The health potential is real. Cocoa beans have natural compounds called flavanols, and a growing pile of scientific research suggests they do good things to blood vessels.
Dolly Sullivan, 60, is a believer. She eats two or three squares of Dove dark chocolate daily and talked her mother into switching from coffee to cocoa.
"I'm a chocoholic. I can't walk by a chocolate store," said Sullivan, who lives in Warwick, R.I. "I've always enjoyed chocolate, but now I have a reason to eat it."
Customers at Neuhaus, a Belgian chocolate shop in Washington's Union Station, like thinking the dark stuff might be healthy, said manager Clementine Loeman.
"That way, they don't feel guilty," Loeman said, adding that chocolate was sometimes considered medicinal when the company began as a pharmacy 148 years ago.
Despite the enthusiasm, flavanols are missing from much of the chocolate on store shelves today. Flavanols make chocolate and cocoa taste bitter, and confectioners have spent years trying to perfect ways to remove the pungent flavor.
"Most chocolate, in fact, isn't flavanol-rich," said Norm Hollenberg, a radiology professor and flavanol expert at Harvard Medical School. "But all chocolate is rich in fat and calories. Chocolate is a delight. It can and should be part of a prudent diet. That means you limit what you take."
Flavanols are found in other foods, such as red wine, grapes, apples and green tea, although cocoa beans are a particularly rich source.
They are so tiny, they cannot be seen, even under a microscope. To find them, it takes sophisticated machinery that seems more appropriate for NASA than a chocolate company's laboratories.
Mars Inc. developed the technology to visualize flavanols on a computer screen. Says Harold Schmitz, the company's chief science officer: "Now we understand cocoa well enough to start to do new things with it."
The company is starting with CocoaVia granola bars, made with a special cocoa powder that retains most of the flavanols. The bars also have plant sterols, which have been shown to help lower cholesterol.
For now, the 80-calorie, 23-gram snack bars are sold only on the Internet. The bars have a satisfyingly rich chocolate flavor, along with a slight but distinct bitter taste.
Mars says its Dove dark chocolates — a 1.3 ounce bar is 200 calories — also contain flavanols.