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Why chocolate is ideal for heart healthy functional foods

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Chocolate is a major, largely-untapped opportunity for the probiotic sector. Consumers want to eat chocolate, tests suggest it outperforms dairy as a vehicle for probiotic delivery and some products introduced to date have enjoyed strong sales. Now, UAS Labs is seeking to push the sector forward with its heart healthy strain Lactobacillus reuteri NCIMB 30242 (LRC).

A growing body of evidence suggests chocolate could be an ideal delivery vehicle for probiotics. As a widely craved and consumed product high in flavonoids, polyphenols and antioxidant activity, chocolate innately straddles the line between the foods consumers want to eat and the foods they feel they should eat. The properties of chocolate also suggest manufacturers can further enhance its healthy status by incorporating probiotics into their formulations.

Adding probiotics to functional foods and beverages is challenging. Many bacterial strains struggle to survive when added to yogurts, fruit juices, soy-based beverages and other functional foods and drinks. These survival difficulties happen when the product is on the shelf and after it is consumed and the bacteria are exposed to the gastrointestinal tract. The upshot is a tiny fraction of a bacteria added during manufacturing may be bioavailable to the body.

Research suggests bacteria survive better in chocolate than in many other food and drink products. A team at Ghent University found 91% of Lactobacillus helveticus and 80% of Bifidobacterium longum survived transit through the stomach and small intestine when added to milk chocolate.1 The same bacteria achieved survival rates of 20% and 31%, respectively, when formulated into milk. This finding backed up earlier research suggesting probiotics may survive better in chocolate than dairy.

The strong survival rates of bacteria when formulated in chocolate stem from the protective properties of ingredients found naturally in the food matrix. Specifically, the lipid fraction of cocoa butter protects probiotics from the conditions they encounter when passing through the gastrointestinal tract.

The other big question when adding probiotics to foods and beverages is whether the bacteria will render the taste, texture or appearance of the product undesirable. Again, there is evidence to suggest probiotic chocolate is free from these problems. This evidence comes from both academic research into formulating probiotics into chocolate and consumer acceptance of actual products.2 In Japan, Lotte sold 20 million packs of its probiotic Sweet Days chocolate in the first year it was on the market.

With these studies and products having demonstrated both the viability and desirability of probiotic chocolate, manufacturers are now looking to broaden the range of health promoting properties they can deliver via confectionery. In LRC, companies have a probiotic tailormade for creating heart healthy chocolate.

Trialing a heart healthy probiotic

The R&D team behind LRC has, from day one, sought to differentiate the strain through the application of a rigorous scientific process to generate data that demonstrate its efficacy. Micropharma began this work before UAS Labs, attracted by what its CSO Dr Greg Leyer saw as a textbook example of how to find, develop and validate a benefit-specific strain, bought the company and LRC.

Dr. Leyer’s admiration for the work performed by Micropharma extended to all aspects of the R&D process, starting with how the team came to identify LRC in the first place. Rather than taking the traditional approach of screening bacterial strains in search of any potential probiotic activity, the team at Micropharma set out to find microorganisms with a specific characteristic: Elevated activity of bile salt hydrolase.

This enzyme is involved in the normal metabolism of cholesterol. As such, researchers at Micropharma hypothesized a bacterial strain that produced elevated levels of it could be developed to help support heart health.

Micropharma screened hundreds of strains before picking out LRC as having an optimal mix of elevated bile salt hydrolase activity and favorable probiotic qualities. The R&D team then put LRC through an optimization process before advancing it into further testing to learn whether their confidence in its heart healthy properties translated into the maintenance of normal levels of cholesterol in human subjects.

The case in support of LRC’s heart healthy properties is built upon two gold-standard randomized controlled clinical trials. In the first trial, investigators enrolled 114 subjects at multiple study sites and randomized them to receive one of two regimens for six weeks.3 One group of subjects consumed yogurts containing microencapsulated LRC twice a day. The second cohort of participants was given placebo yogurts twice a day.

For the second clinical trial, investigators recruited 127 subjects and randomized them to receive either LRC freeze-dried into capsules or a placebo for nine weeks.4 The main aim of this study was to compare levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in both arms but it, like the first trial, also monitored other biomarkers of cardiovascular health.

In both clinical trials, levels of LDL cholesterol, also known as bad cholesterol, were supported at healthy levels in the LRC arm as compared to the placebo cohort. Participants in the LRC cohorts of the studies also maintained healthy levels of apolipoprotein B100, total cholesterol, non-high-density lipoprotein (non-HDL) cholesterol, the ratio of LDL to HDL and other biomarkers of cardiac health.

By trialing LRC against placebo in 241 subjects in studies that adhered to scientific best practices, the team generated a pooled dataset that suggests the probiotic can support the body’s natural ability to maintain cholesterol levels already within the normal range.

These data have enabled UAS Labs to establish LRC as cardiologists’ preferred probiotic, according to a 2015 survey of more than 200 board-certified cardiologists. The results also suggest LRC may play a role in maintaining health beyond the cardiovascular system.

Healthy circulating levels of vitamin D were supported in one of the clinical trials. The R&D program also associated LRC with more traditional probiotic properties, such as support of digestive health, via participant reported gastrointestinal symptom surveys.

Formulating LRC into foods

The findings of the two clinical trials suggested LRC has heart healthy properties. That is only part of the package a strain needs to establish itself commercially, though. UAS Labs also needed to show LRC could cope with the strains of commercial production and distribution, survive transit through the gastrointestinal tract and be formulated into functional foods and beverages without detrimentally affecting their taste, texture and appearance.

Tests performed to date suggest LRC is well equipped to cope with these demands. Studies looking at the rate of survival of LRC in yogurt and capsule form during gastrointestinal transit show the strain can cope with that environment. Survival rates were also well maintained when administered in the yogurt formulation. Given tests have found chocolate may provide better protection than dairy to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, the survival rate for LRC may be higher still when formulated into confectionery.

Others studies have shown LRC can cope with manufacturing and distribution, too. The clinical trial of the yogurt formulation and subsequent stability tests of juice drinks and soy-based beverages demonstrated levels of LRC are well maintained throughout the shelf life of a range of products. As a food that can be kept outside of refrigerated conditions, chocolate offers advantages to manufacturers, distributors and consumers over these other functional products.

More work is needed to show how LRC performs when formulated into chocolate but, having seen the strain come through every test it has faced to date, UAS Labs is confident the probiotic can find a place in the confectionery sector.

UAS Labs is now seeking to license the strain to confectionery manufacturers. Companies that pick LRC for their functional chocolate brands will benefit from UAS Labs’ long-standing commitment to the probiotic sector and the money it has invested in the strain and its manufacturing and R&D capabilities.

1. Possemiers S, Marzorati M, Verstraete W, Van de Wiele T.: Int J Food Microbiol. 2010; 141: 97-103.
2. Erdema O, Gültekin-Özgüvena M, Berktaşa L, Erşana S, Tunaa E, Karadağa A, Özçelika B, Güneşa G, Cutting S.: Food sci technol. 2014; 56: 187-193.
3. Jones ML, Martoni CJ, Parent M, Prakash S.: Br J Nutr. 2012;107: 1505–1513.
4. Jones ML, Martoni CJ, Prakash S.: Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012;66: 1234–1241.