Mars' CocoaVia Positioned As Good for You

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Mars' CocoaVia Positioned As Good for You

After more than a decade of effort, Mars Inc. is rolling out what it says is a healthy new sweet: a line of chocolate bars and chocolate-covered almonds, according to a report in the New York Times.

Called CocoaVia, the candy is the centerpiece of a corporate quest to transform chocolate into a healthy indulgence. A glob of granola, rice and flavanol-filled cocoa powder at the heart of the bar -- injected with a burst of liquid-canola plant sterols -- distinguishes CocoaVia from the company's M&M's, Snickers and Dove bars. Flavanols are naturally occurring chemicals in cocoa that have antioxidant qualities; sterols are plant-based chemicals found in a variety of foods.

Flavanols are what set Mars on a scientific search: If it could show they helped improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, then foods with them could potentially help prevent heart disease. In developing CocoaVia, Mars decided to add another major additive, plant sterols, which ultimately allowed it to make the claim that CocoaVia is good for hearts and arteries, the newspaper reported.

Mars is placing the new line in the health food aisles -- near nutrition bars rather than candy -- of retailers like Wal-Mart and Target. CocoaVia packages encourage consumers to eat two servings a day to achieve the "maximum benefit."

"Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the world, and chocolate is the No. 1 favorite ingredient in the world," said Jim Cass, Mars's vice president of marketing. "When you put those two giant macro trends together, we know this is a big idea."

Some nutritionists are skeptical, though, saying that the effort seems less of a breakthrough than a sly way to scare up chocolate sales.

CocoaVia products, some previously sold on the Internet, have between 80 and 140 calories apiece, depending on the variety, and 2 to 11 grams of fat. At two servings a day, that adds up to as much as 280 calories for the chocolate-covered almonds -- equivalent to the calories in a 2-ounce Snickers bar.

"That is serious calories," said Alice H. Lichtenstein, a Tufts University professor who is chairwoman of the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association. "We can only hope that the consumer is smart enough to realize that you can't just add something on top of what you are normally eating -- even if it is good for you -- because you are going to gain weight."

Marlene Machut, a Mars spokeswoman, calls the calorie level in CocoaVia "nutritionally responsible."

Lately, Mars has more than nutritionists haunting it. CocoaVia started hitting the shelves last month -- packaged in boxes of five for about $5 a box -- just as some of Mars's chief competitors have been repackaging items to banner the presence of "natural flavanol antioxidants."

During a talk with analysts this month, Richard H. Lenny, CEO of Hershey, called the dark chocolate category a "major growth platform." He told of a new Yale University study -- sponsored by Hershey and yet to be peer-reviewed -- that found that eating Hershey's Extra Dark chocolate improved blood pressure and blood flow because of the candy's higher level of natural flavanol antioxidants. In the study, 45 people were fed 2.6 ounces (two servings) of Extra Dark, which also contained 420 calories.

"These results enable us to better communicate with consumers the positive aspects of antioxidants and dark chocolate," Lenny said.

Such claims are troubling to Harold Schmitz, Mars's chief scientist and one of the driving forces behind the development of CocoaVia. Competitors were potentially misleading consumers by talking about antioxidants in chocolate when it was the level and kind of flavanols that really made a difference, he told the newspaper.

CocoaVia is hardly flying off the shelves. In a spot-check of five New Jersey Wal-Mart stores, where the product has been available for about a month, store clerks said only a handful of boxes had been sold, the newspaper reported.

Mars says it plans more healthful offerings. It recently established a separate division to develop nutritional foods and drinks aimed at weight management and "energy and performance," said Cass.

"This was never about, 'How do we sell more chocolate?' " he told the New York Times. "We just happened to start with chocolate because we had intellectual property around cocoa. Over time we will look to fulfill the needs of our consumers that expand well beyond chocolate."