The goal of the new unit is to develop and launch new foods, snacks, beverages and lifestyle support that "serve the nutritional and well-being needs of the consumer". And this archetypal consumer is proving to have an insatiable appetite for food that provides a health benefit beyond basic nutrition.
"Our unit's mission is to be a trusted partner in healthy lifestyles, enabling consumers to look, perform and feel their best everyday," said Michael Mars, who has been appointed president of the unit. "We will bring great taste to products that are designed to provide real health benefits supported by sound nutrition science."
Consumers do not have to wait to taste the fruits of Mars' healthy new approach; the first product, CocoaVia, has already been launched online. It contains 80 calories per serving, 'heart healthy' ingredients, vitamins and minerals, and premium, flavonol-rich chocolate.
Other healthy offerings are expected to follow in the coming months.
When confectionary companies start making moves in functional foods, few can argue that the trend towards health and wellness is starting to look very much like a phenomenon.
Mars' announcement follows the news last month that the Jelly Belly Candy Company is entering the sports nutrition category with the launch of Sports Beans, which it said are formulated to boost energy levels during exercise.
According to Euromonitor, the US functional and fortified foods market was worth an estimated $5.22 billion in 2004 and is set to grow by around 33 percent in the next five years, reaching $6.93 billion by 2009.
An understandable desire to profit from this growth notwithstanding, Mars said its move into the health and nutrition area is consistent with its continuing portfolio diversification, expanding as it has over the years from chocolate into the savory snacks, pet food, main meal and beverage segments.
But although Mars is perhaps best known for its portfolio of sweet treats that are short on useful nutritional content, Bob Gamgort, president of the North America division, maintains that there is a lot more to Mars than most people think.
"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," he said.
The company claims to have been a pioneer in scientific research into the benefits of cocoa and cocoa flavonoids over the last 15 years. With its patented Cocoapro cocoa process, used in CocoaVia, it says that it is able to preserve these the cocoa flavanols that often are destroyed during standard processing, meaning that it retains the bean's natural goodness while keeping the pleasurable taste characteristics of chocolate.
Recent research on the health benefits of dark chocolate include a study in the American Journal of Hypertension (vol 18; issue 6; pp785-791) suggesting that it could have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system, at least in the three hours immediately following consumption.
And in March, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study conducted at the University of L'Aquila in Italy, which indicated that eating dark chocolate improves glucose metabolism and decreases blood pressure.
Also this year, researchers from the government-backed Agricultural Research Service announced the results of a study investigating the total antioxidant capacity of a range of cocoa powders, from processed to semi-sweet chocolate. Natural cocoa was found to contain the highest capacity of antioxidant procyanidins (mixtures of oligomers and polymers composed of the flavonoids catechin or epicatechin).
Despite this growing body of research, Mars is not advocating wholesale replacement of foods like nuts, fruits, spices and vegetables, which are also contain procyanidin, with chocolate.
Rather, Nutrition communications director Marlene Machut urges a responsible approach: "It's not about eating more chocolate, but rather about working flavanol-rich foods into an overall healthy, balanced diet," she said. "First start with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and then you may be able to fit in an 80-calorie CocoaVia bar."
Mars currently has global annual sales exceeding $18 billion. Whether the new unit will detract from sales of confectionery products, or staunch a flow of consumers who are shunning sweet treats in favor of healthy options away from the company, remains to be seen.