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Is Chocolate Really an Aphrodisiac?

Valentine’s Day is all about love and romance. So it makes sense to give your lover chocolate, which has long been thought to be an aphrodisiac. Though science says that chocolate won’t really rev our engines, the food’s texture and taste have a magic all their own.

A Brief History of Chocolate

The Mayans are often–and erroneously–credited with being the first civilization to cultivate chocolate. But that honor actually goes to the Olmec, a civilization that pre-dated both the Mayans and the Aztecs. The Mayans would later ascribe divine powers to cacao, and they made a drink from the beans, pepper or other spices, and water. The cacao bean came to hold a special place in Mayan culture; the beans were even used for currency. They were considered quite valuable and were less cumbersome to carry than gold. A tamale cost one bean; four beans would buy you a rabbit for dinner; ten beans paid for a session with a prostitute, and a slave could be purchased for a mere 100 beans.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Central America, it was only a matter of time before they encountered chocolate. Christopher Columbus was the first, and he brought them back to Spain in 1502 because of their value of currency in the New World. But there’s no evidence he ever actually tasted chocolate. Later, Aztec king Montezuma would pour a frothy cup of chocolate for Hernan Cortez.

Cortez_Montezuma

The first meeting between Aztec ruler Montezuma and Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez

The Aztecs touted chocolate as a natural aphrodisiac, and Montezuma himself was said to drink up to fifty cups of chocolate before heading off to play with his harem. Montezuma drank each serving from a golden goblet, and when he was finished, he would throw the goblet off the balcony into the water. Legend says that he never drank from the same goblet twice. (The legend is corroborated by archaeological evidence. Divers were recovering the goblets for decades.)

Cortez sent the recipe back to Spain, where it was kept a national secret for quite some time. Spaniards did alter the recipe, however, by adding sweetener, usually honey or cane sugar. The drink was reserved only for royalty and the extremely wealthy. It seems that the Spaniards maintained exceptional confidentiality, because in 1579 English pirates seized a Spanish ship laden with cacao beans. Thinking the beans were sheep droppings, they burned the precious cargo.

A Forbidden Pleasure

A sort of chocolate fever swept through Spain and Portugal, which had also established a presence in Central America. People were consuming chocolate, often to excess. The Catholic Church began to wonder if such overindulgence should qualify as a sin, and whether chocolate should be consumed on fasting days like Lent. On these days, Catholics were forbidden to consume anything that provided nourishment, and they liked drinking chocolate because it staved off hunger.

Cistercian_Chocolate

It was Cistercian monk Brother Jeronimo of Aguilar who was responsible for recording the chocolate recipe for the Spanish monarchy. Even though the Catholic Church eventually deemed chocolate sinful, monasteries of the Cistercian order often had chocolate rooms over the cloister.

A great debate ensued, mostly between physicians and the clergy. Ultimately the controversy came down to one question: Was chocolate a food or a beverage? The Church eventually out the question to rest by declaring that chocolate was a powerful aphrodisiac that would make normally upright people act promiscuous. Perhaps they were aware of Montezuma’s chocolate habit? At any rate, the demand for chocolate didn’t falter much. Chocolate, now a forbidden pleasure, was now even more desirable.

All the Rage in Europe

Chocolate wouldn’t make its way to the rest of Europe until well into the seventeenth century. The expense of bringing cacao from the New World, in addition to the time and effort required to grind it, meant that it remained an expensive commodity. When Spanish princess Maria Teresa was betrothed to French king Louis XIV in 1643, her gift to him was not gold or jewels, but an ornate chest filled with chocolate. The French court went crazy for chocolate, and it didn’t take long for the frenzy to spread throughout Europe.

Giacomo_Casanova

Giacomo Casanova

Chocolate was often hailed for its medicinal values. By this time, the theory of the four humors had become the prevailing theory of medicine. Chocolate was considered “cool” and “humid,” so it was frequently prescribed for reducing fevers and for easing discomfort during hot weather. Then in the eighteenth century, Giacomo Casanova reignited interest in chocolate as an aphrodisiac. He claimed to imbibe it for energy before an evening of sexual exploits and extolled it was one of the world’s best aphrodisiacs, second only to champagne.

It wasn’t until the 1800’s that solid forms of chocolate were introduced, eventually yielding the sweet confections we love to exchange on Valentine’s Day. Cadbury created the first heart-shaped chocolate box in 1861. Ever since then, the holiday has been synonymous with giving chocolate.

The Science Behind Chocolate’s Appeal

While chocolate has long been considered an aphrodisiac, there’s not much strong scientific evidence to support the theory. Michael Liebowitz of the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that chocolate contains a compound called PEA, which is known to trigger the same hormone release as sexual intercourse. Chocolate also contains tryptophan. But naysayers argue that the sweet substance doesn’t contain enough of either substance to get anyone’s engines revved.

Research from the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego shows that chocolate contains three chemicals that behave like THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But don’t get excited yet: the National Institute of Mental Health says that a 130-pound person would have to eat a full 25 pounds of chocolate to get the same high. Most scientists agree that chocolate’s most powerful characteristic is likely its texture and taste. And don’t dismiss the power of the placebo effect; when we perceive a food as an aphrodosiac, we’re more susceptible to its supposed powers.

So should you skip the chocolates this Valentine’s Day? You could opt for a less traditional food. After all, potatoes, carrots, asparagus, and beets were once considered aphrodisiacs. But a box of potatoes might not have the desired impact…

Related Posts:

Of Cocoa and Cuba

The Substitution That Gave Us America’s Favorite Cookie

Sugar Spelled Boom and Bust for Cuba

How Halloween Became a Dentist’s Delight

Australia’s Willy Wonka

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This entry was posted on February 12, 2014 by in History, Holidays and tagged , , , , , .
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