There were four qualifications: It had to weigh 4 ounces, not melt in high temperatures, provide a lot of calories and taste “a little better than a boiled potato.” That’s what Capt. Paul Logan told the Hershey company before the production of Field Ration D began during World War II. Taking on the project allowed Hershey to stay open when other chocolate companies couldn’t. It also gave a generation of Europeans a fondness for Hershey’s chocolate — something most don’t share today.
The D Ration was meant to be an emergency meal, and Hershey deliberately altered it to taste bad enough that soldiers wouldn’t treat it as a snack. The final recipe used oat flour and less sugar with more chocolate to keep soldiers from eating it until they absolutely had to. Between 1941 and 1944, a quarter-billion bars went overseas. It was far more than U.S. troops consumed. Instead, they gave the chocolaty emergency rations (as well as actual chocolate bars and candy-covered M&Ms, which were exclusively available to soldiers) to children and allies at a time in Europe when chocolate was expensive if it could be found at all. American Pilot Gail Halvorsen famously began airdropping chocolate and other candy to children in West Berlin in what came to be known as “Operation Vittles.”
“People who were kids at the end of WWII when Hershey’s was given out, for them the chocolate was reminiscent of the end of the war,” said Greg Ziegler, professor of food science at Penn State. “For them it was a good flavor.”
It’s easy to find articles about the relative merits of American versus European chocolate, with Europe generally coming out on top. Many of them lean on the fact that standards for what can legally be sold as chocolate vary from country to country.
In the United States, milk chocolate has to have at least 10 percent chocolate liquor (a thick paste formed by grinding cacao beans) and 12 percent milk solids. In the U.K., milk chocolate needs at least 25 percent dry cocoa solids and at least 25 percent total fat in the form of both cocoa butter and milk (and at least 14 percent milk solids overall). The EU applies the same standards. Both the U.K. and EU currently allow vegetable fat to be used in chocolate-making — the U.S. does not — though it took a 27-year battle championed by British representatives to force European countries to sell products made with it as “chocolate.”
At first glance, the fact that British and European regulations require a higher percentage of actual chocolate would give credence to the idea that their chocolate is “better” than anything made in the states. But regulatory standards don’t tell us much about how a nation’s chocolates are actually made. It’s not unusual for products to contain a higher percentage of any given ingredient. Two chocolate bars with the same amount of chocolate or cocoa liquor (the total combination of solids and butter) could taste and feel completely different if one used 10 percent cacao butter and the other 50 percent.
But perhaps more important, our preferences are about us — not the chocolate itself.
There’s something different about our relationship to chocolate compared with other foods. “Chocolate is somewhere between a food and a drug,” said Danielle Reed, associate director at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. “It’s not just the sensory properties but the benefit that you get afterward that has catapulted chocolate into a whole new realm.”
There is something undeniably special and enigmatic about chocolate that has kept humans enthralled by it for thousands of years. In most of our foods, reactions from cooking or chopping or blending are responsible for a lot of the wonderful flavors and textures we enjoy. Chocolate is the rare food where our own bodies are responsible for a change in texture and an explosion of flavor.
“Texture is an enormously important part of our foods,” said Reed. The moment that chocolate melts in our mouths is the moment that all the aroma molecules fly into our noses, she explained. We’re tasting the changing flavors from temperature and chewing in real time. “The sensory experience is really profound for people,” she said.
No wonder chocolate developed associations with romance, cravings and sex. “Although there are many very sophisticated instruments for measuring viscosity and texture, the human mouth is really far more sensitive than most of these,” industrial chocolate expert Stephen T. Beckett wrote in “The Science of Chocolate.”
Chocolate, according to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, is the most-craved food in North America. Rozin has spent his career studying food choice, what makes us want something and what makes us turn away. Chocolate is in a special category.
“You can say, ‘I feel like french fries,’ but you don’t say it the way you say it about chocolate,” Rozin said. The desire for chocolate can be so powerful that Rozin and another psychologist, Willa Michener, conducted a study in the 1990s to see if it was actually an addictive substance. It is not.
Chocolate does contain several molecules with known pharmacological effects including theobromine, a stimulant primarily found in chocolate (which is the reason dogs can’t eat it); caffeine; phenylethylamine, which has been described as “an immediate shot of happiness”; and others.
“It’s puzzling that chocolate is not an addictive substance because it contains addictive chemicals,” Rozin said. “There’s something very mysterious about it.”
In 2020, chocolate represented 58 percent of the $36.7 billion in confectionary sales in the United States, and that trend plays out globally. When it comes to sweets, people turn to chocolate more often than anything else — or at least in greater quantities.
