Chocolate in Society and in Context

For many Americans, chocolate and chocolate products are a staple of any sweet dishes, and a marker of luxury. Consumers appreciate the versatility of chocolate, as it can be found in pastries, breakfast foods, desserts, and eaten on its own. Despite the course’s exploration on the definitions of fine chocolate products, for many, chocolate does not need to be of high quality to be seen as a luxury. Even the most basic and common chocolate products never feel common. The role of chocolate in our lives is greatly influenced by and intertwined with the history of the chocolate industry. The efforts made to shape the public’s perception and consumption of chocolate has controlled its role in the lives of consumers. Chocolate’s taste and ability to move the consumer out of a negative emotional state aided its acceptance into traditions and customs. Common misconceptions about the health benefits of chocolate encouraged the consumption of chocolate as a dessert with heath benefits.  Specific marketing practices for chocolate, its ability to cheer up the consumer and the suggestion that chocolate is good for you helped furnish the public’s fascination with chocolate and its role in society today.

Speaking with one regular chocolate consumer revealed how individuals relate to chocolate and how they consume it. When asked about their relationship with chocolate, the interviewee stated that chocolate comforts them, and always feels like a special treat. They believe that they’ve associated chocolate with celebration and relaxation. The role of chocolate in their life is to help relax them. It is the perfect treat for the end of a stressful day or week, and it goes hand in hand with celebration. This celebration can be for an achievement, a milestone, or a holiday. The use of chocolate for celebration takes many forms, but often conveys love. Chocolate can represent romantic love; the love between a parent and child in the form of a stocking stuffer, Halloween candy, or spontaneous brownies; it can be self love in the form of an end of day treat; and it can be platonic love in the form a chocolate birthday cake for a friend. Each of these uses for chocolate create a feeling of comfort and security. In this sense, chocolate is undeniably a comfort food.

For the interviewee, chocolate has changed in their life both in its significance, and also in the manner of consumption. As a child, the interviewee felt that chocolate was meant to go with nearly everything. Chocolate should be consumed as much as possible in a variety of forms. At this stage in their life, chocolate was a form of external validation for the interviewee. It was given by parents or relatives as a reward for good behavior, or as a birthday or holiday celebration. Chocolate played a strong role in shaping the behavior of the interviewee, and likely the behavior of many other children, as a source of positive reinforcement. For example, parents often use Halloween candy as a bargaining chip with their children. Part of the reason chocolate plays such a role for many children is likely because young children cannot easily gain access to chocolate on their own, and thus needs the supervision or permission of adults to purchase or retrieve chocolate.

As children age, they grow into being able to buy or retrieve their own chocolate treats. To the interviewee, this change caused a shift in the way they related to chocolate and how they consumed it. Once they had access to more chocolate, they became more selective about its use. Chocolate desserts were no longer the only options, and they learned that chocolate could actually smother more subtle flavors in certain dishes. Once they were an adult and could access as much chocolate as they wanted, they learned to appreciate other flavors separate from, or in tandem, with chocolate. This change in consumption also introduced the interviewee to dark chocolate and cacao based foods like mole. Changing consumption also affected the significance of chocolate in their life. Chocolate became a means of conveying love or celebration as stated by the previous discussion on the significance and role of chocolate. Due to chocolate’s role as a symbol of love and celebration, it also became a food that was craved when the interviewee was in a bad mood or tired. A constant in the interviewee’s life has been that chocolate acts as a comfort food: it reassures children that they are behaving properly, and it helps adults feel loved and appreciated.

The feelings and ideas expressed by the interviewee are not at all uncommon, and it would be a reasonable statement to say that they are common among most Americans. Americans have had a taste for chocolate for a long time, and our love of chocolate has been a part of popular culture for a long time. In the 1952 episode of I Love Lucy titled “Job Switching”, the plot of the episode centers on Lucy and Ethel working in a candy factory while Ricky and Fred do housework (I Love Lucy, 1952). While working at the candy factory, Lucy and Ethel cannot resist eating the candies that they are supposed to be packaging (I Love Lucy, 1952). Lucy and Ethel’s inability to control themselves clearly demonstrates how deeply a love for chocolate is embedded in the American psyche. However the importance of chocolate in American culture did not come naturally, and in fact it was manufactured. The connection between chocolate and romantic love is most easily examined through the relationship between Valentine’s Day and chocolate. Although both chocolate and Valentine’s Day have separately been part of European and American cultures for centuries, the association of chocolate and Valentine’s Day began in 1861 according to Amy Henderson’s 2015 article in Smithsonian Magazine (Henderson, “How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life”, 2015). According to Henderson, Richard Cadbury began to manufacture “eating chocolates” that were packaged in decorated, heart-shaped boxes as a way to sell the pure cocoa butter extracted in Cadbury’s chocolate making process (Henderson, 2015). This practice became very popular in England, and spread to the United States of America in the early 20th century (Henderson, 2015). In 1907, Milton Hershey began marketing mass produced Hershey’s Kisses, and eventually Russell Stover became an important maker of Valentine’s Day chocolates as well (Henderson, 2015). Chocolate’s role as a symbol of romance in the United States and England was created by chocolate makers who saw Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to sell more chocolates, and used marketing and packaging to boost their sales and completely alter the way that the world views chocolate.

