History, Culture & Archeology

The Medicinal Use of Chocolate in Early North America

Deanna L. Pucciarelli and Louis E. Grivetti

The medicinal use of chocolate has a long history in North America dating back to the 16th century. From Mesoamerican Codices and European Treatises scholars have determined that for hundreds of years the beverage called chocolate was administered to the sick and prescribed homeopathically to prevent illness. Yet, little scholarship exists that focuses on medicinal chocolate usage in early North America (18th – 19th century). This paper examines medical practices during this era and associated medicinal norms with special attention given to chocolate/cocoa usage. Given the current scientific attention on the relationship between dark chocolate consumption and heart disease attenuation it is timely to investigate and chronicle America's medical forebears’ understanding of, and practices related to, the medicinal use of chocolate. Indeed, there is a signif icant amount of literature to suggest that chocolate was used for wellness and to treat illness.

"Chocolate is a unique food in that many of its perceived properties are opposites within the humoral classif ication system. The tannins inherent in chocolate are astringent. At the same time, chocolate melts at body temperature and offers a smooth sensory property in the mouth. Theobromine keeps consumers alert. The high fat content of chocolate satiates the consumer and creates a feeling of fullness lending itself to slothfulness. Adding spices and aromatics to chocolate further complicates chocolate classif ication into hot/cold and wet/dry quadrants. Whether the beverage was based on cocoa (defatted) or chocolate made with vanilla and/or spices, mixed with milk or water, steeped with shells for a tea, or frothed into a fancy concoction a constant throughout the centuries was that the beverage based on cocoa beans was used to treat illness. This tradition that contemporary scholars trace to originating in Mesoamerica continued in 18th century North America after European settlement. Evidence to support chocolate's sustained medicinal use repeatedly appears in 19th and early 20th centuries newspapers"

Keywords: Chocolate / Cocoa / Food history / Foods for health / History of medicine /
Received: July 9, 2007; accepted: January 2, 2008

Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate

Teresa L. Dillinger*, Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escárcega**, Martha Jimenez, Diana Salazar Lowe and Louis E. Grivetti*

"And so they were happy over the provisions of the good mountain, filled with sweet things, . . . thick with pataxte and cacao. . . the rich foods filling up the citadel named Broken Place, Bitter Water Place. From the Popol Vuh, sacred book of the Maya (Tedlock 1985, p 163)

To trace and describe the use of cacao in medicine is to embark on an exploration through time and geographical space. One of the first documents to mention cacao, or chocolate, in a Western language was penned by Hernando Corte´ s in his second dispatch to the Emperor of Spain in a letter dated October 30, 1520. However, indigenous peoples of the New World passed on the knowledge of cacao through oral histories, stonework, pottery and the creation of intricate, multi colored documents (codices) that extolled cacao and documented its use in everyday life and ritual centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. In the centuries after initial contact between the Spaniards and indigenous peoples of the New World, hundreds of descriptive accounts, monographs and treatises were published that contained information on the agricultural, botanical, economic, geographical, historical, medical and nutritional aspects of cacao/chocolate. This rich body of literature is reflected in numerous languages and includes English, French, German, Latin, Spanish and Swedish accounts that extend into the late 19th century. Several learned theses/dissertations produced during the 20th century have examined the general history of cacao/chocolate as well as some of its cultural uses (Bergmann 1959, Millon 1955, Quintero Sanchez 1998). In addition, a broad range of popular trade books and articles on chocolate and chocolate history have been produced during the past 15 y, but most provide only brief comment on the dietary/medical aspects of cacao/ chocolate in Central America during the early Colonial Period."

"When asked to identify additional adjectives that characterized chocolate attributes, respondents supplied a broad range of terms, including awesome, calming, dangerous, delectable, erotic, heavenly, intoxicating, irresistible, mysterious, non-nutritious, satiating, sexy, sinful, sticky and tranquilizing (Yuker 1997, pp. 35– 43). Chocolate is more than a beverage or confection; chocolate is more than the sum of its interesting phytochemicals. Chocolate is a part of history; chocolate tells the story of people and events from antiquity to the present. Although there may be 1 million plants globally, of these, 500 are domesticated (Grivetti and Ogle, 2000). Of these relatively few domesticated species, perhaps only chocolate (T. cacao) and wine (Vitis vinifera) have so captivated the imagination of humans for centuries and are thought to possess medicinal and, among some cultures, magical qualities. To taste chocolate, therefore, is to share in a common connection through history, from the time of the Olmec over 3000 years ago to the present, from the frothy cacao beverages prepared at the court of King Moctezuma, to the era of the modern chocolate bar. "


Abstract: The medicinal use of cacao, or chocolate, both as a primary remedy and as a vehicle to deliver other medicines, originated in the New World and diffused to Europe in the mid 1500s. These practices originated among the Olmec, Maya and Mexica (Aztec). The word cacao is derived from Olmec and the subsequent Mayan languages (kakaw); the chocolate-related term cacahuatl is Nahuatl (Aztec language), derived from Olmec/Mayan etymology. Early colonial era documents included instructions for the medicinal use of cacao. The Badianus Codex (1552) noted the use of cacao flowers to treat fatigue, whereas the Florentine Codex (1590) offered a prescription of cacao beans, maize and the herb tlacoxochitl (Calliandra anomala) to alleviate fever and panting of breath and to treat the faint of heart. Subsequent 16th to early 20th century manuscripts produced in Europe and New Spain revealed >100 medicinal uses for cacao/chocolate. Three consistent roles can be identified: 1) to treat emaciated patients to gain weight; 2) to stimulate nervous systems of apathetic, exhausted or feeble patients; and 3) to improve digestion and elimination where cacao/chocolate countered the effects of stagnant or weak stomachs, stimulated kidneys and improved bowel function. Additional medical complaints treated with chocolate/cacao have included anemia, poor appetite, mental fatigue, poor breast milk production, consumption/tuberculosis, fever, gout, kidney stones, reduced longevity and poor sexual appetite/low virility. Chocolate paste was a medium used to administer drugs and to counter the taste of bitter pharmacological additives. In addition to cacao beans, preparations of cacao bark, oil (cacao butter), leaves and flowers have been used to treat burns, bowel dysfunction, cuts and skin irritations.

KEY WORDS: • cacao • chocolate • history of chocolate • history of medicine • medical geography • nutritional anthropology • nutritional geography

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes a rare find: One-thousand-year-old evidence of chocolate (theobromine cacao) being used by indigenous populations in what is now the Southwest region of the United States.

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Synopsis: The medicinal use of cacao, or chocolate, both as a primary remedy and as a vehicle to deliver other medicines, originated in the New World and diffused to Europe in the mid 1500s.