undergo severe mental strains; with public speakers, and with all those who give to work a portion of the time needed for sleep. It soothes both stomach and brain, and for this reason, as well as for the others, it is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.”

In the early 20th century chocolate was given to recovering typhoid patients to nourish them and to build up brain and muscle depleted by fever. However, by this time chocolate had more limited medicinal uses and it was the cacao butter that featured, particularly in ointments for skin conditions and for preparing suppositories that contained belladonna and ergot for haemorrhoids.
A Modern Herbal, an herbal text first published in 1931, advised readers that cocoa butter is used as an ingredient in cosmetic ointments and in pharmacy for coating pills and preparing suppositories.

It was also used to soften and protect chapped hands and lips. A Modern Herbal then lists the medicinal uses of cacao saying:
“theobromine, the alkaloid contained in the beans, resembles caffeine in its action, but its effect on the central nervous system is less powerful. Its action on muscle, the kidneys and the heart is more pronounced. It is used principally for its diuretic effect due to stimulation of the renal epithelium; it is especially useful when there is an accumulation of fluid in the body resulting from cardiac failure, when it is often given with digitalis to relieve dilatation. It is also employed in high blood pressure as it dilates the blood-vessels. It is best administered in powders or cachets.”
Despite some of the wilder claims, chocolate was highly regarded as an effective medicine or tonic for several specific complaints, particularly for energy and vitality, digestion and stomach complaints, lung and respiratory disorders and for mood and temperament. Many of the manuscripts documented that chocolate was used together with other ingredients, and it may be that chocolate was merely the carrier substance for other more potent and active “medicines”. Nevertheless, chocolate has been widely used as set out in the following pages.

Energy and Vitality

Chocolate is probably most widely valued, both now and in centuries past, for its ability to provide an almost instant hit of energy and to revive flagging spirits. It has long been believed to fortify and invigorate the body, to nourish, refresh and repair the body after illness or exercise. There was universal use of chocolate for this purpose among the Aztecs, as documented by a number of authors.

Henry Stubbe said chocolate was particularly helpful for restoring energy if “one is tired through business, and wants speedy refreshment” and wrote of many recipes for strengthening the heart, reviving or ‘begetting’ strong spirits, including mixtures that involved vanilla and several varieties of “ear flowers” (xochinacaztlis or orichelas – Cymbopetalum penduliflorum). William Hughes describes chocolate as a nourishing and “speedy refreshment after travel, hard labor or violent exercises” and says also that it “wonderfully refresheth wearied limbs.” The debilitation of labor and childbirth could be reversed by serving chocolate to women in labor and it was also used to prevent fainting brought on by loss of blood.

In The Natural History of Chocolate, published in 1719, de Quélus said that drinking chocolate repaired “exhausted spirits” and “decayed strength”. He also reported that it contributed to health and longevity, while Lavedan said that “chocolate is a food that repairs and fortifies quickly.”

August Debay reported that physicians to the kings of Europe believed chocolate to be very healthy and useful for people suffering from fatigue, weakness and exhaustion.

Chocolate for Coughs, Colds, Catarrh and Consumption

Numerous early texts on the lives of the Aztecs documented the use of chocolate for coughs, colds, catarrh and consumption (tuberculosis). In 1625, Valverde Turices, concluded that “chocolate was beneficial for the ailments of the chest when drunk in great quantities” and Ledesma wrote in 1631 that it “cures consumptions, and the cough of the lungs”. William Hughes wrote that cacao paste mixed with “almonds, and the oyl of almonds [and] sugar” was a cure for coughs, and urged readers living in England to drink chocolate, particularly those who have “weak constitutions, and have thin attenuate bodies, or are troubled with sharp rheums, catarrhs, and such as consumption...”

Henry Stubbe, in The Indian Nectar, prescribes different varieties of peppers, specifically mecaxochitl or piso, when mixed with cacao paste for curing colds and in 1687, Nicolas de Blégny offered the following advice:

“Taken with the vanilla syrup at different times of the day and especially in the evening, at least two doses, it [chocolate] has an effect equally... to suspend the violent cause of rheumatoids and inflammation of the lungs, and to dull the irritation and ferocity which incites cough [and] to put out the inflammations of the throat and lungs [pleure]”

In 1796, Lavedan wrote that “the chocolate drink made with lightly toasted cacao with little or no aromas, is very healthy for those who are suffering from tuberculosis and consumption. It protects against obstructions, and if they are able to recover, cures sufferers of tuberculosis who seek this remedy on time, by replacing the loss of nutrient balsams that have stolen the consumptive warmth, dominating and sweetening the feverish acid that the spirits absorb...”

