Superfood or Dangerous Drug? Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate in the Late 17th Century

This is part of our special feature on Food, Food Systems, and Agriculture.

We are all too familiar today with the wildly exaggerated health claims made for so-called super foods. Often based loosely on clinical research, the underlying motivation for these claims is, of course, selling new products. Foods are likewise demonized with the same motives, here too pushing a new line and maximizing profit underlies the latest fad diets that ban whole classes of food.

Surprisingly, in the seventeenth century, the same factors were at play in arguments surrounding a series of new beverages that had entered Europe from Africa, Asia, and America: coffee, tea, and chocolate. These were first considered medicinal herbs, sold by apothecaries and taken for a variety of ailments. They were also taken purely for pleasure. An economic rivalry spurred medical controversies surrounding the new beverages with some figures making fantastic claims, others pointing out the dangers of excessive consumption. Just as today, both sides made selective use of the latest chemical and mechanical theories of physiology.

Tension arose between merchants who hoped to increase sales to anyone, and physicians who wanted to maintain a monopoly of the supply, keep prices high, and prescribe the drinks for their patients. They did so by defining quality standards, explaining preparation, and lastly, prescribing them for specific ailments, hoping to keep people from street vendors and cafes. Physicians hoped to prevent self-prescription or recreational use and force customers to buy from them. There were strong economic incentives for physicians to argue about coffee, tea, and chocolate, to define precisely how they affect the body.

There was an equally strong incentive for pharmacists who did not supply the new beverages to write against them, so patients would continue to purchase standard pharmaceuticals. Although the famous physician Thomas Willis said “that in several Headaches, Dizziness, Lethargies, and Catarrhs, where there is a gross habit of body and a cold heavy constitution, there coffee may be proper, and successful; and in these cases he sent his patients to the Coffee-House rather than to the Apothecaries Shop.”[1] Willis sent them there because he did not dispense medicines and had nothing to lose. But most physicians had a strong incentive to sell their own medicinal versions and prescribe these drinks to protect their own business.

Apart from the exotic allure of these new drinks, Europeans did not have generally available stimulants before the seventeenth century. Caffeine is Europeans’ first major experience of uppers. These gradually replaced alcoholic drinks, especially for breakfast and work breaks. A sobering drink in the morning and throughout the day apparently aligns well with the protestant work ethic and a need for proto-capitalists to keep alert transacting business (something suggested in the nineteenth century by Michelet and argued by Wolfgang Schivelbusch).[2] It is true that they were promoted as temperance drinks and equally true that suppliers of beer and wine had a vested interest in quelling the popularity of the new beverages. The rivalry with alcohol was another element in this melee of invective that was hurled in the mid seventeenth century.

The first major text on the topic was the German physician Simon Paulli’s Commentarius de Abusu Tabaci Americanum veteri et Herbae Thee Asiaticorum in Europa novo – Commentary on the abuse of tobacco, tea, coffee, and chocolate, published in 1665. There was an English translation made in 1746. Paulli was botanist to the king of Denmark and is best known for his Flora Danica. Much of the text is a botanical discussion of the plants themselves and the book argues that comparable European herbs, camellia, or myrtle can take the place of tea for medicinal uses and “hence we have but little Reason to bring tea from China, Tartary, and Japan, at an extravagant Price, which might be far better laid out in relieving poor indigent Families at home.”[3] Of course, buying native herbs would also make Paulli himself a profit, so his argument is obviously biased.

As for the medical content of his denunciation, there had already been some discussion in specialized medical circles about the precise humoral qualities of the new drinks. The authorities generally agreed on certain effects that anyone could not help recognize – their stimulating effect, their astringency, and their role as diuretics. Those incidentally are still recognized as the basic properties of caffeine.

Nicolas Tulpius also added that tea “removes headaches, stuffings of the head, inflammations and distillations of the eyes, difficulty of breathing, weakness of the stomach, gripes of the intestines and weariness.”[4]

The medical authorities could not agree on the precise humoral makeup. Because astringent and tannic it was hard to deny that all three drinks are dry, like wine, and we still describe a wine as dry. Some physicians insisted that coffee and tea are hot (not only in temperature, but they heat the body) while chocolate is cold. Others claimed that all three are hot and dry. Others claimed that they artificially make the body colder because they dry up the radical moisture and weaken us. All these debates are solidly Galenic, based on theory going back about 1,500 years.

