By Kimberly J. Decker, Contributing Editor
Paul Frantellizzi thinks we should all just give up the guilt and make like the ancients. The founder and CEO of Good Cacao, Boise, ID, notes the “many recent articles and studies now surfacing to confirm what the Mayan culture knew all along: Chocolate is good for you." To those of us who always considered a premium bar a bit of an over-the-counter “wonder drug, “this comes as little surprise. But to others—enamored of the notion that whatever tastes good must be bad for you—it flies in the face of conventional wisdom.
But convention isn’t what it used to be, as more of us accept that a judiciously savored (and strategically formulated) candy bar need not oblige one to do penance. “The response we’ve gotten has been huge," Frantellizzi says of his company’s organic “functional" chocolates. But no shine from a healthy halo can supplant what’s made candy bars so irresistible all along: pure sensory pleasure. As he says, “I have always believed that acceptance of chocolate’s health benefits will come with a great-tasting, quality product." Now consumers can believe right along with him, as manufacturers crank out confections that put the health in the healthy indulgence.
Benefits without borders
The glow surrounding functional candy bars is one more symptom of the weakening link between product category and presumed health benefits. As Richard Mueller, chief executive officer, Biothera, Eagan, MN, says: “We’re seeing every type of food and beverage being developed to deliver benefits, like immune support. In chocolates, for example, why not make this sweet indulgence functional through ingredients that provide health?"
Kerry Johnson Anthony, president, Xan Confections, Irvine, CA, credits consumer education with increasing acceptance. “Customers love the idea of being able to eat a great-tasting chocolate that has the added benefits of ingredients such as Wellmune WGP; DHA; CoQ10; folic acid; vitamins A, C, D3 and E; iron; and calcium," she says. “Healthy doesn’t have to be boring or medicinal. You can mix indulgence and daily vitamins without sacrificing taste or healthful benefits."
Mixing indulgence with nutrition appeals to Gen Xers like Johnson Anthony herself. “We’re at the age when maintaining good health has become a reality, but we still believe that some things, like chocolate, should never taste bad," she says. Xan’s CocoPreggers truffles, fortified with vegetarian DHA and folic acid, target expectant moms, while CocoBrain, also made with vitamins and DHA, is popular with moms looking for a snack to give Junior. “Kids enjoy the chocolate," Johnson Anthony says, “and parents can be happy knowing that their children are consuming a blend of healthy vitamins."
The mommy market, in fact, may be a key driver of healthful candies. “Mothers searching for healthy alternatives for their kids are the biggest target group of consumer," says Bill Bonner, senior vice president, R&D, Viterra/21st Century Grain Processing, Kansas City, MO. “They’ve grown up in the shadow of cereal bars and are very familiar with the products and claims for whole grains, fiber and protein delivery." In his experience, whole-grain oats, multigrain blends, ancient grains, fiber and protein are among “the most-often-requested components that we deal with," which doesn’t surprise him: “This isn’t much of a stretch when you consider that expanded rice has long been a component in chocolate bars."
Candy, or energy?
With grains, vitamins and nutraceuticals slipping into souped-up candy bars, it becomes tougher to distinguish them from their sports-nutrition cousins—or vice versa. So who’s influencing whom? Bonner sees makers of energy, granola and cereal bars as raising the stakes for their confectionery counterparts. “By means of bottom enrobing, a top drizzle or even, in some cases, total enrobing, these manufacturers have continued to blur the line," he says. “That requires typical confectionery marketers to react with similar products."
The back-and-forth dates back to 1986, when Mars introduced its Kudos cereal bar. “That was designed to be pretty close to a Snickers-type bar, but made with healthier ingredients," says Robert Boutin, executive vice president and co-owner, Knechtel Research Sciences, Inc., Skokie, IL. And indeed, the varieties in Kudos’ current lineup—M&Ms, Snickers, chocolate chip and peanut butter—make no apologies for their sweet-shop inspirations.
The bottom line, Boutin says, is that “there is no line anymore" between purportedly good-for-you bars and candy. A look at each category’s typical calorie and fat contents underscores this. As granola bars continue to evolve, “consumer appeal and taste in some cases are put ahead of nutritional values," he notes. “Some candy bars are better for you than nutraceutical bars." Consider Snickers, he suggests. “It has milk in the chocolate, milk or dairy protein in the nougat center and the caramel, and peanuts with protein."
The food of the gods
As Frantellizzi notes, chocolate has plenty going for it even without the help of peanuts and nougat. Among nutrition-savvy consumers, its mere mention calls to mind polyphenol antioxidants, flavonoids, catechins, phenylethylamine (a.k.a., “the chocolate drug"), heart-healthy compounds, mood enhancers and more.