Why we fall for chocolate on Valentine's Day

In all its shades from dark to milk and semi-sweet, chocolate may be our favourite sweetheart.


Valentine’s Day may celebrate love and romance, but every year, Canadians show what they’re really sweet on: chocolate.

We rang up $3.3 billion in sales in 2015 and consume between 5.5 and 6.4 kilograms per person per year, which might explain the explosion of exotic choices, said Wendy Wismer, a University of Alberta food scientist.

We melt in the face of chocolate’s temptation for a couple of reasons, she said.

Melts in your mouth, feeds your soul

Chocolate is advertised as a decadent, feel-good experience, which is irresistible.

“Companies really emphasize chocolate as a way to nourish your soul and provide a sensory experience on a personal level.”

The other hook—no surprise—is the sensual taste.

“The flavour is divine—it might be milky, or sweet or bitter. It has some health benefits and it’s also a convenient luxury, it’s something you can buy anywhere,” said Wismer, a sensory and consumer science researcher in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences.

Cocoa butter makes it better

“One thing we really love is the texture—it melts in your mouth.” Called a “phase change” in food science circles, that soft, yummy dissolving on the tongue is due to cocoa butter crystals that melt at body temperature.

And cocoa butter content is what you want in a good piece of chocolate, Wismer said.

“It’s an expensive ingredient, but that’s how you get that great melting sensation.”

Hydrogenated vegetable oil is used in less expensive chocolate, “like the kind you get in very inexpensive Advent calendars,” but the taste difference is obvious, she said.

“You’re not going to have the same intense chocolate flavour and it doesn’t melt like you’d expect. It’s almost chewy.”

Everyone has their preference, and while the average vending-machine candy bar is passable in quality with a sweet, milky taste, said Wismer, the crème de la crème can be found in more expensive darker chocolate that often boasts exotic flavours.

“Gourmet bars have chili peppers, salted caramel, mint, lavender—the quality of the chocolate is often better.”

For health benefits, go a shade darker

Besides offering a taste adventure, dark chocolate can also be good for you, said Sabina Valentine, a dietitian with the U of A’s Centre for Health and Nutrition. The cocoa bean used to make chocolate is rich in flavins—antioxidants that help repair damaged cells. The higher the cocoa content, the more flavins there are in the chocolate. Research shows links between chocolate and lower body mass index, higher cognitive function in elderly people and even reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. But, she added, moderation is key.

“You can’t eat loads of chocolate. Even with all of its positive health effects, it’s not a magic bullet,” she said.

It still contains sugar, and in the case of milk chocolate, added fats and a lower cocoa content cancel out much of the antioxidant effect. Most milk chocolate has only 25 per cent cocoa content.

“You don’t have the same health benefits as you would with dark chocolate.”

Have your chocolate and eat it too

Valentine recommends nibbling no more than one to two ounces per day, and sticking to chocolate with at least 70 per cent cocoa content. If that leaves a slightly bitter taste in your mouth, there are ways to still indulge. If you like milk chocolate, try semi-sweet, which has 40 to 62 per cent cocoa content.

“At our house the secret indulgence is semi-sweet chocolate chips—and we don’t even do any baking,” Valentine said. “We have a tablespoon here and there and it’s just gone.”

Other healthy ways to get your fix are by enjoying a square of chocolate paired with fruit, pouring a cup of hot cocoa homemade with a bit of sugar and skim milk, or whipping up pancakes or waffles using unsweetened dark chocolate.

For Valentine’s Day, she recommends skipping the heart-shaped boxes and baking a cake instead.

Her favourite recipe uses guilt-free ingredients like dark chocolate, non-fat yogurt, unsweetened cocoa powder and whole-wheat flour.

“It’s healthier, and also more heartfelt when you’re making a cake for someone.”

Whatever your favourite kind, the secret to making the most of those chocolate-laden calories is taking the time to simply appreciate the experience, Wismer advised.

“Be relaxed and have the time to do it. You want to sit down and really enjoy it.”