Chocolate as a dessert? Perhaps consuming it akin to having a flight of wines? How about bite-sized portions for sharing? Besides, don’t those portions help with calorie counting? And let’s not forget the holidays, when people really want to celebrate — chocolate, of course, being one great way to do so.

Then there’s the shift by both multinational manufacturers and artisan chocolatiers toward sustainable sourcing, which is very much on the minds of many consumers. Oh yes, there’s also news that cocoa prices will soar because of dry weather conditions and an insatiable and growing appetite from the East, specifically China. Exciting stuff, to say the least.

Although chocolate headlines don’t have the gravitas that government shutdowns, finger-pointing politicians and weather calamities do, there’s no doubt that chocolate has been getting more attention by both the press and the public. More importantly, it also being consumed in every way, size and shape possible.

Last month, a Hartman Group study revealed that dessert consumption after dinner has increased 5 percent since 2009, with 79 percent of those treats enjoyed after dinner including chocolate. During the same period, consumers have demonstrated a penchant for trading up and/or purchasing premium dark chocolate.

Currently, dark chocolate represents $1.3 billion in sales within the chocolate segment. Moreover, it’s posting a 7.7 percent growth rate, nearly double that of the overall chocolate segment.

“We are seeing a consumer trend of more dark chocolate consumption, and that offers an excellent opportunity as we look at our own dark chocolate portfolio,” says Hershey’s Jennifer Podhajsky, v.p. and general manager, U.S. chocolate category.

As it stands, Hershey has five of the top 10 dark chocolate brands in the United States:York Peppermint Pattie, Brookside Dark Chocolate, Hershey’s Special Dark, Mounds and Hershey’s Kisses Special Dark.

As Kristin Harper, director, Kisses and Hershey’s Bliss brands, points out, “Consumers turn to chocolate to relax and unwind.” Fifty percent say they feel delighted after consuming chocolate, with 49 percent turning to Theobroma to relax. And 82 percent of consumers do so at home.

“More consumers are experimenting with dark chocolate, particularly at home, and Hershey’s varied dark chocolate portfolio provides lower cacao options for those new to dark chocolate ranging all the way up to 82 percent cacao,” she adds.

To dramatize America’s growing love of dark chocolate and its new role as a dessert, Hershey recently hosted a chocolate dessert tasting at Gary’s Loft in New York City. Five tasting stations, featuring Nashville star Kimberly Williams-Paisley and chef Anthony Spanos from the Hershey Hotel, provided guests and media an opportunity to sample dark chocolate in various settings.

For example, a “Girls Brunch In” occasion featured Hershey’s Nuggets with champagne. A “Workday Treat” featured Brookside Dark Chocolate along with coffee and a light salad, while Scharffen Berger Chocolate was touted in a “Wine Tasting Party” that included Ferrari-Carano wines.

The event, Harper explained, was designed to not only highlight Hershey’s portfolio of dark chocolate brands, but also to leverage the different usage occasions where the company’s products can fit.

Another company that’s also looking to provide consumers with a different chocolate experience is Godiva Chocolatier. Its new Truffle Flights collection patterns itself after the popular restaurant ritual of serving wine flights as part of a tasting.

And similar to a build up and progression of tastes in various wine samplings, Godiva’s Truffle Flights — six in all (Nut Lovers, Dark Decadence, Heavenly Mousse, Cake Truffle, Ultimate Dessert and Milk Chocolate Lovers) — follow the same pattern, says David Funaro, global senior chief chocolatier for the company.

“We begin with lighter textures and consistencies, just like the wines going from left to right, and build up to deeper and darker tastes, textures,” he says. For example, in the Dark DecadenceTruffle Flight, the tasting begins with a Dark Vanilla Mousse, progresses to a Chocolate Souffle, then a 50 percent Dark Chocolate, followed by a Chocolate Lava Cake, continues to a 72 percent Extra Dark Chocolate and concludes with a Aztec Spice.

Those subtleties are repeated in the Nut Lovers selection. Here, the intensity increases with the filling used, as well as the amount of time the nuts are roasted, Funaro explains. He also cited the Cake Truffle Flight, another example of increasing flavor intensity. It begins with Birthday Cake, a vanilla cake mousse infused with little pieces of colored sprinkles and finishes with two blockbuster truffles, Chocolate Lava Cake and Lemon Chifon Bake.

“The Chocolate Lava Cake has two components, a dark chocolate ganache as well as a loose liquid fondant in it, while the lemon chiffon cake has a tangy lemon chiffon filling that’s like cutting into a lemon,” Funaro says.

To come up with the 36 truffles, four of which are brand new —salted caramel, hazelnut crunch, slated almond and Aztec spice — all six of Godiva’s chefs participated in the project. Developed with the American palette in mind, all the truffles are produced at the company’s Reading, Pa. facility.

