DARK HORSE

Like red wine, dark chocolate is being promoted as an indulgence with scientifically proven health benefits. Retailers are stocking their shelves with new chocolate bars, candies and even select Center Store items made with the cacao-rich confection. Chains are also working overtime to educate shoppers about the antioxidants in dark chocolate, as well as the phytochemicals plant substances that have

Like red wine, dark chocolate is being promoted as an indulgence with scientifically proven health benefits. Retailers are stocking their shelves with new chocolate bars, candies and even select Center Store items made with the cacao-rich confection.

Chains are also working overtime to educate shoppers about the antioxidants in dark chocolate, as well as the phytochemicals — plant substances that have health benefits.

A Southern Season, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based gourmet market specializing in high-end foods and gift baskets, uses an array of posters and shelf talkers to tout the functional compounds in dark chocolate. The independent retailer routinely offers samples throughout its store. Customers are also invited to take cooking classes hosted by prominent chocolatiers that feature dark chocolate as the main ingredient.

Much of the attention is focused on maintaining the chain's massive selection of dark chocolate bars, including a few unusual flavors, noted A Southern Season's candy buyer, Joyce Fowler.

“One new chocolate bar that has really impressed our staff and customers is Hachez [Dark] 77% [Chocolate] with Mango and Chili,” she said. “I sell more than 500 SKUs in my chocolate bar section, so I'm always on the lookout for new additions.”

Fowler is not alone in her quest. Five years ago, the average number of dark chocolate SKUs in total U.S. food, drug, convenience and mass merchandiser outlets excluding Wal-Mart was 17, but today the number is quickly approaching 50, according to The Nielsen Co., Schaumburg, Ill.

Dark chocolate has become so popular in the U.S. that the category's sales increased 122.6% in the past five years alone, a growth rate eight times that of the entire candy category, according to Nielsen.

At A Southern Season, dark chocolate outsells milk chocolate at least 3 to 1, Fowler told SN.

“This is a reflection of our customers' constant pursuit of the [newest products], but it's also a health-driven trend,” she said.

Dark chocolate sales are up thanks to the health benefits and to retailers' efforts to carry a large assortment of different products, said Jim Hertel, managing director for consulting firm Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill.

“The added benefit for dark chocolate is that the health buzz around it can take some of the guilt out of the impulse purchase,” he said. “That's because the shopper's mind-set goes from ‘I want it, but I really shouldn't’ to ‘I want it, and it's pretty good for me, too.’ I don't think that retailers have to go above and beyond what communication suppliers' materials offer, though — carrying a good variety at both popular and premium price points should make the point that they're ‘in the business’ and allow them to take advantage of the buzz.”

The “buzz” is all about the flavonoids in dark chocolate, such as epicatechin and catechin, which are the same healthy antioxidants found in red wine and tea, said Judy Dodd, food and nutrition advisor for Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh.

“These antioxidants have been known to decrease oxidation in the body, helping reduce LDL cholesterol and reduce the chances of accumulating plaque in the arteries,” she said. “They also work a lot like aspirin, promoting blood flow, and flavonoids can help lower blood pressure.”

EVERYTHING IN MODERATION

Despite these benefits, Dodd cautions retailers against promoting such characteristics in the wrong way.

“Each consumer has a unique genetic makeup, so they may or may not benefit from the phytochemicals in dark chocolate, and people need to be careful about interactions with prescription medicines, too,” she said. “Retailers can help promote the health benefits to a certain degree, but as a rule of thumb, consumers should continue to eat candy as a treat, not as medicine.”

Some people might get confused by how much they can eat and still get the health benefits,” said Jim Wisner, president, The Wisner Group, Libertyville, Ill.

“There's a J-shaped curve here. The risk for cardiovascular disease declines as you have some dark chocolate, but the risk goes back up at a certain point, so it's important to promote eating this or anything in moderation,” he said. “Retailers can make some vague claims, but much beyond that, and they'll risk being misinterpreted.”

Dodd concurred, adding that “at 210 calories for a meager 1.4 ounces, serving size should certainly be a consideration.” She expects consumers to continue purchasing dark chocolate products in years to come, especially those that bear fair trade and organic certifications.

“The health and wellness movement can easily be dovetailed with the fair trade movement in stores,” said Rickard Werner, director of dry grocery for Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo.

Wild Oats merchandises 50 dark chocolate bars at its locations. One of its top sellers is the organic Maya Gold bar made by Green & Black's, the first U.K. company to be awarded the Fairtrade Mark back in 1994. It's the U.K. equivalent of the United States' Fair Trade Certified label, said Werner.

However, the retailer's stores are loaded with other dark chocolate bars, most of which bear the percentage of cacao in the bar prominently on the packaging.

“Manufacturers are putting callouts on their packaging to highlight the health benefits of dark chocolate,” he said. “We've helped promote the health benefits by incorporating dark chocolate into our Super Food promotion, an educational campaign that focuses on the health benefits of foods like blueberries and, now, dark chocolate.”

Finding a place to display the abundance of new cacao-crammed products isn't difficult for Wild Oats, since dark chocolate is perceived as a gourmet item, like most of the chain's other offerings, said Werner.

