Mars and the Next Frontier

Dec 10, 2009

You may think of Mars Inc. as the purveyor of some of your favorite chocolate candies—M&M'S, Snickers, Dove. With a new endeavor, however, the company has launched itself into the dietary supplements arena.

This summer, Mars Botanical, the scientific division of Mars Inc. started in 2007, introduced CirkuHealth, a dietary supplement beverage powder that aims to bring to consumers the health benefits of cocoa flavanols.

Cocoa flavanols have been linked to healthy blood circulation in the body, helping to maintain heart, lung, brain, kidney, and muscle health. (Specific studies have pointed to cocoa flavanols' role in cardiovascular and cognitive health.)

One mistake that consumers make, say Mars scientists, is automatically assuming that foods with cocoa, such as dark chocolate, will deliver these health benefits. Health-conscious shoppers may even look specifically to chocolate products whose labels indicate high percentages of cocoa, assuming that this means they are getting higher doses of flavanols. But as the scientists from Mars Inc. tell it, that's a mistake.

"There's been a halo, so to speak, above the concept of a high percentage of cocoa being healthier," says Risa Schulman, PhD, director of research and development for Mars Botanical. "Consumers think that the higher the percentage, the better the chocolate is for you. However, all the percentage of cocoa refers to is the percentage of cocoa that's in the product—not the percentage of flavanols. And, as you know, what we're really interested in for the health is the flavanols."

Besides flavanols, cocoa also comprises fat and fiber, among other things. So consumers might not be getting the amount of flavanols that they think they're getting if they simply look to cocoa percentages alone.

In addition, when cocoa is being processed, it can be difficult to keep its flavanols intact. Flavanols are susceptible to elements such as oxygen, light, and heat. Thus, without the proper processing behind it, a chocolate bar at the grocery store can easily be devoid of the flavanols it would take to deliver health benefits. "It's the processing that keeps the flavanols in," says Schulman. "If they process it out, it doesn't matter if you have 100% cocoa—you still have very little flavanols."

In the mid 1990s, Mars Inc. patented its proprietary Cocoapro processing method, which the company says helps to protect flavanols from heat during cocoa processing, thereby helping to preserve flavanol content. It is this processing method that the company used to create its Cirku natural cocoa extract, which Mars says ensures a consistently high level of flavanols.

Mars used its Cirku extract to make CirkuHealth, the dietary supplement it introduced to market this summer. The beverage powder, sold online only, is available in two flavors—sweetened and unsweetened. Each daily serving provides 650 mg of cocoa extract with a concentrated source of flavanols. The company says that CirkuHealth has demonstrated in clinical trials to help maintain healthy circulation.

This is not Mars's first venture into functional cocoa. In 2005, the company launched CocoaVia, a "heart-healthy" chocolate line, part of the rapidly growing functional chocolates market. (Euromonitor International predicts the U.S. fortified/functional chocolates market to grow by almost 48% from 2007 to 2012, to $460.3 million.) However, with its entry into dietary supplements, the company hopes to further educate consumers about cocoa flavanols.

Mars is also continuing development of its Cirku extract. The company hints that new technology will be unveiled next year that allows the cocoa extract and its flavanols to be used in non-cocoa-flavored products. "It all comes back to our understanding of flavanols and how to harness them," says Hugo Pérez, vice president of corporate affairs and communication. "It's probably the first-of-its-kind approach to using cocoa this way."

"CirkuHealth is just the first showcasing of what can be done with the extract," says Schulman. "Cirku extract is a novel way of approaching cocoa that's never been done before."