As Director, R&D-Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at Mars Symbioscience, Catherine Kwik-Uribe, PhD has spent years researching the potential benefits of cocoa on health. Here she reviews the accumulated data and shares insights on the cutaneous effects of cocoa flavanols.

What are cocoa flavanols?

Catherine Kwik-Uribe, PhD: Cocoa flavanols are a distinct mixture of bioactive compounds, most abundant in raw cocoa, but also present in some cocoa-based products, like dark chocolate and natural cocoa powder, as well as certain dietary supplements. Cocoa can be rich in a specific flavanol form known as (–)-epicatechin. This flavanol form is important because this form is known to be more bioavailable than the other flavanols found in cocoa. Cocoa flavanols, and specifically (–)-epicatechin, have been studied for well over 20 years, and in this time, there have been numerous human studies that demonstrate a variety of benefits, including evidence to support a range of cardiovascular and brain health benefits. Since the flavanols in cocoa are quickly absorbed into the circulation, they begin to go to work quickly, supporting healthy blood flow from head to toe. With daily consumption, these benefits can translate into helping to support healthy blood pressure levels and even improved cognitive function.

What prompted research of cocoa flavanols for potential impact on skin aging and skin health?

Dr. Kwik-Uribe: My colleagues and I at Mars, Inc. have been studying cocoa flavanols for more than 20 years. Our initial interest in these compounds was around their impact on flavor, but we quickly identified that they could do so much more. To date, we have conducted more than 40 human studies looking at how cocoa flavanols work in the body and the benefits they can have. A key benefit of cocoa flavanols is their ability to support healthy blood flow, which is key to supporting our heart, our brain, and really our entire body. We have looked directly at the impact of cocoa flavanol consumption on skin health. In one study, we found that the consumption of 300mg of cocoa flavanols per day for 12 weeks was able to significantly improve multiple dimensions of skin quality, including increased skin density and reduced roughness and scaling. In this same study, the consumption of flavanols was also shown to reduce damage caused by an artificial sunburn, suggesting important photoprotective benefits. We often think about sunscreen and moisturizers applied to the skin to keep skin healthy and protected, but there are also dietary choices we can make that can help our skin stay healthy as we age.

For what markers of skin health do cocoa flavanols offer the greatest effect?

Dr. Kwik-Uribe: Our studies to date, including a double-blind study in women between the ages of 18 and 65 years published in the Journal of Nutrition, showed that consuming cocoa flavanols improves skin texture, including increasing skin density and thickness, while decreasing roughness and scaling. When taken daily for 12 weeks, cocoa flavanols have demonstrated that skin hydration can be improved and transepidermal water loss decreases. Further, there is evidence that cocoa flavanols may offer some photoprotection comparable to the reported ranges for dietary carotenoids, such as Β-carotene or lycopene.

Cocoa is a universal food. Is there variability in quantity and quality of flavanols depending on cocoa sourcing?

Dr. Kwik-Uribe: Absolutely. Cocoa flavanols are actually quite delicate, so many of the traditional manufacturing processes for making chocolate and most cocoa products can destroy the flavanols, because they are exposed to extreme heat, oxygen, and high pH.

For those interested in potentially benefiting from cocoa flavanols, what are options? Is this an excuse to eat candy bars?

Dr. Kwik-Uribe: Candy bars, including chocolate, are a delicious treat—but they are not a health food. While cocoa flavanols are present in nearly all cocoa-based products, such as dark chocolate, cocoa power, and nibs, most of these products do not have a high concentration of them. This is because how the cocoa beans are handled and processed from beginning to end really matters.

Don’t just take it from me. An independent provider of test results and information, ConsumerLab.com, analyzed various cocoa flavanol sources and found there can be a lot of variability in the amount of flavanols per serving with other products. Further, many of those other products contained high levels of the harmful contaminant, cadmium. This includes products that are marketed as organic and “healthy.” CocoaVia capsules, on the other hand, had the highest concentration of cocoa flavanols among all cocoa supplements, powders, and dark chocolates tested by ConsumerLab.com.

In a comparison to a leading dark chocolate, in order to get the same amount of flavanols that are in our CocoaVia products (450mg), you would need to consume eight servings of dark chocolate, which equates to nearly 1,300 calories! Clearly, no medical professional would advise consuming that many calories in chocolate daily to achieve the benefits of cocoa flavanols. In contrast, our CocoaVia daily supplements have five to 20 calories, were created for daily use, and contain the cocoa flavanols that have been shown in studies to be safe and effective for people of different ages, health statuses and lifestyles. Of course, it is always recommended to double check with a medical professional before starting any supplement to be sure it’s safe for individual needs.

A note about CocoaVia dietary supplement products, which have the highest level of cocoa flavanols in a supplement in the market today. From Dr. Kwik-Uribe: Mars uses a proprietary Cocoapro process in the making of our cocoa extract; this unique process helps to preserve more the flavanols naturally present in cocoa. In addition to attention to the process, we pay attention to the source with all the beans used in our cocoa extract part of a fully traceable supply chain.

We maintain close relationships with local farmers in Indonesia to ensure that high quality begins at the origin. Fresh cocoa beans are brought to a Mars collection site wet and are then dried within 24-48 hours of receipt for a “farm-to-factory” approach, which preserves more of the cocoa flavanols found naturally in the bean. From there, the beans are carefully roasted, the fat is removed, and then the cocoa flavanols are carefully extracted to produce a highly consistent and concentrated extract. Additionally, we test the beans and the extract along the way to ensure high levels of flavanols and a low level of contaminants, such as heavy metals and pesticides, which are not uncommon in cocoa growing.