Decaying Teeth? Zits? Don't Blame It on Chocolate, Says Candy Man Richard O'Connell

updated 12/13/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/13/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Few people are more knowledgeable about the lore of chocolate than Richard T. O'Connell, 54, president of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association of the U.S.A., the umbrella organization for the country's 14 major manufacturers. The industry's chief spokesman and legislative watchdog, O'Connell tries to "show the good face of chocolate to the public. It's the easiest part of the job," he says. Born and raised in Lost Nation, Iowa, where his parents ran a chicken hatchery, O'Connell graduated from Iowa State with a degree in poultry husbandry. He became secretary of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives in 1961, but switched from chickens to chocolate 11 years later. The career change delighted his wife, Therese, and their three children, he says, "particularly when I brought the product home." From his office in McLean, Va., O'Connell talked with PEOPLE'S Michael J. Weiss.

Why are Americans going bananas over chocolate?

The Baby Boom Generation that grew up eating candy bars has now graduated to Godiva chocolates and fancy chocolate sweets, and it's become a trend. Suddenly everyone thinks chocolate is one of the finer things in life.

Isn't chocolate bad for you?

Chocolate has small amounts of protein, iron, riboflavin and calcium. But it's not a substitute for steak or potatoes. It's an extra food.

Is one kind more beneficial than others?

Milk chocolate has more protein and calcium than other chocolate. Some chocolate bars with peanuts or almonds can provide upwards of 10 percent of the recommended daily allowance of protein. In some ways milk chocolate is more nutritious than an apple.

Does chocolate cause acne?

That myth has been around since the late 19th century. Historically, the consumers of candy bars were youngsters going through adolescence, a time when acne develops. The FDA announced last March that acne is not diet-related but is probably caused by hormonal changes at puberty.

What about its effect on tooth decay?

Chocolate is not as likely to cause cavities as was once thought. Eating it helps lessen acid production, and there are chemical substances in cocoa that inhibit the bacterial action that promotes cavities and plaque.

How much caffeine is in chocolate?

In a one-ounce bar there are five to seven milligrams of caffeine. In contrast, five ounces of coffee has between 90 and 150 milligrams; the average soft drink has 40 to 50 milligrams.

Who actually invented chocolate?

Credit the Aztecs of Mexico. They learned to roast the beans and mix them with water and cinnamon to make a cold, bitter cocoa like drink they called cacahautl. In 1519 the explorer Hernando Cortés improved the mixture with cane sugar, vanilla, adopted its Indian name, chocolatl, and later took the beans and the recipe back to Spain. At first only royalty was allowed to drink it, but word eventually spread throughout Europe. It got to be a favorite drink in English coffee houses in the 1600s.

When did people start eating chocolate in candy form?

Not until the 19th century. In 1847 Fry and Sons in England created the first chocolate bar, a large mold that was sold to confectioners who melted it down and mixed it with nuts and fruits. In the U.S., Milton Snavely Hershey introduced the first mass-produced candy bar in 1894.

Who invented milk chocolate?

Daniel Peter developed it in Switzerland in 1876. He and several others, including Henri Nestlé, found they had surplus milk. They mixed it with dark chocolate to balance the rough flavor.

How is chocolate made today?

The basic methodology hasn't changed since the turn of the century. It starts with bean pods of the Theobroma cacao tree, which grows in Africa, the Far East and Latin America. There are 20 to 40 beans in a pod, and some 400 beans are required to make a pound of chocolate. The beans are harvested, fermented naturally and sun-dried for five or six days. Then they're shipped in burlap bags to the U.S. and other chocolate-manufacturing countries.

How did candy bars get their names?

Many were named after manufacturers—the Hershey bar for Milton Hershey and the Mars for Frank and Ethel Mars. Some were named after other personalities. Curtiss' Baby Ruth was not named for the baseball player, however, but in honor of Grover Cleveland's oldest daughter, Ruth.

Is there any chance you'll divulge your favorite?

No, but I will say that I rarely let a day go by without having some kind of chocolate.

From Our Partners