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Melts in your heart

Chocolate and Valentine's Day go hand-in-hand like lovers on a beach. Turns out there's science to back up that mood-elevating addiction.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2003

SOUTH TAMPA -- St. Valentine knew what he was doing when dubbing Feb. 14 the official day of love.

Swimsuit season is months off. Christmas indulgences are mere memories. Chocolate lovers can eat till their hearts are content -- guilt free.

At least temporarily.

"Chocolate doesn't fit into a bathing suit," laments Michael Baugh, owner of Let Them Eat Cake in Tampa.

But Valentine's Day without chocolate? Unthinkable. A trip to a candy counter cements the connection. Red-velvet boxes, heart-shaped candy and chocolate-covered strawberries scream from the shelves, "Buy me for someone you love."

In the past two years, chocolate shops have sprung up across South Tampa, offering chocoholics relief within a short drive.

International Plaza, known for the lavish and luscious, brought us Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Harry and David, Neuhaus and an extra Godiva store for good measure.

Schakolad set up shop on Howard Avenue in September, and Sally's Heavenly Fudge opened near Britton Plaza in December 2001. Others -- Total Sweets, Pop Lollies and Let Them Eat Cake -- round out the sugary offerings.

Chocolate lovers take the influx in stride. What better guide to a good mood than a sweet chunk of dark or light?

"When people walk into the store the first thing you hear out of their mouths is 'Yum, I love the smell,' " said Valentina Ludert, co-owner of Schakolad. "We get very, very happy customers."

Ludert and cousin Jackie Salcedo opened the chocolate store at 408 S Howard Ave. after getting laid off from their jobs after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A self-proclaimed chocoholic, Ludert admits she knew more about eating the candy than selling it.

"It's like a love affair," she said. "I have to have chocolate every day."

Based in Winter Park, Schakolad carries European-style chocolates and can mold the candy into a smorgasbord of shapes, from personalized wedding favors to adults-only mementos. For the Super Bowl win, the store sent Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer a big football.

The coming Valentine's Day marks the store's first. Ludert, who got her name Valentina from her mother (born on Feb. 14), expects a rush of last-minute shoppers. They have chocolate handcuffs for $7, holiday baskets with chocolate champagne glasses for $24.99 and dark chocolate bars that say "Prisoner of Love" for $7.

Let Them Eat Cake, 3805 S West Shore Blvd., plans to go through about 500 pounds of chocolate before Valentine's Day ends. Owner Baugh considers candy the natural gift.

"Jewelry is a little expensive, and flowers aren't going to last long," he said. "But chocolate you're always going to remember."

Baugh creates custom chocolate orders as well as more traditional solid Belgian chocolate hearts and dipped strawberries.

He takes partial credit for getting lovers in the mood, with such items as a chocolate box with a real red rose that sells for $19.99.

"I'd like to think I started something," he said with a laugh.

The link between chocolate and Valentine's Day has scientific truth. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, the same chemical produced in our brains when we fall in love, creating a sense of giddiness or joy.

Psychologists have suspected that giving chocolate is a way to stir the same emotions, even if artificially. And just like love, chocolate can be addictive.

That's unfortunate for dieters trying to stay away from sweets. Around Valentine's Day, the struggle becomes all-out war.

Weight-loss groups advise members to plan their chocolate-eating in advance to avoid overindulgence.

"Some fine chocolate in some very tiny boxes is nice, but there many more options for gifts," said Bonnie Cirrincione, territory manager for Weight Watchers of Tampa Bay.

Instead of giving candy, she suggests spending quality time with a loved one, going for a walk or taking the bikes out.

"It's all about choices and enjoying what the holiday is all about -- the relationship," said Cirrincione, a Weight Watchers' success story who has learned to take a small piece of chocolate and eat it slowly.

Still can't resist? Check out low-sugar chocolate or even dark chocolate, which has fewer calories than its milk counterparts. Even Atkins, a diet that shuns carbohydrates, markets a low-carb chocolate bar called Endulge.

Dieting aside, some argue the physical advantages of chocolate offset the calories if consumed in moderation. Research reported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science suggest cocoa and chocolate contain natural antioxidants that reduce the risk of heart problems, much like red wine.

Then, there's always the emotional benefit. Who hasn't scoured the kitchen for chocolate chips or raided the vending machine for some M&Ms?

The numbers offer answers. Industry leaders report the average U.S. consumer eats 12 pounds of chocolate a year. Worldwide, humans eat 1-million tons.

Manufacturers have long touted their product as having divine traits.

"The closest you will get to heaven without actually being there," declare the folks at Sally's Heavenly Fudge. Experience a "little piece of heaven," says Godiva, which has four stores in the Tampa area.

Julie Matteson, a regional sales manager for Godiva, said chocolate mimics being in love and feeling on top of the world. Ecstatic is how she describes chocolate's first touch to her tongue.

Not surprisingly, people in the business laud the perks of working behind the candy counter. Constant access to chocolate. Satisfied customers.

"No one returns anything. No one complains," says Tessie Racette, an assistant manager at Rocky Mountain. "Usually they come in a bad mood and leave in a good mood."

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or .

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