Faith in chocolate as a medicament for tuberculosis continued in Europe; Etienne Francois Geoffroy (1672-1731), Professor of Medicine and Pharamacy at the College of France, said that “the drinking of chocolate, especially that made with milk, is recommended to persons affected with phthisis or consumption; and, in fact, it supplies a juice which is nourishing, substantial, and smooth, which deadens the acrimony of the humors…”

In 1906, in the Diccionario de la Moda Elegante, Vocabulario Usual y de la Salud, cacao butter was recommended as an emollient to treat bronchitis and chronic catarrh and the use of chocolate as a remedy for lung and respiratory ailments continues today in Central America. In 1999 Sylvia Escárcega found a traditional healer in the Sierra Juárez who uses cacao beans to prepare a cure for bronchitis.

Stomach and Digestion

Historically, chocolate was recognised as a cure for stomach and other digestive ills, improving or curing everything from indigestion to diarrhea, from vomiting to stomach cancer, not to mention improving ones appetite and curing emaciation. German physician Dr. Christoph Willhelm Hufeland (1762 – 1836) said that he had “obtained excellent results from [chocolate] in many cases of chronic diseases of the digestive organs.” Lavedan praised chocolate as a “good stomach remedy, repairing all weaknesses, afflictions, indigestion, vomiting and heart pain, freeing the intestines of flatulence and colic. Those who have weakness of the stomach because of diarrhea or because of some purging substance will experience relief with the chocolate drink."

Vomiting and diarrhea were apparently cured with various chocolate recipes including a mixture that used vanilla syrup “to deaden the spleen overflow [bile] which provokes vomiting and which makes the stomach bilious, [leading to] death-producing diarrhea and dysentery.” Another mixture for diarrhea included a root identified only as Yiauhtli. However, a traditional Aztec cure that involved digging up the bones of long dead ancestors, grinding them to a powder and mixing it with chocolate drink is not to be recommended!

In an unusual instance of chocolate being used externally, Dufour mentions in his 1685 text a paste of achiote, or annatto, and chocolate applied to the stomach that “hinders the dysenterie or griping of the guts.” Annatto is a small tropical tree found in the Americas. It has pulpy seeds which yield a bright yellowish red dye. One can only imagine the scene – the patient writing in pain, while the village healer applies a thick brown paste streaked with blood red achiote to the belly…

In both Europe and the New World chocolate was drunk to improve digestion and it is widely reported that chocolate is very easily digested even by the young, the old and the infirm. Many authors urged their readers to drink chocolate in order to facilitate digestion and Quélus had this to say in 1719:
"Digestion of chocolate is soon brought about without trouble, without difficulty, and without any sensible rising of the pulse; the stomach very far from making use of its strength, acquires new force... I have seen several persons who had but weak digestion, if not quite spoiled, who have been entirely recovered by the frequent use of chocolate”

For minor complaints chocolate was used to increase appetite, reduce belching, flatulence and colic, and to relieve indigestion. Thomas Graham, in his Medicina Moderna Casera (1828) gave the following prescription for the relief of indigestion:
"For breakfast and in the afternoon, one should drink tea, cacao or light chocolate, with biscuits, bread and butter, or dry toast. Rolls, and any other type of spongy bread are bad, and it is important to refrain completely from coffee"

The Spanish explorers, constantly obsessed with constipation which they suffered as a result of diets lacking in fruit and vegetable, believed chocolate to be a good laxative! Some one hundred years later Samuel Pepys, the famous 17th century English Naval officer and diarist, recommended chocolate as a good cure for “imbecility of the stomach” as a result of a hangover.

Mind and Mood

Chocolate was said to both calm and stimulate the mind and mood. French lawyer and author, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, extolled the virtues of chocolate, particularly when it came to the effect of chocolate on the mood and intellect.

After his death, Brillat-Savarin’s writings were published as an anthology – The Physiology of Taste – in 1825. He wrote that chocolate was most suitable to those “who have much brain work to do, such as clergymen and lawyers, and especially for travellers…” He prescribed a pint of chocolate mixed with 60 to 72 grains of ambergris (the extremely expensive and exotic whale oil used as the base for the world’s most exclusive perfumes) for hangovers, insomnia and what we would now describe as seasonal affective disorder, recommending the remedy for “every man of intelligence who feels his faculties temporarily dulled; every one who finds the air damp, time hanging heavy on his hands, and the weather unendurable; every man who is tormented by a fixed idea which deprives him of the liberty of thinking.” For those with “delicate nerves” he prescribed chocolate mixed with orange flower water and when the nerves were irritated, chocolate mixed with almond milk.
However enamoured of chocolate’s effect on the brain and temperament Brillat-Savarin was, he was not the first. In 1662, Henry Stubbe reported that the Aztecs drank a mixture of chocolate and vanilla (thilxochitl) to “strengthen the brain” and in 1730 Quélus wrote that if agitated people were to consume chocolate, they would perceive an effect nearly instantly, that faintness would cease and strength be recovered before digestion [presumably that of the chocolate] had begun. Quélus also believed that drinking chocolate “procured easy quiet sleep.”

