PARIS — This Valentine's Day, as people dive into boxes of chocolates, their choices, as usual, come down to this: dark or milk? creme-filled or nuts? and most of all, how many?
But such problems pale before two questions facing world chocolate makers: Can they persuade the half of humanity that lives in Asia to love chocolate? And, more basic, what is chocolate?
It's not that the chocolate business needs help. Americans will spend about $665 million on chocolates for Valentine's Day. Japanese women give $500 million worth of chocolate each year to bosses and co-workers. World demand could double in the next 25 years.
But until this century, the taste for chocolate was anchored in the transatlantic world of Europe and the US.
It was reserved for those with the leisure time and means to frequent the salons and coffee houses of the upper classes. France's celebrated 17th-century letter writer Madame de Svign once warned her daughter of chocolate: "It flatters you for awhile, warms you for an instant, then kindles a mortal fever in you."
Today, the world's leading chocolatemakers still straddle the Atlantic. But now they aim to break into new markets, especially in Asia.
At the same time, a struggle in established European markets is heating up. At issue is the definition of chocolate itself. The sides are lining up supporters. It's the sort of larger-than-life battle that chocolate has always inspired.
For 16th-century Mayan chieftains in Central America, chocolatl was "the food of the gods." Spanish priests adapted the Mayan brew for continental tastes, replacing chili, peppers, and dried flowers with sugar and vanilla. But after the ensuing craze for chocolate back in Spain, they wondered if they hadn't created a "devil's brew." Spanish critics dubbed chocolate and tobacco "the revenge of the Indians" on their conquerors.
For a full century, Spain held a monopoly on the distribution of chocolate - although Dutch pirates routinely cut in on Spain's business. Only in 1615 did Spain allow chocolate to be introduced into the French court when Anne of Austria, the daughter of Spain's Philip III, married Louis XIII. A century later, it spread to Europe.
Melting in millions of mouths
It took Milton Hershey's five-cent chocolate bar (1905) to bring chocolate to the masses. These plain industrial squares followed American GIs into battle in two world wars. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US Army called on Hershey Foods Corp. to develop a heat-resistant bar for troops in Saudi Arabia. The "desert bar" was ready in six weeks, but the Gulf war ended too soon to give the new chocolate much of a test, a Hershey spokesman says.
But Hershey's "desert bar" could prove to be a landmark in chocolate's bid to break into Asian markets, where warm climates and the lack of refrigeration and air conditioning have been an obstacle to transporting and storing chocolate.
"While chocolate is America's favorite flavor, it is unfamiliar in many other parts of the world. There are many parts of China where chocolate is not available at all," says Hershey spokesman Mike Kinney. "The complicated technologies that developed the 'desert bar' could help us in Asia."
The stakes are enormous. While each American eats 10.8 pounds of chocolates per year, each Chinese eat less than an ounce. If China's 1.2 billion potential chocolate consumers can be persuaded to buy a chocolate bar once in a while, worldwide growth could soar.
"Per capita chocolate consumption is barely measurable in China, but the opportunities for growth leave you gasping for air," says Stuart Spencer, director of Confectionery Manufacturers of Australasia Ltd. (CMA), a Melbourne-based trade association that aims at Asian markets.
"By 2025, we expect that demand for cocoa products will be double what it is today, and most of that growth will come from the Pacific Rim region," he adds. "Once economies reach a certain level of GDP, chocolate consumption follows."
The Asia-Pacific candy market generated $16.5 billion in earnings last year, with countries such as Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, and Taiwan marking big growth. China imported 4,260 tons of chocolate products in 1995, up from 1,612 tons in 1993.
The world's candy-makers are already shifting operations east to Asia, Russia, and Eastern Europe. In 1993, Britain's Cadbury Schweppes opened a 5,000-ton-per-year chocolate plant outside Beijing. US candy maker Mars opened a plant outside Moscow in 1994, and Swiss chocolatier Nestle is also prospecting a stronger presence in Asia. "We consider it very propitious for our initiative that a phonetic translation of Cadbury into its Mandarin equivalent, Ji Bai Li, means 'luck plus hundreds of benefits,' " said Kevin Hayes, chairman of Cadbury Schweppes Australia, when announcing the Beijing project.
