“Flowers mean I’m sorry and chocolate means I love you.” These are the wise words of Lauren Conrad, the star of The Hills, a Los Angeles-based television show that aired in 2006. This proverb is not unique to reality TV. People have shared Lauren’s opinion for centuries; from ancient Mesoamerican civilizations to 16th century Europe to modern westernized societies, chocolate has remained a symbol of and an ingredient for romantic love. The endurance of the relationship between chocolate and love is striking, making it quite possibly the only thing that Mesoamerica and MTV have in common. Throughout history, raw and processed cacao has been imbued with cultural, medicinal, and spiritual significance regarding sexual and romantic success. As a result, chocolate is believed to not only “mean” love, but to make love.
The ancient Mayans are thought to be the first civilization to cultivate cacao, and thus the first people to endow it with sexual and romantic significance (Martin). However, later civilizations, such as the Mixtecs and the Aztecs, retained cacao as a prominent religious and cultural symbol. Mesoamerican societies always incorporated chocolate into their marriage ceremonies (Coe 97). A bride often served her groom a chocolate drink during the wedding ceremony to consecrate their marriage (Martin). The Codex Zouche-Nutall, a pre-Columbian manuscript from the Mixtec civilization, illustrates this custom in its depiction of the royal marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent.
Raw cacao seeds were also part of the ceremony. Women’s dowries often consisted of cacao beans, which doubled as a form of currency in Mesoamerican economies (Martin). In some societies, the bride and groom exchanged cacao beans with the words “These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband [or wife]” (Coe 61). In this custom, cacao plays the same role as rings in modern marriages in that it symbolized and sanctified a romantic commitment.
16th Century Europe
Chocolate arrived in Europe in the 16th century via the Spanish courts, and its romantic and sexual connotations also survived the journey across the Atlantic. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador who produced a detailed written account of the Mexican conquest, claimed Aztec Emperor Motecuhzoma drank cacao to have “success with women” (Coe 96). The Spanish perpetuated this faith in cacao’s sexual and romantic benefits, believing that its consumption would increase the probability of both conception and love (Martin). Chocolate was also considered a powerful aphrodisiac, and recommended by physicians as a remedy for a weak “venereal appetite” (Coe 122).
Modern Westernized Societies
While modern medicine has progressed far beyond that of 16th century Europe, chocolate has retained its prescribed aphrodisiacal properties. In Dr. Nicholas Perricone’s list of the “Top 10 Sex-Boosting Foods”, published by CBS News, chocolate lands at number six. In the justification for this ranking, CBS cites a study by “The Journal of Sexual Medicine” that found a positive correlation between daily chocolate consumption and sexual activity.
In case the double medical endorsement wasn’t enough to solidify the connection between chocolate and sex, CBS also includes a photo of a naked woman coating herself in liquid chocolate. This picture is just one example of the sexual presentation of chocolate in modern media. A provocative advertisement for 1848 Chocolate incorporates very similar imagery. The video involves a woman bathing in liquid chocolate, cacao pods, and cocoa powder, with sound effects that enhance the seductive tone and sexual connotations of the scene.
The chocolate industry wholeheartedly embraces the idea that “sex sells.” Sex plays a role not only in cinematic advertising, but in chocolate’s linguistic presentation as well.
The company Chuao Chocolatier describes its Spicy Maya bar as a blend of “seductive cinnamon, pasilla chile and warming cayenne bedded in dark chocolate.” Chuao’s advertising copywriters don’t stop there: the Spicy Maya bar is “[a] warm cinnamon embrace, velvety dark chocolate, and an infusion of cayenne and pasilla chile. With just enough heat to melt your heart, it’s a truly delicious way to brighten up your day. Spicy maya is the perfect mix of sweet and seductive.” The numerous references to heat are subtle sensual suggestions, whereas “bedded,” “embrace,” and the repetition of “seductive” are blatantly sexual.
