Chocolate makes for sinful sweet endings in desserts, as well as nutritious morning pick-me-up and velvety smooth nightcaps. However, chocolate first came about not as the sweets known in modern times – instead, as part of medicine.

If one were to flip through copies of circulars for druggists back in the 1800s, one will most likely come across bold advertisements of chocolate syrup, and it would not even warrant raised eyebrows. This is because, druggists back in the day used chocolate syrup to mask the bitter taste of medicine, making it easier to down.

Chocolate syrup to be mixed with bitter remedies

A Hershey’s soluble chocolate advertisement in The Druggists’ Circular and Chemical Gazette, Volume 40, 1896. Photo credit:
A Hershey’s soluble chocolate advertisement in The Druggists’ Circular and Chemical Gazette, Volume 40, 1896. Photo credit:

Historically, chocolate has been consumed for over more than 3,000 years ago – in Mexico. Spanish explorers then spread the news and use of chocolate to the world, with chocolate giant company, The Hershey Co. also getting in on the act. Even so, chocolate was consumed as a drink made from fermented and ground beans back then – granting it a bitter taste and far from being the sweetened version we know and love.

Chocolate came to America by the 1700s and its medicinal properties were highly talked about. According to Deanna Pucciarelli, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at Ball State University who researches the medicinal history of chocolate, chocolate was often prescribed for wasting diseases. However, instead of treating the illness, chocolate treated the symptoms. Chocolate was high in calories to add weight to patients and also perk up the moods due to its caffeine-like compounds.

For druggists, the rich flavour of chocolate was appealing. Cocoa powder would be mixed with sugar – almost eight times more – to concoct chocolate syrup, which would then be used to coat bitter remedies. True to the test of time, medicine today and of yester-year remained mostly bitter tasting. Many medications were made from plants and were categorised as alkaloids, which were known to be unpleasant.

Chocolate syrup gained popularity in the 1900s, especially since medication then was mostly in liquid or powder form. Tablets were labour-intensive to produce, especially before the boom of mass factory production era. Instead, druggists would mix bitter remedies with chocolate syrup or have it mixed in a drink.

To date, chocolate is considered a ‘treat’ more than a cure.
To date, chocolate is considered a ‘treat’ more than a cure.

Chocolate syrup: Giving rise to bubble gum-flavoured medicine

Medicine then evolved to be mixed with a new favourite medium – the carbonated water – and syrups such as chocolate and vanilla became even more popular. Carbonated concoctions were still considered medicinal at the time. However, at the turn of the 20th century, the transition for chocolate from treatment to treat began to take place.

In the 1906 Food and Drug Act, druggists were asked to label accurately the ingredients of the remedies, as there was a concern on false health claims over chocolate. Also at the same time, chocolate bars were entering the scene as confectionary, and not medicine. Factories were booming and prices of sugar had fallen, resulting in mass production of the chocolate bars. In 1930s, Hershey’s and other chocolate companies began marketing chocolate syrup for home use, thus, ending chocolate syrup history in medicine.

To date, chocolate is considered a treat more than a cure. However, its use as a mask for bitter medicine remains. Pleasant tasting lozenges and antibiotics have followed in chocolate syrup’s sticky footsteps. MIMS

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