To the ancient Mayans, it was the food of the gods. Nineteenth-century Cubans used it as an aphrodisiac. In the 20th century American culinary authority Fannie Farmer recommended its “stimulating effect” for “cases of enfeebled digestion.” Throughout history people have prized cocoa—the defining ingredient of chocolate—a tradition that endures in our modern era. This Valentine’s Day alone Americans will drop a projected $700 million on chocolate. Around the world people spend more than $90 billion a year on the treat. And with appetite on the rise thanks to expanding population size and growing numbers of people in the developing world who can afford chocolate, demand may outstrip supply in the near future.

All this cocoa production does more than feed our collective sweet tooth: the five million to six million farmers in the tropics who cultivate the cacao trees from which cocoa is produced rely on the sales of the seeds to feed themselves and their families. Workers extract the seeds (often called beans) from football-shaped pods and then ferment and dry them to form cocoa liquor, butter and powder. The livelihoods of another 40 million to 50 million depend on the long production road the cacao seeds travel from farm to candy on store shelves. In Ivory Coast, which produces 40 percent of the world’s cocoa, such farming accounts for a full 15 percent of GDP and employs 5 percent of households.

This article was originally published with the title The Future of Chocolate in Scientific American.