Study highlights heart-health boosting flavanols in cocoa

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31 Oct 2018 --- Healthy adults experienced improved blood vessel function and blood pressure, arterial stiffness and cholesterol after daily consumption of a cocoa extract enriched with flavanols and procyanidins. Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) and funded by Mars Inc., the researchers note that this study undercovers the distinct processes behind the cardiovascular benefits of bioactive-rich cocoa, which can hopefully be generalized to the broader population with further exploration.

“We had already demonstrated in 2006 that the flavanol called (-)-epicatechin is one of the constituents of cocoa causally linked to beneficial effects on blood vessel function. However, until now, the potentially distinct or synergistic roles of flavanols and procyanidins present in cocoa, as well as in other fruit and vegetables, have not been well understood,” Dr. Hagen Schroeter, Chief Science Officer of Mars Edge, tells NutritionInsight.

“These new results are exciting because they offer novel and important insights that contribute to our understanding of how flavanols and procyanidins function in the human body. The findings also establish that flavanols – specifically epicatechin – seem to be primarily responsible for improvements in vascular function observed after intake. The findings of this study offer critical insights into how these bioactives work and how they can function collectively to support heart health,” he explains.

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Consuming procyanidins and flavanols present in cocoa extract,
like epicatechin, could help people maintain their heart health.

The study found that only the group that consumed flavanols and procyanidins together experienced all cardiovascular benefits. The group that consumed the procyanidin-enriched extract only experienced a reduction in total cholesterol.

Consequently, improvements in blood vessel function, blood pressure and arterial stiffness were shown to predominantly relate to the intake of flavanols, but not to the intake of the more abundant procyanidins and their gut microbiome-derived metabolites.

The study, which was funded by Mars Inc., hopes to contribute to the literature on the health benefits of flavanols so that it can be generalized to the population at large through agricultural or food manufacturing processes.

“The findings offer evidence that may lead to the development of new approaches and technologies in agriculture, food manufacturing and food processing. Advances in food manufacturing technologies could enable greater retention of these bioactives in a range of evidence-based products, which consumers could use to help maintain healthy blood vessel function and reduce their risk of certain diseases,” Schroeter tells NutritionInsight.

Future research will seek to explore how flavanols’ potential health benefits can be generalized to the population at large. 

“Mars is partnering in the multiyear COSMOS study – the largest clinical trial on bioactives. This randomized, double-blinded, and placebo-controlled trial is exploring the link between flavanol and procyanidin intake and cardiovascular health in 21,000 people over five years,” Schroeter concludes.

Previous studies have highlighted the health benefit of cocoa. Manipulating the temperature and the period of roasting can preserve and even boost the potency of some bioactive and antioxidant compounds of cocoa, while protecting the desired sensory aspects of chocolate, according to Penn State researchers. The research findings suggest that cocoa roasting can be optimized to increase the content of some polyphenols and boost anti-pancreas-lipase activity, while maintaining a favorable aroma profile.

By Laxmi Haigh

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