An easy bite, together with the passive application of body temperature, lead the cocoa butter to release a flood of complex, engaging flavors with a unique type of intoxication.
"I'll love you no matter how fat you are," says the box of chocolates on Candinas' billboards.
Is it morally responsible for chocolates to speak this way?
About half of the people in Wisconsin are overweight or obese, double what it was in 1990. (Small comfort that this is below the national average of 66%, doubled since 1980.)
So, love from a box of chocolate?
Our relationship with food is complicated. Even experts will say "it's a no brainer that people eat for emotional reasons." Yet these emotional reasons aren't taken into account when trying to solve the obesity puzzle.
In 2007, anti-depressants became the most-prescribed drug in the U.S. If everyone knows people eat for emotional reasons and anti-depressants are the most-prescribed drug, why isn't there serious discussion about how to raise the level of emotional satisfaction in life?
Instead we get endless nutritional lectures and attempts to modify behavior through legislation.
Wisconsin's Department of Health Services tries the "it-takes-a-village" approach with recommendations for "Implementing a wellness program at your worksite... Creating opportunities for people to easily walk and bike... Improving the nutrition environment in your community... Promoting and supporting breastfeeding... Promoting wellness at your school..." While these are well-meaning, they fall short of addressing the root of the problem.
Then there's "cheeseburger zoning" created to restrict the density of fast food restaurants in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Responding to a similar proposal, Madison's Common Council President Mark Clear told The Capital Times, "I'd like to see the research. Obesity is one of those problems, like alcohol, we have to get serious about. ... But if I stop eating fast food, there's no guarantee that I won't still be 20 pounds overweight."Even the Badger state budget would benefit if people would just eat right. Karen Timberlake, secretary of Wisconsin's Department of Health Services, has said: "Reversing this harmful trend in Wisconsin would likely save more than a billion dollars annually in medical costs..."
But again -- why is an admittedly emotional issue put in economic terms instead of human ones?
The research explaining that eating chocolate releases the hormones of love is decades old. Compared to chocolate, how many easy sources of love are there in our day-to-day life?
The legal community, itching for a fight with Big Food, wants to make the tobacco-like case for addiction. If eating chocolate releases the hormones of love, does that mean we're addicted to love? No. We're hungry for it.
We're often told that people eat what they shouldn't because they lack better choices. Pete Hanson, a lobbyist with the Wisconsin Restaurant Association pointed out that restaurants and fast-food outlets "offer plenty of "healthy choices … But not many people eat them."
Imagine a Valentine's fruit basket. As a healthier option it's a loving gift (or a nagging one). If offered side-by-side with a box of chocolates, the fruit won't stand a chance. Why? It may be loving, but not "love." The fruit might be accepted on another day or at another time when the eater "feels like it."
After 25 years of research on food involving more than 30,000 people, I know that people eat what they "feel like" -- almost literally.
Turns out feelings are complex algorithms of emotions and sensations. The specific sensory characteristics of anything we eat carry hidden messages with them.
The dismantling of a spritely orange yields a bite that bursts with vitality. To be in the mood to eat one the eater has to "feel like it." To be prepared for the squirts and drips and intense flavor, the eaters must themselves already have vitality.
By contrast, chocolate melts. It gives way. An easy bite, together with the passive application of body temperature, lead the cocoa butter to release a flood of complex, engaging flavors with a unique type of intoxication. Like a swoon. When do you feel like a swoon? When do you feel like the feelings of love? Often when you have not been feeling them.
As a consequence, people often "feel like" chocolate even when they themselves "think" they should eat something healthier. The business of the unconscious is thought to be the realm of psychologists and psychiatrists. But the science of feelings is something else altogether.
Gerald Zaltman's work (Harvard) shows that unconscious processing drives 95% of our behavior. It's a biological efficiency; the unconscious works 125,000 times faster than the conscious.
Through this lens it's easier to understand why the wrong foods can feel right. Life is hard. Food makes it less so.
These deep truths drive the behaviors policies are designed to change. But there's another hitch. The people trying to reduce obesity are, for the most part, thin. They do not represent the population and can have a hard time relating to the idea that wrong foods feel right, and that feelings -- not thinking -- guide moment-to-moment behavior.
Luckily (or unluckily), I can identify with what has become the norm. Had I lived my life as a skinny girl I might not have seen the world through this lens of empathy. Unstable life, unstable weight.
Also luckily I've had the opportunity to find a way to see and measure both the emotions and sensations that are such a defining part of the human experience. They're why behavior is so hard to change.
Until there is a strategy for supplementing our "diet" with emotional wellness, we will remain grateful for the box of chocolate that will love us even when we're fat.
Pam Murtaugh is a Madison-based consultant to global corporations.