Funaro points out that the Truffle Flights have already peaked interest from abroad, suggesting that this concept of progressive tastings has global appeal, one which most certainly Godiva would love to satisfy.

Of course, Mars Chocolate North America also knows a thing or two about satisfying chocolate demand. Two areas the company has seen and is responding to are seasonal offerings and unwrapped, bite-sized treats, says Tim Quinn, v.p. of trade development for Mars Chocolate North America.

“To align with the growing trend of a $1 price point and novelty seasonal singles, we’re introducing SNICKERS Peanut Butter Pumpkins and TWIX Brand Santas, Hearts and Eggs,” he says. “For Easter, we’ve got a new mixed singles counter unit that displays SNICKERS Peanut Butter Eggs, SNICKERS Eggs and new TWIX Eggs, which is perfect for c-stores and drug retailers.”

For Valentine’s Day, seasonally wrapped/shaped chocolate candy and boxed chocolates rule, Quinn says. Consequently the company is expanding its range of expanding gifting choices for Valentine’s Day, introducing M&M’S Brand Heart Gift Boxes designed for teachers and also for tweens.

Each heart includes a To:/From: area for personalization and contains five M&M’S MINIS Milk Chocolate fun-size pack, he adds. The Teacher Heart Gift Box designs feature M&M’S Characters Ms. Brown or Red in a classic school setting, while the Teen Heart Gift Box designs have Ms. Green chatting on her smartphone and Red listening to music.

To address the unwrapped, bite-sized treats trend, the company will add to its line of SNICKERS andMILKWAY Bites, three more iconic brands  — 3 MUSKETEERS Bites, MILKY WAY Simply Caramel Bites and TWIX Bites — in 2014.

 “Consumers want on-the-go convenience from their favorite brands, and new unwrapped Bites are one of Mars’ highest-tested items,” says Quinn.  “They also love enjoying the taste of our iconic brands in a smaller portion.”

When asked what Quinn was most excited about regarding new product launches from Mars, he didn’t hesitate.

“Our M&M’S Birthday Cake Chocolate Candies, launching in May, should be a big hit,” the Mars executive says. “Birthday cake-flavored products are a hot trend right now, and the theme fits well with the M&M’S Brand, which we say offers ‘colorful family fun.’” 

In addition, Quinn says consumer focus group participants have been asking for larger-sized M&M’S candies. As a result, the company has responded by introducing M&M’S Mega Milk Chocolate Candies and M&M’S Mega Peanut Chocolate Candies.  The larger-sized pieces offer three times more chocolate and a bigger peanut on average than the regular M&M’S candies. These will launch in May.

“And in January, we’re bringing back a favorite with SNICKERS ROCKIN’ NUT ROAD Bar,” he says. “As a limited-edition item in 2008, it was one of the best-performing SNICKERS brand line extensions. It’s marshmallow-flavored nougat covered with crunchy almonds and smothered in dark chocolate.”

It’s clear that seasonal product launches are playing a larger role in the chocolate category. It’s also increasing creativity. Clever combinations tied to seasonal offerings are exactly what Moonstone Chocolatier had in mind when they announced their new Valentine’s Day offerings. Its Valentine Collection features the following truffles: Pink Champagne Heart Truffle, Pinot Noir Heart Truffle, Vintage Merlot Sea Salt Caramel (milk) and ‘With Love’ Chocolate Fudge Butter Cream.

The company’s Heart to Heart truffles have ganaches — infused with Cointreau, blackberry honey, peanut butter, pinot noir and strawberry — “piped inside beautifully colored heart-shaped chocolates topped with heartfelt messages.”

But those aren’t the only trends affecting the chocolate segment this year.

Recently, at the Americas/Asia round of competition for the International Chocolate Awards, held in New York City last month, co-organizer Martin Christy commented on the changing face of milk chocolate.

 “One of the big surprises in terms of variety and quality of entrants was in the milk-flavored bar category,” he says. “You would think that would be a very mundane category, but that was the most creative standout of the categories; companies are using dark milks and doing very creative things, whether as a filling or inclusion.”

Speaking of doing creative things with milk, David Michael & Co., a Philadelphia-based flavors supplier, debuted its dairy signature series featuring confections as part of its 2013 Innovation Roadshow. The company used camel, water buffalo and goat milks as a dairy component in chocolate compound coatings.

It also touted its artic raspberry-flavored truffles as an example of ultimate indulgence. The artic raspberry is considered a delicacy and known for its intense berry and fruit notes.

Given the depth and breath of innovation going on in the chocolate segment, it’s not surprising to see such experimentation.