Mars Inc. advances knowledge of cocoa flavanol benefits, develops new method to measure flavanol content

August 24, 2020

A growing body of research lends support to the use of cocoa flavanols in supplements and Mars Inc. has developed a new scientific method for measuring flavanols and procyanidins in cocoa products.

A growing body of research lends support to the use of cocoa flavanols in supplements. A prime example is the CocoaVia brand of supplements, functional foods and beverages, manufactured by Mars. “In terms of the strength of the data, hands down the benefits of cocoa flavanols are clearly to the cardiovascular system,” says Catherine Kwik-Uribe, PhD, director of scientific and regulatory affairs at Mars Symbioscience (Gaithersburg, MD). “These benefits come in multiple forms.”

What we know about cocoa flavanols is they support endothelial function, which is the function of the arteries. What this means for cardiovascular health is a reduction in blood pressure. More recent research also points to the support of the endothelial cells themselves. “We know that the thin layer of cells that line the blood vessels, the endothelial cells, are really important to artery health and to the health of the cardiovascular system, so we have a couple of papers that have looked at how cells, the functional integrity of the cells, is improved with the intake of flavanols,” explains Kwik-Uribe. “We’re beginning to get insights into where flavanols are actually working. It appears to be working at the endothelial level, they help nitric oxide levels which help in the relaxation of blood vessels.”

Of course, the benefits of cocoa flavanols are not isolated to our hearts. “When you think of the cardiovascular system, it’s not a closed system in the sense that it only supports the heart. Having a healthy cardiovascular system supports many aspects of healthy living. These past five years, emerging evidence is about cognitive benefits,” says Kwik-Uribe. “Early on in our program we saw that the improvements in endothelial function and blood vessel health would translate to improvement in blood flow also translating to an improvement in the brain itself.”

Data collected by Mars Symbioscience has found that in healthy older populations, and even in those younger than 50 years of age, regular intake of cocoa flavanols in the diet may improve cognitive function, including aspects of executive function, as well as some improvements in memory. “We have a paper, published in Nature Neuroscience, that not only looked at memory but also looked at regional blood flow and found that the improvement in memory correlated in an improvement in blood flow in a key area of the brain, the hippocampus, which is known to be involved in memory and actually very sensitive to deterioration with age,” explains Kwik-Uribe. “Seeing the coupling of both the cognitive benefits and the increase in blood flow to that region really does support the idea that cocoa flavanol is good for your heart, good for your brain, and specifically can be good for cognitive function overall.”

Some of the most compelling data regarding the efficacy of cocoa flavanols is expected to come at the end of 2021, upon the publication of the Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS). This is a four-year longitudinal study of 22,000 subjects conducted by Harvard University-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in collaboration with Mars Inc., on the effects of cocoa flavanols, either alone or combination with multivitamins, or multivitamins, alone.

“The cocoa flavanol arm is specifically designed to evaluate the effects of the bioactives on cardiovascular health, and the multivitamin component is intended to build on previous data which suggested a benefit related to cancer outcome,” explains Kwik-Uribe. The subjects in the study are healthy men ages 60 and up, and healthy women ages 65 and up. The cardiovascular outcomes the study looks at include heart attacks, stroke, and hospitalization, as well as conventional and metabolic markers such as blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure.

While establishing the efficacy of cocoa flavanols is important, so too is developing analytical methods for testing the levels of cocoa flavanols in a product. This is among the top priorities for Mars Symbioscience. “One of the challenges that we’ve had over the years is the fact that cocoa flavanols are bioactives but they’re not nutrients, therefore a typical consumer can’t look at a product label and know very easily how many flavanols are there,” explains Kwik-Uribe. “One of the areas we continue to invest in is actually the development of analytical methods that we think can eventually be used in labeling.”

In fact, in its latest milestone, Mars Edge, a new segment of Mars Inc. dedicated to human health and wellness through targeted nutrition, submitted a new scientific method for measuring flavanols and procyanidins in cocoa powders, cocoa liquors, chocolates, and extracts to AOAC International. The new method employs hydrophilic interaction liquid chromatography, and is a major improvement of the existing Official Method of AnalysisSM 2012.24 validated for a wide range of cocoa-based products, including milk chocolates, dark chocolates, cocoa drink mixes and cocoa extract dietary supplements, spanning concentration of 0.5-500 mg/g. The method, now approved by AOAC International, decreases experimental time more than five-fold and increase intermediate precision more than two-fold.

The method incorporates the first standardized reference material for cocoa flavanol extract, developed by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and employs advanced separation and sample clean-up technology provided by Waters Corporation, which will enable more accurate measurement of products that typically contain low and inconsistent amounts of cocoa-flavanols, like milk chocolate. “We’re still working with NIST to advance the method toward labeling. Our dream is not only to demonstrate the benefits of cocoa flavanols, but also the ability for consumers to readily and easily make choices about products so that they can get the cocoa flavanols they desire for their health,” says Kwik-Uribe.

This will be crucial as consumer awareness grows about cocoa flavanols so that they can make informed purchasing decisions. “One of the common misconceptions is because the cocoa bean is high in cocoa flavanols, that must mean that dark chocolate or natural cocoa powder would be high in flavanols,” says Kwik-Uribe. While she says that consumers no longer expect milk chocolate or alkalized chocolate powder being high in flavanols, high cacao content or natural cocoa powder does not guarantee high cocoa flavanol content. “We’ve done some evaluation and you can look at that data and see, even a natural cocoa powder doesn’t contain that much. It contains on average about 20-25mg of cocoa flavanols per gram,” she explains. “This contrasts with something like the cocoa extracts used in our CocoaVia products which contains minimally 450 mg.”

Not only that, but the flavanol content often depends on the processing the product undergoes as well. For example, fermentation and roasting of cocoa beans effects to cocoa flavanol content of the finished product. This is why Mars invested in understanding the levels of flavanols from origin to finished product, and developed the CocoaPro process. “For the cocoa extract that we make, the story begins in Indonesia, where we harvest it,” explains Kwik-Uribe. “The beans are brought to our facility in Indonesia, wet, meaning they’ve been off the trees for less than ten to fifteen hours. Then, we dry them within 24 to 48 hours. All of that really helps to lock in the flavanols, starting with that fresh bean. When we roast the bean, we try to keep temperatures down to minimize flavanol losses during processing, and then that material is gently extracted to really make this highly concentrated extract.”

The fact is, that while it sounds appealing for consumers to get health benefits from chocolate products, real benefits come from higher concentrations and consistent use. “Chocolate is a treat, we love it, but it’s not something you can actually recommend as a health food,” says Kwik-Uribe. “So that’s what has driven us to continue to create the extracts and then create products such as CocoaVia, coming up with really concentrated forms so consumers get the flavanols they need for their health every day in a format that’s easy to use, nutritionally responsible, getting more of the positives and none of the negatives.”