For its manufacturers, the impression that dark chocolate is nutritious has become sweet news indeed. And the response has been that Americans have certainly begun to consume more of it -- with bittersweet results.
In 1995, 20 percent of Americans preferred dark chocolate, as compared to 80 percent for milk chocolate. But by 2005, tastes had changed, with 37 percent of chocolate fans preferring dark, and the remainder opting for milk, according to Clay Gordon, editor of Chocophile.com.
One reason for the new converts is that chocolate companies have picked up on consumer demand for "healthy" chocolate, and are marketing their product as nutritious. Some nutritionists believe this sort of advertising just helps chocoholics justify eating candy -- and that the added fat and calories outweigh the nutritional benefits.
But recent stagnation in the American chocolate market has left confectioners desperate for a golden bullet.
"Chocolate sales have been relatively static for years, so companies see much room for growth -- obesity be damned," said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.
The popularity of "healthy" dark chocolate continues to increase, but skeptics frown on the scientific studies that chocolate companies love to cite.
"One study has shown a longevity association and reduced cardiac risk, but has not shown causality," said David Siegel, who leads dark-chocolate tasting parties through his New York-based company WowCacao!
"There are no clear trial results from credibly designed and executed studies," he added.
Tea or Yum-Yum: You Decide
Chocolate studies often mention flavanols, metabolites in cacao with antioxidant properties. These can also be found in items like green tea, red wine and some fruits, which don't have chocolate's cream or sugar. (Milk- and white-chocolate varieties are not usually claimed to be especially healthy, as they contain insignificant amounts of pure cacao.)
The other problem with these claims is that most people don't eat enough chocolate to reap the health benefits, and so its fat and calories outweigh its nutritional advantages, according to experts.
Mars, Inc. -- maker of M&Ms and Snickers -- has a "heart-healthy" line called CocoaVia, which promises at least 100 mgs of flavanols, but they also contain up to 150 calories. Meanwhile, a cup of green tea contains an average of 172 mgs of flavanols, with essentially no calories or fat.
"If someone is truly interested in the health benefits of chocolate, they should be consuming low-fat, natural, non-Dutch processed cocoa powder," says Gordon. For example, a tablespoon of unsweetened natural cocoa powder by Scharffen Berger (owned by Hershey) has just 20 calories.
That doesn't deter the chocolate industry. Mars in 2006 introduced Dark Chocolate M&M's to its cache of permanent products. Hershey is not far behind, purchasing Dagoba Organic Chocolate Company in October 2006. Dagoba insists its $3 candy bars lower blood pressure, increase athletic stamina and raise serotonin levels to fight depression.
Many chocolate connoisseurs do prefer dark chocolate to other varieties. But they usually reject the idea of eating it for health reasons.
"People worry about this food or that food being healthy, when what we know for sure is that serious regular exercise and a calorie-limited diet are the only two things shown to reduce heart disease and help people live longer," explained Siegel, who sticks to eating only two small squares of chocolate a day.
"If anything," he added, "the placebo effect is probably at least as responsible for any particular health benefits, so let's declare it healthy, and let people enjoy some chocolate!"