Five Things You Didn’t Know About Chocolate

by MacKenzie Kassab

If everything you know about chocolate can be tucked inside a foil wrapper, Carla D. Martin is offering an invitation into the sinful, seductive, and savory world of cacao.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the founder and executive director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute and instructor of Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food at Harvard Extension School is ready to spill the beans on a centuries-old industry with five surprising facts about chocolate.

1. Chocolate and romance go way back.

Chocolate had four uses in ancient Maya civilization: currency, beverage, food flavoring, and ritual offering.

“It wasn’t uncommon to use cacao-based beverages in marriage rituals and discussions of dowries—things that are very much associated, historically, with romance,” Martin says.

Its reputation took a steamy turn when the Spanish arrived to colonize Mesoamerica. Convinced it was an aphrodisiac, they spread word of the newly discovered love potion through Europe and North America. By the Victorian era, the National Confectioners Association and lobbyists abroad were working overtime to promote chocolate and Valentine’s Day as natural bedfellows.

Eventually, the holiday became commercialized—thanks in part to elaborate cards with pricey trimmings—and dollar signs flashed in chocolate executives’ eyes. Cadbury forever changed the game with one genius marketing gimmick: a heart shaped box in which to gift its sweets.

2. Chocolate can make your heart flutter.

“That’s mostly mythology,” Martin says, dispelling any innate aphrodisiac qualities in cacao or chocolate. But there is one caveat: “There are psychological impacts of consuming chocolate, so it’s a question of nature versus nurture.”

She suggests that the way chocolate melts like butter on the tongue, for example, could awaken sensuality. At the same time, theobromine—a known stimulant—in the cacao plant can literally set hearts racing.

“It can create a greater sense of energy, which in turn gives you a feelings boost and improves your mood.” It might be a stretch, but euphoria and heart palpitations sound like a recipe for passion.

3. Splurging on chocolate is a good thing.

Chocolate consumers may balk at a double-digit price tag on this sweet treat. But becoming a conscientious connoisseur spreads love around the world.

“In order to have chocolate that’s cheap and democratized, people over the course of history have relied on exploitative labor practices.” The industry’s sordid past involves slavery and indentured servitude. Chocolate prices haven’t risen to reflect the current cost of cacao production. As a result, many of today's cacao farmers receive inadequate compensation for their crops.

Martin says no definitive solution has been identified, but attentive consumers can improve conditions for farmers. She recommends buying from companies that are transparent about their supply chain. Look for ethical certification logos, including Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance. You will pay more for ethical chocolate, but it doesn’t have to break the bank. Many chain grocery stores carry selections in the $3 range.

However, don’t feel guilty about treating yourself to a top-of-the-line chocolate bar. “If you’re going to buy a $20 chocolate bar from the right brand, you can be assured that it’s one of the finest chocolate bars in the world,” Martin says. “Compare that to, say, the finest wine in the world, which is going to cost orders of magnitude higher than $20.” Relatively speaking, it’s a steal for one of the best edible indulgences out there.

4. Great chocolate can make your toes curl.

Ethical chocolate does not automatically mean great-tasting chocolate. You’ll need to look out for other evidence that a confection’s flavor matches its principles.

The first thing to do when exploring chocolate, says Martin, is to smell it. It should have an enticing aroma. No scent at all—or worse, a bad smell—is a warning to toss it before it touches your lips.

There’s no right way to eat chocolate, but Martin has some suggestions. Let it melt on your tongue to see if the flavor evolves over time and if it has a pleasant finish. “You also want to think about how it feels in your mouth as you experience it,” she says. Traditional European chocolate can be smooth and creamy, but some cacao buffs prefer a grittier, rustic texture.

While muddy, chalky, or waxy qualities are universally considered unacceptable, Martin says two questions can indicate where chocolate falls on the quality spectrum: Does this make me contemplate that it tastes good? Does it make my toes curl?

5. Massachusetts is home to the world’s best chocolate bar.

Martin has conducted fieldwork in West Africa, Latin America, North America, and Europe, sampling hundreds of chocolate bars along the way. If she had to choose one to be stranded on a desert island with, she’d pack a bar from Rogue Chocolatier in Three Rivers, Massachusetts.

“They make very small batches of chocolate carefully crafted by hand, using machinery that they developed,” she says, adding that only the finest quality cacao beans go into each product. But, she adds, “They’re also on the highest end of the price range for chocolate.” You get what you pay for. So consider it an investment in fair business practices, artisanal eats, and your love life—especially if you’re willing to share.

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Chocolate Recipes from Harvard Extension School Faculty
In the spirit of Valentine's Day, instructors of food-centric courses share their favorite dessert recipes.

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