Candy as health food

by Keith Nunes
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Confectioners have been expanding their market reach, taking their products beyond the indulgent snack market and trying to establish a foothold in the energy and health segments. The result has been for leading confectionery companies to implement initiatives designed to establish their positions as health leaders.

This past July, Mars, Inc., Hackettstown, N.J., launched a new business unit called Mars Nutrition for Health & Well-Being, which is designed to develop and introduce new foods, snacks and beverages to serve the nutritional and well-being needs of consumers.

"Our unit’s mission is to be a trusted partner in healthy lifestyles, enabling consumers to look, perform and feel their best everyday," said Michael Mars, president of the new business unit.

Mars said the move into the health and nutrition area is consistent with its portfolio diversification, starting with its early roots in chocolate and expanding into savory snacks, pet food, main meals and beverages.

"There’s more to Mars than most people think," said Bob Gamgort, president of the North American division of Mars. "We place a high value on sound scientific research and are fulfilling a decades long plan."

The transition into the health and wellness category by confectionery companies has been gradual. The first step was to enter the energy bar segment, which proved to be a pleasant opportunity.

"No one in the confectionery business thought PowerBar would be a $120 million business," said Dennis Zak, an industry consultant with TMResource, L.L.C. that specializes in confectionery industry market research. "The health bar segment is a natural extension for confectioners, because the products are made using confectionery technologies, wrapped the same way as bars and packaged the same way."

Upon its entrance into the segment, Mars, Inc. has introduced the Snickers Marathon bar. Since the launch, the company has expanded the line to feature its regular Snickers Marathon as well as items specifically designed for women, a high protein product and a low-carbohydrate version.

The Hershey Co., Hershey, Pa., also competes in the segment with its Pay-Day Pro product line, which is marketed as a high protein energy bar.

"If you look at the entire food industry, you are seeing a blurring of categories," Mr. Zak said. "Confectioners manufacturing and selling healthy products is one aspect of a much larger trend."

The big issue for confectioners, Mr. Zak said, is making the transition to selling healthier products.

"It’s a whole new mindset," he said. "Your sales force and distribution channels are different and they are selling lower volumes of higher margin products into niche markets. You won’t see traditional confectionery salesmen going into bike shops to sell these products. They are used to selling truckloads. That is where the different mindset comes in."

Mr. Zak has been out of the corporate confectionery business for three years, but he said not much has changed.

"If you look at the growth within the traditional confectionery market, it is pretty flat," he said. "If you look at the areas where the market segments are blurred, like confectionery and health, you are seeing three to four times the growth.

"Innovation is where the manufacturer can get a higher margin from the customer and those customers are happy to pay for it. When I look at the cost per gram of a Snickers bar versus a Snickers Marathon bar, it is roughly double. I know it doesn’t cost twice as much to make a Marathon bar than it does to make a Snickers bar."

Chocolate as health food

Bolstering the confectionery industry’s shift toward developing health and wellness products has been a spate of research studies that highlight the potential health benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa.

A studied conducted at Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, funded by The Hershey Co. and published in October, indicated eating dark chocolate may result in shortterm improvements in arterial function and blood pressure.

"This is the latest study to suggest a link between dark chocolate, which contains natural flavanol antioxidants, and health benefits," said Dr. David Katz, associate professor of Public Health at Yale, and director of the Prevention Research Center, who conducted the study. "The dark chocolate tested in this trial improved blood pressure and arterial function. This suggests dark chocolate isn’t just good; it’s good for you."

The Yale study used ultrasound technology and measurements to assess the effects of eating high-cacao content dark chocolate, Hershey’s Extra Dark, on the arterial function of 45 moderately overweight adults. The study also measured subjects’ blood pressure before and two hours after eating two servings (74 grams) of dark chocolate. The study demonstrated improvements in blood pressure, as well as the ability of blood vessels to dilate and increase flow, a key indicator of cardiovascular health, after eating dark chocolate.

The benefits of cocoa

Another study of elderly Dutch men indicates eating or drinking cocoa is associated with lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of death, according to an article in the Feb. 27 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

Cocoa has been linked to cardiovascular health benefits since at least the 18th century, but researchers are just beginning to collect scientific evidence for these claims, according to background information in the article. Cocoa is now known to contain chemicals called flavan-3-ols, which have been linked to lower blood pressure and improved function of the cells lining the blood vessels.

Dr. Brian Buijsse, of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Bilthoven, The Netherlands, and colleagues examined cocoa’s relationship to cardiovascular health in 470 Dutch men aged 65 to 84 years. The men underwent physical examinations and were interviewed about their dietary intake when they enrolled in the study in 1985 and at follow-up visits in 1990 and 1995. The researchers then placed them into three groups based on their level of cocoa consumption. Information about their subsequent illnesses and deaths were obtained from hospital or government data.

Over the next 15 years, men who consumed cocoa regularly had significantly lower blood pressure than those who did not. Over the course of the study, 314 men died, 152 due to cardiovascular diseases. Men in the group with the highest cocoa consumption were half as likely as the others to die from cardiovascular disease. Their risk remained lower even when considering other factors, such as weight, smoking habits, physical activity levels, calorie intake and alcohol consumption.

"The lower cardiovascular mortality risk associated with cocoa intake could not be attributed to the lower blood pressure observed with cocoa use," the authors wrote. "Our findings, therefore, suggest the lower cardiovascular mortality risk related with cocoa intake is mediated by mechanisms other than lowering blood pressure." The link between chocolate and an overall lower risk of death suggests other mechanisms may be involved.

"Because cocoa is a rich source of antioxidants, it may also be related to other diseases that are linked to oxidative stress (e.g. pulmonary diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and certain types of cancer)," the authors concluded. "However, this merits further investigation."

Mr. Zak, the confectionery industry consultant, said, "the research into chocolate’s health attributes is promising. But you need to be careful when dealing with this type of research. The best science will get down to a substance’s mechanism in the body; determining precisely what it does. We haven’t seen that kind of research yet."

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