Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate through the Years

The health benefits of dark chocolate have been known for years. Up until at least the mid 1800?s doctors carried chocolate in their medical bags. They prescribed it for a variety of health issues.

From the 16th through early 19th century, numerous European travel accounts and medical texts documented the presumed merits and medicinal value of chocolate. Using library holdings of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, the British Museum, and the University of California,as well as translations of original hand-written documents located at various archives in Mexico, Spain, and elsewhere, research teams have identified more than 100 medical uses for chocolate prescribed by physicians during the past 475 years.

Here is a brief “taste” of these rich chocolate-related passages from selected historical monographs. On inspection, these samples reveal that chocolate products were used to treat a myriad of human disorders:

  • Francisco Hernandez(1577) wrote that pure cacao paste prepared as a beverage treated fever and liver disease. He also mentioned that toasted, ground cacao bean smixed with resin were effective against dysentery and that chocolate beverages were commonly prescribed to thin patients in order for them to gain “flesh.”
  • Agustin Farfan (1592) recorded that chili peppers, rhubarb, and vanilla were used by the Mexicans as purgatives and that chocolate beverages served hot doubled as powerful laxatives.
  • Jose de Acosta (1604) wrote that chili was sometimes added to chocolate beverages and that eating chocolate paste was good for stomach disorders.
  • Santiago de Valverde Turices (1624) concluded that chocolate drunk in great quantities was beneficial for treatment of chest ailments, but if drunk in small quantities was a satisfactory medicine for stomach disorders.
  • Colmenero de Ledesma (1631) reported that cacao preserved consumers’ health, made them corpulent, improved their complexions, and made their dispositions more agreeable. He wrote that drinking chocolate incited love-making, led to conception in women, and facilitated delivery. He also claimed that chocolate aided digestion and cured tuberculosis.
  • Thomas Gage(1648) described a medicinal chocolate prepared with black pepper used to treat “cold liver.” Gage wrote that chocolate mixed with cinnamon increased urine flow and was an effective way to treat kidney disorders.
  • Henry Stubbe (1662) wrote that consumers should drink chocolate beverages once or twice each day to relieve tiredness caused by strenuous business activities. He reported that ingesting cacao oil was an effective treatment for the Fire of St. Anthony (i.e., ergot poisoning). Stubbe also described chocolate-based concoctions mixed with Jamaica pepper used to treat menstrual disorders, and other chocolate preparations blended with vanilla to strengthen the heart and to promote digestion.
  • William Hughes (1672) reported that cough could be treated by drinking chocolate blended with cinnamon or nutmeg. He wrote that chocolate nourished the body, induced sleep, and cured the “pustules, tumors, and swellings commonly experienced by hardy sea-men who had long been kept from a diet of fresh foods,” symptoms akin to scurvy.
  • Sylvestre Dufour (1685) wrote that medicinal chocolate commonly contained anise-seed asan ingredient, and that such mixtures were used to treat bladder andkidney disorders. He described a type of medical chocolate blended with achiote (Bixa orellana) that produced a product of a blood-red color,used to reduce the “fever of love.”
  • Nicolas de Blegny (1687) reported that chocolate mixed with vanilla syrup soothed lung inflammations and lessened the “ferocity of cough.” He identified medicinal chocolates that contained as ingredients “syrup of coins,” “drops of gold tincture,” and “oil of amber” that treated indigestion and heart palpitations.
  • De Quelus (1718) wrote that drinking chocolate was nourishing and essential to good health. He said that drinking chocolate “repaired exhausted spirits,” preserved health,and prolonged the lives of old men. Further, he claimed that an ounce of chocolate contained as much nourishment as a pound of beef.
  • Antonio Lavedan (1796) claimed that chocolate was beneficial but only if drunk in the morning, and he strongly cautioned against afternoon use of this beverage. He wrote that chocolate alone – with no other food – could keep consumers robust and healthy for many years, and remarked that drinking chocolate prolonged life.
  • Brillat-Savarin (1825) wrote that chocolate was a “wholesome, agreeable food, nourishing,easily digested, and an antidote to the inconveniences ascribed to coffee.” He claimed that chocolate was best suited to those who exercised their brains, especially clergymen, lawyers, and travelers, and he recommended a concoction of cacao mixed with amber dust as a treatment for the ill-effects of hangover.
  • Auguste Saint-Arroman (1846) reported that chocolate – while suited to both the aged and weak – was dangerous if drunk by the young. He identified a recipe for medical chocolate that included iron filings, used to treat chlorosisin women.
  • Saint-Arroman’s monograph on chocolate is intriguing for other reasons. He provided a recipe whereby chocolate was prepared from roasted cacao, sugar, and aromatic substances, such as ginger,pimento, and cloves, and sometimes vanilla and cinnamon. He also wrote that a common form of Spanish chocolate included the bulb of the root of arachis or “earth pistachio,” better known in English as the peanut (Arachis hypogaea). Peanuts, domesticated initially in the Americas (perhaps Brazil), were taken to Europe and initiated there as a field crop. The Saint-Arroman account represents one of the earliest reports to document the blending of chocolate and peanuts, whether as medicine or as food, a blend that today in the 21st century represents a favorite combination for millions of consumers globally.

While chocolate has been prescribed in past centuries to patients suffering from “alpha to omega” (from anemia, angina, and asthma to wasting, weakness, and worms), its long history in medical treatment has been a controversial one. While 21st-century physicians would not claim that chocolate cured cancer, gout, jaundice, rheumatism, scurvy, snake bite, or syphilis (as claimed in the past), examination of the historical medical accounts reveals five consistent, reasonable, medical-related uses:

  1. For emaciated patients in order to restore weight – certainly an important treatment for patients with wasting diseases such as tuberculosis.
  2. To stimulate the nervous systems of feeble patients, especially those suffering from apathy, exhaustion, or lassitude – an action which we might now attribute to the theobromine and caffeine in chocolate.
  3. To calm, soothe, and tranquilize patients identified as “over-stimulated,” especially those suffering from strenuous labor or “serious mental activity” – here, it is the pleasurable taste and flavor sensations, coupled with a relaxing effect, which would produce the mellow mood.
  4. To improve digestion and elimination. Chocolate was said to strengthen, calm, or soothe “stagnant stomachs,” stimulate the kidneys and hasten urine flow, improve bowel function, soften stools, and even cure or reduce hemorrhoids.
  5. To bind medicinal ingredients and to mask the flavors of ill-tasting drugs, uses which are reflected in the modern view that “a little bit of chocolate makes the medicine go down.”

Although not consistent through time, there are also intriguing historical accounts that suggest eating or drinking chocolate could/would have had a positive effect on patients beyond merely the placebo effect and pleasure of consuming this food. Hughes wrote in 1672 that drinking chocolate alleviated asthma spasms; Stubbe wrote in 1662 that drinking chocolate increased breast milk production;and Colmenero de Ledesma suggested in 1631 that drinking chocolate could expel kidney stones. Modern science has identified the vasodilatation and diuretic effects that follow chocolate consumption,and with chocolate’s high energy value, the concept that chocolate could be a galactagogue (milk producer) can at least be considered.

But chocolate, of course, is not a panacea for all of life’s ills. Countering the well-documented positive and potentially positive medical effects of chocolate consumption identified in historical documents, these same texts offer other claims that may be discounted: effective against ergot poisoning (claimed by Stubbe in 1662); effective in delaying the growth of white hair in men (claimed by Lavedan in 1796); effective in reducing tumors/pustules (claimed by Hughes in 1672).

We now are finding that dark chocolate health benefits are best with high flavonol chocolate, usually a cold pressed, non-dutched chocolate.


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