Compounds naturally occurring in chocolate can help boost heart health, says research backed by candy giant Mars, Inc.
A new study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, finds that flavanols found in cocoa improves blood vessel function, blood pressure, and arterial stiffness in healthy male adults, while another compound, known as procyandin, only affects cholesterol.
The researchers enrolled 45 volunteers and gave each one of three supplements for a month: a combination of high dose flavonols and procyandins; low dose flavanols and high dose procyandins; or a placebo.
The group that took a high dose combo had the most beneficial effects including reductions in blood pressure, while the procyandins group saw only a reduction in cholesterol. A placebo group saw no results.
“We were able to confirm previous findings related to cocoa flavanols, and we gained novel insights into the respective contributions of flavanols and procyanidins in the context of their cardiovascular effects in humans,” says Christian Heiss, one of the lead researchers.
“We found that the flavanols … represent the bioactives primarily responsible for the beneficial vascular effects observed after cocoa flavanol intake.”
Flavanols and procyanidins are both bioactive compounds – antioxidants and tannins, respectively.
An earlier study, also funded by Mars, Inc, found that flavanols improve blood pressure results in heart disease patients. The researchers hope the ongoing work will help determine how much of these compounds people should consume.
“Compared to other bioactives, we know quite a lot about cocoa flavanols today, but this study provides new and important insights,” Heiss says.
“It is critical to understand how these bioactives interact with each other and with the human body, in order to create a comprehensive basis for evidence-based recommendations about how much of these compounds, or the foods that contain them, people should be consuming for health maintenance and disease risk reduction.”
But while the latest double-blind, randomised, and otherwise straightforward study could add to our understanding about how foods carry health benefits, it is part of a larger body of work, completely funded by the chocolate-maker, that has come under fire for its role in suggesting to the public that chocolate is health food.
Mars is currently funding, along with Pfizer, a drug company, a large-scale, long-term study of “the risks and benefits of supplemental cocoa extract”.
“Mars has a long-term commitment to cocoa flavanol research, which started over 20 years ago,” says Hagen Schroeter, chief science officer of the company’s research arm, Mars Edge.
“This research builds on a number of well-designed small and medium-scale clinical cocoa flavanol-centric studies that together demonstrate flavanols and procyanidins have cardiovascular health benefits.”
In order to reap the benefits of cocoa’s flavanols, one would have to eat about 113 grams of dark chocolate a day, critics point out. And, as the researchers note, flavanols and procyanidins “are also found in apples, grapes, berries, and some cereals and legumes”.
Meanwhile, for those who don’t want to consume cocoa but still rather like the taste, researchers in Brazil are determining how to come up with a reasonable alternative by using jackfruit.
In a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE, a team led by Fernanda Papa Spada from the University of Sao Paolo reveal a plan to replace cocoa flour with crushed jackfruit seeds while still retaining the chocolatey taste.
Worldwide, demand for chocolate continues to grow, but production remains stagnant. The Brazilian researchers suggest that jackfruit could make up a part of the predicted global shortfall.
No word yet on whether jackfruit seeds contain flavanol.
Samantha Page is a science journalist based in Spain.
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