Sex sells, but so does romance. In Cocoa, Kristy Leissle acknowledges that chocolate companies “steer consumer desire for chocolate in certain directions,” and in many cases that direction is love (Leissle 9). Cadbury’s 2020 Valentine’s Day advertisement literally embodies the idea of chocolate leading to love. The video depicts a man guiding his impatient female partner through the woods. Her irritation evaporates when they end up in a clearing of fireflies and he gives her his heart — or at least the heart-shaped centerpiece of the Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk Heart Pop chocolate bar (a Valentine’s Day Special Edition!). This interaction reflects Leissle’s idea that manufacturers promote chocolate not only as the path to romantic love, but as a “surrogate for romantic love” itself (Leissle 9). At the end of the video, Cadbury asks its audience, “How far will you go for love?” The answer is the nearest chocolate aisle.
Just as sex and romance promote chocolate in advertisements, chocolate promotes sex and romance in cinema. According to TV Tropes, a website devoted to explaining common cinematic themes and motifs, chocolate appears in three primary sexual and romantic contexts: in the progressing of a relationship, often in the form of a gift during courtship, anniversaries, or holidays; in the mending of a relationship, offered in exchange for forgiveness; in the initiation of intimacy, consumed before characters are sexually intimate. This latter trend has a subtle presence in the Cadbury ad: when the man presents the woman with chocolate, the music changes from instrumental to lyrical, starting with the words “Kiss me.” Chocolate plays a critical role in the promotion, progression, and preservation of sexual and romantic relationships in the media.
While TV Tropes and the Cadbury ad focus on chocolate facilitating romance between two people, it’s possible that chocolate can create love regardless of whether its consumer has a significant other. Along with its abundance of sexual suggestions, Chuao Chocolatier promises that the Spicy Maya bar will “melt your heart” and “brighten up your day.” There is some data to back up these claims: “[d]ark chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a chemical believed to produce the feeling of being in love” (CBS News). While the connection between chocolate and love has typically been symbolic, it may also be scientific.
There is a reason chocolate is so strongly associated with Valentine’s Day, a holiday celebrating romantic love. Throughout history, chocolate has been credited with sexual and romantic benefits. Chocolate has been used to consecrate Mesoamerican marriages, attract romantic partners, improve sexual performance, and even increase the chance of pregnancy. Today, it is a means to flirt, to court, to celebrate, to seduce, to apologize, to appease. Chocolate is more than just an aphrodisiac: it is a modern-day love potion. Chocolate might be a “surrogate for romantic love,” but in many ways it is also an ingredient. We give chocolate the power not only to “mean” love, but to make love.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. John Wiley & Sons, 2018.
Martin, Carla. “Introduction.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 29 Jan. 2020, Harvard University, Cambridge. Class Lecture.
—. “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods’.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 5 Feb. 2020, Harvard University, Cambridge. Class Lecture.
Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, 1986.
“Cadbury Silk Valentine’s Day 2020.” YouTube, uploaded by Cadbury Silk, 20 Jan. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXp6oCEty-8.
“Chocolate of Romance.” TVTropes. TVTropes, 9 Jan. 2020, https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/article_history.php?article=Main.ChocolateOfRomance. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.
Chocolat Poulain. “1848 Seduction.” YouTube, uploaded by Karina Taira at HomeCorp, 23 Nov. 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rr-OBmMY9e8.
Codex Zouche-Nuttall. Mixtec Marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent. Mexicolore, https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/blood-of-the-gods. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.
“Lauren Conrad.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, 2 Feb. 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:CiteThisPage&page=Lauren_Conrad&id=938792566. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.
“Pop Your Heart Out and Say It With Silk.” Mondelez International. Mondelez International, 7 Feb. 2018, https://in.mondelezinternational.com/newsroom/say-it-with-silk. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.
“Spicy Maya.” Chuao Chocolatier. Chuao Chocolatier, 2019, https://chuaochocolatier.com/products/spicy-maya. Accessed 28 Feb. 2020.
“The Hills Lc GIF.” GIPHY. Giphy, https://giphy.com/gifs/the-hills-chocolates-mean-i-love-you-flowers-im-sorry-l3E6oYp4ADCbXfHmE. Accessed 20 Mar. 2020.
“Top 10 Sex-Boosting Foods.” CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/top-10-sex-boosting-foods/6/. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.