Skip to main content

Researchers Identify Novel Biomarkers to Accurately and Objectively Measure Dietary Intake of Key Bioactives

Studies from University of Reading, University of California Davis and Mars, Incorporated identify and validate at scale the first objective biomarkers for flavanol and procyanidin intake

Recent studies published in Nature Scientific Reports:

  • Identify new biomarkers for measuring the intake of flavanols and procyanidins, key bioactives in apples, blueberries, grapes, pears and cocoa
  • Validate – based on rigorously established criteria – the utility of these new biomarkers 
  • Provide researchers with a path forward to accurately assess bioactive nutrient intake in large populations

December 10, 2019 – A new, objective way of measuring flavanol intake has been developed, which could help nutritional experts assess the link between these compounds and their health benefits at scale.

In the first study of its kind published in Nature Scientific Reports, researchers at the University of Reading, the University of California Davis and Mars, Incorporated have identified and validated the first biomarkers for flavanol- and procyanidin intake at scale.

This research, recently presented at the International Conference on Polyphenols and Health 2019, validates the use of specific biomarkers to objectively and accurately estimate the intake of flavanols and procyanidins. These studies have been published amid a growing consensus that many nutritional epidemiological studies have considerable limitations due to their dependence on subjective self-reporting, uncertainty around food content data and the impact of food preparation on nutrient content. 

To address these limitations, there is an urgent need for new methods that objectively measure the intake of specific nutrients in large populations. Using these newly developed biomarkers, researchers can now investigate the links between dietary intake of flavanols and procyanidins and associated health benefits at scale, without constraints inherent to past research approaches. 


  • With this new method researchers can, for the first time, accurately assess dietary flavanol and procyanidin intake in humans 
  • Researchers can now measure how much epicatechin – the flavanol monomer responsible for improvements in vascular function – a person has consumed, enabling further investigation into associations between intake and disease risk
  • This research has also demonstrated that new biomarkers can be developed to improve the reliability and rigor of nutritional epidemiological research 
  • With reliable biomarkers, researchers can now investigate the links between flavanol and procyanidins intake and health benefits in large-scale studies, free from limitations inherent to past research approaches 

Flavanols and procyanidins are bioactive compounds naturally present in various foods including apples, blueberries, grapes, pears and cocoa. These compounds are being widely investigated for their health benefits. Researchers have now established the first method to assess actual bioactive intake, without relying on a surrogate. This will enable more accurate studies into links between dietary intake of flavanols and procyanidins and health benefits. Beyond investigating these compounds, this research has wide-reaching consequences for the field of nutritional epidemiologic studies more broadly. 

Professor Gunter Kuhnle, Lead Investigator at the University of Reading, said: “If we can’t objectively measure what people eat, we can’t give evidence-based recommendations. We now know that previous approaches to measure dietary flavanols intake are simply not accurate. This new methodology has the potential to improve the study of how diet impacts human health by providing researchers with an accurate method for assessing the intake of bioactives and creating a way forward for more robust nutritional epidemiology standards.”

Supporting Improvement in Cardiovascular Disease Prevention & Health 

A strong body of evidence now suggests that flavanols can be beneficial for cardiovascular disease prevention and health maintenance, and recent data have shown that the monomer (−)-epicatechin is responsible for improvements in vascular function. This research, which has identified a new biomarker for (−)-epicatechin, opens up the possibility to investigate associations between (−)-epicatechin intake and health outcomes in large-scale observational studies. In the future this method could hold the potential to objectively assess dietary epicatechin adequacy as part of approaches for personalized nutrition goals.

Dr Javier Ottaviani, Research Associate at Mars, Incorporated added: “Mars has a long-term commitment to investigating a group of flavanols naturally present in cocoa. A series of comprehensive and collaborative studies now indicate that consuming flavanols, including (−)-epicatechin, could help maintain heart health. By using these new biomarkers, we can now more accurately assess how much of these beneficial compounds someone has actually consumed and more definitively investigate their impact on human health.”

This research is a collaborative project between the University of Reading, the University of California Davis and Mars, Incorporated. This research sought to establish a validated methodology to objectively measure dietary intake of bioactive compounds. Research was conducted between 2014 and 2018. The study considered how bioactive compounds were metabolized and used these metabolites to develop the biomarkers to objectively measure flavanol intake.  

These studies were published in Nature Scientific Reports and are freely available on their website here: 


About Reading University 

The University of Reading is one of the UK's leading research-intensive universities and is in the top 30 universities in the UK (QS World University Rankings 2020). 

Our Food research spans all aspects of food and nutrition from farm to fork and beyond. We focus on improving the quality and safety of food and diet to deliver health benefits for society. We offer interdisciplinary research projects within a world-leading environment. With strong international links to industry and other institutions, you be can assured that your PhD will put you at the very centre of the world of food and nutritional sciences.

About Mars Edge
Mars Edge is a new segment of Mars, Incorporated dedicated to human health and wellness through targeted nutrition. It is set up to use the latest science, data and technology to create easy, enjoyable and tailored nutrition solutions. It offers evidence-based products for wider groups of people with shared nutritional and health needs, delivered by brands such as COCOAVIA®, and is creating a business in personalized nutrition with FOODSPRING®. In doing so Mars Edge is partnering with start-up companies, academia and philanthropic organizations to bring ideas to life. Mars Edge’s purpose is to contribute to better lives through nutrition.