Chocolate remains deliciously dipped in luscious mystery

June 01, 1994|By Kim Pierce | Kim Pierce,Chocolate Manufactures AssociationDallas Morning News

Chocolate lovers may not realize the debt they owe the lowly midge.

The microscopic tropical insect is responsible for pollinating cacao flowers, which in turn give rise to cacao pods, source of America's favorite flavor: chocolate.

Despite centuries of popularity, however, chocolate remains shrouded in mystery.

We can breed garlic that doesn't give you bad breath, but we still don't know what makes chocolate taste the way it does. We can talk about the dangers of saturated fat and how it boosts blood cholesterol, yet puzzle (or is that rejoice?) that saturated // fat-laced chocolate doesn't act that way.

Christmas is the year's biggest chocolate candy holiday, followed by Easter and Valentine's Day, according to Lisbeth Echeandia, publisher of Confectioner magazine. Last year, Easter chocolate alone registered $104 million in retail sales, according to Nielsen Marketing Research.

That's about 10 percent of total chocolate sales for 1993. In 1992, the United States produced 2.657 billion pounds of chocolate candy with a retail value of $10 billion, says the Chocolate Manufacturers Association.

Put another way, Americans ate more than enough chocolate to bury Washington in the stuff a Hershey bar thick.

The fact that chocolate candy melts at body temperature -- the bittersweet cocoa butter oozing like warm honey across your tongue -- is part of its appeal. But we'd all be savoring Crisco if that were the whole story.

Chocolate is "perhaps the most puzzling flavor known. . . . As many as 30 to 50 specialized compounds all are responsible for the flavor and aroma we know as chocolate," says Jeff Morgan, a spokesman for the M&M Mars Corp. in Elizabethtown, Pa.

Scientists do know that cacao beans, surrounded by fleshy pulp when removed from their pods, taste nothing like the final product. After harvest, they're piled in a heap, covered and allowed to ferment. In four to six days, much of the pulp disintegrates. Then the beans are dried, usually in the sun.

The metamorphosis to chocolate doesn't occur until after the beans are roasted and their outer shells discarded. The nibs that remain are milled to produce chocolate liquor (not alcoholic), which the trusty cocoa press -- invented in 1828 -- separates into cocoa butter and cocoa solids.

Before the cocoa press, chocolate was enjoyed as a beverage, giving rise to chocolate houses, not unlike coffeehouses, in London during the 1700s.

Recombinations of cocoa solids and cocoa butter with sugar, dry milk solids and other ingredients produce the confection we prize so highly. The candy ranges from creamy white (cocoa butter only) to espresso brown, from milky sweet to bitter.

It's no secret that we love chocolate, at least a once-a-week habit for nearly half of all Americans, according to one survey.

Yet Americans are hardly world-class chocolate consumers.

"We fancy ourselves chocoholics, but we really pale compared to other countries," says Frances Seligson, a spokeswoman for Hershey Foods Corp. in Hershey, Pa.

Americans consumed 10.6 pounds of chocolate candy each in 1992, according to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, but the world-champion Swiss eat twice as much, Ms. Seligson says. Britons, Germans, the Dutch, Belgians, the Irish, Australians and even the French all eat more chocolate per capita than Americans.

Hershey also can tell you that 24 percent of the chocolate we consume is solid chocolate candy, and the rest comes as coating on something else -- from Milky Ways to Thin Mints.

Hershey also found, using U.S. Department of Agriculture data, that fortysomething women eat chocolate as often as teen-age boys do, and both groups out-gobble others by a considerable margin. With the growing boys, it's easy to explain, given their penchant for shoveling in calories by the bucket.

The explanation is less obvious for older women. Ms. Seligson suspects that they my be under stress and use chocolate as a reward.

"You're looking at women who are pre-menopausal, having aging parents, have children who are teen-agers, who are working -- they could be under a lot of stress."

She cautions against drawing conclusions, however. The same data show that thirtysomething women eat more chocolate at a sitting. But Ms. Seligson says that when Hershey dug deeper, it found "one or two women who ate an inordinate amount of chocolate [and] that has terribly skewed that average."

But the best news may be that the saturated fat in this beloved confection won't hurt your heart.

Dr. Penny M. Kris-Etherton, professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University, told an audience of health professionals that a chocolate bar a day did not appreciably raise cholesterol levels in a group of healthy young men at Penn State.

"A milk chocolate bar can be included daily in a heart-healthy diet," concluded Dr. Kris-Etherton, the lead author of the study, which is expected to be published next year.

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