Why Dark Is the New Black
By Corey Hajim

(FORTUNE Magazine) – These are dark days for the U.S. chocolate business--and that's a good thing. After decades of feeding Americans the same old milky product, the industry has gotten a big boost recently from a run on the darker stuff. According to ACNielsen, sales of dark chocolate have grown almost 31% over the past five years compared with 8% for the category overall. And the major manufacturers are racing to bring out new products. In August, Hershey acquired high-end chocolatier Scharffen Berger, and in September the chocolate giant introduced a new bar called Extra Dark. Then in October, Mars rolled out its CocoaVia line of dark chocolate bars in the healthy-snack aisle of stores like Wal-Mart and Target.

Why the sudden splurge? Most experts attribute it to a series of studies over the past few years--by the likes of Yale, Harvard, and Cornell--that suggest dark chocolate promotes cardiovascular health. Not all the scientists, however, agree on the details. Dr. David Katz, who directs Yale University's Prevention Research Center, performed tests using Hershey's Extra Dark and found that chocolate with about a 60% cocoa content delivers a potent concentration of flavanols (heart-healthy phytochemicals) to the consumer. But Mars scientist Dr. Harold Schmitz, who researches cocoa in the jungles of Brazil, insists dark chocolate is not, in itself, healthy, and says only Mars's propriety process guarantees the capture of heart-healthy benefits.

Whatever the case, the selection just keeps getting richer. Mars expects to be selling CocoaVia in 1,000 retail outlets by the end of the year. Hershey's Scharffen Berger brand will be expanding its dark chocolate product lines, and next summer Godiva plans to roll out a new extra-dark dipping chocolate. Prepare your strawberries!