For more than 20 years, and based on collaborating with a multidisciplinary group of international experts, Mars, Incorporated has been conducting comprehensive and innovative research with a network of scientific collaborators around the world to advance the understanding of cocoa flavanols and their health benefits for the purpose of improving human health. The results of this long-term commitment appear in over 140 peer-reviewed science papers and over 100 patents filed globally. Building on decades of research in cocoa flavanols, the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science was formally established in 2012 as a Center of Excellence to capture and share the latest scientific research in the field.
Where It All Started
Mars, Incorporated, one of world’s leading manufacturers of cocoa products, has always sought to understand the cacao plant and its impact on human health and the environment. In the early 1980s, Mars launched a comprehensive scientific effort to better understand the chemistry and biology of cocoa; the farming practices that influence productivity and flavor; and best practices for sustainable use of resources. One aspect of this research led to the observation that fresh cocoa is especially rich in a group of compounds called flavanols. One Mars scientist observed that cocoa flavanols were chemically similar to polyphenols in tea and other plants being investigated at that time for their potential health benefits. As a result, Mars started a research program to identify and isolate flavanols from cocoa, and to use these cocoa flavanols in the study of human health benefits.
The Scientific Discovery: Nitric Oxide Not Antioxidant
Early scientific research looking at cocoa flavanols in a test tube suggested that they exerted health benefits through an antioxidant mechanism, but today we understand that this in fact is not the case. Subsequent research by Mars and its collaborators support that within the body, flavanols are themselves not potent antioxidants, and therefore unable to exert direct antioxidant effects in the body.
In the mid-1990s, Mars scientists observed an important relationship between cocoa flavanols and nitric oxide. Consumption of dietary flavanols is associated with an increase in nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide is a compound the body produces that triggers the muscles in the arterial wall to relax. This was underscored by the 1998 Nobel Prize in Medicine for research showing nitric oxide's central role in modulating cardiovascular health.
Setting New Standards
Given the potential importance of cocoa flavanols to cardiovascular health indicated by the nitric oxide findings, Mars began working on methods to preserve cocoa flavanols through harvesting and processing. During traditional processing, much of the cocoa flavanols may be lost or destroyed. Through research efforts in Indonesia, at its Mars Center for Cocoa Science research center in Brazil and in its research labs in the United States, Mars scientists developed the Cocoapro® extract process to create cocoa and now cocoa extract that preserves much of the naturally-occurring cocoa flavanols. At the same time, Mars could also envision the potential importance of cocoa flavanols to human health.
In 1998, Mars established its Scientific Advisory Council to critique research completed to date and to provide advice and guidance for future research activities aimed at conclusively defining the benefits of cocoa flavanols to human health. Extensive discussions with the Mars Science Advisory Council convinced Mars scientists that its future clinical research should be conducted at the highest possible scientific standard, and that this would require Mars to pioneer development of clinical research protocols with well-characterized cocoa flavanol products and matched controls. One key outcome from this group was the creation of a flavanol test product made using the Cocoapro® extract process and its matched control so as to enable double-blinded crossover studies. This pioneering work on experimental design and development of control products was initiated, and the quality of subsequent clinical research efforts has increased in parallel. This has resulted in much clearer insights into the potential health benefits of cocoa flavanols consumption, and is a departure from the standard nutrition research often being conducted today.
This approach led to the publication of Mars’ first peer-reviewed scientific papers on this topic in 1999, focused on its advances in methods to measure cocoa flavanols. Since these first publications, Mars scientists have been co-authors on peer-reviewed scientific publications that now number more than 140, addressing topics ranging from analytical chemistry to clinical nutrition research. The findings reported in these publications helped stimulate scientific interest in cocoa flavanols from other groups, with the result that research on cocoa flavanols is one of today’s most active and dynamic fields within the area of health and nutrition.
Building a Body of Evidence
Based on the increasingly exciting potential of cocoa flavanols to help address currently unmet consumer health needs, Mars established Mars Symbioscience in 2005, its life science division. This has enabled continued focus on cocoa flavanols research as well as greater emphasis on the development of new nutritionally-responsible products containing cocoa flavanols. Since Mars Symbioscience was created, Mars and its partners have conducted and published a range of high quality dietary intervention trials, the results of which offer insight into how the consumption of cocoa flavanols help support healthy circulation in diverse study populations, and may help to maintain brain health and other circulatory and vascular related-systems. In addition, Mars and its partners conducted and published breakthrough work during this time regarding the specific types of cocoa flavanols having the most observed bioactivity and the metabolic products that result from consumption of cocoa flavanols.
As a result, Mars has gained deep insight into the best ways to measure cocoa flavanols; has identified which cocoa flavanols are responsible for the observed health benefits; and which unmet consumer health needs could most benefit from the development of products containing cocoa flavanols.
Founding the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science
To enable others to learn as much as possible about cocoa flavanols and the scientific research associated with these dietary compounds, Mars formally established the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science in 2012. Our cocoa flavanols research continues under this Center and our hope is the initiative will enable scientists and health professionals to easily access data related to cocoa flavanols. This access to data will enable better understanding of what we know currently about cocoa flavanols, as well as what we should aim to know in the future in order to improve public health.