What makes chocolate so magical?

Anne McKenzie and her daughter, Colleen McKenzie, 11, sample chocolate ice cream during the chocolate festival at Westminster High School Feb. 2.
Anne McKenzie and her daughter, Colleen McKenzie, 11, sample chocolate ice cream during the chocolate festival at Westminster High School Feb. 2.(DAVE MUNCH/STAFF PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

Americans are expected to buy $1.6 million of candy for Valentine's this year, according to the National Retail Federation, and you can bet that the majority of that candy will be some form of chocolate.

More than 58 million pounds of chocolate candy are sold during Valentine's week - making up more than 5 percent of chocolate candy's sales for the year, according to a Nielsen study released in 2012. And Americans consumed 33.3 pounds of chocolate per capita in 2008, according to a report by CNN last year.

"They say there's about 2 percent of the population that just doesn't like it, but it's universally liked," said Larry McGlinchey, chocolatier and owner of Cacao Lorenzo in Timonium.

McGlinchey will be giving a talk called "The Science of Chocolate: Cocoa-ology" Feb. 21 at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.

Chocolate is a topic that McGlinchey loves, and in some ways, his life revolves around. Yet even he has a hard time explaining the allure of chocolate.

"You're talking about a product that dates back 3000 years to the Olmec civilization, so it's had quite a run through history," he said. "It went through Mesoamerica, which is the lower Yucatan, and went over to Spain, Italy and all over Europe and then back to America, and arrived heavily here in the mid-1800s."

Ancient cultures enjoyed cocoa as an unsweetened drink, but the Europeans found that mixing it with honey or cane syrup made it more appealing, according to the California Academy of Sciences. It wasn't mass produced in bar form until the second half of the 1800s, and continued to evolve as different companies such as Cadbury, Hershey and Nestle put their own spin on it.

Chocolate is derived from the cacao plant, which grows about 12- to 25-feet tall in the rainforest understory, covered by the canopy of the taller trees. The tree grows pineapple-sized cacao pods, with each holding about 30 to 50 seeds, and those seeds are processed to make cocoa, cocoa liquor and cocoa butter.

There are three basic varieties of cacao beans, McGlinchey said, which have been hybridized into eight more varieties. The source and type of the beans used in a chocolate are an integral part of establishing how that chocolate will taste.

"You need six different points to understand it," McGlinchey said of analyzing different varieties of chocolate. "Cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, percentage of sugar, the bean, country of origin and country of manufacture. If I know all six points, I usually know what it's going to taste like before I bite into it."

Notice none of those points have to do with the percentage of cacao.

"It's marketing hype," McGlinchey said of the cacao percentage. "They're selling you a number, like the higher the number, the better the chocolate. It doesn't work that way. It's like going into a fine wine shop and saying 'what's the percent [of alcohol]?' It doesn't tell you anything."

Marjorie Guldan, of Finksburg, said she likes her chocolate to be dark, bitter and sweet at the same time.

"Not that I've ever been a drug user, but I know it has been likened to the feeling people get from drugs, so I would say dark chocolate is like my drug," she said. "It makes everything better."

Guldan was a participant at Westminster High School's Chocolate Festival last weekend, where people could purchase an admission ticket and then get to sample chocolate products from more than a dozen vendors in the school's lobby.

Most people think of chocolate as a treat, she said, but to her, it's more of a staple.

"Now they say it's even good for you," she said, "but probably not the whole chocolate bar [at once]."

Annette Rush, of Westminster, another attendee of the Chocolate Festival, is a self-proclaimed chocolate snob, who prefers a good dark chocolate, as long as it is still smooth and rich.

"As a kid, it was a treat, so I think it takes you back to a special memory of feeling good," Rush said, explaining her take on chocolate's draw. "It makes something ordinary into something special."

While people often describe chocolate as addictive, McGlinchey is quick to dispel that myth.

"It's not, it's all psychological - there's been numerous studies on that," he said. "The only thing that's in it that's mildly addictive is caffeine, and it has an extremely low amount. The caffeine gets a bad rap in chocolate, but it's very low."

So why is it such a universal treat?

"People just like it," he said.

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