September 18/Los Angeles Times-- Mars Inc. broke with much of the chocolate industry Monday to pledge that its M&Ms, Snickers and Dove bars would not be watered down with cheaper ingredients.

The Hackettstown, N.J. confectioner came out against an industry petition asking the Food and Drug Administration to let confectioners substitute vegetable oils, milk protein concentrate and other ingredients for cocoa butter.

"Our Snickers bar tastes the same as it did 77 years ago when we introduced it. We are not going to change that," said Todd Lachman, president of Mars Snackfoods US.

The proposal submitted earlier this year by the Grocery Manufacturers of America with the support of the Chocolate Manufacturers of America drew the anger of purists, who say chocolate should mostly come from the cacao bean rather than food substitutes.

The FDA is considering the proposal.

Previously, two California confectioners -- See's Candies Inc. and Guittard Chocolate Co. -- filed objections to the plan to loosen government regulations for chocolate ingredients.

By breaking ranks with the industry's major trade group and mass-market rivals such as Hershey Co., owner of the upscale Scharffen Berger brand, Mars is making a statement at a time when consumers are gravitating to better chocolate.

Sales of premium chocolate -- anything that sells for $8 or more a pound -- jumped 10.9% to $2.7 billion in the U.S. last year, according to Packaged Facts, a market research firm.

Americans ate $16 billion worth of chocolate last year.

"Changing the definition of what chocolate is would be a mistake ... American consumers are passionate about chocolate," Lachman said.

Mars reviewed a sample of the comments made to the FDA this year and found that most were opposed to any change in the legal definition of chocolate, Lachman said.

He said the change proposed by the industry would save Mars millions of dollars but would also hurt the quality of its products. Vegetable oil and other food substitutes cost 25% to 33% of the price of cocoa butter.

Chocolate is often measured by the percentage of a bar that comes from the cacao bean. For example, a 72% cacao dark chocolate would have that amount of the bar derived from either ground-up cacao bean or pure cocoa butter.

From the September 24, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash