History of chocolate as medicine

Cacao, the primary ingredient of chocolate, has been consumed for its health benefits for thousands of years. It has been used for its medicinal capabilities as far back as 460AD, where it was prepared as a beverage by indigenous people in Mesoamerica.1 In fact, recent evidence finding dry residue on pottery in Honduras shows that humans have been consuming chocolate beverages at least as early as 600 B.C.2

Cacao was so important to the ancient Maya and Aztec people that it was seen as a sacred food, handed down to them by the gods. They traded cacao seeds as a form of currency and even held a yearly festival to honour the cacao god Ek Chuah.3 Chocolate was used for many health reasons, one of which being as an aphrodisiac. It was rumoured that Montezuma drank his own chocolate concoction to give him enough strength to satisfy his many wives.4

Ancient Maya lord of chocolate.

News soon reached Europe and they also realised the many potential health benefits of chocolate. Cacao “the brown gold” was first brought over to Europe by Christopher Columbus, who found little interest in the strange new bean. Then later, the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, gave samples of cacao to King Charles of Spain in 1528.5

Hernan Cortes arriving in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital to meet the emperor, Montezuma II.

A health drink made from cacao became extremely popular with the Spanish monarchy and then later spread across the whole of Europe. In the next few hundred years, chocolate was used to treat over 100 different medical ailments.6 It was used most commonly to “induce weight gain in emaciated patients, to stimulate the nervous system and to improve digestion and elimination.”7

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  1. Patterns of chocolate consumption, F H Seligson D A Krummel J L Apgar The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 60, Issue 6, 1 December 1994, Pages 1060S–1064S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/60.6.1060S
  2. Cacao usage by the earliest Maya civilization. Hurst WJ1, Tarka SM Jr, Powis TG, Valdez F Jr, Hester TR. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12124611?dopt=Abstract
  3. “Ek Chuah Encounters the Holy Ghost in the Colonial Labyrinth: Ideology and Commerce on Both Sides of the Spanish Invasion”. Kepecs, Susan (2014-11-25). In Funari, Pedro Paulo A.; Senatore, Maria Ximena. Archaeology of Culture Contact and Colonialism in Spanish and Portuguese America. p. 108. ISBN 978-3-319-08068-0.
  4. Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Donatella Lippi Medi-Food 2013 May; 5(5): 1573–1584. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3708337/
  5. Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Donatella Lippi Medi-Food 2013 May; 5(5): 1573–1584. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3708337/
  6. Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? Teresa L. Dillinger Patricia Barriga Sylvia Escárcega Martha JimenezDiana Salazar Lowe Louis E. GrivettiThe Journal of Nutrition, Volume 130, Issue 8, 1 August 2000, Pages 2057S–2072S,https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/130.8.2057S
  7. Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease, David L. Katz, Kim Doughty, and Ather Ali, 2011 Nov 15; 15(10): 2779–2811. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4696435/