A 2007 paper published in Physiology & Behavior proposed that humans didn’t just experience a physical need for calories but a psychological one, too, which the authors called “hedonic hunger.” (Other animals might also experience this. In a 2005 study, full rats ran almost as fast as rats on a diet for the chance to eat chocolate cereal.) Our need for chocolate regardless of the cost to prepare it (or to our teeth) seems to exist in this ephemeral category of eating.
And, as with clearly addictive substances such as caffeine and alcohol, we can’t seem to escape the feeling that chocolate must do something for our health. Chocolate companies spend millions of dollars funding scientific studies that have concluded the flavonols in chocolate can make us happier and healthier, giving us better immune systems and faster brains. That might have been true when the Aztecs were drinking their chocolate, but modern chocolate bars don’t have any proven long-term health benefits, and any short-term boosts from dark chocolate are likely outweighed by the amount of sugar we consume along with it. (And it’s always easy to overstate a study’s results. A 2012 paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine showing a correlation between per capita chocolate consumption and the number of Nobel laureates from each nation was not meant to be taken as advice for Nobel hopefuls to eat more chocolate.)
Our powerful emotional connection to chocolate may help explain why we’re so attached to the flavor of the chocolate we’re used to. When Cadbury tried to enter the West German market in the 1960s, it decided to introduce the public to its usual crumb recipe (crumb is where fresh milk is mixed with chocolate and sugar and the mixture is dried to powder before being reformed into chocolate instead of mixing already powdered milk in). The Germans were familiar with the taste of chocolate made with powdered milk — a fact Cadbury would have known if it had done any market research.
“The switch over to the Dairy Milk recipe proved to be a disaster,” wrote John Bradley in “Cadbury’s Purple Reign: The Story Behind Chocolate’s Best-Loved Brand.” The company ceased operations in the area by the end of the decade. (This same recipe is beloved elsewhere in the world, but in the U.S. it couldn’t legally be called milk chocolate because of the inclusion of vegetable fats.)
We tend to think of chocolate as a flavor or an item, but “one of the fascinating things about chocolate is that it’s legally a composition,” Ziegler said. “It doesn’t really matter how you get there as long as you end up with the right composition.” Companies become known — and sometimes hated — for the combination of traditional methods they use to create a chocolate with a certain taste, mouthfeel and nostalgia for its consumers.
Chocolate manufacturers strive to make chocolate the same every time. Different beans are blended to make the taste more consistent. The particle size and distribution have to be just right so consumers get the same experience every time. Chocolate is tasted and tested multiple times throughout these processes to make sure it tastes the way it’s supposed to. “Oftentimes when a company is looking to change a supplier of an ingredient, they will run tests to make sure the flavor hasn’t changed or is within limits,” Ziegler said. “There’s a lot of oversight.” Whether an individual likes it is the only variable outside of a chocolate-maker’s control.
Hershey’s chocolate is particularly hated by many people outside of the United States because of its distinctly tangy flavor. But for many Americans, that’s simply how chocolate is supposed to taste.
Nicholas Martino, an American chef who runs a British food stall in Washington, D.C., called Aboveground, explained that if he bites into a Hershey bar, “I taste this tang … that I just can’t get past. … I immediately have this feeling right in my throat where I taste that. … But to many Americans that eat a Hershey’s Kiss, or they eat s’mores by the campfire, that’s just what a s’mores or Hershey’s Kiss tastes like.”
Though chocolate companies won’t comment on their chocolate-making processes for proprietary reasons, the sour taste of Hershey’s — which has been compared to vomit by more than one Brit — probably results from a substance called butyric acid. (Hershey’s has stated that it does not add butyric acid, which can be used as a preservative, to its chocolate, but butyric acid likely is present anyway as a side effect of how Hershey’s processes its milk.)
“They do it to keep it consistent,” Martino said. “Because people have been eating the same thing, and they want and expect it to be exactly the same every single time.”
Today — for better or perhaps worse — a bar of chocolate can be enjoyed for as little as a dollar. “The average person doesn’t appreciate what goes into chocolate,” Ziegler said. “You’re at the convenience store, and it’s cheap, and you grab a bar.” It’s sugar and fat and texture and flavor. We assume that’s why we crave it, need it desperately sometimes, but plenty of foods are engineered to make us want them without provoking the reaction chocolate does.
When I was old enough to know better but too young to stop myself, I ate every chocolate out of a friend’s advent calendar while she was sleeping in the bunk above me. As I punched the first one out of its place, I reasoned that maybe she would think she’d miscounted. The second one I took because the first one tasted so good. The rest of them because, at that point, I’d already taken things too far to stop. What I remember most about that night, shoveling waxy chocolates shaped like sleighs and reindeer into my mouth quietly, was how much I didn’t just want the chocolate. I’d been overtaken by it. The chocolate wasn’t even good chocolate. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t stop eating it.
There’s a story that when Hernán Cortés first encountered the Aztecs, he asked them to show him their gold. They gave him chocolate instead.