Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker first came up with the term “bean-to-bar” in the stereotypical fashion true to the Californian startup – it was in their garage while cooking up some chocolate made from cocoa beans.

Now, the term ‘bean to bar’ is widely known among chocolate aficionados, but does that term automatically translate into better quality, and what does the general consumer think?

This is the question food science students in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, USA, wanted to answer. They conducted research on how American premium consumers classify what’s craft, premium and mainstream chocolates.

The study claims to be one of the first to thoroughly research what American premium chocolate consumers find most desirable in their chocolate bars.


Lead researcher, Allison Brown was joined by Helene Hopfer, assistant professor of food science, and Alyssa Bakke, sensory scientist in the Sensory Evaluation Center at Penn State to conduct the mixed-method study, which involved a “projective mapping” activity and focus groups.

Allison Brown chocolate

Projective mapping is a technique in which consumers group products on a sheet of paper based upon similarities and differences in the products. They could also add words to explain their groupings.

Word clouds created from the 95 most frequently used words for the sampled chocolate products in the focus groups. Source:

For this study, participants mapped 47 different chocolate product stickers on a piece of paper and brought these maps to the focus groups, where they discussed their reasons for putting the chocolates into categories they named “artisan,” “Halloween candy” or “special occasion,” etc.

In the second half of the focus groups, participants tasted 5 different chocolate bars from the 3 categories:

  • Craft – Dandelion Chocolate 70% Ambanja, Madagascar
  • Premium – Lindt Cocoa Dark Chocolate Bar, Green & Black’s Organic Dark Chocolate Bar, Endangered Species Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt & Almonds
  • Mainstream – Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar

Participants gave their opinions on flavor, packaging, sustainability labels and other aspects that they found to be appealing and unappealing.

These discussions were coded to determine themes, which fell into three main categories of attributes:

  • Price, availability and packaging
  • The degree to which the consumer trusted the product
  • Experience, such as feeling happy when consuming the chocolate or the use of chocolate as a gift.


Overall, participants favoured extrinsic cues, such as packaging over intrinsic cues, such as flavour to judge the quality of the product.

Gold foil, fancy labels and a story behind the product are the characteristics premium chocolate consumers desired.

Consumers also associated high-quality chocolate when the percentage of cocoa content is higher on the label and additional ingredients such as sea salt, almonds or fruit.

Products which were more expensive, available only in specialty shops were also seen to be of a higher quality.

Sustainability labels, such as “Organic” and “Fair Trade,” piqued some participants’ interest, while others distrusted their presence on the chocolate bar. These attitudes were reflected in participants’ willingness to pay for products with certifications, whilst some participants indicated they would spend more for these products, others would not pay more for chocolate with sustainability labels.

Consumers placed the chocolate bars with a meaningful story behind it a higher value. The Endangered Species bar was a hit because its label indicates that proceeds support wildlife conservation.

Positive childhood experiences is also what the consumers look for in chocolate products. Chocolate flavors or packaging with happy memories were highly sought after.

Allison Brown said the study, which is published in the journal PLOS ONE, will help craft chocolate companies with their product development and marketing.

The U.S. craft chocolate market is estimated to be worth $100 million and growing. However, many companies are small startups with few employees. They do not have marketing teams to guide their brand strategies. Our findings will help them make decisions that could have a large impact on their businesses.

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