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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

The sweet science of chocolate

Valentine's Day brings pink and red hearts bursting with the enigmatic seed of the cacao tree

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The Allentown Times | February 10, 2006

What is it about chocolate?

The rich, velvety taste?

The feel-good chemicals?

The aphrodisiacal elements?

Whatever molds its magnificent mystique, this captivating confection is a fixture of our candy bars, doughnuts, ice cream, muffins, dinner mints, brownies, truffles, puddings, mousses, milk...

Hot, cold, solid, liquid, we've even transformed it into pasta, protein shakes and martinis. We spoon it over meat! (A Mexican sauce called “mole” uses unsweetened chocolate.) And the chocolate candy bar was standard issue for World War II GIs.

Well, why not? Translated literally, the term theobroma cacao in Greek means “food of the gods.”

“A lot of people are crazy about chocolate,” says Louie Belletieri, owner of Louie's Restaurant and Catering, an Allentown fixture since 1958. “They like the rush, the taste.”

Products made from the divine bean sell $5 billion every year in the U.S., although we're only the planet's eighth largest consumer. Switzerland, whose citizens eat 21 pounds each a year, leads the world in chocolate consumption. Americans, in contrast, consume a mere 12 pounds each a year.

Belletieri offers customers a myriad of desserts that worship at the shrine of chocolate, including chocolate double fudge cake, ricotta cheesecake coated in chocolate, chocolate raspberry cake and Kentucky derby pie.

“If you like chocolate, these are the cakes for you,” quips Belletieri’s son, Josh, the restaurant's manager. “They're addictive.”

And, with Valentine’s Day upon us, ubiquitous pink and red hearts all over the Lehigh Valley will be bursting with the sweet stuff. Hey, this is the state that invented Hershey, after all.

At Chocolates on Broadway, a family-owned sweet shop that has served Bangor for 29 years, co-owner Shirley Bussenger can't get enough of it.

“I eat more than ever,” she says. “I have it every day.”

If Bussenger's business were a Hollywood blockbuster, chocolate would be the million-dollar action hero. It's in the fudge, truffles and creams; it’s dipped into everything from Jordan crackers (a bestselling item) to coconut, pineapple, dates and nuts; animal crackers, marshmallows and biscotti.

“Everybody loves it. The smell... people get really excited when they come in,” says Steve Bussenger, the co-owners’ son. “It puts my wife in a good mood when I'm in the doghouse-as most men usually are.”

The store uses 5,000 molds and 50,000 pounds of chocolate a year, according to Shirley's husband and co-owner Woody Bussenger.

“It makes you happy, it makes you smile, it makes you feel good,” he says.

The Bussenger family offers a multitude of custom-filled heart boxes for the biggest date night of the year, reflecting every possible creative desire ranging from traditional roses, ribbons and lace to hipper depictions of modern love, such as tiger prints, scarlet lipstick marks and black lingerie.

It even offers reverse valentines-tuxedo-festooned heart boxes and shirt-and-tie heart boxes-that a woman can bestow on her man.

“Chocolate is associated with pleasure, with love, with fun,” Shirley Bussenger says.

Louie’s Bakery in Emmaus is another local business with a penchant for dipping everything but the kitchen sink into chocolate. Co-owners Angie Belovich and Bernadette Huy have spent the last 16 years coating cheesecakes, fruits and cookies, because “people like anything covered in chocolate,” says Belovich.

“I happen to love chocolate,” Belovich says. “It peps you up, gives you a boost of energy, gives you a high. Once you have it, whether as a child or adult, you fall in love with it.”

Those kinds of beliefs aren't purely anecdotal, either. See, chocolate has been studied by actual scientists.

“It's a wonderful substance with wonderful physical properties,” says Dr. Micah Sadigh, assistant professor of psychology at Cedar Crest College. “It can act as a mood enhancer, a pain reliever, it contains powerful antioxidants. It affects us in quite profound ways.”

Chocolate is high in potassium, magnesium and iron, and contains the same flavanols found in red wine, which have been shown to reduce the risks of heart disease and cancer, alleviate stress, relieve pain and even extend life itself.

Yes, that's right, a Harvard University study conducted in 1999 says chocolate may help people live longer. Researchers tracked 8,000 men and found those who ate chocolate lived almost a year longer than those who didn't. Although scientists don't know why the men lived longer, they speculate it has to do with the antioxidants found in chocolate.

