Chocolate is a sweet, sweet segment. Not only is it popular — 97% of US households purchase chocolate — but its sales are growing at retail by 6% annually, according to Mintel, a Chicago, IL-based research firm. How these retail sales numbers break down can show bakers and snack manufacturers what consumers want from the decadent ingredient.

Innovation has proven key in keeping the category growing. Mintel attributed the growth of seasonal chocolate styles, 8.7% in 20ll and the largest growth percentage in the chocolate category, to the segment’s ability to promote new products for limited time.

With retail chocolate prices rising, consumers want more bang for their buck, turning to premium products with added value in flavor, health or sustainability. Consumers seem more interested in chocolate’s inherent health benefits rather than sugar-free claims, which Mintel found in decline from 2009 to 2011. Mintel attributes this fall-off to a lack of new sugar-free products as well as low interest in sugar alternatives among consumers.

Bakers who want to tap into consumers’ enduring love of chocolate can take a cue from what people are buying at the store. Innovative flavors and product styles rank high with shoppers. So do products that claim natural nutritive properties, as well as those that come from sustainable agriculture.