Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The story of chocolate

Merve Berber
Ankara, Turkey

An Aztec woman generates foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another
From the Codex Tudela

Chocolatl, meaning “bitter water,” was the earliest form of chocolate. It was a beverage that contained the seed of the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) and was consumed by the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations of the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec during sacrificial rituals to the gods and for medicinal use.1 The bitter seed kernels inside fleshy pods are still used as a source for producing chocolate in all its forms.2 Theobroma cacao (“Theobroma” is Latin for “food of the gods”) thrives in the tropics, growing in well-shaded areas under the canopy of taller trees, in well-drained soil and high humidity.3

The Aztecs believed that the god Quetzalcoatl came to earth and brought the cacao tree from heaven to teach mankind about the cultivation and processing of cacao beans into chocolatl; drinking it was a manifestation of the exalted status of the upper strata.1 Cacao beans functioned as currency because of their high value, portable size, durability, and resistance to spoilage.4 The Aztec emperor Montezuma, who was greatly enamored of chocolate, stored the beans as treasure and drank a few dozens of cups of the beverage each day. The royal and divine drink was appreciated more for its stimulating, invigorating, medicinal, and aphrodisiac virtues than for its savage taste.1

In Historia del Mondo Nuovo, published in Venice in 1565, Italian merchant and traveler Girolamo Benzoni considered the Mesoamerican chocolate to be “more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity.5 In contrast to its undesirable taste, he recognized its stimulant quality by remarking that “the taste is somewhat bitter, it satisfies and refreshes the body, but does not inebriate, and it is the best and most expensive merchandise, according to the Indians of that country.”6

The preparation method entailed considerable time and effort and consisted of sun-drying and fermenting the cacao beans; roasting the beans until the color turned from brown to black and reached a delicately bitter flavor; fine grinding the roasted beans on a hot milling stone known as a metate; dissolving the resulting cacao paste in water; and enhancing the flavor with spices such as chili pepper, cinnamon, and vanilla. The traditional chocolate drink in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica was served cold or at room temperature, usually unsweetened, bitter and spicy, and reddish in color. An oily foam was produced on the surface by pouring the drink from a height into another container until a smooth and creamy consistency was obtained.7

The high value of cacao beans and the chocolate beverage in the Mesoamerican culture not only stemmed from the complexity of cultivation and preparation, but also from the connection between cacao, hearth, and blood. In the pre-Columbian period, the spilling of human or animal blood and the preparation of the reddish-brown chocolate drink were forms of sacrificial offering to the gods.8 The characteristic color was achieved by mixing cacao with “heart flower” (Talauma mexicana), which was also believed to cure heart disorders. Before the Aztecs, the Mayans used cacao pods in rituals where priests shed their own blood by piercing or cutting their ears; thus the chocolate made from “bleeding cacao pods” was used as a substitute for human bloodletting in religious rituals.9

Chocolate was also used as a medicine to cure or prevent ailments such as stomach pain, diarrhea, fever, fatigue, intestinal afflictions, digestive disorders, and cough.10 Concoctions made from cacao and other therapeutic ingredients were consumed by women to promote the production of breast milk and facilitate pregnancy and childbirth.11 The Florentine Codex, which includes the earliest known passages about the medical effects of chocolate, stated that “when an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one.”12 Mesoamerican civilizations were fully aware of the stimulating and psychoactive properties of cacao for boosting morale, reducing stress, and stimulating the body and mind. Chocolate drinks were given to Aztec warriors to maintain endurance during military conquests. Chocolate was also the preferred drink before sexual intercourse for its aphrodisiac properties.11

Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés returned from the New World to Spain in 1528, bringing cacao beans and introducing the chocolate beverage to King Charles as a “divine drink.” The stimulating effects drew the attention of the court in Madrid, and the divine drink of the Aztecs became a status symbol of the Spanish royal court.13 The Spaniards transformed the beverage by eliminating the spicy additives and sweetening it with cane sugar. The sweetened chocolate drink was served hot, which was different from Mesoamerican cultures.1 The addition of sugar may have been thought to enhance the medicinal properties of the beverage, since both the Romans and Greeks treated stomach ailments and indigestion with sugar.14 Moreover, until the mid-eighteenth century, the consumption of sugar and sweetened chocolate was perceived “as a mark of rank – to validate one’s social position, to elevate others, or to define them as inferior.15

During the sixteenth century, Spain reigned over most of the lands in Central America where the cacao plantations were scattered and maintained the tribute system of Aztecs, an early form of taxation that collected a fixed percentage of cacao profits from native groups. Spaniards encouraged the augmentation of production capacities to secure their wealth.16 However, Spain kept the chocolate drink secret from the rest of Europe for nearly a hundred years, retaining monopolies in both production and consumption.17 In 1615, the marriage of Anne of Austria, a member of the Spanish royal court, and Louis XIII of France changed this, as the sweet chocolate drink spread throughout the rest of Europe, especially in France, Italy, England, Holland, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland.18 Beginning in 1660, English chocolate houses appeared and Italian masters created more esthetic forms of chocolate.1 Consumption of the chocolate beverage was confined to the wealthy European elite until the nineteenth century because of the high cost of importing cacao beans and sugar.3

The cocoa press, invented in 1828 by Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten, enabled the extraction of cacao butter and cacao powder known as “cocoa” from cacao beans. This development led to the  invention of English chocolate manufacturer Joseph Storrs Fry in 1847, the world’s first solid chocolate bar. This blend of cocoa powder, sugar, and cacao butter was produced as a dough-like paste and cast into a mold.1 These milestones allowed the emergence of a wide variety of solid chocolate bars, including milk and bittersweet chocolates flavored with spices and fruits such as mint, chopped banana, orange, and hazelnut. The decrease in the price of sugar and cacao due to the larger number of plantations transformed the sacred food of the gods into a conventional part of the human diet.


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  3. Young, Allen M. The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. p.2. p. 35
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  14. Dioscorides and Lily Y. Beck. De Materia Medica. Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann, 2005. p.50-70
  15. Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. p.139.
  16. Alden, Dauril. The Significance of Cacao Production of the Amazon Region during the Late Colonial Period: An Essay in Comparative Economic History. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1976. p. 105-106
  17. Tannahill, Reay. Food in History. Place of Publication Not Identified: Paw Prints, 2008. p. 287.
  18. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. p. 155.

MERVE BERBER is an industrial engineer and earned her bachelor degree at Bilkent University. She works in the field of intellectual property rights at The Scientific and Technological Research Council (TÜBİTAK) of Turkey. She is committed to self-learning and writing about what she has learned.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 15, Issue 3 – Summer 2023

Summer 2018




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