Paulli’s denunciation of these drinks is still in that tradition, even though he pays some lip service to the new chemistry, claiming that it is the sulfur in these drinks that make them more heating than ginger, cinnamon, and pepper.[5] He claims that because these products violently dry out the body, they damage the moist organs such as the eyes, brain, and organs of reproduction. This is why they make you blind, dim-witted, and ultimately impotent.

“It is…the Duty of every European to join in engaging the legislature to put a stop to this epidemical Evil, and prohibit the Abuse, not only of tea, but also of Tobacco, since both of these, and Coffee….so enervate the European men, that they become incapable of propagating their species, like Eunuchs, some of whom are highly salacious, but it is sufficiently known, that they are incapable of Procreation, (though they emit something analogous to semen.)”[6]

Much the same is claimed in a little broadside that appeared in London in 1674 called the Women’s Petition Against Coffee Representing to Public Consideration The Grand Inconveniences accruing to their Sex from the Excessive Use of the Drying and Enfeebling Liquor. Essentially it argues that Englishmen were once sturdy gallants but since they have started drinking coffee have become impotent.[7]

These discussion are still primarily humoral in nature, but the controversies become far more interesting when chemical and mechanical arguments are brought into play, because then authors have an entirely different series of rationales and begin to examine what coffee actually does in their own professional experience, rather than what they suppose will happen based on the ancient Greek system. That is, coffee and tea do not cause impotence and madness, even in excess – but they do have real effects on the body.

Two French texts exemplify this new spirit of inquiry, the first extolls the virtues of caffeinated drinks: Sylvestre Dufour’s Traités nouveaux et curieux de Café, du Thé et du chocolat of 1685. It was the first popular and widely printed work on the beverages. Its author was a coffee merchant, and had a good reason to proclaim its benefits, but he also had a number of medical friends whom he consulted on the work. He was well read and even arranged to have a chemical analysis of coffee conducted.

Having traveled in Turkey, he knew its effect on a population that regularly consumes it and avowed that “this drink is not only very healthy, but even nourishing, the which savants attribute to the oleaginous humor naturally in coffee which greatly sweetens the ferment, impeaches the stinging of membranes in the stomach,…and furnishes substance proper to be converted into a nourishing juice which repairs the spirits.” This statement appears within the first few pages of the treatise, and immediately alerts the reader that a new set of dietary criteria are employed here. His use of the term ferment to describe digestion (which ultimately hearkens back to van Helmont and Sylvius de la Boe) also implies that he understood the role of acids in digestion and that his analysis of coffee will be at least partly chemical rather than humoral.

He did not abandon the humoral descriptions entirely, few people of his day did. He was obliged to address the old question of whether coffee is hot and dry or cold and dry, but admits his confusion, explaining, “I find myself embarrassed, because the ancient authors of medicine, and the greater part of aged persons who practice this art, in explaining the qualities of aliments and medicines, speak to us of hot, of cold, of dry and of humid. But moderns and young physicians, support Acid and Alkali or salt, sulfur and mercury.”[8] Dufour wondered whether in time some new jargon would be invented. But he didn’t want to disappoint his readers, so he asked the most moderate of his physician friends for help on the matter. Following their opinions, he reassures his reader that there are some substances that either the Galenist or the Chemist could not deny heat the body – eau de vie, pepper and spices. On the contrary, there are those that refresh: chicory, lettuce, water – also lemonade and beer.[9]

Coffee, however, has no apparent or extreme qualities – it is less hot that wine, but not as cold as lemonade. Dufour insists thus that is it tempered and has the power to cool people who are hot and heat people who are cool. With this ruse, Dufour can sidestep the entire older argument while maintaining that coffee is good for everyone – a boost to his own sales. Most authors insisted on the contrary, that because coffee is bitter is has to be hot and dry – which is the older humoral logic. Instead, Dufour undertakes a chemical analysis with his friends – an apothecary and a physician. They start with brewed coffee, which they distill to obtain clear water and vapors that condensed into another liquid leading him to conclude that coffee is very volatile. Finally, there was left an oily crass substance, which was calcified leaving a bitter alkaline substance.[10]