Valentine’s Day and romantic love are not the only ways that corporations have influenced how society views chocolate. Halloween is also an important holiday for purchasing candies, but these purchases are intended for children rather than adults. In Samira Kawash’s 2010 article in The Atlantic, “How Candy and Halloween Became Best Friends”, she explains that the tradition of dressing up on October 31st became widespread in the late 1940s (Kawash, “How Candy and Halloween Became Best Friends”, 2010). However, at that time, candy was not handed out to trick-or-treaters; trick-or-treaters usually received cookies, fruits, nuts and other non-candy treats as often as candy (Kawash, 2010). It wasn’t until the 1970s that candy and chocolates became the only item to be given to trick-or-treaters (Kawash, 2010). Due to fears of poisoned food, consumers saw commercially wrapped candy as a much safer choice compared to homemade candies, and this fear aided the growth of candy and chocolate on Halloween (Kawash, 2010). As chocolate companies secured Halloween as a day for children to receive candy, they cemented children’s love of chocolate. The 1971 film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, reflects how strongly that our society believes children love chocolate. Similar to the scene in I Love Lucy, where Lucy and Ethel cannot control themselves around chocolate, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory demonstrates how children cannot control themselves around chocolate:

Wilder, Gene, Jack Albertson, Mel Stuart, and Roald Dahl. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Online Video. Directed by Mel Stuart. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 1971. Posted on Posted by Movieclips. December 29th, 2016.

Just as chocolate makers manufactured the association between romantic love and chocolate, they also created a connection between children and chocolate. Marketing chocolate towards children helped them grow to love it, and cemented the role of chocolate as a marker of celebrations and holidays.

Although the role of chocolate in our society was manufactured by chocolate makers, our love and craving of chocolate was not. As the interviewee stated, chocolate can act as a comfort food. It helps the consumer feel relieved and rewarded, and these feelings contribute to its popularity and the successes of the campaigns to associate chocolate with childhood fun and romantic love. In David Benton’s 2004 article, “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving”, he examines why people enjoy eating chocolate. Chocolate is a very chemically complex substance, and contains many potentially psychotropic compounds (Benton, 2004). Benton provides an in-depth examination and review of studies that have investigated the effects of compounds found in chocolate, such as phenylethylamine, caffeine, and theobromine, on the brain (Benton, 2004). Empirical studies of each of these compounds demonstrates that although they can have measurable effects on human and animal brains, chocolate would need to have significantly higher levels of these compounds to cause any effect that would provide a biological reason for why we enjoy chocolate so much (Benton, 2004). Studies found that when consumers were in a negative emotional state they were more likely to consume chocolate, and this chocolate consumption can be considered comfort and/or emotional eating (Benton, 2004). In the absence of observable biological effects of chocolate, the article suggests that the taste, mouthfeel and optimal fat and sweetness combination make chocolate so desirable (Benton, 2004). Benton’s findings demonstrate the psychological effects of chocolate as a comfort food, and reinforce the interviewee’s assertion that consumers seek out chocolate when upset, and it helps consumers feel relaxed. Chocolate’s acceptance into society results from its comforting taste and mouthfeel which can help move consumers out of negative emotional states.

Examining the components that make up chocolate helps further explain why chocolate holds such significance in our society. Benton points out that part of the taste appeal of chocolate is that it holds nearly the optimal sweetness to fat combination (Benton, 2004). Chocolate, and milk chocolate in particular, contains a great deal of sugar. This sugar is added to help balance out the natural bitterness of the cacao (Benton, 2004), and the sugar and its sweetness contribute to chocolate’s popularity. In Robert Albritton’s 2012 essay, “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry”, he points out that American consumption of added sugar has grown significantly since the beginning of the 20th century (Albritton, 2012). He asserts that the increase in sugar consumption has contributed to the increase in childhood obesity in the United States (Albritton, 2012). It is also likely that the previously discussed growing importance of candy and chocolate to holidays like Valentine’s Day and Halloween have contributed to greater sugar consumption in the United States. Albritton points out that part of the reason that sugar consumption has grown so much is because sweetness is the most desired taste, and that there is evidence that sugar itself might be addictive (Albritton, 2012). Understanding people’s desire for sugar aids in understanding the popularity of sweet chocolates. The presence of sugar in sweet chocolate likely helps drive people’s desire for it. As Benton asserted, chocolate has a nearly ideal combination of sweetness and fat, and while this combination helps make chocolate unique and desirable, human craving for sugar helps motivate consumers to eat sweet chocolates.

