The Aztec elite drank chocolate in a variety of elixirs and had many beliefs about its health benefits. As for the slaves, “Denied cacao throughout their lives, slaves might taste cacao for the first time if chosen for sacrifice. A drink was even made of chocolate mixed with water containing human blood washed from sacrificial knives to give sacrificial victims courage.”
Like the Aztecs, the Spanish consumed chocolate “to maintain endurance, build up resistance and fight fatigue.” Cortes referred to chocolate as a “divine drink” and claimed that “a cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk all day without food.”
Cortes introduced chocolate to the court of King Charles of Spain and for over one hundred years, Spain and Portugal had a monopoly on trading cacao beans. In 1590, the Jesuit priest Jose de Acosta noted that “Spanish men—and even more the Spanish women—are addicted to chocolate.” The Spanish aristocracy preferred chocolate as a hot drink—especially for breakfast. Some believe that the eventual disruption of this veritable monopoly “coincided with the decline of Spain as a major world power.” Or maybe it wasn’t coincidence at all but the effects of chocolate over three generations on the health and intelligence of the elite that caused the nation’s decline.
Chocolate soon made its way to the rest of Europe, where it remained limited to the aristocracy until the 19th century. According to one writer, chocolate became “a symbol of weakness and laziness of the aristocrats, as opposed to the activity and rationality of the middle classes, which were associated with coffee consumption.”
During the 17th, many writers promoted chocolate as a cure-all. “Doctors hurried to explain that alcohol, tea, coffee and chocolate were good for the body, and propose thus, in sincere conviction, an intellectual alibi to open the door to desire.”
A few interesting facts: chocolate houses in England were all gambling establishments; the Marquis de Sade liked his chocolate to be as “black as the Devil’s arse;” Voltaire drank up to fifty cups of coffee and chocolate per day.
In Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest Over the Centuries, authors Philip K. Wilson and W. Jeffrey Hurst chronicle some of the many claims made for chocolate. (The authors acknowledge support from the Hershey community, The Humanities Department of Penn State Hershey’s College of Medicine and the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition.)
In 1624, Francisco Maria Brancaccio claimed that chocolate “Restores natural heat, generates pure blood, enlivens the heart and conserves the natural faculties.” In 1662 Dr. Juanes de Barrios, noted the common belief that chocolate was “all that was necessary for breakfast, because after eating chocolate, one needed no further meat, bread or drink.”
Many tracts on chocolate promoted it as medicinal but not all agreed. Martin Lister, upon visiting Paris in 1698 noted that “Europeans, unlike the Indians, do not have the ability to digest it, and that drinking chocolate leads to a worn-out, decaying gut.”
In 1795, Amsterdam physician Stephani Blancardi lauded chocolate as “a veritable balm of the mouth,” useful for “maintaining all of the glands and humours in a good state of health.” Blancardi specifically prescribed chocolate for small pox patients
According to Wilson and Hurst, “Few natural products have been purported to effectively treat such a wide variety of disorders as has chocolate. Fortunately, allergies and side effects to chocolate are reportedly rare.” Ailments for which chocolate could be beneficial, listed in appendix, range from agitation and anemia to worms and wounds; chocolate was said to increase virility, help cure cancer and delay the appearance of white hair. When asked “What is health?” the renowned gastronome Brillat-Savarin replied, “It is chocolate!”
By the 19th century, the populace believed that chocolate consumed as a beverage was wholesome, healthy and healing. “The corporate futures of several leading chocolate manufacturers grew out of this connection between their product and health,” note Wilson and Hurst. By 1884, chocolate makers touted their product as an aphrodisiac, a digestive aid, a soporific, a tonic and a cure for certain intestinal affliction. “Over time, the health benefits attributed to chocolate tended to increase as rapidly as the growth of chocolate manufacturing.”
