Photograph by Michelle G., National Geographic Your Shot
Photograph by Michelle G., National Geographic Your Shot
The Plate

What’s Behind That Box of Valentine’s Chocolates?

Valentine’s Day is on the way, and with it—in many parts of the world, at least—a veritable explosion of pink and red hearts, roses, treacly greeting cards and…chocolate! Lots of chocolate. Like, 58 million pounds worth, eaten in just the U.S. alone during Valentine’s week.

(By the way, we don’t know definitively how chocolate became a Valentine’s Day obsession, but we did share some fun theories in “Why We Want Chocolate for Valentine’s Day.”)

But we don’t save up our chocolate cravings for just one holiday. Given how ubiquitous chocolate is all year round, you might think it’s relatively easy to make. But readers of The Plate know that the production of many of the world’s favorite foods is far more complex than we imagine. Those apples must be grafted, those bananas must be cloned (at our peril), and many commodity foods are quite vulnerable to pests and climate change, often due to monoculture practices. (Read more of our coverage about the risks to citrus, bananas, and coffee.)

Similarly complex is the cacao tree, where all that chocolate comes from. Like coffee and bananas, cacao trees are highly susceptible to disease. And, like coffee, cacao grows well only under a specific set of conditions, in a relatively narrow geographic band around the Equator—conditions that may shift as the world’s climate changes. Those vulnerabilities have scientists predicting a chocolate shortage—and looking to genetic engineering to help save one of the world’s most beloved sweets.

The production of much of the world’s chocolate also carries significant human and environmental costs—something NGOs and fair trade producers have been working for years to address.

It’s not just growing chocolate that’s complex. Making delicious, smooth, glossy chocolate is tricky, too. Lucky for us, chocolatiers worldwide have perfected the process, creating unique blends of cocoa butter, chocolate liquor, as well as milk, sugar, and other flavorings. Here are a few of our favorite Your Shot photos of how chocolate evolves from bitter seed to luscious treat.