"This new science sets the stage for the potential development of cocoa flavanol-based products useful for a wide variety of important public health issues impacted by decreased blood flow, ranging from, cardiovascular health to dementia," said Harold Schmitz, PhD, chief science officer of Mars.
Flavanols are antioxidant compounds found in unprocessed cocoa, tea, wine and some fruits.
The chocolate industry has already profited from the wave of positive research on the health effects of cocoa, with producers increasingly highlighting flavanol/polyphenol content on their labels.
CocoaVia, from Mars, and Acticoa, by Barry Callebaut, both boast high polyphenol content and are marketed as healthy options. The Mars Nutrition for Health & Well-Being is a new range from the confectionary giant aimed at consumers who want to be healthy but are reluctant to give up chocolate completely.
Mars has been pro-active in research into the potential health benefits of flavanols from cocoa and has been sponsoring researchers in Germany and the US for about 15 years.
A special issue of the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology (Vol. 47, pp. S99-S225) has been published that pulls together science presented at an international meeting of Mars-supported scientists convened last year in Lucerne, Switzerland.
The research presented included two independent studies, one in a healthy elderly population and another in young healthy women, that looked at the consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa on increasing blood flow to the brain.
This work was said to be the first of its kind with cocoa, suggested that cocoa may have promising effects on cognitive performance - particularly promising because decreased brain blood flow is associated with dementia and deterioration in brain function.
The study by Harvard scientists looking at the effects of cocoa flavanols on two population groups of Kuna Indians who live on islands near Panama, has also been published and was the subject of an article on NutraIngredients.com in February.
Briefly, one group of Kunas still live on the islands and drink large quantities of homemade, unprocessed flavanol-rich cocoa every day, while the other group was made up of those that migrated from the islands to Panama City. They were found to consume less cocoa and the cocoa that they do consume is commercially processed and thus lower in flavanols.
The researchers reported that the risk of death from heart disease on the Panama mainland was 1,280 per cent higher than on the islands. Death from cancer was also higher by 630 per cent compared to the Kunas still living on the islands.
Mars also highlights another study published in the journal that examined how different flavanols have different function.
Some studies have reported that flavanol-rich diets could decrease the potential for formation of blood clots, while the study published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology supports that cocoa flavanols may have beneficial effects on platelets.
It also claims to report for the first time that certain flavanols and flavanol-rich cocoa itself may also reduce the cascade of events that can lead to vascular damage.
"The totality of this research is impressive and gives us new insights into how cocoa flavanols may improve health in a variety of ways not previously known," said Schmitz.
"We are excited by this research as it provides promising evidence that cocoa flavanols may have an important role [in] possibly preventing a range of health issues related to blood flow problems."
Critics have been quick to warn against over-consumption of chocolate, as well as stressing the difference between white, milk, and dark chocolate varieties.
Critics also warn that many flavanols are lost during the processing of chocolate, leading to products with relatively low levels of these antioxidants.
Indeed, Professor Ian McDonald from Nottingham University recently told NutraIngredients.com: "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 flavanols."