As Feb. 14 approaches, here's a Valentine from the candy world: Chocolate can be good for you in small doses, and growing it might help the environment.
Some of the world's most highly respected chocolate experts are meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington today for tastings, lectures and discussions that focus on environmentally friendly ways to produce cocoa and the health benefits linked to it.
Along with that hearts-and-flowers news for chocolate consumers, seduction is on the menu - some scientists are still trying to figure out how chocolate came by that certain je ne sais quoi, its somewhat rakish association with romance.
"I love it," says Louis Grivetti, a nutrition professor at the University of California at Davis who will speak on chocolate's history and acknowledges its mysterious qualities. "I eat too much of it."
After five years of research, Grivetti says, he has never established how chocolate came to be associated with Valentine's Day. But it first became a popular ingredient in candies in the mid-1800s, about when the Valentine's Day card was born.
"I suspect it was something of a marketing ploy," he says.
Conference sponsors include UC Davis, the National Institutes of Health and Mars Inc., the New Jersey-based candy maker. Organizers say it's a coincidence that the conference is just before Valentine's Day, a holiday associated with love and chocolate.
"I think once we established that we were looking at this time of year in general," says Liliana Esposito, a spokeswoman for Mars, "Valentine's Day was just something else that made it seem like a great time."
Valentine's Day ranks fourth among holidays in U.S. chocolate sales, falling behind Halloween, Easter and the Christmas-Hanukkah seasons, according to the National Confectioners Association.
There are no specific numbers for chocolate sales by holiday. But chocolate candy products - everything from the dark bars to chocolate almond clusters - account for $13 billion in sales each year, says Susan Smith, an association spokeswoman.
Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, theobroma cacao. Its genus name means "food of the gods." The tree grows to about 12 feet and produces pods about the size of small footballs that contain seeds, or beans. The beans, roasted and ground, form a powder that is the basis for chocolate. (From the plant to the bean, the product is called cacao. Once the bean is ground up, it is called cocoa).
Cacao farming has been criticized for its use of child labor and its damage to the Amazon rain forests. But chocolate manufacturers say they've made progress in both areas.
Concerns about the rain forest began in the 1960s, when much of the cocoa produced in the world was raised on large plantations, where operators slashed and burned woodlands to clear sites for cacao trees.
But in the 1980s, a fungus known as witch's broom swept through Brazil, devastating the cacao plantations and prompting research into new farming practices.
Brazil has never fully recovered from the blight, which for years wiped out 80 percent of the nation's crop. Witch's broom and two other fungi, frosty pod and black pod, continue to threaten the cacao industry.
By the late 1990s, chocolate manufacturers began encouraging farmers to plant cacao trees on smaller plots. By scattering the trees amid other vegetation, they saved the Amazon's natural habitat and ensured enough shade for rain forests to survive.
"The witch's broom blight in Brazil was a wake-up call about existing plantation practices," Esposito says.
In West Africa - where 70 percent of the world's cacao is produced - the concern was child labor. African cacao farms were the target of a U.S. government report in 2002 that found as many as 300,000 children were performing hazardous tasks to raise the crop, including spraying pesticides, using machetes to harvest cacao pods and carrying heavy loads.
Esposito says that after the U.S. Agency for International Development issued its findings, Mars and other chocolate manufacturers and distributors signed a pledge prohibiting the use of abusive child labor.
As for cocoa, there's no consensus on its origins. But Grivetti says there is some evidence that Mayans drank it as early as 400 BC. Pre-Columbian recipes were so strong that women and children were prohibited from drinking it in the New World.
"It was like throwing down three cups of expresso," he says.
Until the 1820s, cocoa was consumed strictly as a beverage and used for medicinal effect. Over the years, it has been credited with calming the nerves, improving digestion, giving energy to the lethargic and working as an aphrodisiac.
But it was only when researchers separated the sweet cocoa paste, used to produce confections, from the cocoa butter in 1828 that cocoa became an elixir for the sweet tooth, Grivetti says.
Milk chocolate is the largest-selling variety in the United States, accounting for 65 percent of the market, Smith says. But dark chocolate is making inroads, jumping from 20 percent to 27 percent of the market in recent years, she says. (Milk chocolate has more sugar and is at least 12 percent whole milk; dark chocolate is less sweet and has less, if any, milk.)
Experts say part of the rise in dark chocolate sales might be the result of studies discovering its health benefits.
Scientists have known for years that chocolate contains flavonols, a plant compound with antioxidants that might prevent cell damage and stave off heart disease and cancer.
Studies published last summer also suggest that dark chocolate can lower blood pressure.
But critics say consumers should be careful to view news about the benefits of chocolate with a critical eye. Much of the research is financed by the chocolate industry, and critics wonder whether that sugar-coats the results.
Mars Inc., which sells about $15 billion worth of chocolate and other candy products each year, is a major source of financing for scientists, pumping more than $800,000 in research money into UC Davis in the 1990s, records show.
"There's no doubt that when industry funds the research, there is a bias toward an outcome that the industry wants to hear," says Merrill Goozner, a researcher for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The idea that chocolate is a health food is absurd."
But scientists say their studies are peer-reviewed before publication and designed so methods can be reproduced and results checked by other scientists.
"I have no problem with doing work for Mars," says Grivetti, whose research into chocolate's history is financed by the candy maker.
Sylvian Dore, a molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says there are sufficient reasons for accepting findings that show chocolate has health benefits. Findings that link benefits to chocolate's flavonols, for instance, are consistent with French research that has found similar benefits in the flavonoids in red wine.
"That's been well established, says Dore. "It's called the French paradox."
Esposito, the Mars spokeswoman, says the company has paid for scientific research since the 1950s to ensure a continuous supply of high-quality cocoa and benefits from reliable research.
"We realize our own future is tied up in the future of cocoa," she says. "It's not just a matter of throwing a few things together to make chocolate. There really is a lot of agricultural and food science involved."
And that je ne sais quoi.