Cocoa shows cardiovascular health benefits in study

4th March 2013

Cocoa has a long and storied history, from Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican rituals to the Cadbury bars lining newsagent counters. Its story, however, is still being written.

According to recent studies, Cocoa flavanols, the unique compounds found naturally in cocoa, may increase blood flow to the brain. The researcher suggest that long-term improvements in brain blood flow could impact cognitive behaviour, offering future potential for debilitating brain conditions including dementia and stroke.

In a scientific study of healthy, older adults ages 59 to 83, Harvard medical scientists found that study participants who regularly drank a cocoa flavanol-rich beverage made using the Mars, Incorporated Cocoapro process had an eight percent increase in brain blood flow after one week, and 10 percent increase after two weeks.

1. What are cocoa flavanols and what is their chemical composition?

Cocoa flavanols are a type of phytonutrients that belong to a larger group of compounds called flavonoids.

2. Why are they beneficial to the body and how do they act?

The consumption of flavanols found in cocoa has been linked to circulatory health benefits. While some suggest that cocoa flavanols function as antioxidants, more recent advanced evidence suggests that consuming cocoa flavanols may positively impact blood vessel function and may even reduce the tendency of blood to clot. These effects are independent of the antioxidant properties that flavanols exhibit in a test tube. The studies we have published in collaboration with our academic partners suggest the circulation health benefits of Mars' flavanol-rich cocoa are of interest to those studying cardiovascular health, cognitive health and the maintenance of health in those with type 2 diabetes.

3. Are flavanols found in commonly ingested forms of chocolate? If so to what degree?

Despite the fact that the cocoa seed is a rich source of flavanols, not all cocoa-products contain appreciable amounts of flavanols. Traditional cocoa processing often destroys the highly-sensitive flavanols. The Cocoapro(r) process developed by Mars, Incorporated helps preserve consistently high levels of cocoa flavanols in a way that may be beneficial to health - which is what really counts when you're talking about cocoa and health. So, contrary to popular reports, there's no guarantee that any type of chocolate - including a 70% or more cacao dark chocolate - contains significant levels of flavanols, unless carefully handled and processed.

4. Are there any harmful effects?

We haven't seen harmful effects of our flavanol-rich cocoa in any of the many human consumption studies we have completed.

5. Your study cites an 8% increase in blood flow after one week and 10% after two weeks. At what point does flavanol activity plateau?

The key finding of this first-of-its-kind study is the resulting short and long-term (maintained) benefits of cocoa flavanols for brain blood flow. The body of research suggests that it's the habitual intake of cocoa flavanols that offers a benefit, but more longer term research is needed to understand if, or when, there would be a plateau.

6. Are there potential therapeutic applications for your findings and how can they be applied outside the laboratory?

The research on cocoa flavanols is promising, suggesting that cocoa flavanols may provide a dietary approach to maintaining cardiovascular function and health, and pointing towards new possibilities for cocoa flavanol-based interventions for vascular complications associated with cognitive performance, skin health and age-related blood vessel dysfunction. These specific findings could offer future potential for the one in seven older Americans currently living with dementia. When the flow of blood to the brain slows over time, the result may be structural damage and dementia. Scientists speculate that maintaining an increased blood flow to the brain could slow this cognitive decline.

In additional, the findings from a recent Journal of the American College of Cardiology study hold significant promise for patients with type 2 diabetes, given the severe complications linked to blood vessel dysfunction in this population. Impaired blood flow and blood vessel dysfunction is an early stage in the development of cardiovascular disease and heart disease and stroke is the cause of death for two-thirds of those with diabetes. The findings reveal that those who drank a flavanol-rich cocoa beverage made using the Mars Cocoapro(r) cocoa experienced a 30 percent improvement in their blood vessel health after 30 days of consumption.

7. Describe the Cocoapro process and how it increases flavanol benefits in products made via that process.

For more than 15 years, Mars, Incorporated has been researching the biomedical potential of cocoa and cocoa flavanols. We have also collaborated with scientists at leading universities, allowing us to conduct and support a significant share of the research in the field of cocoa flavanols. It is this understanding that allowed Mars to develop the patented and proprietary process called Cocoapro(r) that helps retain the flavanols normally destroyed during processing. This proprietary method includes careful bean selection, fermenting, roasting, processing and recipe formulation.

8. What is the next step, in terms of flavanol research and application?

The Mars, Incorporated commitment to understanding the health potential of cocoa and cocoa flavanols is demonstrated by the nearly two decades of research we have dedicated in this area. Working in collaboration with top research institutions around the world, Mars, Incorporated continues to lead the way in exploring the nutritional and medical potential of cocoa flavanols.

In 2007, Mars, Incorporated established Mars Botanical as a new scientific division to build on its heritage of scientific leadership and develop new plant-derived products aimed at improving human health. Mars Botanical believes the field of phytonutrients is still in its infancy and the study of natural plant compounds such as flavanols holds tremendous promise for the future. The goals of Mars Botanical are to develop bioactive materials, processing technologies and products supported by evidence-based science like that used in the development of Cocoapro(r).

(NOTE: For more information on the many research studies on cocoa flavanols, visit More information on Mars Botanical can be found at

Reporting by Marc Landas





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