In food service, for example, where there are sometimes waterfalls of melted cheese, there are now waterfalls of dark chocolate, too. Shippers of dark chocolate bars are also used in many different departments at Wild Oats, and there are usually a couple of stand-alone displays up front by the registers and just outside the candy aisles, he said.

The retailer frequently cross-merchandises its dark chocolates with everything from cheese to wine.

“From a cross-merchandising point of view, we treat dark chocolate — particularly the more ‘artisan-type’ candies — like [we treat] gourmet cheese, putting them with a wide variety of other gourmet items,” said Werner.

The increase in dark chocolate sales at Dorothy Lane Markets, Dayton, Ohio, is more of a shift than a lift, said Tom Winter, grocery manager for the retailer.

“Sales have gone up on dark chocolate candies in our stores, but we're not necessarily selling more chocolate overall,” said Winter. “Instead, shoppers seem to be buying dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate.”

The dark chocolates made in-house at Dorothy Lane and the artisan indulgences made by the retailer's renowned guest chocolatier, Ghyslain, have been selling particularly well, he added.

Ghyslain has even created two DLM chocolate bars made from the Criollo variety of cacao. One contains 64% dark chocolate made with cacao from Guayaquil, a region in Ecuador whose Criollo cacao is known for its intensity of flavor. The other is a milk chocolate bar made with 38% Maracaibo, another type of Criollo that hails from Venezuela.

PRODUCT LINEUP

Chocolate giants The Hershey Co. and Mars Inc. have long dominated the candy bar category, and with consumers demanding healthier snack options, it's no surprise that these companies now have plenty of dark chocolate products as well.

Hershey recently added Antioxidant Milk Chocolate and Whole Bean Chocolate to its Hershey's Goodness portfolio. The new chocolates, available in 3-ounce bars and 4.2-ounce pouches, join the company's three Extra Dark Chocolate bars, which debuted in 2005. In addition, Hershey's premium lines, including Cacao Reserve by Hershey's, Dagoba and Scharffen Berger, include dark chocolate items.

“The dark chocolate category continues to develop and grow,” said Kirk Saville, Hershey's spokesman. “Household penetration has increased significantly, quadrupling in the past four years.”

Mars and its Master Foods division have also added a number of dark chocolate products to the market in the past few years, including dark chocolate varieties of Snickers, plain M&Ms, Dove tablet bars, chocolate-covered almonds and sugar-free chocolate candies in raspberry, mint and double chocolate crème flavors.

The company also markets CocoVia, a dark chocolate bar fortified with folic acid and vitamins B12, C and E, with a total of 100 calories or less per bar and around 3 grams of saturated fat.

This month, Master Foods will launch a slew of new products, including Dove Extra Dark Chocolate 3.5-ounce bars with either 63% or 71% cacao, and Dove Promises with 63% cacao.

“We will also be introducing a line of Dove Origin tablet bars that are based on the regions where the cocoa beans they are made with grow — in either Ghana, Ecuador or the Dominican Republic,” said Ryan Bowling, spokesman for Master Foods. “Each one has a distinct taste based on the region, much like the different flavors of wine. People are getting more sophisticated in their taste for chocolate, so this line is perfect for today's consumer.”

Master Foods is also promoting the health benefits of dark chocolate, with “an excellent source of flavonoids” and “healthy heart” icons on much of its packaging, said Bowling.

Wild Oats carries dark chocolate concoctions made by major manufacturers as well as organic bars from Green & Black's, said Werner.

A Southern Season sells a lot of Lindt and Godiva bars, but exotic flavors from overseas chocolatiers are what the retailer's customers want most, said Fowler.

“We also sell lots of 90% Wawel bars from Poland, exceptional Santander bars from Colombia and Bonnat bars from France,” she said. “Our Bar of the Month for May was a 70% cacao bar from Latvia.”

BEYOND THE BAR

Candy bars aside, food makers are drizzling the sweet treat into some Center Store items such as cereal and energy bars. However, unlike with past trends, manufacturers aren't trying to force the flavor on products that aren't appropriate, said Werner.

“The low-carb and herbally enhanced product craze from a few years ago helped [manufacturers] understand how to put their ingredients where they will work, so we're not seeing dark chocolate in odd places like in Gruyère cheese,” he told SN. “We have seen it in Bear Naked Granola cereal and in energy bars enrobed in dark chocolate.”

Dark chocolate baking bars are a hit at Highland Park Markets, Glastonbury, Conn. So are gourmet hot chocolate mixes blended with dark chocolate, said Jason Dieterle, grocery manager for the retailer.

“Sales of dark chocolate-covered Häagen-Dazs and Dove ice cream bars are going up [at Dorothy Lane Markets],” said Winter.

Kellogg's is getting in on the action too. The Battle Creek, Mich.-based breakfast cereal manufacturer is currently trying out a new line of Special K Bliss cereals — containing Special K flakes and either dark chocolate-covered strawberries, raspberries or oranges as mix-ins — in the U.K.

The company wouldn't comment on whether U.S. retailers will ever stock their shelves with Special K Bliss, but a spokesman for Kellogg's said the line “is being hailed as the best-tasting Special K products yet.”