This led him to conclude that coffee is very volatile; its particles are moving rapidly, which explains its aromatic nature, but also why it stimulates the human body and prevents us from falling asleep. His explanation is primarily a mechanical one – particles that are agitated and extremely light move around in our body quickly, they have an aperient effect, pushing things along, opening obstructions. But they also have an affinity to our spirits. That is a concept with an ancient history – essentially spirits are the most highly refined form of nourishment. Spirits are the essence of food that has been very highly refined, just as alcohol is a refined form of wine. Food gets converted into chyle in the stomach, which is changed into blood in the liver, is transported through the veins and some is converted into flesh, but the most rarefied parts are in a sense distilled into spirits which nourish the brain. Spirits that move quickly are more alert and vivacious and cause us to be, while sluggish or clogged ones cause us to sleep, as does using up all the spirits that have been generated in the course of the day. In the seventeenth century added to this is the idea that spirits area kind of gaseous substance that flows through the nerve endings animating us. If coffee is volatile it activates our own spirits and this explains how it works as a stimulant.

Because it is diuretic, it also helps flush out superfluous fluids from the body. It does not, as Simon Paulii claims dry out the entire body unless taken in extreme excess, but rather dries up the superfluous matter on the stomach and thus says Dufour helps contain “the vapors which rise up into the brain” leaving the brain clear and unclouded. This is how it keeps us awake and alert.[11]

Furthermore it also directly aids the concoction taking place in the stomach because of its constricting or as they would have said styptic effect. But there is also a chemical reaction that takes place in the stomach. Although Dufour never gives the precise pH of coffee itself – and I don’t think that system was yet in use, he does clarify that along side its subtle and volatile properties it also has terrestrial parts – which would be the salts he identified in the chemical analysis. These he identifies as alkaline in nature (and in fact caffeine is an alkaloid – though that wasn’t discovered, nor was caffeine itself identified until the nineteenth century.) These alkalis temper a stomach with too much acidity or as he puts it, sweetens the leaven – this stage of digestion was thought to be a fermentation much as happens in wine – a primary stage of refinement that separates lighter nourishing matter from heavier wastes.

To this Dufour adds what appears to be an entirely mechanical function. The alkalis absorb the indigested matter which can be transported through the body and coagulate there. Thus it helps circulation of all fluids in the body “which greatly aids the insensible transpiration which maintains health.”[12] This is an idea that ultimately goes back to Santorio Santorio writing in the early seventeenth century but widely regarded in his day as the founder of the iatro-mechanical school of physiology. Basically his theory was that the proper passage of bodily fluids facilitates the passage of wastes through the pores of the body (and he actually measured their volume). Without the passage of these wastes, the body retains this matter, which corrupts and leads to many diseases – obesity, gout, gall stones, etc. It is with this logic that coffee is also prescribed for anyone with gout, even scurvy which was explained with the same etiology, women with menstrual problems and anything which would be caused by clogging of the system.

By selectively choosing elements from a number of rival physiological theories, Dufour can effectively argue that coffee can prevent just about any illness. Remarkably, Dufour identified many ailments for which caffeine is still used. It seems that drawing on extensive empirical experience of prescribing coffee (and he’s obviously drawing from the work of others here) he makes what are surprisingly rational and level headed claims. For example – because coffee thins the blood and all blood passes through the heart and lungs, coffee not only dilates the passages in the lung and chest, but makes the blood passing through it less viscous.[13] With perfect logic he advises that people suffering from asthma and chest ailments should begin a regimen of coffee. Modern medicine confirms this use, caffeine does increase the respiratory rate, does dilate the bronchial tubes and make breathing easier. This provides an interesting corrective to my assertion that these authors were entirely self-serving and made up whatever they could to promote their business.

Along the same lines Dufour recommends coffee for maladies of the head. He fleshes out the idea that volatile elements in coffee have a great similarity to our own spirits, specifying that it is a nitro-sulfurous compound (composed of saltpeter and sulfur) that has the same particle size and configuration as our own spirits, and thus repairs them quickly. Using his own experience as a guide, he suggests that sufferers of migraines take coffee regularly. (Another approved modern pharmaceutical use.) Dufour relates a story of a woman who was taken to surgeon for her horrible migraine headaches for which they wanted to perform a trepanation to reduce swelling. A physician intervened and recommended coffee instead and within three days she was already visibly recovered. The story is a very nice illustration of how the mid seventeenth century is right on the cusp of the transformation to modern science – without many of its analytic tools or methodologies.

