When it comes to Valentine’s Day, what is the most popular gift for your lover? Chocolat eof course! Research consistently demonstrates that chocolate takes top billing, albeit battling equally with red roses as the most popular Valentine’s Day gift.
Valentine’s Day has a long history - stretching back to Roman times (in fact a rather debaucherous history of Saint Valentine’s Day) yet for most of that time chocolate had no association with Valentine’s Day. Why is it now synonymous with the day of lovers?
Why do we give chocolate on Valentine’s Day?
Like most things there is no singular answer - it’s likely an amalgamation of a racy history, a little human physiology, the industrial revolution and a clever marketing campaign.
Chocolate is an aphrodisiac
Most of us have heard that chocolate is one of those mystical aphrodisiac foods, which lands it right in the middle of love and romance associations.
There are certainly some physiological factors at play but from a cultural perspective, chocolate’s heady reputation as an aphrodisiac was cemented in the early 1500’s.
When the Spanish arrived in the South Americas, they experienced the Aztec community revering chocolate as ‘food of the Gods’; and one thing the Spanish quickly noticed and documented was Emperor Montezuma would always drink a cup of hot cocoa, in a gold goblet of course, before visiting his harem of wives. Apparently it fortified body and soul for the amorous activities to follow - and the legend was born.
When chocolate arrived in Europe in the late 1500’s, it was a very rare and exotic drink - only available to the rich and wealthy - which helped to propagate its reputation for impassioned qualities. There are many stories throughout the European courts as to how chocolate was used to kindle love and romance (or more) including Madame du Barry, the famous courtesan to Louis XV of France, who was said to mix amber with chocolate to ‘stimulate’ her lovers.
Yes, chocolate is stimulating
The arousing nature of chocolate is not just something of history or fiction. Our favourite sweet treat is full of chemicals that have a stimulating effect on the human body and can put you in the feel good mood of one of Madame du Barry’s lovers.
Specifically cocoa contains the chemical tryptophan, which is a precursor to the hormone serotonin responsible for mood regulation and making you feel rather chipper - and not just your mood - but through your whole body (yes please!).
Then there’s theobromine that is also mood enhancing (although beware, it can kill dogs so never feed your canine friends human chocolate!) followed by anandamide that is the main psychoactive chemical found in cannabis that gives you that relaxed, feel good factor - just in a legal way.
However, the physiological effects aren’t just chemical. Chocolate is very sensual in how we experience it because it stimulates our fives senses - in particular how it melts in our mouth. The magical thing about chocolate and humans is cocoa butter (the fat in chocolate) is the only fat solid at room temperature that melts at 37 degrees - which is body temperature. This explains the sensual, luscious mouth feel we get when eating chocolate (particularly the good stuff). It’s not hard to see how this sweet, smooth, decadent food can be equated with love and romance.
Then the industrial revolution happened
Chocolate came to Europe in the late 1500’s and up until the late 1800’s it was a very exotic food reliant on cocoa beans and sugar being shipped from the New World. It was expensive - and something only the very rich could afford
But then the Western World experienced rapid change through the industrial revolution; a dramatic change to both technology and the mechanisms to mass produce goods - including chocolate.
At the same time, the previously crazy high prices of cocoa beans and sugar dropped remarkably. The intersect of technology and availability of raw ingredients meant chocolate production increased, prices dropped and chocolate became accessible to the average person for the first time in human history. albeit still as a treat.
An example of clever marketing
In the late 1800’s, we had more chocolate hitting the market so English brand, Cadbury decided to come up with a killer marketing strategy to sell more chocolate - and they turned their attention to Valentine’s Day.
Cadbury knew the Victorians were fond of Valentine’s Day; ideals of purist romance, cupids and loving declarations appealed to their virtuous approach to relationships.
And technology meant chocolate gift boxes - in the shape of hearts and cupids - could be mass produced. Victorian Britain went mad for them - the best way to show your love on Valentine’s Day was to hand your loved one (always the man to the woman - yes, this is Victorian Britain so very hetero-normative) a beautifully decorated heart shaped box of Cadbury chocolates.
And remember, at this time for the average person, both chocolate and gifts were still something limited and only occurred on special occasions. Where Cadbury was clever - they made the gift as much about the chocolate as the box; the latter would be kept as a romantic keepsake for years to come. In fact, so special were these boxes, they are still handed down through generations, or snapped up by savvy collectors - and all this helped to cement the idea that chocolate and Valentine’s Day are perfect partners.
Which brings us to today, and why chocolate is still the most popular gift on Valentine’s Day; and let’s face it, for good reason - because who doesn’t love a sweet, edible declaration of love?