Chocolate expert sheds light on popular Easter treat

Gary Reineccius explains that chocolate has various health benefits.

Chocolate is America’s favorite flavor, according to the World Atlas of Chocolate, and the average American consumes 10 to 12 pounds of chocolate each year.

While Easter brought a surge of chocolate bunnies and eggs to colorful baskets across the world, a University chocolate expert was able to shed some light on the beloved treat.

Gary Reineccius, a food science and nutrition professor, received his doctorate on chocolate flavor at Penn State.

Reineccius, who studies the chemistry of food flavors, said the chocolate flavor involves not only taste, but also smell, color, look and “mouth feel” – the way the velvety substance melts in the mouth.

“That smoothness is an important part of chocolate,” he said.

The professor said he has loved chocolate his entire life, even keeping a stash of international chocolates in his desk.

Reineccius studies how chemicals interact to produce different kinds of flavors. Specifically, he researches the link between the smell and taste of food. For example, chocolate has more than 900 aroma compounds.

“Do we really need that many chemicals, or do we only need 10?” he said.

Echoing recent studies that were published to the delight of chocolate lovers everywhere, the slender professor said chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is good for people because of its antioxidants.

“There are more antioxidants in cocoa than red wine,” he said.

Antioxidants help protect against such diseases as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

And the markets have benefited. According to business analyst Mintel, dark chocolate sales rose 50 percent from 2003 to 2006.

Chocolate can be divided into three categories: dark, milk and white – though Reineccius said white chocolate is nothing more “than a bar of fat” because it does not contain cocoa.

Though as anyone who enjoys chocolate assortments knows, chocolate is not limited to three flavors.

Mary Leonard, chocolatier and CEO of St. Paul-based Chocolat Celeste, said the business has 30 different flavors, including chili pepper, key lime pie and lemon meringue truffles.

Leonard said sales are at their highest during the Christmas season, bringing in 60 percent of annual revenue. Valentine’s Day brings in 20 percent and Easter carries 3 percent.

More chocolate is consumed during the winter than any other season, according to the World Atlas of Chocolate.

Presently, Reineccius said he has kicked his chocolate research and now just enjoys it.

Yet not everyone loves chocolate as much as the chocolate expert.

While philosophy senior Meghan Flynn said she has a serious love affair with chocolate, her friend Dana Mach has never liked the flavor.

“The taste of chocolate has never really appealed to me,” Mach, a global studies senior, said, reflecting on childhood birthdays full of chocolate cake and ice cream.

Flynn, on the other hand, joked that her “best death would be to drown in chocolate.”

Reineccius said such discrepancies in taste are due enormously to both genetics and exposure.

Flynn said one of the reasons she’s so attached to chocolate is because it releases endorphins that create an uplifting feeling.

Reineccius said evidence supports this theory, and while the consumption of chocolate can induce cravings, there is no evidence to suggest chocolate is addictive.

Chocolate contains phenylethylamine and serotonin, which create feelings of happiness associated with love or lust, supporting claims that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.

However, the professor said chocolate is not an aphrodisiac. While Reineccius said he’s heard of doctors prescribing chocolate to increase sex drive or even reduce obesity, both are bogus claims.

As far as chocolate eating goes, the United States consumes a relatively small amount of the treat. People in Switzerland consume an average of 22.36 pounds of chocolate per year, and 16 of the top 20 chocolate-consuming nations are European, according to the World Atlas of Chocolate.

The United States provides several popular chocolate brands including Hershey’s, Dove and Godiva.

While Godiva chocolate costs much more per ounce than Hershey’s, Reineccius said both are made of good quality beans.

“People who tend to eat chocolate can be snobby,” he said. “At some point, they’re just paying for the label.”