Research on flavanols and procyanidins provides new insights into how these phytonutrients may positively impact human health

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Findings demonstrate distinct roles of flavanols and procyanidins in the body, and provide direction for improved future research

MCLEAN, VA. (Feb. 02, 2012) --- Collaborative research by Mars, Incorporated and the University of California, Davis has provided important new insights into the distinct roles of flavanols and procyanidins in the human body. Recently published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the findings significantly advance understanding of how these phytonutrients may work in the body to exert cardiovascular benefits. In ways not previously possible, the researchers were able to use specially-developed food to gain novel insights that further our understanding of the metabolic fate of procyanidins in the context of human nutrition. Taken together, the results highlight the need for a more careful consideration of the distinct roles of flavanols and procyanidins when examining the health benefits of foods, and prompt a reconsideration of current research approaches, especially in the context of in vitro studies and epidemiological investigations.

Flavanols and procyanidins are sub-classes of a group of natural compounds called flavonoids. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that foods rich in flavanols and procyanidins, such as cocoa, can have a positive impact on blood vessel function and cardiovascular health. To understand how the flavanols and procyanidins present in certain foods may exert their cardiovascular effects, it is crucial to assess what happens to these compounds in the body following consumption. Previous studies have demonstrated that flavanols are absorbed, enter the body, and directly mediate improvements in cardiovascular function. In contrast, procyanidins have been shown to be poorly absorbed or not at all, thus evidence for a direct effect of procyanidins on blood vessel function is limited. Nevertheless, as flavanols are the structural building blocks of procyanidins, it has been proposed that digestive processes in the gut may cause the break-down of procyanidins into flavanols, which may subsequently be absorbed into the body. If correct, this “break-down hypothesis” would mean that procyanidins exert cardiovascular benefits by acting as precursors of flavanols. Answering this question is therefore crucial for a comprehensive understanding of the role of these phytonutrients for human health and nutrition.

“Assessing whether or not procyanidins are absorbed or contribute to the systemic flavanol pool is more than just a technical distinction. In fact, the answers to these questions could have a significant impact on investigations into the mechanisms underlying the cardiovascular health benefits associated with the intake of flavanol- and procyanidin-containing foods,” commented Dr. Hagen Schroeter – study author and director of fundamental health and nutrition research at Mars, Incorporated.

As flavanols and procyanidins are commonly found together in foods, such as cocoa, grapes, and apples, up until now it has not been possible to directly assess the individual contribution of procyanidins to the circulating pool of flavanols in the body. Using carefully developed, nutrient-matched cocoa-based drinks, containing flavanols and procyanidins either in combination or individually, the researchers in this study were therefore able to not only confirm that procyanidins are poorly absorbed, but, more importantly, they also demonstrate that procyanidins do not break-down in the gut to contribute to the flavanols present in circulation. This outcome makes it very unlikely that procyanidins themselves, or through their break-down into flavanols, affect blood vessel function. Interestingly, the research also demonstrates that micro-organisms in the digestive system transform both flavanols and procyanidins into another group of compounds called gamma-valerolactones. Further research is needed to investigate if, and to what extent, these compounds formed in the gut may contribute to the cardiovascular health benefits observed following the consumption of foods rich in flavanols and procyanidins. In addition, the data of this study do not rule out the possibility that procyanidins may exert biological activities in the digestive system that may be beneficial for human health.

Schroeter further explained, “For example, the differences between the absorption and metabolism of flavanols and procyanidins, as demonstrated by this research, may prompt changes in how scientists design and interpret epidemiological investigations and in vitro studies to more meaningfully reflect what happens in the body,” Dr. Schroeter added. “Furthermore, the fact that our results mean that it is unlikely that procyanidins exert direct effects on blood vessel function, may lead researchers to focus specifically on studying the mechanisms by which flavanols – and perhaps even gamma-valerolactones – effect cardiovascular function.”

The research has been published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and is available online here: [insert link]. It was in-part funded by the European Commission under the FLAVIOLA project and forms part of a wider body of work examining the health benefits of diets rich in flavanols and procyanidins.

About Mars Center For Cocoa Health Science

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. Building on decades of research in cocoa flavanols, the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science (MCCHS) was formally established in 2012 as a Center of Excellence to pioneer, capture and share the latest scientific research in the field. MCCHS provides access to more than 20 years of gold standard research, over 140 published peer-reviewed scientific papers, videos, slides and other information that Mars, Incorporated and its collaborators have developed to advance cocoa flavanol understanding. For more information, please visit http://www.marscocoascience.com. Follow us: http://twitter.com/CocoaHealthSci

About Mars, Incorporated

In 1911, Frank C. Mars made the first Mars candies in his Tacoma, Washington kitchen and established Mars’ first roots as a confectionery company. In the 1920s, Forrest E. Mars, Sr. joined his father in business and together they launched the MILKY WAY® bar. In 1932, Forrest, Sr. moved to the United Kingdom with a dream of building a business based on the objective of creating a “mutuality of benefits for all stakeholders” – this objective serves as the foundation of Mars, Incorporated today. Based in McLean, Virginia, Mars has net sales of more than $33 billion, six business segments including Petcare, Chocolate, Wrigley, Food, Drinks, Symbioscience, and more than 75,000 Associates worldwide that are putting its Principles into action to make a difference for people and the planet through its performance.
For more information, please visit www.mars.com. Follow us: http://facebook.com/mars, http://twitter.com/marsglobal, http://youtube.com/mars, http://linkedin.com/company/mars

 

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