Sweet, milky chocolate used to be the UK consumer's favourite. But, increasingly, more Brits seem to be acquiring a taste for the dark stuff.
Euromonitor figures indicate that value retail sales of dark chocolate bars have doubled over the last six years, from accounting for 5.5% of the UK chocolate tablet market in 2006 to 10.25% in 2011. During the same period, milk, white and filled chocolate bars all lost market share.
This is backed up by anecdotal evidence from players in the market Divine reports that its 70% dark chocolate has been a top seller for some time, and says it is often asked for dark versions of its milk chocolate products.
Sales data for cocoa ingredients also indicates dark chocolate's performance. Milk chocolate contains roughly 10% cocoa liquor, whereas dark chocolate contains around 50% and, according to ADM Cocoa, sales of cocoa liquor are growing faster than sales of cocoa butter.
"The last three years has seen a 1.5% growth rate for cocoa liquor, whereas the growth rate for cocoa butter has been 0.9%. Forward-looking predictions show a similar difference in growth rate between butter and liquor, in favour of liquor," says Rinus Heemskerk, director of innovation at ADM Cocoa International.
This has led the company to expand its range of chocolate liquors to include two new Unicao liquors: UGNM 1030 is made from full-body, roasted Ghana cocoa beans, while UINM 3050 is a low-roast liquor made from mild Côte d'Ivoire beans to confer a less bitter taste.
However, Mintel's Chocolate Confectionery report, published last month, tells a different story of flat consumption.
"Dark chocolate enjoys a positive image in terms of health, with 55% believing it is healthier than milk and white chocolate. However, usage has slightly declined over the past few years and in 2011 it was eaten by just one in five adults," notes senior food and drink analyst Chris Wisson.
He does, however, point out that dark chocolate consumers are becoming "more discerning, enthusiastic and willing to pay more for quality", and concedes that "dark chocolate may well be set for growth".
All the signs seem to be pointing in the right direction for dark chocolate.
The chocolate confectionery market has shown strong growth at the premium end despite the recession. This plays into the hands of dark chocolate, which is viewed as a premium product and consumed mainly by affluent AB consumers.
"Dark chocolate is more likely to be considered when buying chocolate in southern England and among AB consumers, aligning with the premium positioning of many dark chocolate bars," notes Wisson.
It also enjoys a strong following among the growing over-65s market; in Mintel research, 43% of over-65s cited dark chocolate as one of their main choice factors, compared with just 12% of 16- to 24-year-olds.
For these more discerning consumers, chocolate is becoming more than just an occasional treat it is becoming a hobby and a quest for knowledge and fine, rare beans.
"Chocolate is increasingly being perceived in the same way as fine wine, so consumers are becoming more interested in provenance," says Hotel Chocolat's founder Angus Thirlwell.
Hotel Chocolat's new Roast & Conch store in Covent Garden is no doubt a mecca for the chocolate elite there they can see small batches of chocolate being made from beans from Hotel Chocolat's own estate in Saint Lucia.
Even mainstream brands, such as Green & Black's, seem to be tapping into this newfound interest in chocolate provenance. The 'Tasting Collection' the flagship product in its new gifting range comes with tasting notes, recipe suggestions and an 'Around the World' map detailing the origin of the bars' ingredients.
Brands such as Divine, Montezuma's, Hotel Chocolat and Green & Black's seem to have convinced some consumers that premium chocolate is worth paying for, but what constitutes premium chocolate? And is dark chocolate any more premium than milk?
What is premium chocolate?
There seems to be a perception that chocolate has to contain at least 70% cocoa to be good quality but, according to Divine's Charlotte Borger, there's nothing magic about that number.
"The percentage of cocoa does not determine the excellence of the chocolate, so following the 70% indicator is not a guarantee of a good product. The quality of the product depends on the quality of the beans how well they were fermented and dried, and the quality and time of the manufacturing process. And that's also a matter of different tastes just as in wine."
Hotel Chocolat's Thirlwell agrees that cocoa content is not necessarily an indicator of quality. "However," he adds, "it is true to say that, as there are only two main ingredients in dark chocolate, in general, the higher the cocoa content, the less sugar (the cheapest ingredient) is added to the recipe, which is why cheap chocolates have a low cocoa content."
He says 70% is probably a general indicator of quality, but it all depends on the cocoa.
"For example, some cocoa demands a lighter recipe to let more delicate flavours shine through like our 65 and 66% dark chocolates made with Saint Lucian Trinitario cocoa beans."
Hotel Chocolat is one of the 'early adopters' of Barry Callebaut's new Terra Cacao chocolate couverture, which is made with a patented fermentation process designed to result in purity in taste and richness in cocoa aromas.
Barry Callebaut says this "revolutionary technique" naturally enhances the fermentation process and promotes the growth of the right ferment cultures. It is said to provide consistent, predictable and 100% superior grade beans. This improves flavour and quality, enhances levels of functional components such as flavanols, and improves processability.
It is not just quality perceptions that are luring consumers over to the dark side, but also the perception that dark chocolate is healthier.
"There is a healthy perception of dark chocolate compared with traditional milk chocolate as it contains less sugar and high levels of cocoa. This means it is rich in antioxidants and contains only vegetable fats, which means no 'bad' cholesterol. It also has a more intense flavour, so there is a tendency to eat less," says Rens de Haan, marketing director at Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate.
It is the flavanols in cocoa that are responsible for the health benefits of dark chocolate, and the reason dark chocolate is seen as healthier than light or milk is quite simply that there are more of these in a dark chocolate bar.
"There are specific bioactive substances such as phenols, polyphenols and other antioxidants present in chocolate that may have anti-cancer properties and also act to prevent clot formation and to relax blood vessels. Dark/plain chocolate packs more of these powerful antioxidants in a bar," explains Raphael Wermuth, external communications manager at Barry Callebaut.
So convinced is Barry Callebaut of the link between cocoa and health, it has lodged an application for an article 13.5 health claim linking cocoa flavanols with a healthy blood flow.
The dossier was based on positive results from five clinical studies, and Wermuth says Barry Callebaut is ultimately "hopeful to receive approval for various claims to help our customers differentiate their offerings".
Approval of these claims would surely strengthen the associations consumers make between dark chocolate and health, and create a favourable environment for innovation. The challenge that remains is how to make dark chocolate more accessible to the mainstream without alienating core connoisseurs.
Meeting the coffee-flavoured chocolate challenge
Intense flavours are a trend across the food industry, but it can be difficult to formulate chocolate that is combined with strong flavours such as coffee.
"The key challenges are around creating the right taste and ensuring consistent quality," says Rens de Haan, marketing director at Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate.
"In principle, this should not be difficult but, in practice, it creates some complications that have to be carefully managed."
He says that one such complication is cross-contamination and, within strong flavours themselves, there is a risk of loss of intensity due to volatility, which creates a fading of flavour over time. Small batch sizes can also be problematic, as great homogeneity is harder to achieve than in larger batches. Lastly, strong flavours can create formulation challenges that have to be overcome to obtain the right balance of chocolate and coffee flavour.
Cargill has developed a new process that it claims allows such flavours to be incorporated into chocolate in a homogenous and consistent way. This has enabled the manufacturer to launch a new mocha paste chocolate that is flavoured with coffee beans and available in dark and milk chocolate.