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Legacy of Research

Over the past 20 years, Mars in collaboration with a global network of scientific partners have published more than 160 peer-reviewed scientific publications, addressing topics ranging from analytical chemistry to clinical nutrition research.

Where It All Started

As one of the world’s leading manufacturers of cocoa products, we want to deeply understand the cacao plant and how it can positively impact the people and the planet.

In the 1980s we launched a serious scientific effort to investigate the chemistry and biology of cocoa, focused initially on better understanding this complex food and its flavor. Over time, we started research to uncover the potential role these compounds may play for human health, discovering early on that specific compounds in cocoa may have potent vascular effects. This initial work in the 1990s led to the creation of Mars’ cocoa flavanols research program.

The aim of this program is to uncover and unlock the benefits of cocoa flavanols for human health. Our business goal is to translate these benefits into evidence-based products that consumers can easily integrate into their lives to improve their health.

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 160, addressing topics ranging from analytical chemistry to clinical nutrition research.

This research has involved a multidisciplinary group of international experts from leading research organizations, including Harvard University, the University of California-Davis, the University of Reading, the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Columbia University New York, and the University of Cambridge, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) of Australia, and many others to thoroughly investigate cocoa flavanols and their potential benefits to human health. This research has focused on:

  • The chemistry and analytical chemistry of flavanols, including their human metabolites
  • Understanding flavanol absorption, metabolism, and excretion in humans
  • Biomarkers of flavanol intake and epidemiological investigations
  • Dietary intervention studies to understand efficacy and safety of flavanol intake
  • Cell culture-based studies to investigate potential molecular mechanisms of action