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Cacao is for Lovers

Chocolate Education

a bunch of red lydgate cacao pods arranged into a heart shape on the grass

The sweet and sexy history of chocolate, romance, and Valentine’s Day

“Did you guys know that chocolate contains a property that triggers the release of endorphins? It gives one the feeling of being in love,” Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). 

While truer words have been spoken, Depp’s wild-eyed portrayal of the fictional chocolate wizard winks at the long-held belief in chocolate as a main ingredient in the recipe for romance. But where did this notion originate, and why do we continue to affirm our affection with the confection to this day? The answer lies in ancient Mesoamerican ritual, royal intrigue, and a cornucopia of chemical compounds. 

a close up of a logo

Ancient Maya cacao drink vessel depiction of the Maize God Jun Ixiim.
CC BY-SA 4.0

Food of the Gods

The scientific name for the tree that produces chocolate as we know it is Theobroma cacao, which translates to ‘Food of the Gods’. Remnants of theobromine, one of the three alkaloids present in cacao have been found within ancient Olmec ceramics and point to the ancient Mesoamerican civilization being among the first to domesticate and cultivate cacao for food and drink. 

Early Mayans correlated cacao with social status and prestige, drinking it during special occasions and cultural ceremonies. Later Mayans also incorporated drinking cacao into religious and marriage rituals, which is perhaps why chocolate remains a symbol of passion, commitment, and seduction today. Much like a champagne toast or signature cocktail might be employed at a modern wedding, Mayan betrothal ceremonies included ‘chokola’j or a time to “drink chocolate together.” Some religious paintings also depict wedding customs where a woman had to prove she could make cacao with proper technique and attain a rich, frothy result. Cacao beans were also assigned a monetary value and used as currency and even dowry in Aztec ritual and exchanged between bride and groom as a symbol of commitment. 

Not only did cacao have a place in love rituals, Spanish Conquistadors perceived it to be a sexual stimulant after observing Aztec Emperor Montezuma II (Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin) consume copious amounts of a cacao-based beverage before retiring with his harem. The search for aphrodisiac food sources became somewhat of an obsession for Spaniards as fear of consuming “inferior” indigenous foods led to a poor, nutrient-deprived diet and difficulty in the procreation recreation department. As cacao spread across Europe after conquest, so too did theories about its mood-boosting abilities, health benefits, seductive and curative properties. 

a bunch of red lydgate cacao pods arranged into a heart shape on the grass

Is Chocolate an Aphrodisiac?

As cacao spread through Europe, much of the religious and medicinal significance held by Mesoamericans faded away, replaced with Eurocentric health claims and recreational uses. In the 1600s, the first chocolate houses sprang up in London, advertising chocolate as a drink that could “cure the body of many diseases” and introduced Europeans to the pleasant and stimulating effects of caffeine-laden beverages.  

In France, Louis IV drank chocolate every day, and many members of the court of Versaille drank chocolate mixed with amber as a love stimulant. In the 1700s, an “official chocolate maker” accompanied Marie Antoinette to Versaille with the task of creating chocolate and herbal concoctions for the Queen to aid with digestion, anxiety, and other ailments.

Chocolate has long been considered a health tonic, aphrodisiac, and stimulant, but what does science say? The answer is it’s complicated. Cacao is a complex substance made up of more than 500 chemical compounds. How every single one interacts with the human body remains mostly unknown or at least unstudied. 

However, several antioxidants and alkaloids, complex organic compounds that occur in some plants and induce a physiological response when consumed by humans, are present in chocolate. The most important and well understood of these alkaloids present in chocolate are theobromine and caffeine. Both have a stimulating effect on humans and studies suggest they have mood-enhancing and anti-inflammatory properties as well. Cacao is also one of the most antioxidant-rich foods, which studies have shown help decrease LDL cholesterol and may even slow the cognitive decline associated with normal human aging. 

So, while there is some scientific evidence that the alkaloids and antioxidants present in chocolate can positively affect health and mood, the effects of a single serving of chocolate on arousal are likely more psychological than physiological. Chocolate makes us happy and feel good because we associate it with positive feelings and experiences. In other words, chocolate may not put the motion in the ocean, but it can help put your mind in the mood so go forth and indulge!

Lydgate chocolate bars melting

Will you be my Valentine? 

Ritual, marriage, and chemistry may have forever linked cacao with romance, but how did the tradition of exchanging chocolate on Valentine’s Day arise? As with the origin of most love stories, it started with good timing. Agricultural exporting, shipping and manufacturing technology evolved throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, morphing chocolate consumption from sipping concoctions to sweet confections. At the same time, Valentine’s Day grew popular as a spring holiday celebrating love and courtship with poetry, song, and flowers.

Chocolate and Valentine’s Day became forever joined in the Victorian Era when exchanging gifts and cards adorned with hearts, cupids, and other fanciful imagery was considered a romantic gesture. In 1896 Richard Cadbury (yes, THAT Cadbury) introduced consumers to the first chocolate box – a heart-shaped container illustrated with sweet scenes and filled with chocolate candies. The rest is history. In America, Hershey launched their famous Kisses in 1907, and Clara Stover moved her home-based chocolaterie to a factory dedicated to Valentine candy production in Kansas City in 1923. Today The US chocolate industry is estimated to rake in 22-billion dollars annually, with adult consumers spending upwards of 2 billion on Valentine’s Day chocolate alone! 

Will Lydgate sits behind cacao pods arranged in a heart shape on the ground.

Chocolate made with Aloha

Aloha is one of the most important values in the Hawaiian culture. Used commonly as a greeting and goodbye, it also signifies love, affection, and compassion for all living things. With an industry as vast and chaotic as Valentine’s Day chocolate can be, it’s easy to get swept up in the current of commercialism and overlook the ingredients, processes, and people that create our tokens of love and cocoa confection. Much of the commercial chocolate industry relies on exploitative labor, insufficient wages, and unhealthy added ingredients to make showing our affection affordable. That doesn’t sound much like love to us. 

At Lydgate Farms, we’re committed to growing cacao and producing chocolate in a way that shows love and Aloha to our people and planet. It’s not uncommon to see us wandering the farm and singing sweet nothings to our seed pods and trees. You might call us crazy, but if loving our plants and people and producing ethically-made chocolate is crazy, we don’t want to be sane! Learn more about how we grow cacao and craft fine Hawaiian chocolate, and show love to your love by sharing chocolate that’s made with it. Tasting kits, samplers, and curated gift sets are available now.