Chocolate makers put the focus on healthy ingredients

New brands and private-label goodies are on track to boost the US chocolate market to $30 billion by 2021, according to a study from Research and Markets. Big brands including Hershey’s, Mars, Lindt & Sprungli and Nestle are leading in market share, but smaller artisan and niche players are carving out a bigger role, including many that tout the health benefits of their products.

Chocolatiers new and old were out in force at the Specialty Food Association’s Summer Fancy Food Show,  with products ranging from traditional confections to a growing number of goodies that come with a health or nutrition halo.

From bakers chocolate to chocolate bars

One chocolate brand actually grew out of a different business altogether.

Jessica Karp co-founded New York City restaurant Hu Kitchen four years ago with her brother Jordan Brown. The pair teamed up with a chef to create a menu using “clean” ingredients that appeals to healthy food fans of different stripes, from vegan to paleo, none of whom want to sacrifice flavor in their quest for unprocessed, nutritious meals, she said.

The menu stresses plants on the center of the plate and believes in stressing nutritious ingredients instead of counting calories.

The fast-casual eatery eventually spawned a second and both were challenged to find the quality chocolate they needed for their growing menu of baked goods, Karp said. So, they made their own. Hu -- as in “human” -- now sells chocolate bars in eight flavors, all of them vegan and made with unrefined organic coconut sugar and fair-trade organic stone-ground cacao.

The flavors range from simple to salty to crunchy mint to hazelnut praline.

"Once we developed chocolate that fit our current specs, we realized we were onto something, and we realized we should be selling the chocolate at stores,” Karp said.

Nutrition bars that taste like candy

Another brand that’s focused on marrying nutrition and flavor is NuGo Nutrition. The 15-year-old company touts different bars for different dietary styles, all of them made with high-quality dark chocolate that tastes more like candy than health food, said NuGo’s Alyssa Nard.

"When we originally started, we had one line,” she said. “With the evolution of the protein bar, we’ve seen more and more need for bars that fill different niches.”

Today, the brand offers a wide variety from low-sugar to high fiber to organic protein bars, all of them formulated as much for flavor as for function, she said.

Let chocolate be your medicine

Makeup artist Konstanze Zeller started learning to bake at age 6 and food became even more of an interest after an illness as an adult that left her unable to eat many of the commercial chocolate brands she used to love.

Zeller created CocoRau, a line of raw, organic chocolate bites made with organic cacao from Bali and marketed for their antioxidant and anti-aging properties, with mantra names like Samadhi Orange Bliss and Lakshmi Matcha Tea. The brand also includes a line of powdered elixers aimed at restoring youth and beauty, made from ingredients including pearl powder, goji berries and tocos rice bran.

"Now, more and more, we’re seeing food as medicine,” she said.

A lifelong passion for chocolate

Jessica Spaulding used her childhood passion for chocolate making to sidestep her mom’s no-sugar rule. Launching Harlem Chocolate Factory was a dream she tried first as a short-lived venture in college before realizing she needed to know more about running a business.

She set about learning what she needed to know, dedicated six months to sourcing quality ingredients and partnered with food incubator HBK Incubates and in November Spaulding won a business plan competition.

She named her company to the neighborhood where she was born and raised, and where her mom and others nurtured her dream.

"I've lived here my whole life,” she said.”These are genuine products that come from who I am.”

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