Chocolate Syrup’s Surprising Medical History

The sugary elixir was once formally used to treat diseases and flavor pharmaceuticals.

September 9, 2017 5:00 am

In the movie The Princess Bride, there’s a famous scene where a medicine man, played by Billy Crystal, creates a pill that will bring the main character back from the dead. He coats it in chocolate to “make it go down easier.”

This was no mere artistic flourish; it has a basis in medical history. Pharmacists once used chocolate syrup to mask the bitter flavor of their remedies, reports Smithsonian MagazineStella Parks, a pastry chef with the food and cooking website Serious Eats happened upon some vintage advertisements for coco powder while researching her new book BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts. 

Our sweet tooth for chocolate goes all the way back to 1500 B.C.E., when it was first consumed as a drink made from fermented, roasted, and ground beans. That concoction wouldn’t taste like modern-day chocolate milk, however, it was likely very bitter. But by the 1700s, cacao beans were being consumed across Europe and the American colonies in a drink that bears a strong resemblance to modern-day hot chocolate.

But besides just a sweet drink, chocolate was also prescribed for all manner of diseases and ailments, according to Deanna Pucciarelli, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at Ball State University who researches the medicinal history of chocolate. For example, the drink was prescribed to people who had “wasting disease” because the extra calories helped bulk them up.

The arrival of the Industrial Revolution and factory mass production allowed for the rise of easy-to-swallow medical pills. Druggists could then mix each liquid remedy with sugary syrups, or the medicinal powder could be added straight into the refreshment of your choice.

It wasn’t until the turn of the century when chocolate syrup began to shift from “treatment to treat” writes Smithsonian. Though chocolate syrup’s role in treating disease has disappeared, medicines are still masked with sweetness.

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