Use the term “indulgence” in a word-association game with consumers, and they likely will respond with “chocolate,” “dessert” or, worst-case scenario, “fat.” Seldom will “healthful” be heard, yet a number of manufacturers are seeking to lessen the guilt seemingly inherent in indulgences. The results have been mixed at best, and it remains to be seen if the consumer will accept a healthful indulgence, especially considering the taste requirements essential to an indulgent product, but what if no sacrifice in taste is necessary?

Such is the prospect facing chocolate companies in the wake of recent studies touting the benefits of flavonoids in dark chocolate. Researchers at Athens Medical School (Greece) found dark chocolate may have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system in healthy people. Cocoa contains a rich supply of phenol antioxidants, which bind with free radicals and transform them into non-damaging compounds. Dark chocolate has an oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) four to five times higher than other antioxidants found in such foods as raisins, blueberries, blackberries and kale.

Manufacturers are wasting little time in promoting chocolate's benefits. One, in fact, is responsible for many of the discoveries. As Bob Gamgort, president of the North American division of Mars Inc. (Hackettstown, N.J.), explains, "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. This plan starts to roll out now with the expansion of our portfolio to meet consumers' need for health and nutrition."

Mars has created a business unit--Mars Nutrition for Health & Well-Being--to develop and launch new foods, snacks, beverages and lifestyle support to “better serve the nutritional and well-being needs of the consumer.” The unit already has launched its first healthful indulgence: CocoaVia, a flavanol-rich snack with 80 calories per serving and boasting heart-healthy ingredients, vitamins and minerals.

Likewise recognizing the opportunity to promote the flavanol content of certain items in its stable, The Hershey Company (Hershey, Pa.) is adding a “Natural Source of Flavanol Antioxidants” seal on several of its products, including Hershey's Extra Dark and Hershey's Special Dark. In addition, Hershey's Extra Dark will join the company's dark chocolate line. The three flavors--pure dark chocolate; pure dark chocolate with cranberries, blueberries and almonds; and pure dark chocolate with macadamias and cranberries--all promise to be a natural source of flavanol antioxidants.

Making Java Fit

Seldom, however, will manufacturers be fortunate enough to learn their products are naturally healthful. Most have to put a great deal of effort into bringing benefits to their indulgences. Take coffee, for instance. For many consumers, a gourmet blend is the ultimate satisfying splurge, but one company has brought a functional aspect to the morning pick-me-up.

JavaFit from Javalution Coffee Company (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) is described as a gourmet coffee with a benefit. As Javalution's president Scott Pumper recalls, the gourmet coffee market is enormous, as is the supplement industry, and vitamins have been added to water and other beverages, so why not coffee? To add further appeal, a long-term weight-loss study is nearing completion, and it will “allow JavaFit to say it can actually help (the consumer) lose weight,” says Pumper. Five varieties comprise the JavaFit range: Lean with Calcium, Burn and Energy, the latter two with “Extreme” varieties boasting 150mg of caffeine. Lean has calcium, potassium, super Citrimax and Garcinia cambogia, the latter ingredient also found in Burn and Energy. Burn includes chromium polynicotinate and Citrus aurantium, while Energy adds niacin and green tea extract. All of them have been proven to increase fat burning (by 5%) and time to exhaustion (by 30%), as well as help with suppressing the appetite, although the Energy varieties boast less of that quality, as they are designed for athletes who may need to eat small amounts of food several times a day, Pumper opines. Yet, he also realizes that, no matter the benefit, the product has to meet consumers' taste demands.

“We've spent so much time concentrating and making sure we have one of the best tasting cups of coffee out there,” he assures, “especially over a long time. It's a gourmet, grade-A bean, based out of Costa Rica, with almost zero taste of the supplements in it. A major goal is making it part of an enjoyable lifestyle, something the consumer will be loyal to forever, so that when the idea of the supplement presence in the coffee is long gone, they will remain loyal based on the taste.”

The king of high-end coffee, Starbucks Corp. (Seattle), has set its sights on breakfast foods. Starbucks' eventual national roll-out of hot breakfast sandwiches will include eggs Florentine on an English muffin, as well as a sausage, egg and cheese combination on an English muffin. At the same time, the quest to be the choice for a breakfast indulgence is impacting another of Starbucks' goals--quickness. Already, the company has implemented a number of measures to quicken the pace of order delivery--extra labor, revamped machinery, altered checkout procedures. The efforts have worked; over the past five years, customer waiting times have dropped by about 30 seconds. Why the move into breakfast? Burger King's (Miami) BK Joe, the Café Blends line of premium coffee at Chick-fil-A (Atlanta) and efforts at Dunkin' Donuts (Canton, Mass.) all serve as examples of competitors' efforts to increase indulgent coffee options. In the process, the competition is blurring old boundaries between down-market chains and the upscale Starbucks, especially considering the coffee giant's wide-ranging plans.

And Back to Chocolate

A Starbucks introduction from the most recent winter drew directly on the comforting qualities of hot chocolate, yet in one of the more indulgent ways imaginable. Named for the Aztec goddess of the hearth, Starbucks' Chantico differs from regular hot chocolate, which is made with cocoa powder, in that it is steamed with cocoa butter and whole milk. Boasting 390 calories, 51g of carbs and 21g of fat, the beverage earns that indulgent moniker. The “sipping chocolate” is marketed as a drinkable dessert and targets dessert lovers desiring something indulgent with a coolness factor. In the process, it is yet another indication of Starbucks' eagerness to attract indulging consumers with more than coffee. As Rob Grady, director of hot beverages at Starbucks, notes, “This will establish Starbucks as somebody who will be in the chocolate category in a bigger way.” More proof of that can be seen in the company's increasing emphasis on putting its marketing muscle behind its line of Starbucks Ice Cream blended with its coffee. Described as “the indulgent luxury everyone can afford,” this line includes such temptations as Mud Pie, Coffee Almond Fudge, Caramel Cappuccino Swirl and Java Chip, yet it also includes an option for consumers concerned about fat intake.

