For the past 4,000 years, chocolate has held allure for cultures worldwide as a medicinal cure, a holiday celebration and a ritual drink. (See more about various peoples’ past use of cacao, and about its present-day cultural roles.)
With chocolate’s longstanding magical and mythical properties, it’s only fitting that the name of the tree it comes from, Theobroma Cacao, means “food of the gods.”
Ancient Mesoamerican art, depicting cacao gods and goddesses, rituals, and cacao in sacred caves and mountains, indicates the cacao tree may have been seen as connecting the gods and humans, heaven and earth. Myths also surround the cacao tree as a gift from the gods, or cacao beans as sustenance given by the gods.
In later years, chocolate came to be associated with a different kind of divinity—that of love.
Both Montezuma and Casanova proclaimed chocolate an aphrodisiac, and the Marquis de Sade was arrested soon after hosting a ball where he reportedly spiked the chocolate pastilles with Spanish fly, causing quite an amorous gala. Care package wish-lists he sent to his wife from prison included crème au chocolate, large chocolate biscuits and more of the troublesome chocolate pastilles.
Chocolate is of course a traditional gift for the gentler, sweeter Valentine’s Day, for which legends also abound. Saint Valentine’s identity is unclear, as is much of chocolate lore, but some say he was a priest-turned-saint who secretly married young lovers. Reportedly, the Church created Saint Valentine’s Day as a cover for a pagan fertility festival it wished to end. Either way, chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac—and its easy melting, symbolic of the melting of the heart—makes it a natural choice for this celebration of love and romance.
Over the years, advertising may have invited some of chocolate’s allure.
To this day, ads position chocolate as a luxurious indulgence. The cultivation of chocolate’s allure began in the late 1800s, when the invention of chocolate machinery lowered the price of chocolate and put it within reach of many more people. Soon elaborate trade cards that shopkeepers could display became popular, and the chocolate-eating public began collecting them along with chocolate treats. The cards and posters that followed associated chocolate with children and purity and, paradoxically, with grand adventures, energy and strength.
In the 1930s, when chocolate was considered nutritious and household income was going up, chocolate-makers first began developing products and packaging that appealed to children—opening a new and enduring audience.
Why do so many people proclaim to love chocolate? Maybe it’s because chocolate gives them the feeling that they’re in love. At least that’s what some people say phenylethylamine (PEA), a chemical in chocolate, does when it’s released in the human brain. The theobromine and trace amounts of caffeine in chocolate also may produce a stimulant effect, say others.
There is no scientific evidence, however, that chocolate is addictive. Instead, people who desire chocolate likely do because of its sensory properties, its melting sensations and intense taste. Its aroma and flavors are highly complex. More than 500 compounds responsible for aromas have been found in roasted cocoa beans, and chocolate has more 1,500 flavor compounds—three times the number found in wine.