Cocoa reduces risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, says study

By Peter Stiff

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Cocoa Blood vessel

Unprocessed cocoa reduces the risks of cancer and cardiovascular
disease, according to a study by Harvard Medical School and Mars.

If cocoa retains its flavanols and is proved to have pre-longed health benefits, the ingredient could be used as a method to reduce cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The Mars-sponsored research showed that participants who were fed unprocessed cocoa were less likely to suffer from health problems such as high blood pressure.

Flavanols are antioxidant compounds found in unprocessed cocoa, tea, wine and some fruits.

The benefits from cocoa flavanols could be achieved through its inclusion in new food products, supplements or pharmaceuticals, the scientists stated in releasing the results of their study.

The Harvard scientists studied the effects of cocoa flavanols on two population groups of Kuna Indians who live on islands near Panama.

One group of Kunas still live on the islands and drink large quantities of homemade, unprocessed flavanol-rich cocoa every day.

The other group were those that migrated from the islands to Panama City. They consume less cocoa and the cocoa they do consume is commercially processed and thus lower in flavanols.

From an examination of death certificates the researchers found that those living on the islands experienced significantly lower rates of heart disease and cancer.

The risk of death from heart disease on the Panama mainland was 1,280 per cent higher than on the islands. Death from cancer was also higher by 630 per cent compared to the Kunas still living on the islands.

The study also used a cocoa drink produced by Mars, which retains its flavanols when processed. The researchers found that the drink helped improve blood vessel relaxation in the study participants.

Ian McDonald, co-director of the University of Nottingham's Institute of Clinical Research, said the research could produce positive health benefits for people.

"Mars has found a way to preserve flavanols and it has been put into an application that's good for research,"​ McDonald told

McDonald said that further long-term research would be needed provide further evidence of prolonged health benefits.

"For the benefits of the discovery to be applied the level of evidence will need to be greater,"​ he said. "A long-term feeding study of five years or more, with fixed a nutritional diet, in North America or Europe would be more add weight to the research."

Such controlled research would, however, not be easy.

Participants would need to be monitored and the levels of activity in their lifestyles would have to remain constant.

McDonald recognised the potential opportunity for cocoa flavanols to be adopted by supplement manufacturers and the pharmaceuticals industry.

"I'm sure companies are already exploring the possibility of isolating cocoa flavanols for usage outside of food,"​ McDonald said.

Responding to those who may suggest research into the benefits of cocoa is purely for commercial gain, McDonald said: "Cynics in the public health will say research such as this is purely a method to defend consumption, especially in view of current obesity scares. That's why its important that companies such as Mars make sure to utilise these benefits in healthy products. Personally I've been impressed with the balanced view Mars have taken and the ethical concerns they have noted."

Mars has collaborated with researchers for more than 15 years and last year launched Cocoavia, labelled as 'heart healthy' products.

The company has patented a process of insuring flavanols are retained when cocoa is processed.

Flavanols, which fight free radicals in the body, have been found to reduce cholesterol and improve blood vessel function.

Unfortunately flavanols are lost during cocoa's commercial processing.

Cardiovascular disease causes almost 50 per cent of deaths in Europe, and is reported to cost the EU economy an estimated €169 billion ($202 billion) per year.

According to the American Heart Association, 34.2 percent of Americans (70.1 million people) suffered from some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in 2002.

The Mars-sponsored cocoa symposium, at which the research was announced, is entitled "Theobroma Cacao: The Tree of Change". The symposium is focusing on cocoa sustainability.

The results of the study was unveiled by head researcher Norman Hollenburg at the cocoa symposium in Washington DC yesterday.

Despite the increasing evidence in favour of the health benefits of cocoa, experts in the field of nutrition still recommend that fruit and vegetables are the main source of antioxidants in the diet.

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