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Candy's Less-Empty Calories

COLUMN ONE

'Fortified' sweets are the latest trend, but those chocolate lovers resolved to eat well this year may need a healthy serving of skepticism.

January 01, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — Year after year, Ken Kellerhals resolved to lose weight. Year after year, his candy factory did him in.

Bissinger's Handcrafted Chocolatier makes hundreds of confections in chilly, bare-floored kitchens here. Workers stir copper pots of caramel with long wooden spoons, decorate creams and truffles and toffees by hand, and brush each milk-chocolate bunny to a gloss before wrapping it in foil.

When he bought the company a decade ago, Kellerhals promised his wife he'd eat just one chocolate a day. The reality? "Let's just say, I sampled a lot more than I should have," he said.

As 2005 approached, Kellerhals once again resolved to diet. But he wanted to do it without giving up the best his factory had to offer.

And so Spa Chocolates were born.

"Shed your guilt," the slim yellow box urges. "Treat yourself to good health."

Inside are seven chocolates, one for each day of the week, each accompanied by an upbeat promise: The almonds in Wednesday's dark chocolate acorn may stave off heart disease. The antioxidants in Thursday's sugar-free cherry cordial will keep you looking young.

Each ingredient has been chosen by a dietitian, the package assures, "to give you a week's worth of health benefits and enjoyment."

The claims astound -- and distress -- some nutrition experts. True, blueberries are packed with antioxidants, but there aren't nearly enough folded into Monday's dark chocolate cup to count as a single serving of fruit, much less improve anyone's health.

"Candy is candy," says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University.

But Kellerhals is undaunted. And he has the force of a trend behind him.

Supermarkets these days are full of enriched and fortified products, known in the industry as "functional foods." Certain brands of margarine, popcorn and even orange juice promise to lower cholesterol. Cereals, though studded with marshmallows, contain whole grains to stave off cancer. Eggs are boosted with omega-3 fatty acids to improve heart health.

Sales of such products in the U.S. topped $10 billion last year, according to the market research firm Mintel International. Bakery and cereal products are the top sellers by far. But sweets and treats are coming on fast. In the last five years, manufacturers have introduced 56 snack foods and 42 confections marketed primarily for their reputed health benefits.

Too worn out to work through the evening? Snickers offers up a Chewy Chocolate Peanut Marathon bar, fortified with 16 vitamins and minerals plus soy protein for a long-lasting energy boost.

Feeling your years, and hating it? Chug a few cans b-well, a carbonated soda spiked with grape-seed extract that Hansen's promises will help you fight off aging. Or try a chocolate Instant Bliss Beauty Bar, from Ecco Bella; it's supposed to lift your spirits and make your skin look radiant, thanks to antioxidants derived from cranberries, marigolds and algae.

And how's this for chocoholic heaven: Masterfoods USA has developed a candy bar, called CocoaVia, that it says can lower your cholesterol and improve your blood pressure. But it works best if you eat two a day, every day. Imagine feeling guilty for skipping a snack.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates only nutritional claims that draw an explicit connection between a particular product and a specific disease. More general claims that an ingredient is healthful -- or that it will curb the appetite or soften skin or make you look younger -- are not subject to FDA approval.

That loophole troubles some nutritionists, who fear that families will mistake fortified junk food for good nutrition.

"It's the whole foods that really make you healthy -- the fruits and vegetables and whole grains," said Roberta Anding, a dietitian based in Houston.

As for "healthy" candy? It's fine once in a while -- if you really enjoy it, Anding said. But if you prefer a gooey caramel cream, make that your once-a-week indulgence. Most confections have so few health benefits that "you might as well go with your absolute favorite instead, as long as you eat just a small amount," she said.

Such advice does not seem likely to slow the torrent of functional food products.

Nearly half of all women, and one in four men, are dieting at any given time. Candy makers don't want to lose their business. "They're looking at ways they can allow consumers to have their indulgences but also get a health benefit," said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Or, as Kellerhals put it: "I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. Only in this case, it was my candy."

Kellerhals, 47, grew up with a box of Bissinger's on the table each Christmas -- a tradition for many St. Louis families. In 1995, after a career in investment banking, he bought the company with other investors. Since then, he has aggressively expanded sales.

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