No wonder chocolate and Valentine's Day go hand-in-hand. A food that is delicious, romantic and good for you, too -- what better gift for your sweetie?
From the ancient Aztecs, who considered chocolate a food fit for the gods, to early Europeans, who believed it could serve as both a love potion and medicine, not an awful lot has changed in our centuries-old love affair with the cocoa bean.
But why do we love chocolate so? For the most obvious answer, consider the rich, creamy flavor.
"We love chocolate primarily because it tastes so good. Every time we taste chocolate, it is a wonderful memory for us," offered Gina Tedesco, manager of public relations at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, which, after a successful chocolate expo last year, is devoting the entire month of February to a celebration of chocolate.
The arboretum isn't the only organization using chocolate to attract visitors. For eight years, Naperville-based NCO Youth and Family Services has held a chocolate festival in January that draws between 1,200 and 1,500 people, said Dawn Portner, special events coordinator.
"Everybody loves chocolate, so it's just a win-win," Portner said.
Chocolate satisfies our innate preference for sweets and fat, said Nancy Rodriguez, a registered dietitian with Edward Hospital in Naperville.
"You can't argue with the joy of eating a good piece of chocolate," she said. "The way it melts on your mouth and tongue."
Feel good food
The cocoa beans from which chocolate is made are not, themselves, sweet. The Mayans and Aztecs in Central America and Mexico consumed chocolate as a bitter, frothy drink mixed with chilies. Among the more than 300 chemicals contained in chocolate are a number of ingredients that help explain why we crave it.
Chocolate triggers the release of endorphins and serotonin, which make us feel good, Rodriguez said. And while no proof exists that chocolate is an aphrodisiac, it does contain the chemical phenylethylamine, a mild mood elevator that our brain produces when we feel happy or in love.
Chocolate contains stimulants as well, including small amounts of caffeine and theobromine, said Christine Palumbo of Naperville, a registered dietitian in private practice, adjunct faculty member at Benedictine University in Lisle, and nutrition columnist and speaker. Stimulants make us feel alert and contented.
Not all chocolate cravings are equal, added Palumbo, whose husband is the chocoholic in their family. Some studies have indicated that people with strong chocolate cravings have different bacteria in their digestive tract than other people, she said. People seeking relief from stress may also eat chocolate.
"Some people eating chocolate may use it as an antidepressant," she said.
Most people like chocolate to some degree, but our taste for it varies, as with any food, she said.
"It's like some kids like broccoli and some don't," said Palumbo, who writes a column for Chicago Parent magazine. "It's not just taste that's important. For some people, texture is important."
Chocolate's creamy texture contributes to its sensual quality, aficionados say.
"Talk about sexy food. It melts in your mouth," said Cathy Bouchard, owner of Le Chocolat du Bouchard in Naperville.
Bouchard, who suffered from fibromyalgia for nine years, says chocolate isn't just sensual, but health giving. She says she recovered from the chronic, debilitating pain caused by her disease after she began eating an ounce of pure chocolate every morning.
Now an apostle of chocolate, Bouchard sells in her store what she calls The Chocolate Regime, bags that contain a two-week supply of chocolate for those who want to try its health benefits. She requests that customers fill out forms to report back to her the results.
Within a month or six weeks, hundreds of customers have reported improvements in conditions that include fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis and migraines, she said.
"It's the best thing everybody should eat every day," she said. "That's our whole mission, spreading the word about the health benefits."
Bouchard is quick to explain that she doesn't mean all chocolate is equally healthy. She recommends chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa and chock-full of heart-healthy flavonols, which also may act as antioxidants to prevent or delay damage to the body's cells and tissues.
With its higher percentage of cocoa, dark chocolate contains a greater concentration of flavonols than milk chocolate, which is higher in calories and saturated fat.
However, even the dark chocolate label can be misleading, Bouchard said. Dark chocolate that contains milk or lists sugar as its first ingredient won't offer nearly the health benefits, she said.
"Real chocolate has no milk in it," she said. "I want to know what's in my chocolate."
Dietitians agree that chocolate contains many beneficial elements, although they caution it often is high in fat and sugar.
"There are a lot of heart-healthy benefits," Rodriguez said. "You have to kind of weigh the whole picture."
Palumbo writes in a February 2011 column in Chicago Parent that the health-promoting flavonols in chocolate are most concentrated in cocoa powder, followed by baking chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate and lastly syrup. The flavonols are not found in white chocolate, which is not made from the cocoa bean.
As food derived from a plant, cocoa also contains fatty acids that are neutral for blood cholesterol or may even help lower it, she said. Published research done with adults suggests chocolate may reduce cardiovascular risk factors by helping keep blood vessels elastic, reducing blood pressure, and having a beneficial effect on systemic inflammation and platelet stickiness, she said.
Palumbo's own suggestion for how much chocolate provides health benefits is between one and 10 tablespoons (10 to 100 calories) per day of cocoa, or two, 20-gram tasting squares (90 calories total) of dark chocolate.
In other words, enjoy chocolate with your sweetie, but in moderation.