If you could draw just one conclusion from the activity of pretty much all ?the major players during the past few months, it would have to be that the future of chocolate is dark.

Almost overnight the countline category went from having one main dark chocolate line - ?Cadbury's Bournville brand - to three, with the launch of a Kit Kat Dark four-finger closely followed by a dark variant of Flake. Bendicks, already a strong niche player in the luxury boxed end of the market, has also ?entered the category with dark chocolate bars, Kraft Foods launched a premium ?range, including a 70% dark chocolate tablet, under its Côte d'Or brand, and Lindt has added a dark chocolate version of its Lindor truffles.

Dark chocolate's sudden emergence into the mainstream can be attributed to a number of factors. Many confectionery companies use ?Green & Black's as a barometer for the category and its continued growth has finally given them the courage to take the plunge.

Growing awareness of dark chocolate's antioxidant properties has also encouraged some consumers to make the switch from milk?. Companies may not be ascribing the word 'healthy' to their dark products, but they are certainly aware of the impact that positive health messages ?are having on consumers.

Says Graham Walker, sales communications manager at Nestlé Rowntree: "The fact that dark chocolate contains antioxidants is a contributing factor in sales growth. Dark chocolate is also a more indulgent, premium eat, and brands such as Green & Black's and Lindt have fuelled its popularity."

Nestlé is no stranger to dark chocolate - it owns ?Black Magic and After Eight - but Walker says that in countlines Bournville has been the only real contender, which means the door is ?open for more players. Nestlé research shows that more than half of 35 to 45-year-olds eat dark chocolate and that 39% of consumers wanted to see a dark Kit Kat. It predicts that the market for dark chocolate will have grown by nearly 50% by 2010.

Richard Brittle, purchasing director at Hancocks, shares Walker's confidence in the category but is more cautious about how large it will eventually become. He also believes that, while there will be a glut of dark chocolate extensions in the future, not all will be long-term additions.

"The market for dark chocolate will never become the size of mainstream chocolate, but the advantage for companies is that products will not have the same problems if they fail. "A few years ago there was a huge market for praline and lots of companies launched praline variants, but there is only so much people want. This will be the same for dark chocolate.""

Cadbury Trebor Bassett describes its move into the category, in the form of Flake Dark, as a ?way of giving consumers dark chocolate without being too challenging. "The dark chocolate category is dominated by super-premium brands that do not offer the right proposition for the majority of shoppers," says head of customer relations Mike Tipping. "Flake Dark provides a safe dark chocolate experience for the everyday market. The consumer profile for dark chocolate is predominantly female, which also fits ?the profile of core Flake consumers. " Tipping also believes that people have reacquired a taste for dark chocolate, something which George McLearie, trade marketing manager at Bendicks, attributes to improvements in product formulations.

"In days gone by, dark chocolate had an association with a bitter taste and it had a very selective audience," says McLearie. "But manufacturers have found a way of getting a smoother taste. You also get more people trying it because of the perceived health benefits and, once they ?realise it is nicer than they thought, you get repetition."

So what does Green & Black's think about all these new brands moving into its territory? Marketing director Mark Palmer? says: "We look positively upon more activity in the market. It helps us rather than being a problem." He offers a note of caution to companies not to get too carried away with their dark activity. "Dark chocolate is only a small percentage of the market and people's natural choice is milk?, so it is asking them to make a big change. We won't see a dramatic swing from milk to dark but there will be a shift. Many of our customers are regular eaters of milk chocolate and people are switching between brands rather than making a dramatic exit."

Masterfoods? is not getting carried away. It dipped its toe into dark chocolate last year with the launch of Galaxy Promises, which combines dark and milk chocolate, but says plans for an all-dark variant are not in the immediate pipeline.

Trade relations manager Andrea Taylor says: "It doesn't mean that we won't do one in the future, though. NPD is a long-term pipeline and developments take time. You need to be very careful about the trends and blips, such as low-carb, for example. If we believe it will be a huge opportunity for a long time, then it is something we will be interested in. The market is definitely there but none of the top ten countlines is dark."

Palmer is convinced that dark chocolate is not a "fad" like low-carb. "It is not a fad but an underlying trend. Dark and milk chocolate can successfully co-exist."n