Chocolate is unique among other sweet foods, as it has a history of being considered healthy for the consumer, and these views impact how consumers separate chocolate from other similarly sweet foods.  As pointed out in several lecture discussions, since cacao was brought back to europe from Mesoamerica, there have been many assertions that cacao had various health benefits. These benefits usually had to do with digestive or cardiovascular health, and these perceived benefits lingered in our society and helped consumers purchase chocolate without as much fear of the negative health consequences often associated with other sweet foods. More recently, researchers felt that cacao and chocolate were the key to improving cardiovascular health (Howe, 2012). In Jame Howe’s 2012 article in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered”, Howe examines the findings of Dr. Norman Hollenberg. Hollenberg found that an indigenous population called the Kuna had few cardiovascular problems and low blood pressure, and he determined that their improved cardiovascular health was due to environmental factors (Howe, 2012). Hollenberg attributed the health of the Kuna to their prolific consumption of chocolate beverages, and believed that the flavanol epicatechin was the compound responsible for the health benefits of chocolate (Howe, 2012).

Despite the fact that many researchers accept Hollenberg’s assertions as fact, Howe casts significant doubt on Hollenberg’s claims (Howe, 2012). He points out that the Kuna consume a variety of beverages along with chocolate, and also that there are other indigenous groups who do not consume chocolate and have cardiovascular health similar to the Kuna (Howe, 2012). Howe’s points indicate that a different factor contributes to the Kuna’s health, and that chocolate is not the superfood that Hollenberg believes it to be (Howe, 2012). While there have been other findings that point out the health benefits of cacao and chocolate, these findings suggest the consumption of dark chocolate in moderation (Steinberg et al., 2003) rather than the extremely large amounts that Hollenberg believed had health benefits for the Kuna. Past beliefs about the health benefits of chocolate and cacao helped shape the modern public’s perception that chocolate and cacao have significant health benefits. This perception is evidenced by the fact that Dr. Hollenberg attributed the Kuna’s cardiovascular health to the chocolate that they consumed rather than a more probable environmental factor. While cacao does have health benefits (Steinberg et al., 2003), Hollenberg demonstrates the eagerness of our society to attribute incredible health benefits to cacao. This eagerness likely arises from our desire to justify consuming more chocolate, and the possibility of yet undiscovered benefits to chocolate enables our society to fall further in love with chocolate and cacao. Hopefulness for the healthiness of chocolate aids to the feeling of comfort in consuming it, and helps alleviate the guilt that comes after its consumption.

Through an interview with an avid chocolate consumer, we see one person’s point of view on the significance and role of chocolate in our society. The interviewee pointed out chocolate’s importance as an expression for multiple forms of love and celebration, and through several sources, we saw how chocolate’s role in Valentine’s Day and Halloween was manufactured by chocolate makers in order to sell more chocolate (Henderson, 2015)(Kawash, 2010). Despite the relatively recent introduction of chocolate into these traditions by chocolate manufacturers, they are firmly cemented into our culture. Although chocolate was introduced by chocolate making companies, it was able to take hold because of its appeal. Many consider chocolate to be comforting, versatile and a treat to consume, and although there is no biological explanation for people’s affinity for chocolate, studies support the claim that chocolate acts as a comfort food (Benton, 2004). People’s desire for the taste of sweet foods, along with its function as a comfort food, bolster the appeal of chocolate (Albritton, 2012).  Consumers are further enabled to indulge with chocolate by suggestions that chocolate is healthy, and while some of these suggestions are supported by research, others might be widely accepted but unproven. The point of view of one avid chocolate consumer provided several observations that properly represent the significance of chocolate in society, but these observations must be taken in context to fully understand why chocolate is so popular.

Works Cited

Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan, and Penny Van Esterik, 356-66. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Benton, David. “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.” In Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain, edited by Astrid Nehlig, 205-18. 1st ed. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2004

Henderson, Amy. “How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life.” Smithsonian Magazine. February 12th, 2015.

Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12, no. 1 (2012): 43-52.

I Love Lucy. “Job Switching.” Episode 36. Directed by William Asher. Written by Jess Oppenhemier, Madelyn Pugh, and Bob Carroll Jr. CBS, September 15th, 1952.

Kawash, Samira. “How Candy and Halloween Became Best Friends.” The Atlantic. October 21st, 2010.

Steinberg, Francene M, Monica M Bearden, and Carl L Keen. “Cocoa and Chocolate Flavonoids: Implications for Cardiovascular Health.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 103, no. 2 (2003): 215-23.

Wilder, Gene, Jack Albertson, Mel Stuart, and Roald Dahl. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Online Video. Directed by Mel Stuart. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 1971. Posted on Posted by Movieclips. December 29th, 2016.

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