The more we learn about chocolate’s origins, the clearer it becomes that this magical food has had religious and medicinal importance for millennia. Today we’re going to focus on its medicinal uses, which have been an important part of cacao’s story since the fruit was first harvested by Mesoamerican peoples up to 4000 years ago.
Check out these three fascinating traditional uses of cacao, which illustrate the nutritional value of the bean and suggest ways in which we might use chocolate to our benefit in today’s society.
Treating fatigue and exhaustion
Restoring energy in languishing patients was one of the most important uses of cacao in traditional cultures. In the Mexica culture, for example, the patient (almost always a senior official) was given a fragrant bath full of cacao flowers to restore energy. While there was likely to be a spiritual element to the ritual, and therefore a psychological effect on the patient, it’s likely that some components of the cacao were absorbed during the bath.
Recent research has shown this benefit is caused by Theobromine, an alkaloid that occurs naturally in cacao. It has a similar effect to caffeine, increasing mental alertness and giving a hit of energy.
We can still see this effect in chocolate consumption today (and we’re not talking about the sugar rush), although we advise you to eat the chocolate rather than bathe in it. Try some high-percentage, low-sugar dark chocolate, or even cacao beans on their own, next time you’re feeling flat. You’re likely to experience a strong burst of energy, as well as an increased capacity to focus on tasks.
Encouraging weight gain in anaemic patients
We know what you’re thinking: nowadays most of us want to lose weight, not gain it. But in different times, when malnutrition was a widespread problem, restoring a normal weight was extremely important.
Several Spanish colonial figures made important observations about the medicinal use of chocolate, dating back to the 16th century. A recurring theme was that consumption of chocolate beverages in large doses could make people “fat and corpulent”, leading to its use on those suffering from malnutrition.
Either directly or indirectly, many rich and powerful men who consumed a lot of cacao were described as becoming noticeably fat. It’s a reminder to the weight-conscious among us that, while we can enjoy the benefits of eating good quality chocolate regularly, it’s important to eat in moderation.
Improving the digestion of unwell patients
A trend recorded in Mexica medicine, which was subsequently backed up in Spanish documents, was the use of chocolate drinks to cure stomach complaints and improve digestions. In this recipe, the bitter chocolate drink was mixed with the bark of the silk cotton tree, creating a medicine that seemed to ease patients’ problems.
Many subsequent reports from Spanish colonialists found that chocolate was widely used to improve digestion in areas where cacao grew, not just in Mexica cultures. Their notes suggested they believed the medicine to be effective, both in improving digestion and general wellbeing.
Have a read of this cultural and historical analysis of cacao published recently in The Journal of Nutrition for a more detailed look at the medicinal use of cacao by indigenous Central and South American peoples.
We’ve got some exciting news: we’re putting the finishing touches on our new range of raw chocolate products. They’ll be available for purchase soon, so you can experience the incredible flavours of Ecuadorian and Peruvian cacao at home. Stay tuned for more details.
Viva la Chocolution!