Chocolate was used to calm, sooth and almost tranquilize patients regarded as being over-stimulated or who were hyperactive, and Dr. Hufeland, physician to the King of Prussia used chocolate to treat people who were excitable, nervous or violent. Conversely, chocolate was also prescribed to people to stimulate their nervous systems, especially those identified as feeble, who lacked energy, or who suffered from “lassitude,” exhaustion, or apathy – symptoms in the 21st century which might lead to a diagnosis of depression. An amazingly versatile drug is chocolate – if you’re up it brings you down and if you’re down it lifts you up…

Science Rediscovers Chocolate

For centuries the Mesoamericans understood the medicinal powers of chocolate. Chocolate as a health food and remedy for the ills of both the mind and body was widely appreciated in Europe from the time of its arrival in Spain. Its curative power for an enormous range of ills and discomforts was well documented between the early 1500s and the early 1900s, although its evils were also debated particularly within the church and among the medical fraternity.

Sometime in the 20th century, the belief that chocolate had the power to heal was overwhelmed by the idea that chocolate was a wicked, sinful indulgence that would lead those who devoured the divine food down a path of ill-health and obesity. Dr Karl Keen says that “the concept that cocoa beverages may provide some health benefits was widely accepted up until about the 1850s and into the early 1900s. Only in the past 50 to 60 years have perceptions of chocolate changed from its being a medicinal food to a confectionery with no health benefits or possible negative effects on one’s health.”

(However, we must remember that the cold, frothy chocolate drink of the Aztecs bears little resemblance to the chocolate bars of the mid 20th century, many of which were largely sugar, milk solids and hydrogenated vegetable oils with only cocoa solids coming well down on the list of ingredient. But read on – all will be revealed in the next chapter!)

In the late 20th century, with world populations beset by cancer, heart disease, and chronic ill-health, medical research has turned to plants to find cures. Scientists have analysed thousands of plant materials and foods in search of compounds that might prevent or cure the diseases of the 21st century human. Science has refined the important role of vitamins and minerals in maintaining our health. It has discovered antioxidants, bioflavonoids and other phytochemicals that may not only play a role in keeping us healthy, but may be able to slow down or reverse damage, particularly the damage caused by an increasingly polluted modern lifestyle.

Although the research community was looking at antioxidants in cocoa and chocolate as far back as the 1980s, it is only since the mid to late 1990s that the healthy properties of chocolate have been seriously assessed by scientists.
And what have they found?

They have found out what the Aztecs knew centuries ago. That chocolate is not only not bad for you (in moderation), but that it is actually healthy! That’s right. Healthy!
And why didn’t they tell us?

Perhaps they did tell us. Research takes a long time to be published and often it is written in a way that is very scientific and hard for most of us to understand – or at least hard for us to extract the main, salient points. Much of the information that screamed out “chocolate might be good for us” was buried in other information that only serious science people were interested in – like medical journals that are only available in medical libraries (so, how many of you spend your leisure time in the inner chambers of the nearest medical school library?)
Then there is the very human reluctance to change long held ideas and accept new ones. We are always being told that if something seems too good to be true then it probably is!
But it is true!

Chocolate can be good for you! But you need to know that not all chocolate is created equal. You need to know that it is particularly good for helping to prevent or remedy some conditions. You need to know that on its own it won’t make you fat but that, like everything else, you should eat it in moderation; and in its’ most healthy forms.
Chocolate is good for your body!
Chocolate is good for your mind!
Chocolate is good for your spirit!
And chocolate is oh so good for your tongue….
… luscious, delectable, delicious chocolate.
The most delicious healthfood!

 “[Green cacao] makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one. When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one. Thus it is said: ‘I take cacao. I wet my lips. I refresh myself’” Sahagún, 1590 (cited in Food of the Gods)

“Chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea and universal medicine.” Geronimo Piperni, 1796 (cited in Coe and Coe, 1996)

“I observe my chocolate diet, to which I believe I owe my health. I do not use it crazily, or without precaution.” – Marie de Villiars, the wife of the French Ambassador to Spain in 1680 (cited in Coe and Coe, 1996).

“It’s strengthening, restorative, and apt to repair decayed Strength, and make People Strong: it helps Digestion, allays the sharp Humours the fall upon the Lungs: It keeps down the Fumes of the Wine, promotes Venery, and resists the malignity of the Humours.” – French food writer, Louis Lemery, in 1704 (cited in Coe and Coe, 1996)

"To every hundred nuts of cacao... put two cods of chile called long red pepper, one handful of anise-seeds, and orichelas [orejaelas], and two of the flowers called mecasuchill, one vaynilla [sic] or instead thereof fix Alexandrian roses beaten to powder, two drams of cinnamon, twelve almonds, and as many hasel-nuts [sic] half a pound of sugar, and as much achiote as would color it" – Henry Stubbe, 1662 – A basic recipe for medicinal chocolate.




Phillip Minton M.D. on Facebook

Add to Google Reader

Follow PhillipMintonMD on Twitter

Terms and Conditions
Privacy Policy
Phillip Minton, M.D. © 2006-2011
All Rights Reserved.