Dufour also makes some strange claims – that it whitens the teeth rather than darken them as some people think, that it is very useful for children for whom wine and alcohol are not appropriate. But to his credit, he does give examples of people for whom coffee is not suitable: those who are what we would call hyper-active with a very quick metabolism. He describes these people as bilious using the old classification system – but simply enough, in such thin and wiry people it causes the blood to be too thin, for nutrients to transpire too quickly, and ultimately for the spirits to dissipate at an unhealthy rate. In simpler terms it makes them more wired.[14] For overweight people and those with thick fluids and slow movements of the animal “machine,” it’s fine. It is only really dangerous (to criticize Simon Paulli again) for those that are already too tightly strung, dried up and prone to sterility.[15]

Dufour makes most of the same claims for tea, and in general only qualifies chocolate as being cold, more terrestrial, but corrected by the standard preparation which included sugar, cinnamon, sometimes almonds, vanilla, musk, and amber – all of which are either hot or extremely volatile (aromatic) substances. In the end it is much like coffee and tea. The only major difference is that because it has a substantial oleaginous part, it is also fattening.[16]

Another work, equally fascinating, is Le bon usage du thé, du caffé et du chocolat pour la préservation et pour la guérison des maladies, written in 1687 by Nicolas de Blégny who was physician to King Louis XIV and also supervised a royal apothecary, staffed by a team of chemists who he calls his artists. His shop was open to the public, and there’s even a list of wares that includes not only coffee, tea, and chocolate properly prepared, but a hot of roasting machines, pots, and paraphernalia designed by de Blégny himself. So the text might be considered a form of advertisement, and it is not perhaps surprising that de Blégny goes even further than Dufour in proclaiming the wondrous effects of the beverages he has for sale.

De Blégny starts with tea, making a distinction between green and darker varieties, between Japanese and Chinese – and he prefers the former, how to distinguish the best by leaf size, etc. He next launches into the medicinal virtues of tea in ways that remind the modern reader of how tea’s anti-oxidant effects are marketed today. Just as the public today has scant grasp of exactly what free radicals might be and why we would want them chased from our bodies we still trust physicians that green tea is something good for promoting health. Without the scientific background we have no choice but trust and tea marketers depend on that. They throw in the latest scientific jargon, frighten us, and get people to drink more tea. De Blégny is doing the same thing in his treatise.

He reasons that by virtue of the bitterness of tea it is composed of acids mixed wit terrestrial corpuscles. But it also contains igneous and aetherial elements, so like Dufour he claims that it is of a tempered quality.[17] That means that there is no particular constitution for which tea is not appropriate – this information is added in a calculated way to satisfy common people whose conception of nutrition is still fundamentally humoral, but to impress them with some complex-sounding scientific terms. It also has something for everyone: He points specifically to its alkalis that absorb humidity, its styptic and astringent qualities that fortify various parts of the body, as well as its volatile, spirituous elements that make it useful for repairing dissipated spirits.

Not to be outdone by other vendors, he has devised various chemical compounds based on tea (the equivalent of modern pills for people who don’t want to eat garlic or whatever else is in fashion). These are an essential salt obtained by burning, boiling, filtering, evaporating and drying tea. Using this essence in syrups, and even in a tablet form appears to be a kind of instant tea one can use whenever you need a quick dose.[18] He also mentions smoking tea – something that apparently enjoyed a brief vogue as something that fortifies the brain.

De Blégny next specifies the particular virtues of tea, primarily its ability to make person alert and awake which is the result of “the animal spirits continually flowing throughout the nerves.”[19] It is only the slowing down or clogging of these that causes sleep, and thus mere mechanical facilitation of flux ensures that we remain awake. Furthermore, tea repairs those spirits. It is “a too small quantity of spirits filling the nerves” having been spent up in the course of daily activity. Normally one would only wake up once all phases of digestion had restored the nourishing spirits giving us volition and energy, but this in a sense achieves the same goal artificially with a stimulant.

