EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 23, 2012

Chocolate sales bring happiness for the holidays

Jose de la Isla
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — We are now, at Christmas, in one of four peak chocolate periods of the year. The others are Valentine’s Day, Easter and Halloween.

Europeans eat about 40 percent of all chocolate produced in the world. The top five countries in terms of consumption are Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, Germany and Norway, according to the World Atlas of Chocolate. The residents of those countries consume, on average, 19.6 pounds of chocolate each year. The U.S., in 11th place, averages 11.6 pounds per person.

Oddly, Asian counties do not share Western countries’ preference for chocolate confections. But things are changing.In spite of the international economic downturn of 2009, chocolate sales have increased, especially in China and the Ukraine, where they grew by 18 and 12 percent, respectively. Overall, sales have risen since 2005 and are expected to continue doing so through 2013.

A benefit of chocolate consumption, besides its tasting good, appeared in an online note of the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Franz Messerli, of St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital and Columbia University in New York, reported finding a link between a country’s per-capita chocolate consumption and its number of Nobel Prize winners.

Sales data from 23 countries show “a surprisingly powerful correlation,” Messerli reported. Switzerland’s chocolate Nobels are top ranked. The United States is in the middle, along with the Netherlands, Ireland, France, Belgium and Germany.Messerli said chocolate’s flavonols (an antioxidant also found in green tea and red wine) can help slow down or even reverse age-related mental decline. The contention is disputed by some medical experts.

U.S. chocolate tastes have been changing over time. According to Susan Whiteside of the National Confectioners Association, preferences for premium milk chocolate products and dark chocolate are growing. That probably reflects the aging adult populations; older people who tend to like strong flavors.Still, U.S. chocolate sales increased 2.6 percent in 2009 over the previous year. Economics (meaning inflation) and demography (population growth) were as responsible for the increase as were the introduction of new products.

Latinos made up 15 percent of branded candy consumption in 2009, according to Simmons National Consumer Survey. Big confection manufacturers are trying to increase Hispanic candy consumption by buying local brands south of the border and developing new flavors.

Mexico is the world’s 11th largest exporter of cacao, the basic ingredient in chocolate. Most of it comes from the states of Tabasco, Chiapas and Veracruz. The country runs a 40,000-ton deficit for domestic consumption and has to import raw material. This is surprising, because cacao was originally cultivated by the Mayans.

The Aztecs were responsible for giving it the name “xocoatl.” Then the Spanish, who could not resist the taste but changed the name to chocolate, started its diffusion around the world.We’ve known since the 1950s that good chocolate — with at least 70 percent cacao — is a healthy source of certain fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals (iron and magnesium), phenylethylamine and anandamide.

Besides high-quality chocolate’s numerous health and heart-healthy benefits, when taken in moderation, Dr. Gilda Flores, faculty researcher of advanced studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said that the phenylethylamine creates a euphoria, like Cupid’s arrow in a love-at-first-sight situation.

We’ll leave that for consideration on the next holiday when chocolate sales peak again, although we already know why.

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. Email joseisla3@yahoo.com. Miriam Mendoza Becerril, a chocolate-industry business analyst, contributed. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.