The bittersweet science of the great chocolate divide

    Americans are expected to buy more than a billion dollars worth of chocolate around this Easter holiday. But here’s the question: dark chocolate or milk chocolate?

    Tony Walter, whose family owns Lore’s Chocolates, said in his store in Old City, sales are about fifty-fifty, but there is not a lot of crossover.

    “It’s polarized,” Walter said. “The people who want dark, they don’t want to touch milk, and the people who like milk, they want a sweeter product.”

    They say there’s no accounting for taste, but when it comes to dark versus milk chocolate, we have some clues. Marcia Pelchat, from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in West Philadelphia, said the divide hearkens back to caveman days, when our ancestors developed dozens of different bitter-taste receptors to detect the huge array of chemical compounds that make up poisons. Nowadays, we are less likely to stumble upon a poison root, so we have each evolved to have slightly different combinations of bitter receptors.

    “Some people may actually find chocolate to be more bitter than others,” Pelchat said, “but bitter sensitivity isn’t the whole story.”

    Pelchat says the difference in texture is more important in determining preferences in chocolate. The melty, luxurious feel of milk chocolate makes it more satisfying to some than dark chocolate. But the biggest predictor in what kind of sweets you like is what you are used to.

    “Probably the most informative question you can ask somebody that will tell you about what they eat is where they grew up,” Pelchat.

    Studies show Americans, Brits and Canadians crave chocolate above all else, but Spaniards and Egyptians don’t because chocolate is not as big a part of their culture.

    Back at Lore’s, shopper Alice Price Paterson from Fishtown says her taste is rooted in pop culture more than anything else.

    “My chocolate preference comes from the movie ‘Airplane,’ where the little girl says that she likes her coffee black like she likes her men,” Price Paterson said. “So I like dark chocolate as well.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.