Whoever you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day with, chances are good that chocolate will be involved. Around this time of year, red heart-shaped chocolate boxes are ubiquitous in grocery stores. But why do we immediately think of chocolate when we think of this holiday?
When it comes to the tie between chocolate and Valentine’s Day, it appears we have Richard Cadbury to thank. During Victorian times, “courtly love” was a popular concept, and people everywhere were wooing each other with gifts and tokens of affection. While Cadbury was working for his family’s chocolate company (the same one that’s responsible for your Cadbury Crème Eggs at Easter), he improved their chocolate-making process by pulling cocoa butter out of cocoa beans. Cadbury continued to make their usual “drinking chocolate”, but used all of his extra cocoa butter to invent “eating chocolate.” This new form of chocolate got packaged into ornamental boxes that were to be reused for mementos once the chocolate was eaten.
Once harvested and dried, cocoa beans are roasted and shelled, leaving behind the cocoa nib. The nibs are crushed and pressed to create chocolate liquor, the base for our well-known chocolate treats. The liquor is mixed with fat and sugar to create different kinds of chocolate. Dark chocolate has a high cocoa content (at least 70%) and is generally less sweet than milk chocolate. Bittersweet and milk chocolates have more sugar and fat added to lighten the flavor and color of the final product, with milk chocolates having the lowest cocoa content of the three. White chocolate, a distant cousin of darker chocolates, is made from cocoa butter instead of cocoa solids.
When you think about chocolate and hearts together, Cadbury-type heart-shaped boxes of chocolates are probably the first thing to jump to your mind. However, newer research on chocolate is showing that you may want to think about what chocolate can do for your actual heart, as well. The cocoa beans that comprise chocolate are full of flavanols – antioxidants that have many great benefits for the cardiovascular system. These little compounds have been shown to help lower blood pressure, improve blood flow, and may help reduce cell damage caused by heart disease. Because dark chocolate has the most cocoa content, it provides the most flavanols while yielding the least sugar and fat.
For more information about the history of chocolate, check out our Ode to Chocolate.
Amy Lee is a junior at Missouri State University majoring in dietetics. She plans to become a registered dietitian specializing in pediatric nutrition with an emphasis on public health.
Photo Credit: Sammy Gitlin