It may be chic to pop a piece of dark chocolate in the name of living longer, but there's nothing nouveau about cocoa's reputation and role as medicine in many different cultures.
According to a historical review compiled by a team of more than 100 researchers, led by University of California (Davis) nutrition professor Louis Grivetti, chocolate was first credited with improving longevity around 1660 - but its origins date back centuries earlier. Entitled Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate, the paper traces the cocoa plant from its earliest cultivation, to today, chronicling its use to treat dozens of ailments including rheumatism, seizures, syphilis, ulcers, and perhaps more surprisingly, given our current knowledge that chocolate contains caffeine, heart palpitations, and insomnia!
According to the research, published in the Journal of Nutrition, cocoa's story begins with cultivation by the Mayan, Olmec, and Aztec cultures, although exactly where domestication began is unclear. Seeds of the berry-like fruit of the theobroma cacao plant, now referred to as cocoa "beans," were used as currency, offered as sacrifices to deities, and ground into beverages, the remains of which have been discovered at archeological sites in what is now Honduras, dating back 3,000 years.
Chocolate's modern history as food and medicine began around the early 1500s, with the arrival of Spanish explorers to the Americas. In some of the earliest documentation in a western language, Hernando Cortez and Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote about chocolate's role in the local economy, and culture of the indigenous peoples.
Within a century, cocoa was enjoying widespread use in Spain, France, England and other parts of western Europe. Its medical applications were influenced by extensive documentation of how cocoa was used by the Aztecs, most notably in a 60-year compilation of cultural, dietary and health practices tirelessly assembled by the Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagun.
Over the next 300 years, cacoa was studied by botanists, physicians, and travelers. Longevity was added to its list of benefits in the mid 1600s, according to Grivetti's team, by a prominent Spanish physician, who claimed drinking it "yields good nourishment to the body, it helps to digest ill humors, voiding the excrements by sweat and urine."
Cocoa was typically used either as a direct medicinal ingredient, to treat problems like fever, stomach complaints, faintness, fatigue, angina, gout, and hemorrhoids, or as a beverage to make another medicine more palatable. Various mixtures of the cacao nut and other ingredients like red pepper, anise, vanilla, or cinnamon, were heralded as remedies for problems of many organs, including the heart, kidneys, throat, bladder, and later on, diseases like tuberculosis. In fact, looking through the extensive tables of more than a hundred maladies reportedly helped by cocoa and chocolate, it seems there were few diseases not made better by this "wonder" ingredient.
Though the list of ailments potentially cured by chocolate over the years is long, the UC researchers say most fall into three main categories, which will ring true for chocolate lovers today: to stimulate the nervous system in fatigued patients, to energize the digestive system and sluggish kidney or bowel function, and lastly, to promote weight gain. By modern standards, this last "medicinal" effect of chocolate could be seen as its least desirable trait.
Calories aside, chocolate and cocoa have played a significant cultural, dietary, economic, and medical role in many areas of the world, for thousands of years. Our current understanding of how eating a small amount of chocolate may benefit heart health by reducing blood pressure, stems from research on another indigenous culture, the Kuna Indians of Panama. Whether future investigation will support, or qualify, its ability to enhance our longevity, one thing is certain: chocolate's appeal as a delicious bit of luxury will most likely endure.
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John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. McGovern. "Chemical and archaeological evidence for the earliest cacao beverages." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 104(48):18937-18940.
Norman K. Hollenberg et al. "Aging, Acculturation, Salt Intake, and Hypertension in the Kuna of Panama." Hypertension 1997;29:171-176
Teresa L. Dillinger, Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escárcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis E. Grivettiet al. "Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate." J Nutr. 2000 Aug;130(8S Suppl):2057S-72S.