Announced yesterday, the move is a clear signal that functional foods are moving mainstream, with the company saying its decision is a response to consumer demand to have the products available for quick snacking.
The line, CocoaVia Heart Healthy Snacks, which was first introduced last year via internet sales, is currently sold in multi-packs throughout retail outlets in the US. The "heart healthy" products are formulated with cocoa flavanols. Found naturally in cocoa beans, these antioxidant compounds are thought to influence factors associated with clotting and promote a healthy blood flow. Some studies suggest that cocoa flavanols can improve the health of blood vessels and reduce the oxidation of LDL cholesterol that can lead to clogged arteries.
Mars parent company Masterfoods USA claims to have been a pioneer in scientific research into the benefits of cocoa and cocoa flavonoids over the last 15 years.
And the firm has indeed made its healthy snacks push at a time when the market is ripe.
According to a report published in July, a general trend towards healthier eating has resulted in American consumers turning away from carefree snacks, and opting instead for healthier products.
Published by Packaged Facts the report revealed that the US snacks market has witnessed some internal shifts, with sales of "carefree" snacks such as cookies and baked goods falling to make way for an increase in demand for better-for-you options.
The nation's snack food market reached $61.4bn in 2005, a moderate increase of 1.5 percent from the previous year's figure of $60.5bn.
And according to the report, "future sales growth should fall disproportionately to marketers that can give consumers their snack cake and let them eat it in good conscience, too. Even if convenience is king in the snack market, convenient good nutrition is more likely than bite-sizing or crush-proofing to provide an enduring competitive advantage and point of product differentiation."
And the latest figures from market researcher Euromonitor estimate that the US functional and fortified foods market was worth $5.22 billion in 2004 and is set to grow by around 33 percent in the next five years, reaching $6.93 billion by 2009.
An understandable desire to profit from this growth notwithstanding, Mars said its move into the health and nutrition area is consistent with its continuing portfolio diversification, expanding as it has over the years from chocolate into the savory snacks, pet food, main meal and beverage segments.
But although Mars is perhaps best known for its portfolio of sweet treats that are short on useful nutritional content, Bob Gamgort, president of the North America division, maintains that there is a lot more to Mars than most people think.
"We place a high value on sound scientific research and are fulfilling a decades-long plan to which we have devoted significant investment with regard to exploring the healthy aspects of cocoa," he said.
With its patented Cocoapro cocoa process, used in CocoaVia, it says that it is able to preserve cocoa flavanols that often are destroyed during standard processing, meaning that it retains the bean's natural goodness while keeping the pleasurable taste characteristics of chocolate.
Recent research on the health benefits of dark chocolate include a study in the American Journal of Hypertension (vol 18; issue 6; pp785-791) suggesting that it could have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system, at least in the three hours immediately following consumption.
And in March last year, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study conducted at the University of L'Aquila in Italy, which indicated that eating dark chocolate improves glucose metabolism and decreases blood pressure.
Also last year, researchers from the government-backed Agricultural Research Service announced the results of a study investigating the total antioxidant capacity of a range of cocoa powders, from processed to semi-sweet chocolate. Natural cocoa was found to contain the highest capacity of antioxidant procyanidins (mixtures of oligomers and polymers composed of the flavonoids catechin or epicatechin).
Despite this growing body of research, Mars is not advocating wholesale replacement of foods like nuts, fruits, spices and vegetables, which are also contain procyanidin, with chocolate.
The company said it will begin selling CocoaVia Brand Heart Healthy Snacks in individual single serving units in convenience stores this fall.