The company, which has spent the last 15 years researching the health benefits of its key ingredient, opened a two-day meeting in Switzerland yesterday with the announcement that it has been able to synthesise many of the flavonols found in cocoa and dark chocolate.
"We have been able to identify the molecular structure of flavonols found in nature and now have an impressive library of different flavonols. But we are also able to synthesise not only those found in nature but also compounds tailored to specific needs," Marlene Machut, communications director for Mars Nutrition told NutraIngredients.com.
Several studies in recent years have demonstrated that the flavonols found in cocoa and dark chocolate have heart health benefits and new work is beginning to elucidate the mechanisms for this action.
New research presented at the conference also suggests a possible benefit on brain health, as flavonols boost blood flow to certain regions of the brain.
Mars says it is in "serious discussions with large pharmaceutical companies" for a licensing or joint venture agreement that could see some of its flavonols developed as prescription drugs.
Flavonol-enriched foods are likely to reach the market more rapidly however.
"We have already incorporated flavonols into some of our food products. We know how to extract them and identify them so they can be used in any foods - its really not at all about chocolate," said Machut.
The investment in research on cocoa health benefits will certainly allow the firm with annual sales of $18 billion to offer new products that avoid the growing criticism leveled at confectionery makers for their role in the obesity epidemic.
Professor Ian McDonald from Nottingham University, presenting new findings on cocoa flavonols at the meeting, agreed that the research has little to do with chocolate.
"The message must not get out there that all chocolate products have these benefits. It would be a more sensible strategy to develop low-fat, low-energy drinks that are enriched in these flavonols," he told NutraIngredients.com.
"There is very little on the world market that has the polyphenol content that would produce these effects," he added.
Mars has recently begun marketing a cereal bar containing 100mg flavonols per 80 calories. It also includes plant sterols for lowering cholesterol levels.
Currently only available in the US from its website, Machut said the group has had a lot of enquiries from retailers.
In the UK, the firm has been testing a flavonol-enriched drink, also under the CocoaVia brand, for around a year although the company is "going to take another look" at this product, according to Machut.