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