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Sorry boys, most women prefer chocolate to sex . . .


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Forget economic Armageddon. There's a real crisis looming. The price for raw chocolate has soared and experts are now predicting there could be a shortage in the coming years.

Some even claim that, in future, the beloved brown stuff will be like caviar; so rare and so expensive that most of us won't be able to afford it.

Cocoa production globally has fallen by 5.5%, according to the International Cocoa Organisation, and cocoa's price has risen by 44%.

If that situation continues, industry experts claim even a bog-standard bar of milk chocolate could cost up to €10 or more.

The pending disaster couldn't come at a worse time. For years when times got tough, people could turn to chocolate. While other industries flounder, chocolate sales boom in a recession.

Last year Cadburys reported a 30% rise in annual profits. At the high end of the market, Swiss chocolate companies recorded a 2% increase in exports. As the chairman of KitKat makers Nestle puts it: "Now that people don't have a new television or a new car, they eat a bit more chocolate."

But as many chocoholics know, chocolate is far more than a cheap treat.

For most women, chocolate is a more essential ingredient for a happy life that sex, according to a poll by Cadbury. A survey earlier this year showed that women also prefer chocolate to wine and designer cosmetics. And one-in-five women would go without sex before she'd go without chocolate.

The love of chocolate is nothing new. It has been sacred in civilisations as far back as 3,000 year ago. The ancient Aztecs saw it as nectar from the gods and used it in religious ceremonies. When it arrived in Europe, it was regarded as a medicine that could cure just about anything from headaches to stomach pains.

In fact, modern scientific research is now proving that dark chocolate can indeed be good for us because it is high in flavonols. Flavonols have been shown to help reduce blood pressure, strengthen the cardiovascular system and increase blood flow to the brain.

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Scientists at Mars are even working on a blend of chocolate that will specifically fight heart disease.

At the Chocolate Shop in Cork's English Market, owner Niall Daly has been selling high-end chocolates for the last 10 years. "We get people from all walks of life -- school girls coming in for the loose chocolates; older people who buy it for the health benefits; entire families who stock up for treats," he explains.

He imports some of the top brands such as French Valrhona chocolate which costs about €4 for a 70-gram bar.

"There's a huge price increase every two to three years," he says. "I've heard there's been poor yield coming into this season. One company has increased its prices recently but the rest have held steady."

Ann Rudden of Aine's Chocolates, based in Cavan, has also seen instability in the market. Her company imports raw chocolate and, not unlike the airline companies with oil, she signs contracts guaranteeing the price over a period of time. "We used to be able to get year-long contracts. I would agree to buy a certain amount at a certain price over an entire year. But now we can only get three-month contracts because the price has become so volatile."

Rudden's company is among a number of Irish artisan chocolate makers who will be selling their wares at the Temple Bar Chocolate Festival in Dublin this weekend (from tomorrow until Sunday).

"The chocolate market has held up even in the recession but we've had to change the types of products we sell," she says. "Smaller bars are more popular now whereas before we were selling bigger items. I think people will always buy chocolate but they have got more price sensitive. It means we have to be really careful these days about costs."

There are several possible reasons for the rising price of raw chocolate.

At big multinationals such as Cadbury and Nestle, chocolate-making has been largely automated but the raw material --the all-important cacao beans -- are still grown by small farmers, mostly in poverty-stricken parts of Africa.

Cacao trees are fragile and the pods are collected and the seeds harvested by hand. It's time-consuming work and it doesn't help that in the past the price has fallen as steeply as it is now rising, leaving some of those farmers destitute.

Peter Gaynor, chief executive of Fair Trade Mark Ireland, explains that the typical cacao farmer can earn as little as $500 to $1,500 a year. "Even when prices rise other small farmers start growing cacao and this means the local price falls again because of a glut."

Because of the historic price volatility there has been little incentive for farmers to invest in their land, which means that when trees die off, they are often not replanted.

Together with new pests and diseases affecting crops and an ongoing drought in West Africa, this may explain why production has fallen.

Meanwhile, chocolate has never been more popular among consumers. Perhaps because of the health benefits, dark chocolate is now outselling the milk variety in many stores. Dark chocolate has a higher cocoa content and so uses up more of the reduced cocoa stocks.

Countries such as India and China are also becoming richer and people there are starting to buy chocolate.

Adding to that, Gaynor believes that money speculators are contributing to price rises. "We're seeing this across a lot of food prices. Hedge funds want somewhere safe to put their money these days so they buy up cocoa and coffee which pushes the prices higher," he says.

Of course very little of the price rise goes back into the cacao farmer's pocket. They make on average about 2 cent in every €1 of chocolate sold in developed countries.

With Fair Trade they at least get a stable price which means they can invest in their farms. "It's not a silver bullet but it does help," says Gaynor.

Sara Jayne Stanes, chair of the UK Academy of Chocolate is a self-confessed chocolate snob. She will be speaking in Dublin this weekend at the Temple Bar festival and trying to encourage people to buy real chocolate of the type made by the Irish artisan producers there.

The most popular type of brand-name chocolate bars she describes as chocolate confectionary. "They're nothing like real chocolate. They're so full of sugar and have a minimum amount of cocoa in them. The real stuff has such an intense, complex flavour," she says.

But what about the coming chocolate famine? "I'm not convinced there's going to be a big problem. There's never really been a global issue with production. Over the centuries if crops in one area are wiped out the centre of production moves elsewhere," she adds.

"Besides, I think chocolate lovers will always pay for good chocolate."

Of course there is an upside for at least 50% of the population if a scary chocolate shortage does come to pass. Without a chocolate fix to sate them, the majority of women will just have to indulge more in their second-favourite activity.

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