Cacao has been traditionally used by natives in South America, such as Mayas, for its medicinal properties. Cacao has a divine origin: it was given by the god Sovereign Plumed Serpent to the Maya. The Maya still celebrate the cacao God yearly in April by offerings and exchange of gifts. The Mexica considered cacao as an intoxicating food and only allowed the use of cacao as food to adult males. Columbus was the first European who discovered the cacao bean. It was used as a source of currency and Columbus was not aware of the food use of cacao. Hernando Cortez who landed on Mexico was the first European to learn about the use of cacao. In 1554, cacao prepared as a beverage was introduced to the Spanish court and shortly afterwards, the culinary and medicinal use of cacao become widespread in Western Europe.
Since the 16th centry, many publications appeared about the history, use or health benefits of cacao.
The Badianus Codex (1552) mentions that cacao flowers were used to reduce fatigue and the Florentine Codex (1590) mentions cacao as part of a prescription to reduce fever, lack of breath and heart weakness. The Badianus Manuscript contains nice paintings of medicinal plants and description of their use to treat diseases. The Florentine Codex describes various preparations which were made with cacao and identified diseases treated with cacao.
Friar Agust?n D?vila Padilla (16th century) describes how a missionary was treated for kidney disease, by giving him a hot drink in which cacao was dissolved.
Francisco Hern?ndez described in his manuscript Historia de las Plantas de la Nueva Espa?a in 1577 the history of the cacao tree and the medicinal properties of chocolate drinks. Hern?ndez mentions that a simple preparation of cacao was given to patients suffering from fever and liver weakness. A toasted mixture of cacao beans and gum was used to treat dysentery. A thin paste containing cacao beans, maize and other fruits was used to increase appetite.
In 1662, Henry Stubbe wrote his monograph The Indian Nectar about the use of chocolate and some misconceptions. Stubbe wrote that cacao was very nourishing, did not fatten and lengthened life.
William Hughes wrote in 1672 in his account Discourse of the Cacao-Nut-Tree, and the Use of Its Fruit: With All the Ways of Making of Chocolate about the use of cacao. He claims that only after the arrival of the Spanish various other ingredients were added to cacao whereas the Native Indians mainly used pure cacao. He said that cacao is very nourishing and preserves health.
Another important publication about cacao is The Manner of Making of Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate, published by Sylvestre Dufour in 1685. He describes a special recipe including cacao nuts, white sugar, cinnamon, pimiento, cloves, vanilla and achiot. Chocolate was often mixed with anise seed in order to produce a balanced (not cold or warm) preparation. It was used to treat infection of the kidney, throat and bladder.
In 1741, the naturalist Linnaeus examined the medicinal uses of cacao in his monograph Om Chokladdryken. He also mentions that cacao is very nourishing and can be used to treat various diseases. Linnaeus wrote that cacao is an effective aphrodisiac.
After the introduction of cacao to Europe the following medicinal properties were attributed to cacao: increase of weight of emaciated patients, stimulation of nervous systems and improvement of digestion. There are also reports about other health benefits including treatment of anemia, poor appetite, mental weakness, low breast milk production, tuberculosis, fever, gout and low virility. The leaves and flowers of the cacao plant have been used to treat burns, skin problems and stomach problems.
The authors concluded that chocolate is more than a beverage or snack. Cacao contains many phytochemicals but it is also part of a rich history.
Source: TL Dillinger, P Barriga, S Esc?rcega, M Jimenez, DS Lowe and LE Grivetti . Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.. Journal of Nutrition. 2000;130:2057S-2072S