Chocolate also contains the neurotransmitter, serotonin, the same antidepressant in Prozac, and has been shown to stimulate the secretion of endorphins, which are associated with pleasurable sensations in the body.

In total, there are 300 mood-altering chemicals in chocolate-including caffeine, theobromine and phenyethylamine-although scientists are not sure what all of them do.

And, chocoholics anonymous, do not despair. There's no proof that chocolate is addictive. A University of Pennsylvania study that tested chocolate addicts found that cravings may lie not in chemistry, but in the melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Hey, you know that candy bar you're about to make disappear?

That's not what we're talking about here.

Most commercially processed chocolate-candy bars, cookies, cupcakes-consists of milk chocolate, which has much fewer benefits than dark chocolate.

And, well, the reason those sinful snacks taste so scrumptious in the first place is because they're loaded with sugar and fat, which are harmful, not helpful, to the body.

Not to mention those pesky calories!

“The sugar is where the problem is,” Sadigh says. “That's why people have to be careful not to overdo it.”

Unprocessed, pure chocolate is “incredibly bitter,” Sadigh says. In fact, it’s the bitterness-whether it’s chocolate, red wine, coffee or leafy greens-that’s an indication of the presence of flavanols.

What to do? Shirley Bussenger has the answer.

“Moderation is the key,” she says. “You can't overindulge any pleasure of life.”

Sadigh agrees, and takes it even one step further. “To enhance your day, to make your day better, that's okay. But don't overuse it. Some forms of migraine headaches can be aggravated by chocolate. When you depend on something to feel good, when you need it to feel happy, that's not good. You can't induce joy with a chemical, with an ingredient in food, happiness has to come from inside.”

A seed of the cacao tree (pronounced kah-KOW), chocolate was discovered 2,000 years ago in the tropical rain forests of the Americas.

The Maya and Aztecs were the first cultures to harvest the magic beans, grinding them into a paste that they mixed with water, chili peppers and corn meal to make a frothy, spicy drink.

The word “chocolate” is thought to come from the Mayan word “xocoatl” and the Aztec word “cacahautl,” both of which mean “bitter water.”

Montezuma, the Aztec king, believed chocolate was a powerful aphrodisiac. Chocolate was so valuable the Aztecs used cacao seeds as currency.

Spanish conquistadors brought the seeds to Spain, where they sweetened the bitter brew with cinnamon, vanilla and sugar.

Drinking chocolate was an elite beverage for Europe's upper classes for the next 300 years. Because cacao and sugar were expensive imports, only those with money could afford the sweet status symbol.

But the Industrial Revolution ushered in the era of Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory.

The steam engine made it possible to grind cacao cheaply and quickly. The cocoa press and the conching machine made it possible to create smooth, creamy, solid chocolate for eating-not just for drinking.

Every February, chocolate sweetly accepts its superstardom, splendor and symbolism, all in the name of St. Valentine.

Valentine's Day, a midwinter celebration of love, has its roots in ancient times, according to the History Channel. The Romans celebrated the Feast of Lupercalia, a fertility festival, on February 15, pairing young men and women for marriage by lottery.

Valentine's Day itself is named for three different St. Valentines, all of whom died horrible deaths as martyrs.

The first Valentine was a priest who defied Emperor Claudius II during the third century in Rome by performing marriages in secret for young soldiers. He was put to death.

The second Valentine was killed for helping Christians escape Roman prisons.

The third Valentine fell in love in prison with his jailor’s daughter. Before his execution, he left a letter signed, “From your Valentine."

Although the truth is murky, the three legends all emphasize St. Valentine as a very romantic figure.

Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine's Day around 498 A.D. By the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in Europe. It was also around this time that people believed February 14 was the first day of the season that birds mated.

By the 18th century, all this soaring sweetness had culminated in lovers of all social classes exchanging tokens of affection on February 14. While 75 percent of chocolate is purchased by women all year long, in the days and hours before Valentine's Day, 75 percent of chocolate is purchased by men. About $1 billion of chocolate is purchased just for Valentine's Day.

On Feb. 14, 1929, Al Capone's gang gunned down seven members of Bugs Moran’s rival gang in Chicago in the “St. Valentine's Day Massacre.”

But that was a case in which chocolate had nothing to do with it.