The FLAVIOLA project , supported by Mars and several European Universities, found in new research that consuming a cocoa-based drink, containing 450 mg of cocoa flavanols, twice a day for a month lowered blood pressure and increased blood vessel function in healthy people.
Mars has been accused of misleading US consumers by stating that its dark chocolate Dove Bar is a ‘natural source of cocoa flavanols’ without justifying the claim a fixed percentage of flavanol content. It denies the claim. Last December a Californian district court stayed proceedings until a decision was reached in a similar lawsuit in California accusing Con Agra of misbranding canned tomatoes and cocoa products. Hershey is also facing a lawsuit that alleges antioxidant and flavanol claims on its Special Dark Cocoa and Special Dark Kisses misled consumers. It also contests the allegations.
However, the researchers told ConfectioneryNews that people would need to consume too many calories to obtain the same concentration in chocolate.
Cocoa flavonals destroyed during processing
“Given the amount of chocolate that you would need to consume to reach the amount of cocoa flavanols used in this study, this shouldn’t be seen as a recommendation to consume chocolate,” said FLAVIOLA project coordinator Dr Marc Merx and corresponding study author Dr Christian Heiss, in a joint statement.
They said chocolate could be part of a balanced diet, but it’s overall nutrional composition made it “not suitable as a health food”.
“There are also wide variations in the flavanol content of commercially available chocolates as flavanols are usually destroyed by normal processing methods (roasting, alkalization, etc.),” they told ConfectioneryNews.
A 100 g bar of dark chocolate typically contains between 53.49 mg - 108.6 mg of cocoa flavanols, while the same amount of milk chocolate contains an average of 15.04 mg, according to a 2013 analysis by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
What about high flavanol chocolate?
Commercially available high flavanol chocolate contains fewer cocoa flavanols than the drinks used in FLAVIOLA’s latest research.
Barry Callebaut Acticoa chocolate preserves flavanols during processing and can carry 200 mg of cocoa flavanols in two squares of a chocolate tablet.
This equates to around nine squares of chocolate a day to reach comparable levels in Mars’ cocoa-based drink used in the FLAVIOLA research – almost equivalent to eating an entire 100 g chocolate tablet every day for a month. It’s unclear if 450 mg could be condensed in a smaller amount of chocolate.
Alternative view: Chocolate helps patient adherence
In comments at ConfectioneryNews’ panel discussion on cocoa flavanols at Vitafoods 2015 Dr Claudio Ferri, who has conducted his own peer-reviewed research linking cocoa flavanols to health benefits, defended chocolate as a delivery vehicle.
“The format is not so important. The most important trouble we experienced every day in taking care of our patients is adherence…I think the best format is the most tasteful one. We obtained similar results in other studies with various [chocolate] tablets and pralines, therefore cocoa can exert benefits on the cardiovascular level whatever the medium in which you dissolve the flavanols," he said.
Health study: Can cocoa flavanols help healthy people?
The first study published in British Journal of Nutrition examined the effects of cocoa flavanols for 100 healthy middle-aged men and women aged 35-60 years with low risk of cardiovascular disease. They were randomly and blindly assigned to consume a drink containing 450 mg of cocoa flavonals twice a day for four weeks or consume a placebo. Those consuming the drink with cocoa flavanols had lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels after the test period compared to the control group.
Age study: Are the effects of cocoa flavanols age dependent?
The second study published in the journal Age concluded regular cocoa flavanol intake can improve vascular function in healthy young and elderly at-risk individuals. The randomized, double blind study looked at 22 people under age 35 and 20 people between ages 50 and 80. They received a 450 mg cocoa flavanol drink or a placebo for 14 days. Researchers found the eldery group consuming flavanol drinks had a flow-mediated vasodilation, a measure of the elasticity of blood vessels, equivalent to someone in their thirties after the trial period. Young healthy participants also showed enhanced vasodilator function after consuming the flavanol drink.
Euromonitor analyst Lauren Bandy previously said better-for-you chocolate would remain a niche as the primary driver for chocolate consumption in Western Europe is indulgence, but a cocoa flavanol claim may still appeal as a premium chocolate product.
Meiji recently told us dark chocolate had enjoyed a surge in Japan due to rising interest in cocoa’s health links.
Dark chocolate health links
Previous research has claimed dark chocolate can be beneficial to health.
For example, a study team at Louisiana State University last year said good microbes, such as Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, feast and grow on dark chocolate. producing anti-inflammatory compounds in the stomach.
The Mars- backed FLAVIOLA project has previously linked cocoa flavanols to reversing age-related memory decline. Mars is conducting a larger study with supplements involving 18,000 people. The 5-year Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS) will investigate the health links to cocoa flavanols on a far larger scale.