Véronique Noé and colleagues at the University of Barcelona in Spain studied the impact of epicatechin and other polyphenols in cocoa extract on the human colon.
Polyphenols are flavonoid compounds and they have antioxidant activity which may help the body's cells resist damage by free radicals, believed to play a role in reducing the risk of various chronic illnesses afflicting world populations such as heart disease and cancer.
"Treatment with epicatechin decreased the expression of 21 genes and upregulated 24 genes. Upon incubation with the cocoa polyphenolic extract, 24 genes were underexpressed and 28 were overexpressed," write the researchers in the October issue of the Journal of Nutrition.
Flavonoids found in chocolate include the flavanols, notably the main flavonoid epicatechin, and catechin, and polymers of these, the proanthocyanidins. Some epidemiological studies suggest that high intakes of flavonoids are associated with the maintenance of cardiovascular health, although other factors may also account for the results.
In vitro (test tube) and in vivo (in humans) studies have shown that cocoa flavonoids and certain chocolates may decrease low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation, may modulate platelet activation and could positively affect the balance between certain hormones, or eicosanoids. These actions can play a role in maintaining heart health.
Evidence of the possible heart health benefits of chocolate could help to regain chocolate sales lost as consumers gradually turn away from these products due to health and weight concerns.
"Western European sales have also been affected by a rising sense of health consciousness, having a particular impact on the chocolate segment," said John Band, consumer markets analyst at Datamonitor and author of recent market report on the European chocolate market.
Sales growth for chocolate across Europe is slated to slow down in future years, with value sales likely to reach €5.6 billion by 2007, an increase of just 4 per cent.
"This is very much a consequence of the maturity of the western markets. Major manufacturers have experienced declining value sales. Indeed, falling European sales in 2003 drove Cadbury Schweppes to start a cost-cutting programme that could lead up to 5,500 jobs being lost to help shore up profits."
Britain is far ahead of its continental rivals when it comes to chocolate consumption, accounting for 32 per cent of the total market by value in 2003 - estimated at €5.3 billion.
Full findings of the Spanish study are published in the Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 134 (10), 2004.