Americans love their chocolate, especially during the holiday season.
For Gerri Ratliff, 48, buying chocolate during the holiday season is a family tradition. She says her family doesn't normally treat themselves to gourmet chocolate, but Christmas seems like the right time to do so.
"It's just really enjoyable and it's a way to really tuck something special and fun into a [Christmas] stocking," she says.
Americans seek healthier ways to eat chocolate
While Americans like Ratliff love their chocolate, a recent industry survey reveals that health-conscious consumers are looking for ways to make chocolate a more nutritious food choice.
Susan Smith, senior vice president of the National Confectioners Association, says one solution is to pair pure chocolate with savory ingredients.
Smith says cocoa belongs in more than desserts.
"It's being incorporated increasingly in lots of different kinds of foods that can be main course foods and appetizers."
At a recent confection industry briefing in Washington, Smith and her colleagues offered sample dishes of these food combinations.
Chocolate sauces for beef and chicken create taste sensations
The chocolate inspired luncheon menu included tenderloin of beef marinated in soy, rosemary and cocoa, plus a green salad with crunchy cocoa bits.
Professional chef Carla Hall says she often combines chocolate with other ingredients. "We can actually have a meal of chocolate from the appetizer to the dessert," she says, and believes that combining chocolate with fruits and vegetables, "is a much healthier way of eating."
One of Hall's specialties is a traditional Mexican dish called chicken mole, which blends pure chocolate with onions, garlic, tomatoes, chicken and other ingredients.
Recently, Hall demonstrated how she incorporates her chocolate mixture into the chicken stock, creating a deep, rich color. "The richness of the chocolate turns that stock into something that just looks beautiful," she says.
Hall says chocolate's natural bitterness, together with its unique texture, adds depth and make a dish more flavorful.
Hall explained that a cook can use the chocolate combination as a sauce over the chicken, or as a stew.
New twists in chocolate candy also satisfy cravings
For many Americans, chocolate is still considered candy. At ACKC Cocoa Bar, a gourmet chocolate shop in Washington, co-owner Rob Kingsbury offers an impressive variety of sweet and savory infused products.
"People really love the whole savory and sweet combination," and he says, "it seems to be a real hot seller right now as far as flavors concerned."
Chipotle-cinnamon truffle is one of his best-selling chocolates.
"It's two flavors that are interesting enough to people and it's not too far off their taste scale," says Kingsbury. "People are always impressed when they taste it."
But if the combination of chocolate and chicken or chipotle-cinnamon truffle doesn't sound enticing, industry experts say people can rest assured, simple, old-fashioned chocolate is still going to be a mainstay on store shelves.