When Cupid and chocolate collide

Exploring the correlation between love and the cacao bean

by Andrew Cullen art & culture editor

For almost two centuries, Valentine’s Day and chocolate have been closely associated. The celebration of Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday and the popularization of chocolate, however, have two separate origins.

     Chocolate is the “go-to” gift for Valentine’s Day for two reasons: tradition and science. To understand the tradition behind chocolate being given on Valentine’s Day, we must look at the origin, growth and commercialization

of chocolate.

     The cacao bean, which is used to make chocolate, finds its origin in the Americas. The Mayan and Aztec elites valued the cacao bean as much as gold. They would grind the cacao bean and mix it with spices like chilies, as well as vanilla and honey, and drink it throughout the day.

     When the Spanish landed in the America’s, they discovered a whole new world for their tastebuds and transported the cacao bean back to Spain.

     By the early 1600s, the popularity for chocolate as a drink had grown to the point that chocolate houses rivaled coffee houses as social gathering spots.

     During the 1800s the Cadbury brothers sold chocolate to average citizens throughout England. Not only was Cadbury chocolate affordable, but the Cadbury brothers had learned how to extract pure cacao butter from the beans, making the drinking chocolate taste even better. They then used the excess cacao butter and produced an eating form of chocolate, which is what we think of when we think of chocolate.

     While the Cadburys were transforming chocolate, the Victorian culture was transforming Valentine’s Day into a commercialized celebration of love as they showered each other with elaborate gifts and cards. The Cadburys took advantage of this marketing opportunity and began selling their eating chocolates in beautifully adorned heart-shaped boxes.

     And so the tradition of giving chocolate to our significant others on Valentine’s Day began.

     There is also a scientific reason that we give chocolate on Valentine’s Day: we love chocolate. Professor of Medical Humanities and Science Philip Wilson, from Penn State in Hershey, PA, says that chocolate contains the chemical anandamide, which creates a relaxing feeling when we eat chocolate. Even the smooth texture of chocolate adds to the relaxing experience we receive when we bite into a sweet and creamy piece of goodness.

     An interesting fact is that men purchase 75 percent of chocolate for Valentine’s Day whereas women purchase 75 percent of chocolate throughout the year. Perhaps there is some truth to the theory that women crave chocolate more than men do.

     Because chocolate is calorie dense and high in sugar and fat from the cocoa butter, eating too much chocolate can be unhealthy. However, eating one or two 19- to 30-gram servings of dark chocolate a week has been shown to reduce the risk of heart failure by 32 percent. In addition, the cacao bean contains antioxidants that are important for cell functioning.

     Unfortunately, eating chocolate every day does not increase the potential health benefits. The protective effect of chocolate reduces as more or less than two servings of chocolate is eaten per week.

     The higher the cocoa content is in chocolate, the lower the sugar and fat content is and thus the healthier the chocolate is. So buy dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. But do not feel guilty for eating chocolate. Enjoying something sweet every now and then is an important pillar of healthy living. But the fewer sweets we eat, the more we will savor their flavor when we do taste them.

     Valentine’s Day may only last for one day, but our love for chocolate and our love for one another do not keep track of time. Maybe we should start giving each other gifts of love throughout the year rather than only on Valentine’s Day.

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