Chocolate Obsessed

The chocolate game has changed. Today, gourmet chocolatiers are adding exotic fruit, spices and cacao nibs to their premium bars and they are flying off the shelves.

Besides culinary curiosity, chocolate lovers are purchasing higher end chocolate because of their antioxidant properties; who doesn’t like a sweet treat with health benefits? In 2013, sales of chocolate candy reached $20.6 billion, marking a 3.6% jump over 2012 numbers, according to data from the National Confectioners Association (1). Part of this growth, according to NCA, was because of consumers’ perception that chocolate is a healthier choice than other candy. Flavor may still reign king, though, so chocolate manufacturers are working to develop one-of-a-kind flavor combinations using fresh, natural ingredients to keep consumers’ taste buds guessing and their interest piqued.

This month’s Gourmet Guru is Whitney Bembenick, manager of research and development at Endangered Species Chocolate ( This company creates decadent chocolate sensations using fair trade, ethically sourced, all-natural ingredients. The cacao in its chocolate bars comes from small family- owned farms that are Rainforest Alliance Certified. The cute critters seen on the packaging reflect the company’s mission: to aid in the protection of endangered plant and animal species around the globe.

WholeFoods: We’ve been hearing a lot about dark chocolate’s natural antioxidant properties and health benefits. Can you expand on that aspect of your products for our readers?

  Whitney Bembenick, manager of research and development at Endangered Species Chocolate

Bembenick: Let me start by explaining why dark chocolate has so many great health benefits. Cocoa naturally contains antioxidants called flavanols. These compounds act as a defense mechanism to fight off the free radicals our bodies produce from doing daily activities like simply breathing! That means that when we consume a food that contains these flavanols (like chocolate), we are helping our bodies fight against cell damage that research has proven can lead to things like cancer and heart disease.

But, that’s not all! Multiple research studies have shown a direct link between consuming chocolate and improved mental health, clarity and alertness. This is credited to cocoa’s ability to aid the body in producing compounds that help us feel good, as well as the natural stimulants that are found in chocolate like caffeine and theobromine.

The darker and less “adulterated” the chocolate, the better. These varieties offer the largest dose of antioxidants in comparison with their sweeter counterparts. That is why both our 88% extra- dark and 72% dark chocolates offer a healthy dose of antioxidants that go to work to make a healthier you.

WholeFoods: On that note, can you explain what to look for in a chocolate product for maximum health benefits? It sounds like milk chocolate may not be your top choice for benefitting overall health.

Bembenick: The best way to maximize the health benefit of chocolate is to go as dark as you can tolerate. Ideally, reach for chocolate that claims 70% cacao or higher.

WholeFoods: Good to know! As you are well aware, cocoa farming has been taking some heat from consumers who believe some sourcing violates basic human and ethical rights. Where does your company stand on this issue, and where do you believe the category should grow on this front?

Bembenick: There is no doubt that cocoa farming can be a tumultuous, unfair industry, particularly in the rural areas of the world that cacao grows best. That is why we at Endangered Species feel that it is our responsibility to ensure fair, sustainable practices from the very start of the process. We are able to do this through certifying bodies that ensure we pay premiums over the market cacao price to the farmers for growing cacao sustainably, without the use of child labor and other unethical practices. We currently work with both Rainforest Alliance and SERAP to have third-party validation of the process, and will be transitioning to Fair Trade International in 2015 to aid in the communication of our work to consumers.

WholeFoods: That’s a wonderful mission, as is the company’s effort to give 10% of its net profits to groups like The African Wildlife Foundation and The Xerces Society that support species conservation, habitat preservation and humanitarian efforts.

Moving to your product offerings, Endangered Species has some unique offerings like Sea Salt and Lime, Pumpkin Spice, and Cranberry and Almonds. What went into making these unique recipe choices? Where do you feel Americans’ tastebuds for chocolate are leaning these days?

Bembenick: When we are developing new products, we look at both macro and micro trends of consumers and our industry. There is a strong movement among consumers toward eating foods that are sourced ethically and sustainably while being part of a healthy lifestyle. Our chocolate meets all of these needs!

When it comes to taste, consumers are looking for sensory stimulation in a world of digital overload. If it tastes different than anything they’ve had before, comes with a shock or an experience to the taste buds, then it will most likely fit this trend. Our Sea Salt and Lime Crème filled bar is definitely one that is a surprise to the taste buds, starting out bright and refreshing while finishing with a lingering sea salt that makes you want to reach for another bite.

WholeFoods: Yum! That sounds delicious. Your company’s blog offers some recipes using chocolate. What are some unique ways to use chocolate that shoppers can try at home, besides simply indulging in a chocolate bar?

Bembenick: The possibilities with chocolate are endless! My next post will use our Dark Chocolate with Espresso bar in a dairy-free, gluten-free “tiramisu” trifle. My advice? Explore using your favorite chocolate bar as an X-factor in common recipes. Regular old brownies? Chop up our rainforest mint bar for gooey, minty goodness.

WholeFoods: Whitney, thank you for cluing us in on gourmet chocolate and teaching us about its health benefits. WF

1. Packaged Facts, “Chocolate Continues to Dominate Candy Sales,” Mar. 5, 2014,, accessed Apr. 28, 2014.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, June 2014