One day, while a pastry chef named Stella Parks was doing her research for her next book that talks about the lesser-known history of American desserts, she stumbled upon a 125-year old newspaper called The Druggists Circular and Chemical Gazette, a newspaper commonly carried by pharmacists at that time. What caught her eye is the product placement of a seemingly odd piece of merchandise.
Amongst the medicinal necessities like lab coats and syringes, Parks spotted a Hershey’s cocoa powder advertisement that says, “perfectly soluble; full strength, delicious flavor; warranted absolutely pure.” The newspaper advertised it as if it was medicine. Curiosity led Stella Parks to look into more pharmaceutical circulars and magazines to learn more about the rich history of chocolate syrup. She discovered that it began not as an ice cream add-on, but as a medicine.
As early as 1,500 B.C., traces of cocoa appeared in southern Mexico, and people loved it since then. However, it wasn’t as sweet as what we eat today. In fact, during the early years of cocoa in history, it was served as a drink that is far from the sweet, thick, hot chocolate that we know now. It is rarely sweetened and probably tasted bitter. Nonetheless, the Aztecs held cocoa in such high esteem that they traded currency for cacao. However, it was only popular within the state. The popularity of cocoa began when Europeans came to the Americas at the end of the 15th century.
In those years, chocolate was endorsed as a medicinal prescription to treat various diseases, according to Deanna Pucciarelli, a nutrition and dietetics professor at Ball State University. Doctors prescribed chocolates to people experiencing wasting disease to help them perk up. It didn’t cure the sickness per se, but the chocolates helped manage the symptoms. Pharmacists also believed that the velvety, decadent appeal of chocolates also benefits people.
Since ancient times, medicines have always been bitter because they are mainly composed of plants and herbs. These medicinal plants belong to a class of compounds called alkaloids, which have an acrid, undesirable flavor that makes them unappealing to the palate. The solution is to whip a sweet syrup made from dark powder that can conceal the unfavorable aftertaste. It turned to be very effective that sick people and children of those times eagerly swallowed it.
It is still unclear when the pharmacists came up with the combination of cocoa powder and sugar to produce the sticky syrup. But was likely during the creation of cocoa powder, whose rising popularity helped make chocolate syrup known. In 1828, a Dutch chemist successfully removed some of the chocolate’s natural fat, making it easier to dissolve and giving it a more pleasing taste. But it was still not like the sweet, thick, luscious chocolate we have now. Back then, pharmacists mixed cocoa powder with eight times more sugar than chocolate to achieve a delectable taste.
The popularity of chocolate syrup has skyrocketed during the second half of the 19th century when patent medicines also became well known. Patent medicines came from the “letters of Patent” award given to producers of curative formulas. But later, patent medicines were used to refer to any over-the-counter drugs.
The need for cures and treatment pushed the patent medicines to the public’s eyes when clinical knowledge was insufficient, the population was increasing, and more people were getting sick. But because of a lack of regulations, these pills did more harm than good. They were composed of powdered greens, fruits, alcohol, and opioids, and druggists sold these concoctions as cure-alls. The marketing of these addictive products was legal until 1914 when the Harrison Narcotic Act was enacted.
Factory mass production of medicines started in the 1900s. Before that, medicines weren’t taken as a capsule or tablet. Instead, people consumed it as a powder or liquid. Imagine the extensive and meticulous process of mixing, cutting, rolling, drying, and coating the pills using manual labor.
Druggists mixed these liquid medicines with a beverage or any sweetened base, such as chocolate, and people took them in by the spoonful. Alternatively, the pharmacologists stirred the drugs in powder form to any refreshment the patient prefers, such as water, tea, or even whiskey. As time progressed through the 1800s, one particular drink gained attention as a medicine concealer: carbonated water.
Compared to chocolates, carbonated water is healthier and more nutritious. It became known for its curative and healing powers brought about by the imitated bubbling up of mineral-rich natural springs. Jacob Baur then developed the mass production of pressurized carbon dioxide, which launched the widespread phenomenon of soda in America. The carbonated drink became widely consumed as a health drink and delicious treat in the scheme of soda fountains.
Now, chocolate syrup has to keep up with the game. With the increasing demand for soda, other syrup flavors aside from chocolate become available, including vanilla, lemon, and ginger. However, this didn’t last long. Publishing companies slowly dropped syrups and carbonated drinks from pharmaceutical catalogs and newspapers.
Drug stores continued to thrive without soda and syrups. By that time, pharmacists marketed soda fountains as an additional profit by themselves. It became a lucrative side work in the medical field. Unlike chocolate syrups, carbonated concoctions weren’t phased out of the drug stores. Patients still consumed them as a medium for taking medicines.
From Treatment To Treats
By the turn of the century, chocolate syrups shifted from treatment to treat. For the syrup to stay afloat in the market, pharmacists made a natural segue to ice cream desserts. The fortuitous event had been successful and advanced the chocolates to commercial confection.
However, in the early 20th century, there were issues of false health claims and dangerous cures which led to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act that required the disclosure of ingredients of every consumable food and drug through accurate labels. This helped the transition of chocolate syrups from medicine to dessert. The decline of American patent medicines also supported the chocolatey transition in some way.
During that time, different forms of chocolates were developed and started making a name for themselves on the market. The industrial revolution also took part in the smooth development of chocolates as machines were invented and processes were made easier. Hence, prices began to fall. The manufacturing cost dropped and the prices of sugar declined, paving the way for chocolate bars at a reasonable cost. The supply and demand were also kept at a breakeven rate.
As mentioned before, druggists mixed the cocoa powder with a hefty amount of sugar to achieve the friendly sweetness of the chocolate syrup. So, in 1926, Hershey’s Company launched a pre-mixed chocolate syrup with two sweetness levels for commercial businesses, which meant that pharmacists didn’t have to mix different quantities of it, which made it more convenient to access. In 1930, they began endorsing chocolate syrup for home use. More chocolate companies like Bosco’s started keeping up this chocolate craze, and the rest is sweet history.
Nowadays, despite claims on the various health benefits of different kinds of chocolates, chocolates are consumed more as confection than cure. But the sweet covering for medicines is still widely used by chemists and is evident on flavored syrup like cherry cough syrup or fruit-flavored amoxicillin. Mary Poppins captured it accurately when she said that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
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