Nowadays, we might think of chocolate as unhealthy, a contributor to the obesity crisis. However, what you might not know is that chocolate has a key place in the history of medicine.
In the past few decades, many health claims have swirled around chocolate. Unfortunately, lots of these are just too good to be true, as we found out when we chatted to Professor Tim Spector, an expert on these issues. The idea that chocolate might have health benefits isn’t new. In fact, for as long as chocolate has existed, people have believed in its medicinal benefits. Read on to find out more about the crucial role of chocolate in the history of medicine!
Medical Chocolate in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica
Although cocoa probably originated in the Amazon rainforest, the earliest records we have of its use come from central America, in modern-day Mexico and Ecuador. Frothed, spiced chocolate was a royally-approved drink in Aztec and Mayan culture, and played a central role in their societies. Chocolate was used in religious rituals, wedding ceremonies, royal feasts – and medicine. Yes, that’s right, chocolate’s place in the history of medicine starts not in Europe, but amongst indigenous people in the Americas.
We know that Mayan medicine involved chocolate. This means that chocolate has probably been part of the history of medicine for around 4000 years! The Mayan understanding of illness was deeply connected to the natural world. Healers would perform chants invoking the spirits of animals and types of tree. For skin problems, fever and seizures, these chants were combined with a medicinal drink. This drink contained chocolate mixed with peppers, honey and tobacco juice. (We probably wouldn’t recommend this combination, taste-wise…)
Chocolate as Aztec Medicine: The Florentine Codex
Most of our records about chocolate’s use in early medical history come from the medieval and early modern Aztec Empire. The Aztecs used chocolate to treat stomach problems and indigestion. They also mixed it with tree bark to cure infections, and with maize to relieve fever. We know much of this from the 1590 Florentine codex. This was a book about Aztec society written by a Franciscan friar named Bernardino de Sahagún, with illustrations by local Aztec artists. The book is bilingual, with text in both Spanish and Nahuatl, the Aztec language. The Florentine codex is one of the earliest books we have from the New World which includes information on history, medicine and chocolate!
Part of the Florentine codex records Aztec medical practice, and includes multiple recipes for pharmaceuticals made using chocolate. One cure for a cough includes a kind of tea made from opossum tail, followed up by a herbal drink made from chocolate mixed with pepper, vanilla, and sacred flowers. The Aztecs often used chocolate like Mary Poppins’ ‘spoonful of sugar’, mixing remedies into chocolate to help mask unpleasant flavours.
First Contact: Chocolate as Medicine in the New World
Europeans first encountered chocolate during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. During the early years of contact, they were struck by the local use of chocolate as a medicine.
In the second half of the 16th century, Friar Agustin Davila Padilla, a Spanish priest, wrote about a chocolate treatment administered to one of his missionary colleagues. This missionary suffered from kidney disease. To cure him, local doctors ‘ordered him to use a drink that in the Indies they call chocolate. It is a little bit of hot water in which they dissolve something like almonds that they call cacaos, and it is made with some spices and sugar’. According to Padilla’s account, the medicine worked! Then and there, chocolate entered into European medical history. In particular, the late 16th-century Spaniards were impressed by chocolate’s nutritious and fattening properties. It was good for restoring those who had lost weight and strength due to illness.
The History of Medicine in Europe: Chocolate and the Humours
You might remember the medieval humours from school, if you ever studied the history of medicine. Chocolate came into contact with the humours in the 16th and 17th century, and proved a bit problematic. For those who don’t remember their lessons, here’s a reminder.
In Early Modern Europe, medicine was based on the humoural system of the ancient Roman physician Galen. This categories different illnesses as wet, cold, hot and dry. The system was based on balance, so hot dry illnesses such as fever would be treated with cold wet medicines and foods. In Galenic practice, food and medicine were inseparable.
When chocolate came along, it scrambled the system. In bean form it was cold and wet, as powder, cold and dry. As a drink, it was hot and wet because it was fatty, but it was astringent, and often spiced with chilli and pepper which made it dry. Chocolate was impossible to categorise! Some scholars argue that chocolate, along with coffee and tea, were the last nail in the Galenic coffin, confusing the system and paving the way for its replacement. So you might argue that chocolate had a pivotal role in advancing medical history towards more modern theories than the outdated humoral system!
