DARK FUTURE SEEN FOR CHOCOLATE SALES

PITTSBURGH - Demand for dark chocolate is so sweet that Giant Eagle here is cross-merchandising the candy in its wine department, a first for the chain.Giant Eagle is placing Hershey and Ghirardelli dark chocolates near its red wines to appeal to consumers who are aware of the health benefits - and food pairing opportunities - of chocolate and wine.While dark chocolate has always performed well at

PITTSBURGH - Demand for dark chocolate is so sweet that Giant Eagle here is cross-merchandising the candy in its wine department, a first for the chain.

Giant Eagle is placing Hershey and Ghirardelli dark chocolates near its red wines to appeal to consumers who are aware of the health benefits - and food pairing opportunities - of chocolate and wine.

While dark chocolate has always performed well at Giant Eagle, sales growth is now in the double digits, said Tim Tackett, Giant Eagle's category manager.

"We've had great success with it over the last year," he said.

Retailers may see continued sales growth over the next few years. The dark chocolate market is expected to soar 61% to $668 million in 2010 from $414 million in 2005, according to Datamonitor, a market analysis firm.

In comparison, the overall chocolate market is expected to grow 22% to $17.8 billion from $14 billion in the same time period, according to Datamonitor.

The predicted upswing comes at a time when dark chocolate is being touted for its health benefits, specifically cocoa flavanols, which are naturally occurring antioxidants like those found in red wine and green tea. Flavanols are said to benefit cardiovascular health.

"Dark chocolate has always appealed to older demographics," Tackett said. "But now a whole new group of health-oriented consumers have come into the category."

In response, Giant Eagle has increased the number of dark chocolate SKUs to 18 from 10.

Tackett said the category is getting a boost from manufacturers that are promoting their products' reported health advantages.

"Be Good to Your Heart Every Day" is the tag line for Mars' CocoaVia, a line of chocolates that have concentrated amounts of cocoa flavanols, 3 grams of fat or less, and fewer than 100 calories, plus calcium and added vitamins.

The dark-chocolate trend was evident at the Food Marketing Institute's recent annual show.

Among new products showcased were Hershey's new Extra Dark line, in Pure Dark; Pure Dark with cranberries, blueberries and almonds; and Pure Dark with macadamias and cranberries; and NestlT's Dark Chocolate Raisinets, Treasures and Turtles.

Hershey also announced preliminary results of a Yale University study that showed that drinking either sweetened or sugar-free hot cocoa made with Hershey's natural cocoa powder can improve arterial function.

Chocolate is the only naturally functional candy in the United States, with reported health benefits equal to those reported for wine and tea, said John Band, senior analyst for Datamonitor.

"The health studies benefit chocolate and wine because they provide an excuse for consumers to consume something that they wanted to consume anyway," Band said, adding, "If people were being serious about heart health, they'd eat spinach instead."