Cure for the Common Everything: Celebrating 240 Years of American Chocolate

Author:  Selby Cull
Institution:  Hampshire College
Date:  May 2006

Chocolate cures tuberculosis, fever, and the common cold. It is an aphrodisiac and increases the probability of conception. It invigorates the body, strengthens the limbs, and reduces belching.

At least, that's what people thought in 1765, when Harvard physician James Baker and Irish immigrant John Hannon founded America's first chocolate factory in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

Figure 1

This year, the Boston Historical Society celebrates the 240th anniversary of America's first chocolate mill, and the Mars Corporation launches a new line of chocolate health bars. Today, the notion of chocolate as health food might seem surprising. More often, chocolate is considered fattening and generally unhealthy. But in Baker and Hannon's day, there was nothing odd about it.

"Chocolate has long been considered a medicine," says Louis Grivetti, a professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis and national coordinator of the Chocolate History Project. "Since pre-Columbian times in Central and South America, chocolate was used for a wide range of medical complaints. In the mid-1700s, there were smallpox outbreaks in Boston, and you had chocolate being used as a medicine to treat it."

"Of course," he adds. "It didn't work."

Grivetti and his colleagues have identified more than 100 ailments for which early physicians prescribed chocolate, including asthma, dysentery, hangovers, fainting, and "female complaints."

The native Central and South Americans cultivated cacao trees, from which chocolate is derived, and used it to treat stomach problems, diarrhea, persistent coughs, and fevers. The Spanish brought it to Europe, where physicians started prescribing it. By the time Baker and Hannon opened their chocolate mill on the banks of the Neponset River, chocolate was a standard medicine found in apothecary shops.

"It's a bit ironic," says Carl Keen, a professor of internal medicine at the University of California, Davis. "Here you have a food product that historically was viewed as being very good for you, and then all of a sudden, it was viewed as potentially very bad for you, and it's difficult to figure out when this shift occurred."

Now, almost 500 years after chocolate was introduced to Europe, researchers are reporting that some of the early ideas about chocolate's health benefits might not be so far-fetched.

"Within cocoa, there's a family of compounds known as flavanols," says Keen. "These have antioxidant properties, and are rapidly absorbed when you give a person chocolate that's rich in them."

Flavanols, and another compound – theobromine – appear to be at the root of chocolate's healthful properties. And while neither compound is likely to cure smallpox, researchers are finding that they might be responsible for other health benefits that early physicians identified. Researchers from Children's Hospital in Oakland, California, report that chocolate's flavanols relieve diarrhea - a conclusion that European physicians had come to as early as 1577 and the Aztecs had reached even before then. A study from Imperial College in London shows that chocolate's theobromine is 30 percent more effective at stopping persistent coughs than the best cough medicine – as early Spanish doctors and Central American peoples knew. And, a Harvard study that followed almost 8,000 men for 40 years found that those who ate chocolate three or more times per month, on average, lived one year longer than those who never ate it. (Eating it more than three times a month didn't increase the life span any more than that, though.)

Various researchers have also reported that the compounds in chocolate strengthen the immune system, lower cholesterol, and relax stiff or damaged blood vessels. Such benefits might account for early observations that chocolate prevents colds, strengthens the heart, and invigorates the body.

Of course, the chocolate of Baker and Hannon is very different from the chocolate people usually eat today. Until the mid-1800s, chocolate was served as a drink with very little processing, which, scientists now know, kept flavanol contents high.

"The chocolate served then was 98 percent pure chocolate solids," Grivetti says. "When you drank it, you got a jolt as good as tea or coffee. Today, Milky Way bars are primarily nougat and caramel, with a chocolate coating."

Though chocolates with 70 to 90 percent pure chocolate can still be found, the best-selling chocolate in America is the Snickers Bar, which is only about 12 percent chocolate. Most of the Snickers Bar is sugar – about 50 percent – and the rest is powdered milk, vegetable fat, and flavorings.

Nevertheless, chocolate has never been more popular. Today, 240 years after Baker and Hannon opened America's first chocolate mill, the average American eats 11 pounds of pure chocolate every year – 110 times more chocolate than they ate in 1800 and 200 times more broccoli than they eat today.