- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

Estrogen. Testosterone. Chocolate. Aha. Three arresting words. Sorry. Just cheap parlor tricks.

Journalists often get their readers’ attention with terms heavy with portent, titillation and intrigue. Imagine the headlines: Estrogen is (fill in the blank) for women. Testosterone found to (fill in the blank). Chocolate linked to (fill in the blank).

Well, relax. This particular column is about the chocolate side of things, though a headline touting some combination of all three words at once would prove to be either confusing, impossible or a front-page, above-the-fold blockbuster.

Chocolate. (Sound effect: Bring up the kettle drums and clarion horns.)

The nation will always pay attention to any story with the word chocolate in, on or near it because chocolate is (a) America’s favorite flavor, according to the National Confectioners Association, (b) naughty, (c) healthy, (d) an aphrodisiac, (e) a mood elevator or (f) all of the above.

At this juncture, we should stand to salute and possibly do an interpretative dance in honor of Whitman’s Candies, which offered the nation its first box of chocolates back in 1854 and introduced the Whitman’s Sampler in 1912 — complete with the dainty goody guide inside that “put an end to the era of candy pinchers,” according to the company’s historical account.

Yes, well. There’s nothing like a good candy pinch to clear the mind on occasion. Some chocolate makers do not see fit to include that helpful interior road map, leaving potential indulgers to stare at the open box, full of chocolate angst.

They tap lightly upon the fancy, fluted paper holders. They make certain characteristic whimpering noises.

Will it be the round bonbon with the bulge? Certainly not. That might be the exploding chocolate-covered cherry — oh, excuse me — the exploding chocolate-covered cordial cherry or, heaven forbid, the plain coconut creme. But wait. What about that mysterious brick there? Maybe the one with the fudge bristles?

The mind reels. One either has to wait for the chocolate spirit guide to appear or consult the chocolate oracle. Neither is readily available.

Of course, we put our money where our mouths are here. According to the Commerce Department’s annual confectionery report, we spent more than $10 billion on chocolate and ate 3.3 billion pounds of it last year. Manufacturers introduced 325 new varieties of chocolate candies last year, and despite all the hoopla about cancer-fighting antioxidants in dark chocolate, Americans continue to favor milk chocolate by a margin of 2-1. We will address this health dichotomy later.

And by the way, the Hollywood-generated image of a guilt-ridden female stealing away for a clandestine chocolate bonbon is bogus.

Our pals at the aforementioned national candy group recently surveyed 1,011 women, and 69 percent of them said they never felt guilty eating chocolate. Ninety-three percent of them eat it. Another 52 percent said the act — (sound effect: rattling paper, heavy silence, small sigh) — simply made them happy.

Just in case anyone left over from the beatnik era is wondering if chocolate-covered ants are still available, this exotic hipster treat, which appeared during the bongo-drum years of the early 1960s, is more popular than ever, thanks to the bug-eating spectacles found on “Fear Factor” and other reality TV shows.

Louisiana-based Fluker Farms, in fact, offers individually wrapped chocolate-covered crickets for $1 each, with a complimentary “I Ate a Bug Club” lapel button. Each cricket is “roasted to perfection” and coated with quality chocolate, they advise. The company gladly will sell live crickets; they are, after all, the nation’s largest purveyor of, uh, live “feeder” crickets.

Which brings us, somehow, full circle to the healthy side of chocolate.

Indeed, scientists who want to guarantee their studies will attract reporters like flies — or crickets, as the case may be — continually conduct research revealing that dark chocolate or cocoa contains antioxidants that have a palliative effect on high cholesterol, cancer and other illnesses. The trick, of course, is to eat just a little bitty piece (1 ounce) once a day, which is a little too much like taking a vitamin for most folks, or at least, those of us who must consult the chocolate oracle.

Some practical advice? Steven Pratt, who wrote the 2005 book “SuperFoods HealthStyle,” tested the content of commercial chocolates to reveal that Newman’s Own Sweet Dark Chocolate and Dove Silky Dark Chocolate led the pack for the highest antioxidant content.

Not to be outdone, Forbes magazine has named Mars’ new CocoaVia bar (100 calories, 6 grams of fat) and Bissinger’s Spa Chocolates (51 calories, 4.5 grams of fat per piece) to its lists of the world’s “healthiest candies,” if such a category even exists. The former claims to benefit the heart; the latter helps “maintain weight, slow aging.”

Yes, well. Somebody send out for a box of Whitman’s.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and bonbons for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at 202/636-3085 or jharper@ washingtontimes.com.

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