Chocolate industry gears up for Valentine’s Day

Liana Aghajanian

With its rich creamy texture, irresistible flavor and lingering aroma, it’s no wonder chocolate was once considered “the food of the gods.”

Chocolate, or cacao, from which chocolate is derived, has captivated society for thousands of years, from the Mesoamerican civilizations that created it, to the Maya and Aztec which cultivated it and to today’s billion dollar chocolate industry that is gearing up for next week’s national holiday of love: Valentine’s Day.

The origins of chocolate span further back than any national holiday, with civilizations like the Olmec believed to be growing cocoa beans during the Preclassic period dating from 1200 to 400 BC. Back then however, chocolate was anything but sweet, and was consumed in liquid form rather than a Hershey’s bar.

“Prior to the Spanish conquest, the people of Mesoamerica consumed cacao as a beverage,” said Cathy Costin, associate professor in the department of anthropology.

“The cacao beverages were seasoned by the Aztec with many different spices and flavorings including achiote and allspice.”

Cacao was even known to be used as currency.

“Some people paid their taxes in cacao beans and the beans were used in the marketplaces to trade for other items,” Costin said.

In addition to being used as currency, chocolate was a very important trade commodity, said Michael Love, an anthropology professor who studies Olmec and early Maya civilizations.

“Cultures fought over the best territory to grow it in,” said Love, who added that chocolate was grown in a few areas but traded all over.

After the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, they retained cocoa and began cultivating it. The Spanish kept cocoa a secret from the rest of the Western world for hundreds of years. That is, until the monks who had been assigned to process the cocoa beans let the cat out of the bag.

The chocolate craze spread fast throughout Europe until an English company introduced the first solid “eating chocolate” to the masses.

In 1876, Daniel Peter revolutionized the industry by creating a way of adding milk to chocolate in Switzerland, and the chocolate we have come to know and love today was born.

Chocolate became a mass produced commodity in the United States when Milton S. Hershey founded the Hershey Chocolate Company which became the world’s largest chocolate factory in Hershey, PA.

“These days, just under 40 percent of the chocolate made in the U.S. is made in Pennsylvania, and this is not just Hershey,” said Gregory Ziegler, a food science professor at Pennsylvania State University who conducts research on chocolate.

Today, chocolate has expanded into a competitive industry with no signs of slowing down. Companies like Hershey and Lindt and gourmet chocolatiers like See’s Candies and Ghirardelli are all vying to earn that special place in the heart (and wallets) of chocolate lovers this Valentine’s season.

Retail sales of chocolate have climbed about 3 percent every year since 2000 and in 2005, they reached a total of 15.7 billion, reports the National Confectioner’s Association

The origins of chocolate’s connection with Valentine’s Day however, are a bit milky. Little is known about how chocolate became associated with love and gained a reputation for having aphrodisiac like qualities. Though the true history of Valentine’s Day and its patron saint is concretely unknown, there are many ideas of its origins, including the more well known fact of it being named after one of three saints named Valentine, all who died before chocolate was introduced to Europe.

Others say the association of the February with love and fertility dates to ancient times.

Though the exact chocolate connection remains a mystery, Richard Cadbury, the founder of Cadbury’s cocoa and chocolate company, created the first known heart-shaped candy box for Valentine’s Day in the 1860s. This perhaps, is how the chocolate Valentine’s revolution began.

Though flowers are considered standard gifts for Valentine’s day, chocolate has certain qualities that put it far above roses and tulips. For one thing, you can savor the flavor of those chocolate morsels melting in your mouth and enjoy them ever more than a vase of flowers on the dining room table that will eventually wilt away. Better yet, chocolate can apply as a gift inclusive of any holiday.

“I would buy chocolate any time to cheer someone up, if they are sick or sad, or maybe just having a hard time,” said Matt Zang, 18, a mechanical engineering major.

This year, 42.9 percent of men plan to purchase candy for the big day, while an estimated 53.6 percent of women will do the same, reports the National Retail Federation.

The NRF also estimates that the average consumer will spend $119.67 this Valentine’s Day up from $100.89 last year.

Though some brand Valentine’s as a “Hallmark Holiday,” a marketing ploy to encourage consumer spending, others can appreciate an entire day dedicated to love.

“I like Valentine’s Day, I don’t think it’s just for companies to make their money,” said Zang.

Total 2007 Valentine’s Day spending is expected to reach nearly $17 billion reports the NRF.

The allure of chocolate still remains and leaves many wondering why it turns lovers of the confection into chocoholics. One explanation might be the effect chocolate has on our brain.

“Chocolate contains about 300 different chemicals, some of which might actually have an influence on our brains and moods,” Costin said.

One of those chemicals is theobromine, a primary substance found in cocoa and chocolate, and one of the causes of chocolates’ mood-elevating affects. Theobromine, is found in much larger quantities in dark chocolate.

“Chocolate also contains small amounts of chemicals that are related to amphetamines and other chemicals, such as tryptophan and phenylethylamine which can produce a sense of happiness in people,” said Costin.

Dark chocolate has recently been in the news as studies promote its antioxidant levels and its protective qualities for the heart and arteries from oxidative damage.

Though these recent health benefits have emerged, chocolate hasn’t always been so revered.

“Throughout its history, chocolate always has been kind of a Janus, credited with health-promoting properties and accused of causing numerous ailments,” said Ziegler.

Indeed, chocolate has been blamed for acne, a now defunct myth, as acne is caused by hormones and heredity. Tooth decay is also another misnomer, since cavities are caused by fermentable carbohydrates, and although these carbs are present in chocolate, cocoa butter actually coats the teeth, making it less likely to cause the decay.

As Valentine’s Day rolls around, chocolatiers are gearing up for it in full force. See’s Candies, a manufacturer of high quality candies based in the west coast packs its famous chocolate in traditional hearts, which either come in prepacked variety or empty, for you to pack to your heart’s content. San Francisco based company Ghirardelli features heart tins with their popular chocolate squares.

With affordable pricing, a rich history and creamy flavor, chocolate might be the best gift around. After all, the flowers will eventually die, the cards will be put away, the marriages could end in divorce, but chocolate will always have a place in your stomach and heart!

Jocelyn Swartz contributed to this report.