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Chocolate Pills?

Chocolate mega-company Mars Inc. has revealed it is holding "serious discussions with large pharmaceutical companies" about developing a line of prescription drugs containing cocoa. According to an article in the Washington Post, these drugs would be used to treat a variety of illnesses, including diabetes and some types of dementia, among others.

McLean-based Mars Inc. has spent over a decade researching potential health benefits of cocoa flavanols, compounds contained in a basic chocolate ingredient. And the research may be paying off.

About 20 Mars-supported researchers Mars recently gathered, appropriately enough, in Lucerne, Switzerland – home of major pharmaceutical enterprises and several famous Swiss chocolatiers – to discuss their findings. The conference drew researchers from respected academic institutions, including Harvard, the University of California at Davis and European universities, who presented papers on such topics as the relationship between cocoa-flavanol consumption and increased cerebral blood-flow.

Subsequently, Mars has announced that the work to date has produced data with enough substance that they may form the basis of a future line of pharmaceuticals. According to Mars, several drug companies have shown interest in developing drugs that use the medicinal properties of cocoa.

"We now know we have some intellectual property that pharmaceutical companies are interested in," reported Marlene M. Machut, a spokeswoman for Mars, to the Washington Post. Ms. Machut provided no further details, beyond saying, "We’re not ready to say who we’re in discussions with. They are not small companies. They are big pharmaceutical firms."

According to a company news release, discussions with drug companies have included possible joint-venture and licensing agreements for drugs whose active chocolate ingredient is based on laboratory-synthesized cocoa flavanol molecules.

Unsurprisingly, the potential health benefits of chocolate remain under debate, with many nutritionists dismissing Mars’s efforts as just another profit-generating maneuver.

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

Mars Inc. clearly holds a different opinion, having pumped millions of research dollars into flavonol studies, and trying to develop new flavonol-based snack-foods.

Mars maintains that cocoa flavanols may increase blood flow and help fight diseases such as dementia and diabetes, and that they contain an "aspirin-like effect" that may help to slow blood clotting, thereby assisting in prevention of strokes and other vascular conditions.

"The mounting scientific evidence on cocoa flavanols is extraordinary. This is a scientific breakthrough that could well lead to a medical breakthrough," Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, reported to the Washington Post. Mars has largely funded Dr. Hollenberg’s cocoa-flavanol research, and his comments were Hollenberg’s printed company news-release.

In an effort to raise the health profile of its products, Mars has appointed Catherine E. Woteki director of scientific affairs. Ms. Woteki is a former US Department of Agriculture undersecretary of food safety.

The company has also opened the new Mars Nutrition for Health and Well Being division, whose mission is to develop "heart-healthy" foods, and is introducing CocoaVia, a new granola-based, 80-calorie snack bar, packed with cocoa-flavanols.

Mars is owned by founder Frank Mars’s three grandchildren, whose combined worth is over $30 billion, according to Forbes magazine. The company is reported to have had $18 billion in revenue last year.

Source: Mars Talks Up Cocoa’s Medicinal Potential, Washington Post, 26 July 2005.

Posted: August 2005