By Maryann Readal
In 1753, it was Carl Linnaeus who gave cacao, The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month, its botanical name: Theobroma cacao, from theos meaning god and broma meaning food – food of the gods. The Mayans gave it the name xocoatl, (pronounced sho-KWA-til). According to The True History of Chocolate authors Sophie and Michael Coe, the most likely history of the word “chocolate” is that the Spaniards combined the Maya word chocol, meaning “hot,” and the Aztec atl, meaning “water,” to produce chocolatl.
It is believed that Olmec Indians began using cacao beans for beverages as early as 250 BCE. But it was the Mayans who really domesticated the tree and discovered its many uses. They were the first to grow cacao trees on plantations. The drink they made from cacao beans was reserved for the Mayan wealthy and important and was used in religious ceremonies. The beans were also used as money in trade with the Aztecs.
The Aztecs, however, began to flavor the ground beans with other spices such as chile, cinnamon, pepper, and vanilla and then frothed the beverage with a molinillo, the Mexican chocolate whisk. The drink they created was also reserved for high government officials, priests, and the warrior classes. The Aztecs believed that their god, Quetzalcoatl, taught them about the many uses of cacao.
Along comes Christopher Columbus in 1492 on his fourth try to find a water route to India, but discovers the Americas instead. He brings back the cacao beans to King Ferdinand and Isabella, who were not as enamored with the beans as they were with the other treasures he brought from the New World. A few years later, Hernando Cortez came to the Vera Cruz, Mexico area in the early 1500’s and learned first hand from the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, the exhilarating uses of cacao. He brought his discovery of the effects of the cacao beverage and its preparation to King Charles V of Spain, and this time it was greeted with much interest and led to Cortez conquering the Aztec Empire and developing large cacao plantations for Spain. This was the beginning of the Spanish monopoly of cacao beans that lasted 200 years.
Europe accepted the use of chocolate as a medicine because the Mesoamericans used it as a remedy for many ailments for centuries. And Europeans found that it was a medicine that had pleasant, euphoric effects. These effects were what caused the church at the height of the Middle Ages to circumscribe its use, claiming that it caused immoral behaviors. Monks were forbidden to use chocolate and it was not allowed to be drunk while fasting. The chocolate beverage could only be drunk for medicinal reasons.
The debate about the medicinal qualities of chocolate continued well into the 1900’s in Europe, with many noted physicians chiming in on the subject. In the 18th century, it was Carl Linnaeus who wrote about the nourishment and therapeutic qualities of chocolate saying that “it could be used to lose weight, help lung and muscles diseases, hypochondria, and hemorrhoids.” In fact, cacao butter, which is the fat extracted from ground cacao beans, is still used today in suppositories for hemorrhoids. Now that will make you pause before eating a white chocolate rabbit at Easter.
The Nestle company introduced milk into chocolate to create milk chocolate in 1867, which completely changed the taste of chocolate. This new chocolate reignited the health debate concerning chocolate, with physicians claiming that the milk chocolate caused obesity, dental problems, and an unhealthy lifestyle.
In the early 20th century, chocolate became more important as food rather than as medicine. In fact, chocolate was included in World War II’s K and D rations as a healthy and quick source of energy for soldiers on the battlefield. In her book Plants Go To War, Judith Sumner discusses the use of chocolate in British Intelligence efforts in which chocolate bars were “impregnated with garlic to mimic the smell of the French whom they were impersonating.” She also reports that there was a German plan to assassinate Winston Churchill with a booby-trapped chocolate bar. The plot was never implemented.
In 1930, Nestle introduced white chocolate, which is cacao butter mixed with sugar. And in 2018 the Swiss company Barry-Callebaut introduced a ruby–or “pink”–chocolate into the market.
Named the fourth chocolate, it is pink and fruity tasting. This chocolate reportedly comes from special ruby cacao beans.
Debate and research continues on chocolate as a medicine. Researchers do ascribe chocolate with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Some data also shows that apart from its pleasant effects, chocolate consumption improves brain function. Studies also link the flavonoids in dark chocolate with a reduced risk of diabetes. Consumption of dark chocolate is also believed to protect the heart.
However, chocolate may be returning to its Aztec roots with chocolate artisans introducing herbs, spices, flowers, and all kinds of ingredients into chocolate, making it not only a food of the gods but a food of the people, too – especially around Valentine’s Day.
A nice history of chocolate can be found at The Nibble https://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/chocolate/the-history-of-chocolate.asp.
And for more information and chocolate recipes, please see The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month web page for February.
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pine trees in the Piney Woods of East Texas.