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ST. LOUIS - Chocolate could be healthier for your heart than fruit - at least by one measure.

New bite-sized candies from Bissinger's Handcrafted Chocolatier have more than six times the antioxidants of blueberries, a fruit high in the disease-fighters, research by the University of Illinois for the company shows.

Bissinger's Naturals, filled with nuts and seeds, was launched recently at the Whole Foods Market in Brentwood, Mo.

"Four or five pieces are about 170 calories and really give you a lot of nice nutrition, a lot of nice benefits," said Kenneth Kellerhals, president of St. Louis-based Bissinger's. "It's a product you can eat every day ... up to seven or eight a day."

Still, chocolate lovers shouldn't see this as an excuse to go wild, said a food scientist at the University of Illinois, who coordinated the antioxidant research for Bissinger's.

"You should still eat it in moderation," said Nicki Engeseth, associate professor of food chemistry. "I'm not saying that you should substitute chocolate for all your fruits and vegetables."

Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, contains antioxidants called flavonoids, Engeseth said. Some studies show antioxidants work by protecting the body from free radicals that can increase the risk of developing heart disease and some cancers, she said.

Scientists have developed a process to indicate the level of antioxidant activity within a plant food and compare it with other foods. This process measures oxygen radical absorbance capacity, or ORAC.

Bissinger's dark chocolate has an ORAC-per-gram of 167. Blueberries come in around 25. The average for dark chocolate is closer to 130, about twice as high as for milk chocolate.

The three new candy varieties - Sunflower Crunch, Black Sesame Crunch and Walnut Crunch - each have nutritional benefits aside from the chocolate, the company said. Sunflower seeds contain vitamin E. Black sesame seeds provide a source of protein, iron and calcium. Walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.

Bissinger's worked with Whole Foods to meet the grocer's standards on artificial flavors and preservatives. But Whole Foods did not ask Bissinger's to touch its secret chocolate recipe, said Gretchen Morfogen, the Brentwood store's specialty team leader.

She said there's no other product like it.

"I think the walnut one is probably by far the favorite" with customers, she said. "I think that's a little bit more approachable."

On the other hand, customers either love or hate the black sesame candy, Morfogen said.

Bissinger's Naturals builds on the Spa Chocolates product the company introduced last year. Those candies were designed to be eaten one-per-day and also contained ingredients believed to provide some health benefits, including dark chocolate. A follow-up, Spa 2, is scheduled to launch in the fall.

When Spa Chocolates entered the market, some critics, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, questioned whether the health claims were overstated. Nutritionists at the center could not be reached Tuesday for comment on the new line of candies.

The candy maker is talking with Whole Foods about expanding distribution of its products to other stores in the grocery chain.


Bissinger's Naturals

What is it?

Three dark-chocolate varieties: Sunflower Crunch, Black Sesame Crunch, Walnut Crunch

Health benefits?

Dark chocolate contains antioxidants. Nuts and seeds offer other health benefits. The candies have no artificial flavors, preservatives, cholesterol or trans fats. Each piece has about 43 calories.

Who makes it?

Bissinger's Handcrafted Chocolatier, of St. Louis, which has five retail operations, catalogs and a Web site.

Where's it sold?

Whole Foods Market; soon to be available at Bissinger's stores.

What's it cost?

A 5-ounce bag sells for $6.99.


(c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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