Ancient Science Of Chocolate
Central American Reverence
For centuries, chocolate was not eaten in the bar form we know, but consumed as a drink. To the Mayans, Aztecs, and Early-Europeans, this frothy brew made from the cacao bean was a phenomenon of nature. These early chocolate-lovers were likely impressed by chocolate because of its mild stimulant value — it made them feel awake, alert, strong. Chocolate quickly gained a reputation as food vital for health.
Documents detailing Aztec life showed that chocolate was viewed as a medicinal marvel. The documents, known as the Badianus and the Florentine Codices, were written in the Aztec's native language and were found after the Spanish conquest.
'Cacao flowers were ingredients in perfumed baths, and thought to cure fatigue in government officials and others who held public office', says the Badianus Codex, published in 1552. The Florentine Codex, published in 1590, called for a mixture of cacao beans, maize and herbs to ease fever and panting, and to treat the faint of heart.
In Aztec society, chocolate was reserved mainly for priests and the very wealthy. But it also was given to soldiers because of the strength it was believed to impart. In 1529, when the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés arrived in the court of Aztec ruler Montezuma, he and his crew were impressed by this magical drink chocolate, which the Aztecs called 'xocoatl' - bitter water. Cortes wrote to King Carlos I of Spain that he had found 'a drink that builds up resistance and fights fatigue'.
After Cortés returned to Europe with trunk loads of cacao beans, chocolate swept Europe — again because of its reputed medicinal qualities. A drink of chocolate was viewed as a cure-all, a restorative, and vital for treating everything from anemia to digestion problems. Manuscripts dating from the 16th to 20th century Europe reported more than 100 medicinal uses for chocolate.
In the early 1800s, England's Dr. Hughes advised that it was especially good for pregnant women. "Chocolate is the most excellent drink that is yet found. It is good alone to make up a breakfast, needing no other food, is beneficial to the body, and may be drunk by people of all ages, and is very good for women with child, since it nourishes the embryo, and prevents fainting fits," he wrote.
As a sign of chocolate's reputation, when the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus was officially naming all the plants of the world in 1753, he called the cacao tree Theobroma cacao which means Food of the Gods.
America's founding fathers were also captivated by chocolate. Thomas Jefferson, America's third president, is quoted as saying: 'The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain'.
But as sugar and milk were added to chocolate in later centuries, much of its medicinal value was forgotten. Chocolate's magical taste eclipsed its storied past as an amazing health food.