Boasting 3g of total fat, 1.5g of it saturated, Starbucks' Low Fat Latte is far from the only ice cream product hoping to draw the eye of the health-conscious consumer. A search of Mintel's (Chicago) Global New Products Database (GNPD) finds 171 new desserts and ice creams introduced in the U.S. through June of this year bearing a positive health spin, and that is on top of 415 such introductions last year. Even companies almost synonymous with indulgence are working to attract the health- (or at least weight-) conscious consumer.

Haagen-Dazs (General Mills, Minneapolis) is one example. Its line of light, super-premium ice cream is launching this summer, promising 50% less fat and 25% fewer calories than regular varieties of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. In fairness, it must be noted that Haagen-Dazs Light has the same or only slightly less fat and calories than many of the regular forms of Breyers (Unilever, New York) and Edy's (Oakland, Calif.) products. Among Haagen-Dazs Light's indulgent flavors are Dulce de Leche; Cherry Fudge Truffle; S'mores; and Dutch Chocolate. To achieve what it assures is “all the great taste and creamy texture” of its classic ice cream but with only half the fat, the company claims to use an exclusive European process of slow, low-temperature blending. As Gulbin Hoeberechts, marketing manager for Haagen-Dazs Light products, explains, “For years, we've asked our consumers what they would do if they could change one thing about their Haagen-Dazs. The answer is always the same: They wish we could remove a little of the fat.”

Presumably, they were referring to the products but, as manufacturers will attest, consumers would welcome assistance with removing any fat from their waistlines, especially if there is an air of indulgence in the product.

Going Global

Around the world, companies are introducing indulgent products with healthful positioning (sporadically). A search of Mintel's (Chicago) Global New Products Database (GNPD) reveals a surprising few introductions over the past year merging indulgence with any of a number of healthful attributes (i.e., reducing carbs, calories, sugar or fat, or adding vitamins, minerals or functional aspects).

In Switzerland, Nestlé (Vevey, Switzerland) took the fairly safe gamble of making an already healthful, yet somewhat indulgent treat a little more beneficial by reducing its calorie content. The company's Thomy brand promises Yogonaise, a combination of “tasteful mayonnaise and light yogurt,” to be a light and indulgent topping for baked potatoes. A more traditional approach to yogurt, albeit a reduced-fat one, has surfaced from TMA (Fischbach, Germany) in Germany. There, Grazil Genussdessert is a vanilla-flavored yogurt said to have only 0.1% fat for “enjoyment without remorse.”

The low-carb phenomenon so popular in the U.S. was barely a blip in most countries, the U.K. notwithstanding. Similarly, low-carb introductions have begun to taper off there as well but, in May, Nestlé launched Double Chocolate, a premium low-carb chocolate bar to replace the KitKat low-carb variant.

Spreading the notion of healthfulness to encompass vegetarian options finds curious results. While no products introduced to the U.S. in the last year promised to be indulgent and vegetarian, the U.K. had 10, all in private label. The products ranged from Sainsbury's (London) White Chocolate Indulgence ice cream sticks (bourbon vanilla dairy ice cream sticks enrobed in Belgian white chocolate), to Tesco (Cheshunt, U.K.) Finest Mini Chocolate Sundaes (miniaturization is a trend seen in a number of restaurants and products stateside) to Somerfield's (Bristol, U.K.) Somerfield So Good…New York Style Baked Cheesecake (made with “full-fat soft cheese and cream on a digestive biscuit crumb base”).

Mini Mum of Effort

When the low-carbohydrate trend was at its peak, some restaurants introduced Atkins-friendly fare to their menus, yet these also maintained an air of indulgence. Such was the case with T.G.I. Friday's (Dallas), whose Guilt-Free menu was enhanced by a number of “Indulgent Favorites.” Taking a cue from experts predicting the demise of low-carb, however, T.G.I. Friday's “Guilt-Free” menu featured more than just low-carb options. While several of the nine items were Atkins-approved, the remainder were “better for you” choices, low in fat and calories. These included Bruschetta Grouper, Santa Fe Chicken Salad, and Barbecue Jack Chicken, each with 10g or less fat and less than 500 calories. At the same time, the “Indulgent Favorites” menu boasted Loaded Potato Skins, a Southwest Jalapeño Burger and Sizzling Chicken & Cheese among its nine options. These two menus at the same restaurant, both indulgent to a degree, nonetheless are worlds apart in terms of healthfulness.

All of which leads one to ponder exactly what the consumers want in their menu options. A study of consumer attitudes by Technomic (Chicago) Consumer Research finds 61% of consumers believe restaurants do not offer enough small meal options, with 30% opining that restaurant portion sizes are too large.

In something of a response, many restaurants are turning to the concept of mini-indulgences on their dessert menus. Rathbun's in Atlanta, hailed by Esquire and Travel + Leisure as one of the best restaurants of 2004, has a dessert menu that promises four "intense" bites and includes a baby banana peanut butter cream pie and Mexican chocolate mini cube. Similarly, Seasons 52, a chain of health-aware restaurants under the Darden Restaurants (Orlando, Fla.) banner, offers Key lime pie, pecan pie and tiramisu packed in shot glasses as “Mini Indulgences.”