A report in the Lancet has cast doubt on health claims made for dark chocolate.

The claimed health benefits of dark chocolate have been brought into question by a new report which shows how many manufacturers actually remove flavanol, an antioxidant that is believed to help protect the heart, because of its bitter taste. However, with dark chocolate sales soaring, manufacturers are not likely to lose their focus on the candy any time soon.

The medical journal The Lancet's report into dark chocolate commented that consumers are being kept in the dark about the flavanol content of chocolate, with bars rarely containing the information on their labels. The high levels of fat, sugar and calories in chocolate also make them less healthy than consumers perceive, the journal noted.

Sales of dark chocolate have soared in recent years, partly in response to reports that it is good for you. Most recently, the journal Circulation showed that flavanol-rich chocolate caused blood vessels to open up improving heart function. Sales are predicted to continue to rise; in the UK, Datamonitor forecasts sales to climb 48% from 2006 to 2010, to reach a market value of $362.8 million in 2010.

Major chocolate manufacturers have responded to this growth by enhancing their dark chocolate portfolios. In the UK, Nestle has introduced, among others, Kit Kat Dark bar, while Cadbury has relaunched its Bournville dark chocolate range in new packaging. In addition, Mars has been promoting a dark chocolate bar in the US since 2005 that specifically makes healthy claims related to its flavanol content, recommending that consumers should eat two bars a day to gain the full benefits of its healthy ingredients.

One chocolate company that has an edge over the others in terms of its health claims is UK-based Prestat, which has recently launched Choxi+ chocolate bars. This product is said to contain two to three times more antioxidants than regular chocolate due to its careful cooking process - the ingredients are gently cooked over a low heat. However, even this bar has its unhealthy elements, as it makes no claims to contain less fat, sugar or calories than conventional bars.

While health has been one reason for dark chocolate's rising prominence, the candy has also benefited from the premium trend, with consumers upgrading to dark chocolate in the belief that it is higher quality than milk chocolate and therefore better tasting. Even if reports into dark chocolate's dubious health claims continue to emerge, the candy is likely to continue its high growth rate based on its premium reputation. Manufacturers could therefore expect to see rising demand for their dark chocolate brands for the foreseeable future.

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