For example, Liegig’s Cocoa and Chocolate Works claimed that “Chocolate is a perfect food. . . It agrees with dry temperaments and convalescents; with mothers who nurse their children; with those whose occupations oblige them to undergo severe mental strains; with public speakers, and with all those who give to work a portion of their time needed for sleep. It soothes both stomach and brain, and for this reason. . . it is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.”
At spas, chocolate was offered to convalescents and invalids and dispensed as medicine. In North America, the first spa town to introduce this practice was Saratoga Springs in 1791.
Soon chocolate became commonplace in soldiers’ rations. Napoleon frequently ate chocolate when he needed a quick energy boost. Soldiers received one-ounce chocolate sugar cakes as emergency rations during WWI. Explorers on Antarctic expeditions and astronauts ate chocolate in the form of chocolate pudding and space brownies. K rations for American soldiers featured a chocolate bar in the supper pack.
The 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer claimed that cocoa may well be placed in the diet “of a child after his third year” and noted that chocolate “Makes strong men stronger.”
By the 1930s, Hershey was promoting their products as “more sustaining than meat,” the perfect food for invalids as well as half-starved artisans and over-worked factory children. (Weston Price was not fooled; writing during the 1930s, he designated chocolate as a displacing food of modern commerce.)
Mid 20th century magazine and newspaper ads promoted milk chocolate for building bone, giving energy and building tissue, especially for children.
A 1955 article in the magazine Paris Match gave chocolate high praise: “Often Martine, you feel like eating a bar of chocolate. . . but you don’t, because you think you shouldn’t—and so you are being unfair to yourself. You don’t want chocolate; you need it! You’ve done the shopping and the housework, and still somehow found the energy to be the perfect hostess. You are exhausted, and your body urgently requires energy in compensation, and you naturally feel the urge to eat chocolate, because it is a balanced food which instantaneously restores the essential elements that you have used up. You deserve it, so why feel guilty about tucking into a bar of chocolate.”
These fantastic claims continued even as late as 2005 when Julie Pech, author of The Chocolate Therapist, created a lucrative career based on her belief that this “once guilty pleasure has turned into the latest necessity of health.”
Although the authors of Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest over the Centuries may have hoped to please their sponsors and provide proof that chocolate is beneficial to health, it becomes clear that the claims over the centuries constitute exaggeration and hype. The authors conclude meekly: “Though this book has admittedly provided only snippets from the vast history of chocolate’s luscious timeline, the repeated attempts over the past four hundred plus years to gather evidence for chocolate’s therapeutic capacity lead us to surmise that this quest itself, as well as the substance being studied, has something approaching a habit-forming nature to it.”
What makes chocolate habit forming? Cocoa beans contain stimulants such as theobromine, caffeine and theophylline, even traces of nicotine, as well as alkaloids that affect the central nervous system. One such alkaloid is enkephalin, which triggers opioid receptors in a part of the brain that enhances the impulse to consume. In rats, eating chocolate spurred the production of enkephalin, and injections of enkephalin in the rats enhanced consumption.
According to Gary L. Wenk, PhD, author of Your Brain on Food, certain fats in chocolate “induce the release of endogenous molecules that act similar to heroin and produce a feeling of euphoria.” Chocolate also contains a marijuana-like neurotransmitter called anandamide. In addition, chocolate contains estrogen-like compounds, which may explain why more women are addicted to chocolate than men. Women seem to have very strong cravings for chocolate just prior to and during their menstrual cycle, when progesterone levels are low.
Salsolinol is another of the many psychoactive compounds present in cocoa and chocolate, a dopamine-derived alkaloid that can play a role in addiction. Also involved in alcohol addiction, salsolinol has antidepressant and antinociceptive activities. The presence of salsolinol explains “reports about the change of alcoholic addicts who quit drinking to other addictive behaviours like excessively eating chocolate. . . Chocolate craving seems to be a form of self-medication for dietary deficiencies or to balance low levels of neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of mood, food intake and compulsive behavior.” Levels of salsolinol are higher in dark chocolate.
