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A Chocolate Doctrine of Discovery

Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma. Frontispiece, Chocolata inda,

Trans. Johann Georg Volckamer, Nuremberg: Wolfgangi Enderi, 1644.

Mythologizing has always been one of chocolate’s prime movers in Europe. From the first, it did not suffice to explain the benefits of the cacao bean. Its virtues had to be illustrated, poetically waxed, gilded with political purpose, made to gleam in the darkness of plague and famine, and served up as luxury on the finest dining tables. The early-modern settlers of Mesoamerica brought chocolate to Europe as a religious, albeit pagan, relic of a land and a people they had conquered and enslaved. Perhaps the mythologizing came naturally to scholar clerics who had been witness to the sanctity and omnipresence of chocolate in Aztec way of life, wherein it was valued like precious metal and served to diplomatic missions, including the one that sabotaged their empire. Myth-making also flowed naturally from the symbolism of conquest. Returning with the most medicinal fruit of the land was the pharmaceutical equivalent of planting the flag in the soil. Taking cacao from the Emperor for the King and from native women for European doctors signaled the formers’ ruin and the latter's glory.

Still, early-modern treatises credited their indigenous informants with the knowledge they brought to Europe along with the beans. Today mythologies of a different stripe pepper the web with what we might call the “ahistory” of chocolate. These are stories about discovering (as though it was not known before) that cacao in its raw form possesses a host of medicinal properties. Few words accomplish historical erasure better than the word discovery. In that sense, modern medical discussions of cacao miss a socially responsible opportunity to:

  1. celebrate the Aztecs, whose reverence for and exploitation of chocolate is the only reason we eat it now, and

  2. acknowledge that early-modern medicine learned from the Aztec and recognized chocolate as a wonder drug.

A recent advice column by doctors at UCLA offers excellent news about the medical applications of chocolate based on a new study delivered at the Experimental Biology conference this year. Point for point, these insights were part of the indigenous knowledge base that passed into Europe as pharmaceutical knowledge centuries before modern science could name them.

1) "It’s only dark chocolate that confers these positive effects. That is, chocolate with a minimum cacao concentration of 70 percent. That’s because cacao is rich in chemical substances known as flavanols, which have potent antioxidant properties."

While no one could have named flavanols or molecules for that matter in 1600, doctors and medical professors nonetheless understood that taken in its purest form, cacao fortified the body from disease. Soldiers and doctors who enjoyed the drink in New Spain and merchants who trafficked in the beans from New Spain both promoted the drink back home as delicious and fortifying. As the drink caused a sensation in the larger cities, the academies of Madrid and Seville weighed in with scientific evaluations of cacao that would prove or disprove the wisdom that had traveled over from Mexico. A north/south pharmaceutical debate ensued about whether, since the gentry could drink chocolate now in Spain, they should drink chocolate in Spain.

Seville university professor of medicine and surgery Bartholomé Marradón, answered emphatically, no.

Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, also a physician-surgeon publishing out of Madrid, answered emphatically, yes.

Colmenero's was the answer history embraced and retained. (In spite of the outcome of this debate, Lady Ann Fanshawe would unequivocally announce half a century later that the best chocolate could be had in Seville, Spain.) He based his assessment on his own experience drinking it in the tropics, an experience Marradón never had.

Colmenero’s time in Mexico afforded him the opportunity to drink chocolate in a most unlike circumstance and feel refreshed and restored. According to his description of the event, he arrived parched and tired to patient’s house and enjoyed chocolate as though it were Gatorade. That personal anecdote, which confirmed what he had heard and seen among the indigenous and Creole (descendants of Spaniards or mestisos) in Mexico, established chocolate in Europe as a restorative drink.

2) "...a number of studies have linked chocolate with a range of positive outcomes. The results of recent research suggest that chocolate improves memory and brain function, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, can boost immunity and has a positive effect on mood."

Captain James Wadsworth, was neither a conquistador, as his title suggests, nor a traveler to the Caribbean. He nonetheless brought Colmenero’s science to England when he translated it for the first time in 1643. He put out a second edition of the treatise in 1652, adding his own newly acquired experiences with chocolate. That edition opens with a witty poem, “In the Due Praise of Divine Chocolate” that treats the reader to a satire of addicted eaters.

Each stanza—there are 22—extols another virtue of “Soveraigne-Chocolate.” Through the overall humor of a London landscape full of people—apothecaries, alchemists, Thriving Saints, their wives, gallant men, young heirs, etc.—enjoying chocolate, Wadsworth adds to Colmenero’s physical assessment an emotional and psychological one. Chocolate cures all manner of ailment from gout to consumption, true; and it also sexual arouses, which makes the people of Britain happy.

Healthy bodies in the poem are more energetic, more nubile, more fertile than they were before the Soveraigne arrived. The luxury costs a lot, though heirs would “rather spend their whole estate, / Then [sic] weaned be from Chocolate.” The investment pays dividends when the chocolate-drinking spouse, who had been aloof suddenly seeks “her due benevolence” from her husband, and women no longer grieve because they can’t conceive “if such but lick of Chocolate.” The treatise goes on to back up the satire with science.

