When I think about chocolate, my first thought is taste. Sweet, creamy and smooth. I cross it in grocery aisles with big eyes and a salivating mouth. I know it as Hershey’s, Cadbury, Lindt, a mixture of childhood memories and guilty pleasures. But, what if I told you chocolate is not just a sweet delight but has been used in medicine and wellness for hundreds, if not thousands of years? In fact, the beginning of chocolate began 3,900 years ago, when a cacao bean was first taken from the Theobroma Cacao tree in the Amazon Rainforest.
Mayans and Aztecs used the cacao bean to make Xocoatl, a cacao drink used as “Food of the Gods” or in other words, an offering to their Gods. Indeed, both Aztecs and Mayans believed chocolate to be sacred, utilising it in medicine, weddings and even religious rituals. Interestingly, the medical practice encompassed a variety of ingredients, including chilli and honey to treat seizures, fever and skin problems. This integrally connected to the Mayans’ natural world and their elemental gods.
A Medical Wonder
The moment the Spanish colonised Latin America in 1493, it did not take long until they took notice of the magical fruit. In fact, Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés wrote to King Carlos I of Spain, after his conquest of the Aztecs in 1519, declaring “he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.”
A Spanish priest by the name of Friar Agustin Davila Padilla was one of the first to report its healing properties when his kidney-diseased colleague was cured with the indigenous chocolate drink.
It was only a matter of time when, in the 17th century, news about chocolate spread across Europe and became the centre of fierce debate. Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s, treatise on chocolate, 1631, notably highlighted chocolate’s medicinal properties during childbirth, indigestion and gut disease. Word travelled and soon found itself in every home and medical establishment, becoming what American physician William Hughes described as a remedy “against all coughs, shortness of breath”.
The dispute over chocolate’s true medicinal properties only increased when Henry Stubbe, King Charles II’s doctor, suggested it to cure “hypochondriac melancholy”. In other words, it proposes that chocolate-healed anxiety disorders like Hypochondria make people worried they are always severely ill. This theory was first discussed by Thomas Willis, who affirmed chocolate was a beneficial expectorant, diuretic and aphrodisiac.
Popularity spiked in the 17th-century wellness industry, placing highly alongside Bath’s sulphurous hot water spas and famous resorts. Chocolate began to be viewed as a bringer of beauty rather than medicine, with many claiming that it delayed the growth of white hair and ageing. Even Foucault noted that chocolate “is Venus’s friend and very suitable for body and soul”. With the outbreak of measles, syphilis, and cholera, however, chocolate reverted to its old medicinal use.
In Florence, chocolate was enormously adored. However, one Doctor Giovan Battista Felici, who detested chocolate for its “disorder (…) to shorten life”, began destroying its positive reputation. Consequently, shopkeepers like Francesco Zeti, or “the Hunchback of Panone”, were angered by Felici’s influence on the decreasing number of customers in their shops. Chocolate was soon commercialised and advertised to drive sales.
Cocoa Butter and the K-Ration
Cacao as butter was first coined by Giovan Battista Anfossi, who argued that chocolate’s curing abilities related closer to the inflammation of the skin. Forwarding to the 20th century, chocolate was used as a high-fat, calorific food crucial during wars and periods of rationing.
This concept was penned by Ancel Keys and named the K Ration, and consisted of hard biscuits, dry sausage, sweets and chocolate. This diet was greatly favoured by millions of soldiers during the Second World War.
The 21st Century Understanding of Cacao
Today we know and understand that cocoa “contains more phenolic antioxidants than most foods”. This increases insulin resistance which reduces the risk for diabetes. As predicted by many doctors over time, cocoa does have anti-inflammatory effects, caused by the cocoa polyphenols in chocolate. Not only does this protect your nerves from inflammation and injury, but it can protect your skin from oxidative damage from UV radiation.
The medicinal benefit of chocolate is said to be endless, with studies by the University of Bari Aldo Moro asserting its support on memory, heart disease, blood pressure and atrial fibrillation. Unfortunately, there are negatives to the over-consumption of chocolate, including weight gain. This is mainly because of the many additives in chocolate which often encourage a sugar addiction. Regardless, when consumed in moderation, and sticking to dark chocolate the positives ultimately outweigh the negatives.
Cacao has likewise weaved itself into the beauty industry, having become a frequent ingredient in lip balms, hair products and moisturizers. Chocolate’s relaxation component called Theobromine has likewise promoted its presence in the wellness industry. This is due to its stimulant properties that support the relaxation of muscles, and the firming and treatment of dry and combined skin types.
To understand the benefits and origins of cacao ceremonies is to understand why they happen in the first place. Contrary to popular belief, cacao ceremonies are not only found among Mayan and Aztec communities but have slowly moved into Western wellness practices.
Founder of the Wild Woman Academy, Andrea Jackson, commented on the purpose of the cacao ceremony, stating it “is a heart opener, and a sacred plant medicine that indigenous people took to commune with their Gods, and their hearts…it invites stillness and a time to step away from the noise of life.”
Wild Woman Academy invites women to join retreats, meditation sessions and sharing circles to connect with their inner selves. However, it also encourages women in their Peri-Menopause to nourish themselves with cacao’s many vitamins and minerals, including:
- Magnesium: “your period’s best friend” that calms the nervous systems and aids with headaches and cramps.
- Iron: Supports the healthy production of red blood cells to fight fatigue and weakness.
According to Andrea Jackson, ceremonial cacao also boosts brain function. These properties derive from chemicals present in chocolate, including:
- PEA (the love molecule): released when in love, Phenylethylamine is found in cacao and can boost focus, productivity and calm.
- Serotonin: helpful when suffering from anxiety, and stress of PMS symptoms, the hormone helps you re-balance your endocrine and central nervous systems.
- Anandamide: a powerful neurotransmitter chemical that activates the heart and womb, allowing for deep healing.So, what is chocolate, then? Medicine or food? Historically, ill patients who suffered from fevers and blood loss were replenished with the vital sugars and nutrients present in chocolate. Hence, after we visit the doctor’s office for a blood test, we are often advised to eat something sweet. Not only does this prevent low glucose levels, but it gives your body an extra push to carry on with your day. It is, however, very possible that shopkeepers like Francesco Zeti embellished the medicinal properties of chocolate to increase sales and ultimately feed their families.Nothing, however, can discount the spiritual and emotional uses of chocolate. Ceremonial chocolate has supported women during their periods and peri-menopause and has provided others with focus, productivity and balance.
Perhaps chocolate cures the body in different ways than we once thought, but it certainly heals the Monday blues and satiates that devious sweet tooth.