And then there’s that elephant in the room: sugar, another addictive substance. The sugar content in dark chocolate ranges from 20-40 percent. In milk chocolate, it’s as high as 50 percent.
Toxins abound in chocolate: fungi and mycotoxins occur frequently in cocoa. Tests have found lead, cadmium and nickel as well as pesticides in America’s favorite food.
In spite of all the decidedly unhealthy compounds in chocolate—especially unhealthy for growing children–manufacturers still tout chocolate as healthy—or get the men in white coats to do it for them. Of course, they can’t use the language of earlier times—they can’t claim that chocolate “restores natural heat, generates pure blood, enlivens the heart and conserves the natural faculties,” for example, but they can use modern terminology like “nutraceutical” or “functional food.”
Chocolate in Health and Nutrition, is a collection of scientific articles that tries to make the case for chocolate. Herein we read that chocolate may be a “possible modulator of cardiovascular risk” by increasing HDL, the so-called “good” cholesterol and that chocolate has “anti-depressant qualities.”
According to one author: “In long-term observational studies, there is suggestive but not definitive evidence that chocolate consumption—at least in moderation—might inversely be associated with coronary heart disease and other cardiovascular events. . . cardiovascular protection from chocolate consumption is biologically plausible. . . however we cannot make a firm conclusion.” One author discusses the “potential role in the prevention of diabetes with polyphenol-rich cacoa.” Maybe chocolate has cancer-protective effects and “may be beneficial in retarding age-related brain impairments.” Maybe chocolate can be used as a pain reliever or for recovery from exercise (chocolate bars for athletes). This is what I call CPM science—Could, Perhaps, Maybe. We’re certainly not hearing the exaggerated hype of old.
The authors struggle with the fact that chocolate has a “high caloric load,” science-speak for loaded with sugar. Not to worry. One author proposes (I am not making this up) “Self assembled, water-filled, edible nanotubes that self-organize into a more complex structure, possibly a 3D network of nanocellulose [which] could be incorporated into chocolate bars to lower their energy density (page 143).” Meanwhile, chocolate can make you fat. . . and it’s not good for the complexion either. “Modern nutritional studies have supported the idea that chocolate has biologically active compounds that can affect acne.” And there’s no getting around it, chocolate can be addictive. “Children acquire a taste for chocolate without difficulty.” Chocolate has psychopharmalogical effects: “Chocolate consumption may be a personality marker of high neuroticism and represent a strategy to cope with the propensity to experience intense negative emotions (page 421).”
Indeed, many addicts report that chocolate makes them angry—internet chat groups abound with testimonials from many who associate eating chocolate with feelings of anger and rage, even hours later. “I’ve been having troubles lately with extreme anger, almost to the point of rage,” laments one mother, “and my poor kids have had to deal with an incredibly short temper and lack of patience on my part when I eat chocolate.”
“When my friend goes to have a piece of chocolate, her husband tries to stop her because he says he knows his life will be miserable with her in the mood,” says another.
“I find that chocolate causes me to have rage attacks. It took me years to connect the two, because it doesn’t happen right away.”
“One morning after a good night of downing some Godiva, I chased a guy on the freeway for about a mile after he passed me. Chocolate is definitely the big culprit in my life.”
“The craziness I feel when I ‘fudge out” is much worse than PMS. . .”
So in the end, there’s not much good that can be said about chocolate; the health benefits are elusive and the stuff is certainly addictive. About the only good thing in chocolate is the cocoa butter—the fat, which, according to Wenk, induces “the release of endogenous molecules that act similar to heroin and produce a feeling of euphoria.” Turns out the majority of the fatty acids in cocoa butter are saturated—the same kind that we get from butter, lard and tallow. So why not get our feeling of euphoria from these nourishing fats instead of chocolate?
What to do if you are addicted to chocolate? The answer is clear. Nourish yourself with lots and lots of nutrient-dense saturated animal fats so that your body produces happy-making neuro-chemicals without the help of a substance whose side effects include rage.