Other firms are adapting their lines to suit Asian taste for a less-sweet, more-salty chocolate. Last year, Belgian chocolatier Callebaut launched heat-resistant, less-sugary chocolates for Asian tastes and climes.
This year promises to be chocolate's biggest ever. World supplies of ground cocoa beans are expected to reach a new all-time record level of 2.8 million tons.
Candy sales in Britain, which has one of the highest chocolate consumption rates in the world, are also on the rise. Analysts say sales should break 5 billion ($8.5 billion) for the first time this year.
Even in established US and European markets, chocolate competition is getting tighter. Swiss candymaker Nestle, for example, has been forced to move more of its operations outside Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union (EU), to avoid trade restrictions.
The EU will soon take up a controversial new definition of chocolate, an issue that is dividing Europeans, as well as interested parties in the developing world.
The issue is whether manufacturers may add vegetable fat to their products and still market them in Europe as chocolate. Under the current nine-page European directive, chocolate with vegetable fat additives must be sold under pejorative labels, such as "household chocolate." Proposed new revisions would allow chocolate containing up to 5 percent non-cocoa butter vegetable fat to be marketed and sold as chocolate. Britain, Ireland, and Denmark, along with new European Union members Portugal, Austria, Sweden, and Finland, make chocolate this way and support the revisions.
"That 5 percent vegetable oil gives our chocolate a lovely sheen and a very pleasurable snap when you break a square off. In the UK, we prefer chocolate like this and have for years," says Tony Bilsborough, a spokesman for Cadbury Ltd., the candy division of London-based Cadbury Schweppes.
Battle for the 'soul' of chocolate
"It comes down to national interests. We want to be able to make and sell our chocolate in the way that has proved popular in the UK," he adds.
But chocolate purists on the Continent insist that chocolate worthy of the name is made with cocoa butter - period. They think the "household chocolate" label is not strong enough and urge calling the renegade British chocolates "vegelate."
For Jean-Paul Hvin, one of the top new chocolatiers of France, the battle is over preserving the essence of chocolate. "We're fighting to make sure chocolate keeps its soul. Some candymakers are adding vegetable fats just to add volume. You can feel the fat on your palate. No way does this have the right to be called chocolate," he said, in a recent interview in his fragrant Paris kitchen, where he offered a taste test of an offending British brand of "household chocolate."
"Chocolate is one of the few products in the world where we have not yet all sacrificed quality for quantity," he adds. "But once we authorize this change, chocolate makers can do anything they like. Chocolate will regress, be made commonplace, like other products, and the consumer will be the loser."
European Commission bureaucracies are divided over whether to support the new chocolate directive. Three committees need to approve the revision, as well as the Council of Ministers. The process could years. Meanwhile, both sides along the chocolate divide are lining up supporters in the developing world. British candymakers argue that vegetable fats they are using come from the shea nut that grows semi-wild in Mali and Burkina Faso, two of the poorest nations in Africa. "These countries will benefit if the new rule is adopted," says John Newman, director of the London-based Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate, and Confectionery Alliance.
But major cocoa producers, such as Ivory Coast, strongly oppose the draft directive, because it would encourage producers to use less cocoa butter and cut back on demand for cocoa.
"The revised directive would simply be a catastrophe for the economies of Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Cameroon," says Marc Banny, an Ivory Coast diplomat in Brussels. "There are not even any guarantees that chocolate-producers will use Mali or Burkina Faso oils. They could use artificial lab substitutes."
Mr. Newman, the British lobbyist, says chocolate's conquest of new worlds could settle the question to the satisfaction of all sides. "The signs are that worldwide demand for chocolate is growing. We've seen a phenomenal increase in exports of chocolate, especially to Russia. With a shift in demand and a shortfall in supply, due to problems in South American and Malaysia, we could see a big price increase in cocoa, which will only benefit all producers," he says.