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The History of Chocolate

Chocolate's Medicinal History

Chocolate's medicinal history can be traced back to its early popularity in Europe. Chocolate, so often seen as unhealthy today, was originally promoted in Europe as a healing tonic. And in those days, folks were always on the lookout for anything that might help prevent or cure disease. It was, after all, a time before the modern understanding of disease and the effective treatments that followed.

European medicine was still mired in the medical theories and practices of the Classical Greeks. This system, handed down from the likes of Hippocrates and Galen, held that disease resulted from imbalances in four substances, called humors, found naturally in the human body. These substances were phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile, and each was classified as either hot or cold, moist or dry. To keep the humors in balance or to remedy the imbalances thought to cause disease, a person would need to eat foods or take medicines that were likewise considered inherently hot or cold, wet or dry.

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These ancient theories about health and disease would eventually be disproved, of course, but in the meantime, the nutritious, energizing drink from the New World was assigned various attributes (although physicians of the time often disagreed about what these were) that made it seem beneficial for restoring and maintaining humoral balance.

In 1570, the royal physician to Philip II, the ruler of Spain, actually recommended chocolate to his majesty for, among other things, reducing fevers and easing stomach discomforts. As chocolate spread through Europe, physicians of the time chimed in with a variety of chocolate prescriptions. Over the next few hundred years, chocolate would be tested or prescribed for more than 100 different medicinal uses, from stimulating the nervous system and improving digestion and bowel function to treating health problems ranging from anemia and poor appetite to mental fatigue, poor breast-milk production, tuberculosis, fever, gout, kidney stones, and poor sexual appetite.

While the cacao beans and the chocolate drink were most often prescribed as internal treatments, some doctors also made special topical preparations containing cacao beans, cacao bark, cacao butter, and even the leaves and flowers of the cacao tree to treat burns, cuts, and skin irritations.

From Treatment to Treat, European-Style

While its purported health-preserving and curative powers had much to do with the initial enthusiasm for chocolate in countries across Europe, its new and unique flavor and unheard-of energizing effects (chocolate arrived in Europe at about the same time as coffee and tea, giving Europeans their first experience of the stimulating effects of caffeine) no doubt helped to make it a much-craved mainstay among Europe's elite.

Gradually, chocolate was transformed from medicine to luxury drink, with each country developing chocolate-drinking preferences, rituals, and accessories and adding unique flavorings to suit local tastes. The chocolate beverage from Mesoamerica took on an international flair, with the Spanish adding cinnamon and vanilla; the Italians experimenting with perfumed flavors such as ambergris, musk, lemon peel, and even jasmine; and the French contributing cloves -- and a lot more sugar.

Chocolate crosses the pond in the next section. Keep reading to learn about chocolate in America.

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