The Marvelous Health Benefits of Chocolate: A Curious Medical Essay from 1631

chocolate histoy

When cof­fee first came to the west­ern world dur­ing the 17th cen­tu­ry, it did­n’t taste par­tic­u­lar­ly good. So the peo­ple import­ing and ped­dling the new com­mod­i­ty talked up the health ben­e­fits of the new drink. The first known Eng­lish adver­tise­ment for cof­fee, dat­ing back to 1652, made these claims: Cof­fee is “very good to help diges­tion.” It also “quick­ens the Spir­its, and makes the Heart Light­some.” And it “is good against sore Eys, and the bet­ter if you hold your Head o’er it, and take in the Steem that way.”

It turns out that choco­late had a sim­i­lar intro­duc­tion to the West. Writ­ing at the always inter­est­ing Pub­lic Domain Review, Chris­tine A. Jones recounts how when choco­late “first arrived from the Amer­i­c­as into Europe in the 17th cen­tu­ry it was a rare and mys­te­ri­ous sub­stance, thought more of as a drug than as a food.” The Span­ish, who con­quered the Aztecs in 1521, first doc­u­ment­ed the choco­late they encoun­tered there in 1552. And then, in 1631, they placed choco­late in the annals of med­ical his­to­ry when Anto­nio Colmen­ero de Ledes­ma, a Span­ish physi­cian and sur­geon, wrote a med­ical essay called Curioso Trata­do de la nat­u­raleza y cal­i­dad del choco­late. The essay made the case that choco­late, if tak­en cor­rect­ly, could help bal­ance the body’s humors (Blood, Yel­low Bile, Black Bile & Phlegm) and ward off dis­ease. (You can bone up on the ancient sci­ence of Humorism here.) When trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish in 1651, the trea­tise now called Choco­late; or, an Indi­an Drinke came pref­aced by an intro­duc­tion that tout­ed choco­late’s health ben­e­fits:

It is an excel­lent help to Diges­tion, it cures Con­sump­tions, and the Cough of the Lungs, the New Dis­ease, or Plague of the Guts, and oth­er Flux­es, the Green Sick­nesse, Jaun­dise, and all man­ner of Infla­ma­tions, Opi­la­tions, and Obstruc­tions. It quite takes away the Mor­phew, Cleanseth the Teeth, and sweet­neth the Breath, Pro­vokes Urine, Cures the Stone, and stran­gury, Expells Poi­son, and pre­serves from all infec­tious Dis­eases.

And it fea­tured one of the first recipes for hot choco­late:

To every 100. Cacaos, you must put two cods of the*Chiles long red Pep­per, of which I have spo­ken before, and are called in the Indi­an Tongue, Chilpar­lagua; and in stead of those of the Indies, you may take those of Spaine which are broad­est, & least hot. One hand­full of Annis-seed Ore­jue­las, which are oth­er­wise called Pinacaxli­dos: and two of the flow­ers, called Mecha­suchil, if the Bel­ly be bound. But in stead of this, in Spaine, we put in six Ros­es of Alexan­dria beat to Pow­der: One Cod of Campeche, or Log­wood: Two Drams of Cina­mon; Almons, and Hasle-Nuts, of each one Dozen: Of white Sug­ar, halfe a pound: of Achio­tee­nough to give it the colour.

You can read more about the curi­ous med­ical his­to­ry of choco­late at The Pub­lic Domain Review. And while you’re there, you should check out their new book of essays, which we fea­tured on Open Cul­ture in Decem­ber.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sci­ence & Cook­ing: Harvard’s Free Course on Mak­ing Cakes, Pael­la & Oth­er Deli­cious Food

MIT Teach­es You How to Speak Ital­ian & Cook Ital­ian Cui­sine All at Once (Free Online Course)

A Cab­i­net of Curiosi­ties: Dis­cov­er The Pub­lic Domain Review’s New Book of Essays

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  • Victoria Addington says:

    It helped when you men­tioned that cof­fee didn’t taste par­tic­u­lar­ly good when it first came to the west­ern world. My hus­band likes start­ing his day with a cup of cof­fee. He even wants to buy a hot bev­er­age mak­er to enhance his drinks.

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