Shakespeare suggested that music was the food of love, but judging by the tens of thousands of heart-shaped boxes presented to wives and sweethearts on Valentine’s Day, that honor should be shared with chocolate. Not only is chocolate delicious, it has been celebrated as a food that holds the promise of significant health benefits similar to those in red wine and green tea. Like wine and green tea, cocoa beans are rich in flavonoids–phytochemicals (plant compounds) with powerful antioxidant properties.

While the research on chocolate’s benefits may be relatively new, it has had a long and distinguished history. Ancient civilizations—the Olmec, Maya and Aztecs, to name a few—worshiped the magical power of the cocoa tree; at times, its beans were used for currency. As a drink, it was consumed by Aztec warriors who believed it gave them strength in combat.

Brought back to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, chocolate quickly became the fashionable drink of 16th century European aristocracy. The royal physician to King Philip II of Spain prescribed it for fever and to relieve discomfort in hot weather.

In 18th century America, Dr. James Baker of Massachusetts and an Irishman, John Hannon, created one of the earliest machine-based chocolate manufacturing enterprises. Their company was originally known as Hannon’s Best Chocolate, but was renamed the Baker Company after Hannon died; the company was bought by General Mills in 1927, but the chocolate is still sold in markets under the Baker name.

Modern chocolate-making techniques were developed in 1847 by a UK company, J.S. Fry and Sons, which discovered a way to mix some of the melted cacao butter back into the de-fatted or “Dutched” cocoa powder, along with sugar, to make a paste that could be pressed into a mold. The chocolate bar was a great success–which made chocolate a treat to eat as well as a delicious drink.

In the 19th and early 20th century, a host of well-known names–including Cadbury, Tobler, Ghirardelli, Nestlé, Lindt, Hershey, Guittard, Godiva, Valhrona and Cella–entered the business of chocolate-making.

Not all chocolate is created equal. The candy bar in the vending machine that’s loaded with sugar but not much cocoa is unlikely to have much health value; the darker chocolate with the most concentrated cocoa will be the most beneficial. It’s been estimated that 50 grams (about 2 ounces) a day of plain dark chocolate with a minimum content of 70% chocolate solids can be beneficial to your health.

Health benefits aside, premier chocolate makers like Richart of Lyons, France (once described as the “haute of couture of chocolate” by the Robb Report), have long produced fabulous chocolate rich in cocoa (between 70% to 100%). Chefs favor premium brands like Richart, Teuscher, Callebaut,  Mariebelle, Valrhona, Dolfin and Scharffen Berger.

Taste Test Your Chocolate

Though chocolate constructions are beautiful to look at, for most of us, it’s the taste that counts. Like fine wine, fine chocolate has definite characteristics. In general, the more intense the flavor, the better the chocolate. The best chocolate is smooth and silky in the mouth because it goes through a longer couching (continuous mixing) process. Good chocolate will melt quickly in the mouth because it will contain only cocoa butter; cheaper chocolate will substitute oil, which is cheaper and which melts at a higher temperature; it may also have a gritty in texture.

Really the Food of Lovers?

Some years ago, Italian researchers at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, women who eat chocolate regularly have a better sex life than those who abstain. The study, which involved 163 women, said: “Women who have a daily intake of chocolate showed higher levels of desire than women who did not have this habit. Chocolate can have a positive physiological impact on a woman’s sexuality.”

One could suggest, however, that women who love chocolate are more sensual than those who don’t—but the connection between sex and chocolate is an old one: the Aztec emperor Montezuma used to consume gallons of the stuff to satisfy, it is said, the needs of his very large harem. The legendary lover, Casanova, also reportedly drank cups of chocolates as a prelude to seduction. Though chocolate does contain a number of “feel good” components, a definitive scientific connection between chocolate and sexual desire has yet to be made.

Chocolate Facts–and Fictions

Over time, chocolate has been surrounded by a great deal of legend and lore. Chocolate lovers will be pleased to know that much of chocolate’s negative publicity just isn’t true.

Chocolate gives you acne. Probably False. In a small study out of the University of Pennsylvania, 65 acne sufferers ate large amounts of chocolate, with the following results: 46 showed no change in their condition, 10 got better and 9 got worse. This would seem to indicate that chocolate does not affect acne.

Chocolate gives you migraines. Somewhat True. Research does seem to indicate that consuming large amounts of chocolate can cause migraines.

Chocolate raises cholesterol levels. True and False. Cocoa is a plant product which contains no cholesterol, though certainly candy bars and other desserts may contain a good deal of sugar and fat.

Chocolate rots your teeth. Again, True and False. It’s actually the sugar in chocolate candy that is the culprit. Cocoa has properties that work against sugar’s tendency to produce the oral bacteria that lead to tooth decay. Researchers at the Rochester, New York’s Eastman Dental Center stated that milk chocolate is one of the snack foods least likely to contribute to tooth decay, as it contains phosphate and other minerals, as well as several vitamins.

Chocolate is addictive. Maybe. Chocolate does stimulate the secretion of endorphins, producing a pleasurable “high” similar to what a jogger experiences after a run of several miles. Chocolate also contains the neurotransmitter called serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant. So theoretically, it’s possible to get hooked on chocolate the way a runner gets hooked on jogging. Certainly many people find chocolate habit-forming–as so many pleasures are.