Medical and mercantile advocates claimed that in addition to restoring the ailing body and mind, chocolate could fortify a person against disease and fatigue and even depression. Dominican friar Thomas Gage made an argument aimed at the healthy when he credited the drink—lots of cups of the drink—with sustaining him in Mexico and Guatemala:

I used it twelve years constantly, drinking one cup in the morning, another yet before dinner between nine or ten of the clock, another within an hour or after dinner, and another between four or five in the afternoon, and when I was purposed to sit up late to study, I would take another about seven or eight at night, which would keep me waking till about midnight….And with this custom I lived twelve years in those parts healthy, without any obstructions or oppilations, not knowing what either ague or fever was. (110)

If the method sounds excessive, his able-bodied return to England attests nonetheless to its success.

3) "The catch here is that in its pure state, cacao is relentlessly bitter. It’s the sugar and fat that get added during manufacturing that give chocolate its sweetness and silky-smooth feel."

The most prevalent cacao in the world today, Forastero, generally does have a bitter flavor, partially because it is the heartiest bean, less susceptible to disease and also, therefore, to the aromas that particular soils might lend to its acrid pungency. Those qualities make it profitable to farm and unpleasant to eat. What's more, the argument that cacao cannot be consumed without a heavy dose of sugar flowed naturally at the time from robust efforts—as old as New-World settlement itself—to sustain the sugar trade.

Forastero's heartiness makes it the most farmed by far, and therefore the most common ingredient in inexpensive chocolates, which add a number of ingredients to give it a better flavor. Yet, Mayan strains of cacao that are still family farmed today in small areas of the Mexican jungle have an aromatic spectrum from minerals to flowers. So do Criollo beans, the rare superior strains considered indigenous to Mexico and the Caribbean, and farmed today in small pockets of South America and the Caribbean. While they are not sweet, they have more flavor than bitterness. There are stories of conquistadors reeling from the bite of cacao the way the Aztec drank it, but their shock may well have come more from the ingredients typically added to chocolate than from the cacao beans themselves.

The finest cacao was served bitter on purpose, according to the 1570s ethnographic account of the custom by Friar Bernardino de Sahagún:

…good, superior, potable [chocolate]: the privilege, the drink of nobles, of rulers—finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter.” (93)

Others, he notes, could add cornmeal or lime, which would cut the bite at the expense of the drink’s nobility. Sahagún calls those preparations “fit for water flies.”

One hundred years later, in the Mexico Thomas Gage knew, a “notable variety” of recipes had developed. There were recipes among the women who traditionally made chocolate--both “Indian” and Creole (Spanish born in the colonies, or, by 1660, of mixed descent)--and recipes favored by European physicians prescribing it for specific ailments to particular patients. Assorted by taste and medical application, the recipes ranged from humorally “hot” preparations with black pepper to smoother preparations with a “long red pepper called Chile,” sugar, anise, almonds, vanilla, and/or orange flower water.

Proportions would depend, according to Gage, on “the disposition of men’s bodies” (108-109). Still, he notes, Africans (forced to migrate to Mexico as slaves) and the indigenous peoples tended to drink it according to the traditional minimalist, bitter preparation: cacao, achiote, cornmeal, and “a few Chiles with a little anise seed” (109).

Today, rather than following the general advice “to go for [just any] 70 percent cacao or higher,” taste-conscious consumers can seek out bean-to-bar chocolate more likely to use Criollo or Trinitario (hybrids of the Criollo and Forastero) than Forastero beans. Because the former beans are flavorful without being as pungent, that kind of craft bar needs less help to be smooth on the tongue. They have ingredient lists like this:

Organic Cacao Beans, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Cocoa Butter (Solstice Chocolate, Wasatch Blend)

instead of this:

Chocolate,* sugar, cocoa butter, soya lecithin (emulsifier), bourbon vanilla beans (Lindt, Cocoa EXCELLENCE).

As a bonus, while the fat content of the simple tastier bars remains the same as bars with more flavors layered on top of the cacao, the fiber content is almost double those of the major world brands (compare them here and here). By eating an ingredient list closer to the traditional Aztec and Spanish ones, beyond the health benefits noted above, modern consumers might note, as Gage did, that even taking it routinely, they never “grow fat and corpulent by it” (110).

*A high-quality ingredient list will typically begin with "cacao beans," as in the Solstice bar above, or "cacao liquor," which refers to shelled cacao beans that have been fermented, roasted and ground to a liquid. Lindt's head word "chocolate" likely means there is already additional sugar added to the first ingredient.



Ko, Elizabeth & Eve Glazier. “Recent study suggests dark chocolate can improve mood and memory,” Ask the Doctors, uexpress, 25 July 2018.

Accessed August 2, 2018. The study behind the advice.

Gage, Thomas. The English-American, … or, A New survey of the West India’s. London: R. Cotes, 1648.

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