The Chocolate Cure in 17th-century Europe
During the 17th century, news of chocolate’s medicinal powers spread to continental Europe. Antonio Colmenero de Ledesmo wrote an immensely popular treatise on chocolate, published in 1631. His book records one of the earliest recipes for drinking chocolate, but it also contributed to the history of medicine. He noted that chocolate was good for aiding childbirth, helping digestion and curing gut diseases. It was also useful for treating jaundice, TB and ‘the green sicknesse’ (anaemia). Moreover, Ledesmo helpfully noted that chocolate ‘cleaneth the teeth and sweetneth the breath’. We’re not too sure on that one!
In 1672, William Hughes, an American physician, described chocolate as ‘very nourishing’. He wrote:
Chocolate’s supposed health benefits led to it becoming a popular choice for well-to-do gentlemen who frequented coffee shops, as it was believed to be more nutritious and wholesome than tea or coffee. It was also enjoyed by their female relatives who drank it at home. Letters from the French aristocrat Madame de Sévigné, reveal that she wrote to her unwell daughter advising her to get a chocolate pot and take drinking chocolate for its restorative effects.
In the 17th-century version of what we might now call ‘wellness culture’, chocolate ranked alongside the sulphurous hot waters at spas such as bath, and the effects of seaside air in stylish resorts: it was a treatment, but it was also a treat!
Benjamin Franklin Recommends it! Medicinal Chocolate in the 18th & 19th Centuries
In the 18th century, one of the early proponents of medical chocolate in American history was, perhaps surprisingly, Benjamin Franklin. The American founding father was a big fan of chocolate. When he started out as a bookseller, he claimed that he sold lots of books ‘too tedious to mention’ and also ‘very good chocolate’. One of Franklin’s money-making schemes was Poor Richard’s Almanack, an almanac which included weather, astrological facts and axioms. In 1761, Franklin’s almanac explained the benefits of chocolate for treating smallpox!
As the years wore on, chocolate continued to be used to treat all manner of diseases and played a major role in the history of medicine’s modernisation. In 1796, it was claimed that chocolate could delay the growth of white hair, in an early example of myths about chocolate’s magical anti-aging properties! The following year, Erasmus Darwin, a physician who was the grandfather of Charles Darwin, treated himself for gout using chocolate.
Chocolate in Victorian Medicine
During the 19th century, medicinal chocolate was used to treat syphilis, cholera, and measles outbreaks. (We doubt it did much good.)
Chocolate was seriously considered by medical professionals. In 1846, the pharmacologist Auguste Saint-Arroman published an English translation of his treatise Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: Their Influence upon the Health, the Intellect, and the Moral Nature of Man. Arroman thought chocolate was useful in many situations, but cautioned that it could have negative effects. This potent drink was, he believed, dangerous for the young. He also described a medicine called ferruginous chocolate, apparently used to treat anaemia, or, as he described it:
Of all the treatments considered so far, this probably did work! Chocolate is a rich vegetable source of iron, and the iron filings would have helped! Some historians suggest that other treatments using chocolate may have worked because the chocolate was boiled, making it a sterile drink. Chocolate was therefore safer than water, which was often polluted, or alcoholic alternatives.
If you want to try a Victorian medical recipe yourself, look no further than ‘medicinal gluten chocolate’. This recipe was patented in England in 1855. It was made from equal parts cocoa and sugar, plus half that amount of gluten. The ‘gluten’ in question was bread reduced to a fine powder. Edible, but not particularly healthful, with that much sugar involved!
Cocoa: It’s Still in Our Medicines!
Nowadays, chocolate doesn’t turn up much in medicine, though it can still be found as a flavouring in supplements and diet replacement drinks. However, cocoa beans remain a common ingredient in pharmaceuticals! Cocoa solids (the chocolatey bit of cocoa) is mainly used for food. However, cocoa butter (the fat from the cocoa bean) is a cheap fat commonly used in ointments. So check the ingredients next time you reach for your topical creams! Chocolate is also still used in indigenous medicine, and it continues to attract health claims, though these are often dubious! Why not find out more about them in the health section of chocopedia?