Fuelled by a combination of health concerns and changing tastes, dark chocolate has become one of the most rapidly growing sectors in the confectionery market in the last year.
According to market researchers, Leatherhead International, dark chocolate is set to be one of the prime growth areas in the market and has already enjoyed rising sales across Europe.
In their report, Global Confectionery 2006, the company stated: "There has been an increase in sales of dark chocolate in some parts of the world, with more consumers becoming aware of the link between cocoa and heart health."
Although still accounting for only 19 per cent of worldwide sales last year in comparison to the 74 per cent enjoyed by milk and filled varieties, demand for dark chocolate is growing and many global confectioners have been launching new products to target the craze.
According to product trackers, Mintel's, Global New Product Database, (GNPD) , over 600 new products containing dark chocolate were launched worldwide last year.
In Italy, the Ferrero company, brought out a new variety of its flagship product - Ferrero Rocher - called 'Rondnoir' which is coated in dark chocolate and marketed as a luxury product.
And Nestlé's Bulgarian division launched Nestle Noir, Nestle Intense and LZ, all of which are dark chocolate products.
Hershey are currently dominating the sector with a number of high-profile acquisitions last year to add to their portfolio.
The US based company took over Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker and have since launched a variety of dark chocolate and exotic fruit products. The company now own 77 per cent of the dark chocolate market.
In Germany, dark chocolate accounts for 10 per cent of the chocolate market while in France domestic production of the product is marginally higher than the milk variety. In Canada, consumption grew by 40 per cent in 2005, compared with a growth of 30 per cent in the US.
Leatherhead point to health concerns as being the major driving force behind growth in the sector - with consumers choosing the chocolate because of its high antioxidant and cocoa content.
Some scientists have suggested that food rich in flavanols, such as dark chocolate, is beneficial to heart health. In general, the higher the cocoa content, the higher the flavanol levels and the greater concentration of antioxidants.
Mars, who set up their Nutrition for Health and Well-Being division in 2004, have performed extensive research into cocoa flavanols and last year launched their fortified CocoaVia range which claims to reduce LDL 'bad' cholesterol and promote healthy circulation.