It might be the sweetest Sunday of the year.
Chocolate bunnies, chicks, lambs and an assortment of other confectionary characters will make their way into Easter baskets today.
"It's about celebrating the holiday and family tradition," said Don Ruggery Jr., owner of McIntyre's Candies in Altoona.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
An Easter basket is filled with a variety of milk, dark and white chocolate candy from Dutch Hill Chocolates, Altoona, made just for the holiday.
Chocolate bunnies are the top Easter treat for 33 percent of Americans, according to the National Confectioners Association. Twenty percent prefer jelly beans, and cream-filled eggs and marshmallow bunnies or chicks are tied at 11 percent each.
Chocolate alligators and pigs were popular at McIntyre's this year, though Ruggery couldn't put his finger on exactly why.
But whether it's molded into a bunny, giant reptile or farm animal, chocolate isn't just chocolate.
The first chocolate eggs were made in Europe in the early 19th century and remain among the most popular treats
associated with Easter.
90 million chocolate Easter bunnies are made for Easter each year. Easter is the second top-selling confectionery holiday behind Halloween.
76 percent of people eat the ears on chocolate bunnies first.
65 percent of American chocolate eaters prefer milk chocolate.
98.6 The melting point of cocoa butter is just below the human body temperature (98.6 degrees), which is why it literally melts in your mouth.
Source: National Confectioners Association
All about chocolate
The Food and Drug Administration has established Standards of Identity for many chocolate and cocoa products. These standards designate the percentage of key ingredients that must be present.
n Milk chocolate: A combination of chocolate liquor (not alcohol), cocoa butter, sugar and milk or cream. Milk chocolate must contain at least 10 percent chocolate liquor and at least 12 percent total milk ingredients.
n Sweet chocolate: A combination of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and sugar but contains at least 15 percent chocolate liquor.
n Semisweet or bittersweet chocolate: A combination of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and sugar but contains at least 35 percent chocolate liquor. Sweet chocolate and semisweet chocolate are often called dark chocolate.
n White chocolate: Made from the same ingredients as milk chocolate (cocoa butter, milk, sugar) but without the nonfat cocoa solids. In 2002, the FDA established a standard of identity for white chocolate. White chocolate must contain at least 20 percent cocoa butter and 14 percent total milk ingredients.
n Cocoa: Cocoa is the product made by removing part of the fat (cocoa butter) from the cocoa beans and grinding the remaining material minus the shell.
There's milk, dark and white, for starters, and different qualities of each type. The quality of chocolate begins with the quality of the cocoa bean and depends on how it's processed, said Sam Phillips, president of Gardners Candies in Tyrone.
"It's just like coffee - there are good beans and bad beans," Phillips said. "Different beans have different aromas, different textures. .... Cocoa butter, milk, sugar content are all factors that make high quality chocolate what it is."
Most customers at Dutch Hill Chocolates in Altoona prefer milk chocolate, owner Jerry Moore said. Milk chocolate - which is chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, milk and sugar - reigns supreme year-round, though white chocolate (cocoa butter, sugar, milk solids, lethicin and vanilla) hits its peak popularity at Easter.
The same is true at McIntyre's, Ruggery said.
"The color itself (of white chocolate) is associated with the risen Christ, and it looks nice," he said.
Those trends mirror what Phillips sees across the area. He said chocolate preferences vary across the country.
"Milk chocolate in Pennsylvania and Ohio is lighter in color than the popular milk chocolates in New England," he said. "There's more milk in it; it's sweeter. In Tyrone and central Pennsyl-vania, our chocolate sales, milk chocolate to dark chocolate, is 90 to 10. In New York and New Jersey, it's 50/50."
While the New York metropolitan area and the West Coast prefer dark chocolates, Phillips said Midwesterners go for a milk chocolate that's lighter and sweeter than the milk chocolate central Pennsylvanians prefer.
"It's got to do with a lot of German history as opposed to French and Italian history," he said. "I don't have a set answer, but there are trends, and different chocolates preferred everywhere."
Dark chocolate - which has made headlines recently for the health benefits of its flavonoid and antioxidant content - is made of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and sugar.
Moore said her dark chocolate is 58 percent cocoa, and it's not as popular for Easter gifts.
"The healthy chocolate is more of a bitter chocolate," she said. "And most people don't want that."
Most people coming through the doors of a chocolate shop aren't concerned with health content or calorie counts, both Ruggery and Moore said.
"I think that if you want a piece of candy, it doesn't matter," Moore said.
Still, for those keeping track, a 1.4-ounce milk chocolate bar has about 210 calories, according to the National Confectioners Association.
If you're concerned about the amount of chocolate your child is consuming, you may want to ration his Easter basket goods, said Dona Baughman, clinical nutrition manager and registered dietitian at Altoona Regional Health System, Altoona Hospital Campus.
"It's individual," Baughman said. "If it's a skinny little kid out running around who has trouble putting on weight, they can have as much candy as they want ... but if it's a kid who's having trouble with his weight and choosing bad foods all the time, you may have to ration."
No matter how active the child is, chocolate shouldn't replace meals, even on Easter.
"If they eat six candy bars, they probably won't eat dinner," Baughman said, "and dinner is what they need. They might get sick from eating too much stuff that isn't good for them. You want them to have a nice variety of foods."
As for adults?
"It's moderation, and that's what we tell everybody," Baughman said. "On Easter, it's not going to hurt you to have a peanut butter egg or two, but I wouldn't recommend they eat candy every day."
Not eating all of your chocolate right away? It can be stored for up to two years, Moore said, though chocolate with peanut butter filling should be eaten within six months.
Mirror Staff Writer Ashley Gurbal is at 946-7435.