Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 29, No.5

November 4, 2004


Chocolate, food of the gods, symbol of love

By Shelagh McNally

Gwénaëlle Le Menn  and Jordan LeBel

Gwénaëlle Le Menn won a giant bar of chocolate at the presentation made by Jordan LeBel (left). She can hardly wait to get started on it.
Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

These days it’s not music that soothes the savage beast but chocolate, particularly if the beast is female. But is our craving for chocolate cultural or chemical?

Jordan Le Bel, an assistant professor of marketing in the John Molson School of Business, has been researching our relationship with comfort food, including chocolate.

He gave a lecture, “The Marketing of Pleasure and Comfort: The Special Case of Chocolate,” on Oct. 19 in the J.A. De Sève Cinema as part of the month-long CBC series Montreal Matters, whose theme this year was food.

Le Bel is a self-confessed chocolate lover who recently wrote the introduction to Gastronomie et Fôret, voted the best cookbook in the world for 2003. Dressed in a chocolate-coloured suit, he outlined the transformation of chocolate from a mere plant to a symbol of love and romance.

Chocolate is not just a food, after all. It has been seducing us for centuries. The Olmec and Mayan Indians of Mexico were the first chocolate-lovers and believed it was a gift from the gods — a sentiment still shared by many today.

Chocolate begins as a lowly bean found inside the fruit of the cocoa plant. After fermenting in the sweet, gooey fruit pulp for seven days, the beans are cleaned, dried and roasted at a low temperature. Inside are nibs, which are ground up into a chocolate liquor, rich with fatty cocoa butter. This liquor is made into cocoa butter or cocoa powder. To make chocolate, sugar, vanilla and milk (in the case of milk chocolate) are added to the liquor and “conched” — mixed together at high temperatures, then tempered, a final step requiring a great deal of care.

The difference between great chocolate and mediocre chocolate lies not only in the amount of cocoa butter but also in the whole process of conching and tempering.

Poor-quality chocolate has other kinds of fat added and sometimes a white, waxy build up, a sign of poor processing. While there are no enforced standards in the industry, chocolate snacks can contain as little as 10 per cent cacao content, good milk chocolate around 30 to 35 per cent, and now die-hard dark chocolate fans can enjoy brands with as high as 88, even 99 per cent cacao concentration.

The marketing of chocolate is equally intensive. “Three millions tons of chocolate are produced in a good year, and you would think that chocolate pretty much sells itself, but that’s not the case. Marketing still has a large part to play.”

Using ad campaigns dating back as far as the 18th century, Le Bel showed how marketers formed our current associations with chocolate.

“When we look at patterns of consumption, the first place to segment is with gender. Chocolate is a women’s thing,” said Le Bel. Women associate chocolate with comfort, indulgence, love and romance. It’s harder to sell chocolate to men, so marketers first used images of courage and strength to get men to buy.

Chocolate was originally a bitter medicinal drink imbibed for good health, but the invention of condensed milk in t the 1870s gave way to sweet milk chocolate and so did the pitch. Images of love and romance started being used and chocolates became a way for men to please the women in their lives. Today’s advertising hasn’t changed that much: chocolate is sold as a nutritious and filling snack to men and as a sensual indulgence to women.

Currently, chocolate is undergoing another transformation. It’s becoming healthy. Research indicates that dark chocolate is filled with antioxidants that block arterial damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals.

Chocolate’s flavonoids relax blood vessels while the mood-altering serotonin, endorphins and phenylethylamine cure depression and act as a mild aphrodisiac. So stop feeling guilty about that half-kilo of chocolate you just inhaled.

What is the best chocolate? According to Le Bel, “The best chocolate in the world remains the one that will give you the most pleasure the moment you eat it, provided you take time to fully savour it.”