Hershey Foods Corp. said Thursday that fourth-quarter earnings before items rose as higher sales sweetened results for the chocolate giant.

The maker of Hershey chocolate bars and Reese's peanut butter cups reported earnings before items of $126.9 million, or 92 cents a share, for the quarter, compared with $116.0 million, or 84 cents a share, a year earlier.

Analysts' estimates ranged from 88 cents to 93 cents a share, with a consensus at 90 cents, according to market research firm Thomson Financial/First Call.

Hershey reported a net loss of 33 cents a share in the quarter including charges for restructuring and a reduction in raw inventory levels. The company said in October it would restructure, including job cuts, and focus on its main products.

Net sales rose to $1.27 billion in the fourth quarter from $1.19 billion in the year-ago quarter.

"We've made good progress executing our new strategic direction, turning in solid operational improvements and consistent market share gains," Chairman and Chief Executive Richard Lenny said in a statement.

Hershey reported fourth-quarter charges of $278 million, or $1.25 a share, including $50 million for inventory reductions and $228 million for restructuring. Hershey said in December it would take most of its restructuring charges in the quarter.

For the year, Hershey said net sales rose 8 percent, to nearly $4.6 billion and reported income before items of $377.9 million, or $2.74 a share.

Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown analyst Eric Katzman on Thursday cut his rating on Hershey shares to "market perform" from "buy" saying the stock performed well over the past year, appeared fairly valued and it will take time for management to drive higher profits and cash flow.

"We continue to believe in Hershey's new management and their long-term efforts to raise profitability," Katzman wrote in a research note.

"I'm not saying that things are deteriorating or that there is some kind of issue looming, just that it is time to take some profits and look elsewhere to make some money," Katzman said in a telephone interview.

Shares of Hershey closed at $70.00 Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares have risen nearly 20 percent in the past year.