New collaborative research from Mars, Incorporated and the University of California, USA, reports new insights into distinct roles of flavanols and procyanidins in the human, the researchers suggest that their findings could significantly advance understanding of how these phytonutrients work to exert cardiovascular benefits in the body.
Writing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the researchers revealed that whilst flavanols are readily absorped into the body, the larger procyanidin phytonutrients are not absorbed, and to not break down into flavanols.
“When you look at cocoa you have these structurally similar molecules flavonols and procyanadins. Procyanadins are larger and built up of flavanols that are known to have beneficial effects for the heart, so the question is, are the procyanadins also contributing to this physiological effect,” explained Catherine Kwik-Uribe, R&D director for Mars Botanical.
“What we see from these studies is that the smaller flavanols are being absorbed, but the larger procyanadins don’t appear to be,” she revealed.
Whilst Kwik-Uribe explained that the procyanadins do not break down into flavanols in the body, she did say that they do break down into other compounds known as gamma-valerolactones.
“This is interesting because, while they might not contribute to the short term effect, they may contribute to a long term effect,” she said.
“We are able to say that they [procyanidins] are broken down into a compound that may have some biological effect, and that effect is probably related to the longer term ... but that is still an open question,” said the Mars R&D chief.
Kwik-Uribe added that whilst the research was performed using cocoa, the findings not only apply to cocoa, “but can apply to grapes and apples and any other food that – like cocoa – contain flavanols and procyanadins.”
Researching the benefits
Kwik-Uribe told NutraIngredients that the research stems from trying to understand how specific compounds could be driving physiological benefits in the body.
“Ultimately, what most people care about is the benefit, and there has been a lot of research in recent years to show that foods such as cocoa, and grapes, could have important health benefits due to their flavonoid contents,” she explained.
“So what Mars is trying to do is expand on these studies to understand physiologically what is happening.”
“It’s been very difficult to fundamentally address that question because when you look at the foods, they contain both the smaller flavanols and larger procyanadin molecules,” added Kwik-Uribe.
She explained that in order to understand what the procyanidins were doing in the body, Mars created different cocoa products that didn’t contain the smaller flavanol compounds.
“This allowed us to fundamentally ask what happened to the larger procyanadins, because we knew from previous research that they are not absorbed into the body directly, but it what we did not know was whether they were breaking down into some of the smaller components like flavanols and being absorbed in that way,” she said.
The research team used conventional cocoa (which contains a full profile of flavonols and procyanidins) in adition to two specially created products that contained either just the simple flavanol molecules, or just the procyandins.
The team then assigned different groups of healthy participants to receive one of the three products and monitored levels of circulating and excreted metabolites.
“What we learned is that what was hypothesised some time ago – that the procyanadins break down and contribute to the pool of flavanols in the metabolism – does not happen,” said Kwik-Uribe. “We were able to show that they actually don’t.”
The Mars expert noted that there is a some data from previous studies suggesting the procyanidins to not break down into flavanols ... “so we weren’t too surprised by it.”
Kwik-Uribe added the new results also calls into question previous in vitro studies, “where you take a cocoa extract, or an apple extract, and apply it the cells and assume that what the cells are seeing is actually what the body would be seeing.”
“The more research we do, the more we realise that model of approach is so artificial that it actually brings you no closer to understanding,” she explained.
“When you’re in an area of research that deals with things that are naturally present in foods, but for which you have very little understanding for how they might actually work in the body, then this type of research is really important for making those links ... At the end of the day you want to build a body of science that helps scientists, regulators, and consumers to make the right choices.”