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Valentine’s Day is known for two things: romantic love and chocolate. Romance is famously fickle—it comes and goes. But our love affair with chocolate never seems to wane.

Americans spend more today on chocolate products than the gross national product of some of the countries where cacao is grown. The research group Euromonitor International reports that U.S. sales of chocolate went from $14.2 billion in 2007 to $18.9 billion in 2017, a period during which overall sales for candy declined, largely because of growing health concerns over sugar.

How did chocolate manage to buck the bear market in candy? One reason is the widespread perception that chocolate, unlike other sweet treats, is not just delicious but good for you. This notion has some basis in the latest research, but it’s also been created by headlines that exaggerate the findings. Some caution is in order before we congratulate ourselves for having our chocolate and eating it too.

Exorbitant claims for the power of cocoa are nothing new. In Mesoamerica, consuming a drink that included the ground beans of theobroma cacao(Greek for “food of the gods”), a shade-loving rainforest tree from the region, was a religious sacrament, regarded as a potent strength enhancer. The Aztec name for the drink—”chicolatl”—is the root of the English word chocolate. 

Some Spanish conquistadors initially found the frothing brew of cocoa and chili peppers repulsive. The Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún warned that drinking too much chocolate made people deranged and confused, although judicious use, he said, could be “enlivening.” In the 16th century, cocoa spread to the nobility of Europe, where its users were soon adding sugar and spices such as lavender and citrus peel to make the reputed health drink more palatable.

A whole genre of chocolate literature sprang up during the 17th century. Many of the earliest books were written by eminent physicians, who often doubled as cookbook authors in an era that treated many foods as medicines. Anne Garner, curator of the library at the New York Academy of Medicine in Manhattan, showed me one petite leather-bound volume by King Louis XIV’s doctor, Nicolas de Blégny. He lauded chocolate as a virtual panacea, capable of alleviating fatigue and insomnia and curing digestive problems, diarrhea and even venereal disease.

One of Ms. Garner’s favorite historical sources on chocolate is a lavishly illustrated tome “Voyages to Jamaica” (1725) by Sir Hans Sloane, the physician who founded the British Museum. He described his distaste for the oily and bitter drink and advised his readers to add milk. He later sold this formula to Cadbury, the company that has the distinction of offering not only the first milk chocolate bar but the first Valentine’s Day candy box in the mid-19th century.

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