The US market for chocolate is primed to grow from US$16bn last year to $18bn by the end of 2007, according to the latest research.

Consumer research group Packaged Facts said that strong consumer interest in the reported health benefits of dark chocolate and a general trend towards product premiumisation (including organic and fair trade products) are the main drivers in current market growth.

The market share for premium chocolate escalated from 13% of the total market in 2002 to nearly 17% in 2006. Packaged Facts estimates that premium chocolate sales will continue to expand, commanding 25% of the market by 2011 and generating $4.5 billion in sales.

For much of the chocolate industry, market gains were achieved through price increases rather than increased unit sales in 2006. However, while the higher-priced premium trend has stimulated the market, it has also been responsible for staving off steady declines in other categories, such as sugar-free/diet, gift and novelty products segments, each of which saw unit sales sag by significant percentages during 2006, the report said.

“Even in categories such as gift box chocolates which saw a notable decline in the last year, brands such as Ghirardelli and Lindt that are targeting a more hip and upscale clientele are seeing tremendous success,” said Tatjana Meerman, the publisher of Packaged Facts.

“We expect that the trend towards high-end products, especially those touting wellness benefits, will be the life force in this market for the next several years.”