Tea’s astringent qualities quell unnatural fermentations in the body and prevent all variety of gross vapors from obstructing the nerves. It thus serves to aid digestion and also dries up the superfluous humidity that causes crudities in the stomach. His argument here is much like Dufour’s. Because diuretic, it is also a blood purifier. De Blégny even sells what he calls his “Sirop de The Febrifuge” which can be mixed with wine or opiates as well as a chocolate febrifuge. The logic is that fevers were commonly thought to be the result of blockages in the body and corrupt matter accumulating and fermenting. The febrifuge scours the body’s passages and gets everything flowing again. He also made an essential oil of coffee used for hysteria (the wandering womb)[20] and for tumors, hypochondria, colic, gout, rheumatism, scurvy, migraine.[21] Coffee or the medicinally concentrated versions are also good for Apoplexy, Paralysis, Lethargy, vertigo, catarrh, frenzy, flux, childbirth – “it carries spirits across the genital parts, such that women have no remedy more prompt or more assured than this drink to facilitate childbirth”[22] then there are also simple stomach upsets, constipation, even good against insomnia because it dissipates vapors that cloud the brain when spirits are agitated. Best of all is fat-free chocolate and his “Chocolat Anti Venerien” suitable for preventing syphilis, which is made from chocolate and mercury.

De Blégny’s claims for these beverages, as well as the numerous medicinal preparations made from them, give ample opportunity for anyone with practically any aliment to indulge in coffee, tea or chocolate. In this respect, and unintentionally, he facilitates the transformation of these from pharmaceutical to purely recreational use.

The trajectory of these beverages is typical of many recreational drugs. Having started as medicinal luxury items, their use became widespread as the supply increased, the price dropped, and as vendors, including physicians, actively promoted them. In the end, they all became truly popular drugs, though their presumed benefits ranged so widely that the medical advice ceased to have any real meaning. Since according to the doctors they could be used to cure anything, one could rationalize habitual use under any pretext. Being addictive, but without extreme side effects, these drugs were the perfect candidates for making this transition from medicinal to purely recreational use.

Coffee, tea and chocolate made this transition fairly smoothly and with the exception of a few pharmaceutical uses for caffeine (which has largely been replaced with more effective alkaloids) all three have become substances we regularly enjoy without even thinking of them as drugs, and to some extent we have the early medical writers to thank.


Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He has written academic monographs, single subject food histories, and cookbooks. He also edited encyclopedias, handbooks and readers. His Great Courses series Food: A Cultural Culinary History is available free as a podcast. His latest book is Noodle Soup: Recipes, Techniques, Obsession.

Photo: cacao beans and cacao powder on dark background, Janosch Kunze | Shutterstock


[1] Chamberlayne 4

[2] Schivelbusch, Dangerous Tastes.

[3] Paulii 125

[4] Paulli 41-2

[5] Paulii 136

[6] Paulii 163


[8] Dufour 67-8

[9] Dufour 70,73

[10] Dufour 81-8

[11] Dufour 93-4

[12] Dufour 117-118

[13] Dufour 137

[14] Dufour 183-6

[15]  Dufour 192

[16] Dufour 395

[17] de Blégny 27-8

[18] de Blégny 41-2

[19] de Blégny 44

[20] de Blégny 172

[21] de Blégny 178-80

[22] de Blégny 183

Chamberlayne, John. A Natural History of Coffee, Thee, Chocolate, Tobacco. London: Wilkinson, 1682.

De Blégny, Nicolas. Le bon usage du thé, du caffé et du chocolat  pour la préservation et pour la guérison  des maladies. Paris: Etienne Michallet 1687.

Dufour, Sylvester. Traités nouveaux et curieux de café, du thé et du chocolat. Lyon: Jean Girin, 1685.

Paulli, Simon.  Commentarius de Abusu Tabaci Americanum veteri et Herbae Thee Asiaticorum in Europa novo. Strasbourg: Paulli, 1665; 1746 translated as A Treatise on Tobacco, Tea, Coffee and Chocolate.

Gale Sabin Americana, 2012.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Dangerous Tastes: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants. NY: Vintage, 1993.


Published September 5, 2018.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email