Purists may question why natural and health foods stores stock chocolate at all, but pragmatists know that it sells, and advocates argue that its potential health attributes outweigh its hefty fat and calorie content.
Recent research is building the slender body of evidence in favor of chocolate. In August, both Nature magazine and the Journal of the American Medical Association reported small studies that suggested dark chocolate consumed without milk (but not milk chocolate) may increase blood levels of antioxidants and decrease blood pressure.
In addition, manufacturers' changes are making chocolate more palatable to health- and ethics-conscious consumers. There are more than 1,000 different chocolate bars in today's marketplace, many tailored to specialty consumers: no additives or artificial ingredients; no cane sugar or non-cocoa fat; smaller sizes (often at higher prices); fair-trade; organic; functional food claims; higher chocolate content; varietal; nondairy; specialty packaging. Still, chocolate producers continue to add new product offerings. What are they cooking up now?
Smaller sizes, more content
"Two years ago, when 3- to 3.5-ounce bars were standard, we did 2-ounce bars to be different and keep price points down," says Dagoba Organic Chocolate Co. founder Frederick Schilling. With more small-size and bite-size competition, Central Point, Ore.-based Dagoba will introduce a smaller, $1 bar in existing flavors, and a new flavor, an 87 percent cacao dark chocolate, called Eclipse.
Ninety-eight percent of Dagoba's inclusions are certified organic, and its chocolates, currently all fair trade, are slated to be fair-trade certified by late 2003. "We're varietal by default, because only a few FTC cooperatives grow cacao beans," Schilling says. "Organic production is also low, so organic beans cost more, but more growers will respond to the increased market. Organic prices should decrease, although fair trade prices won't." Schilling has developed more than a dozen flavors, including beBig Flavors in Little Packagesst sellers New Moon (74 percent cacao), Lavender, Lime and Roseberry, with dried raspberries and organic rose hips.
Affected by climate, disease, world politics and farmers' processing expertise, cacao bean prices have more than tripled in the past four years, says Robert Steinberg, co-founder of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker Inc. of Berkeley, Calif. "We use beans from eight or nine countries, and we're looking into fair trade," he says. Scharffen Berger's 1-ounce bars are strong sellers, and it recently introduced stamp-sized, 5-gram squares in mint, mocha (with Peet's coffee), 70 percent bittersweet and 62 percent semisweet. The company's chocolate is certified Kosher.
NewTree's new miniboxes of three, one-third-ounce minibars are designed to promote the company's products that don't contain genetically modified ingredients. In addition, "Every flavor combines plants and fruits with specific health benefits," says Tempe Reichardt, president of NewTree USA, a division of the Belgian confectioner based in Grand Haven, Mich. "Milk chocolate Serenity bars contain lavender oils and lime flowers for relaxing properties and sedative effects that relieve nervousness, fatigue and sleeping problems." Although labels note one bar provides the same effects as three cups of lime blossom tea, "The 2.82-ounce bar isn't intended for one-time consumption," says Reichardt. "I don't know anyone who could eat it in a single sitting." Other flavors are even more intense.
Many retailers position snack-size chocolates at check-out aisles: cartons of Endangered Species Bug Bites; buckets of foil-wrapped Lindt truffle balls; displays of Dolphin's equally colorful, foil-wrapped, barley-sweetened versions in espresso, mint, raspberry and other flavors.
"Consumers typically buy handfuls of little bars and bite-size chocolates," says Carol Cancelli, demo coordinator and chocolate expert at The Heritage Store, Virginia Beach, Va. But rather than restricting chocolate bars to their own section, store managers place them at the registers for both impulse buys and planned purchases. Low-carb bars are grouped in one aisle, but customers check different aisles for different choices, and ask for what they don't see.
"We have extremely conscious consumers," says Cancelli. "When fair-trade chocolate is not available, they comment—and at least 30 percent ask for it and buy the Dagoba and Green & Black's we carry. A lot of consumers are 100 percent organic, so organic chocolate sells very well, accounting for about 50 percent of our products and sales."
The Heritage Store's top seller, Pure De-lite, is sugar-free and caters to people avoiding sugar and carbohydrates. The store also carries Carbolite and Kristen's Low-Carb chocolate bars and truffles. "It's a big trend because of the Atkins diet, especially among women," Cancelli says. But serious chocolate consumers prefer other brands, particularly in smaller sizes.
"Customers are also willing to pay more for smaller bars, such as $2.89 for a 2-ounce Dagoba, and even more for other specialty bars," she says. "Since they're smaller than the typical 3-ounce bars, they feel less guilt eating a smaller bar in one sitting."
Consumers accustomed to additive-filled, paraffin-laden American chocolate may not know what they're missing. Cancelli introduces new brands with six-hour demos, offering every flavor, either individually wrapped or in tiny paper cups. There's just one problem. "Good chocolate is like potato chips," she says. "Once you taste it, it's very hard to stop."
Fort Collins, Colo.-based writer and editor Wendy L. Bonifazi, R.N., C.L.S., A.P.R., is a senior staff writer for Nursing Spectrum and editor of Alzheimer's Advice and Advances.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 11/p. 18, 20