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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On the subject of stocking-stuffers and Hannukah gelt, we sent NPR's chocolate correspondent, Joanne Silberner, to a special Mars candy company factory in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. They say they're making chocolate that's actually good for you.

JOANNE SILBERNER reporting:

Let's cut to the chase here--product.

Mr. BOB HARVEY(ph) (Plant Manager, Mars): What you're seeing here is the individual pieces of Dove dark. Dove dark is an amazing product and you would think you would get sick and tired of candy. I have Dove dark every day.

SILBERNER: Plant manager Bob Harvey is very proud of what he makes.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Mr. HARVEY: We'll have our Dove moment. You've got--you can't chew it. You've got to let it melt in your mouth.

SILBERNER: The secret of the factory--and it is a proprietary secret--a way to process chocolate that maintains something called flavinols, a class of chemicals that's in raw cocoa beans, red wine and green tea. Harvey stops in front of a giant oven.

Mr. HARVEY: The process is all about time-temperature relationships and maintaining the flavinols that are naturally present in the beans; what's going on right now.

SILBERNER: Mars makes two products high in flavinol, Dove dark chocolate and CocoaVia, which also has a soybean-based ingredient that lowers cholesterol. More than 20 years ago, Mars scientists were trying to figure out what gives chocolate its flavor. Mars chemist Harold Schmitz says they focused on flavinols.

Mr. HAROLD SCHMITZ (Chemist, Mars Candy Company): As we started to understand the chemistry of these molecules, we realized they could have biological attributes not just related to the tongue and flavor, per se, but to other parts of the body.

SILBERNER: The link with health was established when Harvard scientist Norman Hollenberg discovered that natives on an island off Panama had low blood pressure when drinking their favorite drink made from nearly raw cocoa. Together, Mars and Hollenberg determined that the key factor was flavinols. So Mars has been working for years to figure out how to manufacture high-flavinol chocolate. Harold Schmitz says you have to start with exactly the right kind of cocoa pod.

Mr. SCHMITZ: What I am going to do is I'm going to break open one of these sort of small-football-sized pods so that we can see the seeds.

(Soundbite of pod being broken open)

Mr. SCHMITZ: Inside is the gold.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SILBERNER: The key is genetics. Some strains of cocoa trees produce beans that are especially high in flavinol.

Mr. SCHMITZ: We've spent many, many years and resources figuring out exactly what conditions, from the type of tree, to when the fruit from the tree is harvested, to how the seeds are handled, what can deliver a cocoa seed that is richest in flavinols, what that process looks like.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SILBERNER: That's why, at the Elizabethtown plant, manager Bob Harvey is so careful in making Dove chocolate.

Mr. HARVEY: It's very specific conditions to roast the beans at.

SILBERNER: And is it gentler, or harsher?

Mr. HARVEY: Much gentler process, because you can destroy the flavinols if you don't know what you're doing.

SILBERNER: But Harvey won't say how he does it or how high the flavinol levels are in the finished chocolate. He will say that he loves the end result.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARVEY: I probably consume a half a dozen a day, yeah. I want to keep my heart healthy, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SILBERNER: Mars and the Harvard researcher have shown flavinols increase blood flow. But Mars hasn't yet proven its chocolate lowers blood pressure and heart attack risks. And you knew this was coming: There are those who doubt the magic of Dove chocolate and CocoaVia. Alice Lichtenstein hasn't studied these two chocolates specifically, but she's a nutrition professor at Tufts University and what concerns her is calories. CocoaVia bars are 90 calories apiece; a small serving of Dove dark has 190 calories.

Professor ALICE LICHTENSTEIN (Tufts University): About two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, so the last thing that we want to do is actually add food and extra calories to the diet on a daily basis.

SILBERNER: If research proves flavinols are healthy, and she's careful to say it might, then, she says, pills, not candy bars, would be the way to go. But Mars chemist Harold Schmitz says people are more likely to eat candy bars than take pills.

(Soundbite of voices)

SILBERNER: And on the factory tour, Bob Harvey has his own way of dealing with any extra calories.

Mr. HARVEY: All right, you ready? We're walking more steps now. See, you've burned off at least one Dove dark, so let's work off the second one.

SILBERNER: Up to the packing floor, and a conveyor belt delivering millions of individual red foil-wrapped chocolates into a giant container.

Mr. HARVEY: You know, don't you want to just dive in?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARVEY: Yeah.

SILBERNER: Dove chocolate is available across the US. CocoaVia is in more limited distribution at some major retailers and online. How well the products are selling is a mystery. Mars is a family-owned company and doesn't have to tell.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Indulge your curiosity about the sweet science of chocolate's health benefits at npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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