Prepared Foods August 8, 2005 enewsletter

Mars Inc. announced it is in discussions with pharmaceutical companies regarding cocoa-based prescription drugs.

For more than a decade, the conglomerate has funded research into possible health benefits of cocoa flavanols, compounds contained in one of the basic ingredients of chocolate, the Washington Post reported.

The company issued a statement as some 20 Mars-funded researchers gathered in Lucerne, Switzerland, to discuss their latest findings. The two-day Lucerne conference included researchers from academic institutions such as Harvard and the University of California at Davis, as well as European universities.

Not all nutrition experts side with the company, however.

"This is about selling chocolate. Mars is only doing this because it wants people to eat more and more M&Ms," said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of nutrition, food studies and public health.

Mars, meanwhile, boasts of new research showing cocoa has properties that can be used to treat diabetes, strokes and vascular disease.

The privately owned company, which makes M&Ms and Mars bars, said it hoped to make medications based on flavanols -- plant chemicals with health benefits found in cocoa.

Worried in the late 1960s that the cocoa plant was prone to disease, Mars began working to understand how the plants could be insulated against disease.

In the course of the research, the company discovered flavanols, a plant chemical that occurs not only in cocoa beans but green tea, red wine and tomatoes, were good for human health.

At the Lucerne meeting, experts from around the world gathered to discuss more than 80 peer-reviewed publications on the possible health benefits of flavanols. Among the findings at the meeting was that flavanols could relax human blood vessels, which is key to improving circulation for heart health.

A team including Ian McDonald, professor of physiology at the University of Nottingham, found that flavanols can increase blood flow to the brain, suggesting the potential for treating dementia and strokes.

Ironically, with chocolate bars usually containing so much sugar, it was also found flavanols could treat diabetes.

Norm Hollenberg, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, which has collaborated with Mars on cocoa research, said, "The mounting scientific evidence on cocoa flavanols is extraordinary.

"This is a scientific breakthrough that could well lead to a medical breakthrough."

Mars already has discovered how to replicate flavanols and has patented the method. It is currently in "serious discussions" with pharmaceutical companies about licensing the development of these "synthesized flavanols" toward "a potential major new class of medications".

However, nutritionists warned the healthy properties of the cocoa bean are often outweighed by the fat, dairy products and sugar in most commercial chocolate bars. Instead, they recommend cooking with the raw cocoa bean to benefit from the antioxidants, anti-depressants and sexual stimulants in chocolate.

Mars has already launched CocoaVia, a nutrition bar containing 80 calories and specially preserved flavanols, which usually get destroyed in cocoa processing.