Online Extra: Valentine's Day Stokes the Chocolate Factory

Always a romantic staple, its sales have jumped lately thanks to the dark stuff's health benefits and a growing connoisseur culture

What does your heart desire this Valentine's Day? Chances are, it's chocolate: Chocolate sales soared by more than $740 million in 2006, and sales should continue to climb in 2007, thanks to America's new love affair with heart-healthy dark chocolate. Several other trends are boosting chocolate's popularity, including a growing interest in the amount of cocoa used in products, because the higher content changes the quality and flavor. (A high cocoa content means a product is made with more cocoa and less sugar.) In addition, like coffee aficionados, chocophiles are focusing on the places where beans are cultivated (see, 2/8/07, "Pure Chocolate Indulgence ").

Is chocolate really a love potion? "Chocolate is not guaranteed to make someone fall in love with you—diamonds would be better," jokes chocolate expert Clay Gordon of Kidding aside, there are a few reasons why we may link chocolate with romance. For example, the Mesoamericans believed chocolate could increase a person's luck with love, which is why couples drank ritual cups of cocoa during marriage ceremonies. Even Aztec ruler Montezuma believed cocoa consumption would make him a better lover.

Complex Confection

  Made from the beans of the cacao tree, chocolate was originally served as an elixir—ancient cultures mixed the beans with water and chili peppers. Chocolate became a confection after explorer Hernán Cortés brought it to Spain from the New World in the 1500s and mixed it with sugar.

While chocolate may not have certified credentials as an aphrodisiac, it does have some unique characteristics. For one thing, it's one of the most complex compounds, with 1,500 unique flavors and aromas. (Wine has 200 to 300 chemical compounds.) Chocolate is also achieving status as a health food: Researchers have been trumping the antioxidant benefits of chocolate for several years. What's not to love?

Lauren Young

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