Chocolate was used therapeutically as long ago as the fourth century, when the Maya first started cultivating the cacao tree. Mayan sorcerers, who were the predecessors of priests and doctors, prescribed cacao both as a stimulant and as a soothing balm. Warriors took it as an energy boosting drink, and cocoa butter was used as a dressing for words.
Later on, the Aztecs prescribed a potion of cacao mixed with the ground exhumed bones of their ancestors as a cure for diarrhoea. The Spanish colonists also were aware of cacao’s healing properties making it into a “paste which they say is good for the stomacke and against the catarre.”
However chocolate was given a mixed reception by the early scientific and medical community who debated the rights and wrongs of this mysterious new substance. In the 16th century, when medicine was in its infancy, many of the theories were based on the principle of “hot” and “cold” humours, or body energies, which if not kept in balance would cause illness. The Spanish classified chocolate as “cold” and tried to neutralise its effect by drinking it hot and flavouring it with “hot” spices. They found it hard to understand why the Aztecs drank unheated chocolate when it was already a “cold” food.
By the 17th century, chocolate had been given the seal of approval by several botanists and medics, who discovered that it contained all kinds of beneficial substances. Henry Stubbe (1632-76), the English physician and scholar, during his appointment as His Majesty’s Physician for Jamaica, investigated the physical effects of chocolate. In 1662 he published “The Indian nectar, or, A discourse concerning chocolate“, in which he was full of praise for the chocolate beverage and criticised those who refused it on puritanical grounds.
Among many others who sang the praises of chocolate was the Italian physician Stephani Blancardi (1650-1702) who said “chocolate is not only pleasant of taste but it is also a veritable balm of the mouth for the maintaining of all glands and humours in a good state of health. Thus it is, that all who drink it possess a sweet breath.”
The French faculty of medicine officially approved chocolate use in 1661. The magistrate and gastronome Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), summed up in his physiologie du gout: “chocolate when carefully prepared is a wholesome and agreeable form of food, it is very suitable for persons of great mental exertion, preachers, lawyers, and above all travellers as it agrees with the feeblest stomachs, has proved beneficial in cases of chronic illness and remains the last resource in the diseases of the pylorus.” Some of his contemporaries claimed that chocolate cured tuberculosis. A French doctor who probably sensed chocolate’s ability to lift the spirits was convinced of its merits as an antidote to a broken heart. He wrote: “those who love, and are unfortunate enough to suffer from the most universal of all gallant illnesses, will find in chocolate the most enlightening consolation.”
Praise wasn’t universal though. An 18th century physician to the Tuscan court disagreed with the general consensus by declaring that chocolate was “hot” and that it was madness to add “hot drugs” to it. The physician must have noticed the effects of caffeine in chocolate for he lists as ill effects incessant chatter, insomnia, irritability and hyperactivity in children.
In general however the medicinal and nutritional benefits of chocolate were well accepted. An early English writer described it as “incomparable as a family drink for breakfast or supper, when both tea and coffee are really out of place unless the latter is nearly all milk”. Brillat-Savarin also commented on digestion saying: “when you have breakfasted well and copiously, if you swallow a generous cup of good chocolate at the end of the meal you will have digested everything perfectly three hours later.”
By the end of the 19th century good quality chocolate was approved of by many hospitals and sanatoria as well as by the Navy, the Army and various public institutions.
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