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    Dark Chocolate Product Intros Soar

    Sales up 40 percent in the last year.

    Chocolate candy makers are flocking to the dark side, with dark chocolate accounting for a third of total chocolate candy introductions in the United States, roughly double the 15.5 percent share that dark chocolate launches held for the category as recently as 2002, according to Datamonitor's Productscan Online.

    Dark-chocolate candy introductions this year hit 278 compared to last year's 12-month total of 217. Consumers are supporting many of the new products, as reports that dark chocolate can actually be heart-healthful have sent sales soaring 40 percent in a year, according to AdAge.com and Mintel International.

    Dark chocolate hit $1.62 billion last year in the United States, leaping 29 percent between 2003 and 2005, Mintel International reported.

    One-fourth of households have dark chocolate on hand, up from only 8 percent in the last two year. "This is a real consumer behavior change," Chris Baldwin, senior VP-president of Hershey's U.S. commercial group, told AdAge.com. Hershey's sales of Special Dark chocolate have climbed 37 percent this year.

    Mars lays claim to nearly 80 percent of the research fueling the fervor over the cardiovascular benefits of antioxidant-rich cocoa flavanols. It is marketing Dove Dark, a nutrition-aisle product dubbed CocoaVia, M&M's Dark and limited-time Snickers Dark. Hershey offers Special Dark and Extra Dark, a mass-premium Cacao Reserve by Hershey's line to be introduced next month, and newly acquired superpremium brands from Scharffen Berger and Joseph Schmidt.

    "There is an enormous opportunity for consumers to trade up in the world of chocolate," Mr. Baldwin said.

    Herhsey's Special Dark has received new packaging that proclaims it a "natural source of flavanol antioxidants," as well as increased distribution and advertising. Although Hershey spent only $5 million in telelvision time on Special Dark in the first three months of this year, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, sales shot up 37.4 percent to $36 million for the 52 weeks ended July 16 in food, drug and mass merchandisers.

    The new Cacao Reserve by Hershey will be priced at 99 cents to $1.19 a bar vs. 79 cents for Special Dark, according to AdAge.com. Hershey's launches of Cacao Reserve bars and premium drinking cocoa in September will be followed in December by Cacao Truffle Tins and Country of Origin bars, all of which will feature labels with the history of the cacao bean, where the product came from and its flavor profile. It will "look and read much like a wine bottle," Baldwin said, and Cacao Reserve will indeed be merchandised in-store on wine racks.

    The launch will be heralded with "high-influencer event marketing," such as an Aug. 31 bash at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for food-and-wine-magazine editors.

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