Chocolate – not quite medicinal just yet….
SummaryFew who love its taste associate it with good health, but recent reports that a confectionary company was seriously examining the pharmaceutical potential of chocolate achieved widespread international media coverage.
Few who love its taste associate it with good health, but recent reports that a confectionary company was seriously examining the pharmaceutical potential of chocolate achieved widespread international media coverage.
In fact the health-related properties of chocolate have long been debated and it appears that certain people in the industry believe compounds in chocolate could yield new pharmaceutical approaches to major disorders. In an industry which is seeking new sources of innovative products, this could be one of the most unusual avenues to be explored in a long time.
The main driver appears to be Mars Inc., which recently held a conference in Switzerland where researchers discussed how pharmaceutical products could be derived from cocoa sources (1). The current interest focuses on flavanoids, which are found in cocoa and which may have beneficial cardiovascular effects. However, critics have pointed out that research in this area is limited and that the nature of the source of flavanoids has driven the publicity rather than any positive clinical results. Furthermore, chocolate is not the only source of these compounds.
Up until now, reports that flavanoids could reduce the risk of dementia, diabetes, heart attacks and stroke have been anecdotal, with few details on how this approach could be extended into mainstream medicine (2, 3).
Using chocolate as a medical product itself would be unlikely, due to the variation in flavanoid levels with respect to cocoa content. Furthermore, most of the research promoting flavanoids has been sponsored by food companies and observers have suggested that transforming chocolate into a health-related product is not a new concept, but has resulted in little progress over the years (1). During 1995, Japan held an International Symposium on Chocolate and Cocoa Nutrition, which led to a series of popular television broadcasts called “the surprising effects of cocoa” (4). This stimulated considerable medical research into the potential health benefits of chocolate - as well as huge sales of cocoa products (4).
However, Mars is publicly upbeat about its latest developments and believes it possesses intellectual property of interest to pharmaceutical companies (1). It claims to be discussing licensing deals and joint venture agreements based on developing products from cocoa-derived flavanoids (1). As the second-largest chocolate manufacturer in the USA and one of the world's largest food-processing companies, and with a reported value of over US$30 billion, its move towards the pharmaceutical sector cannot be ignored.
However, whether it gives rise to extra sales of chocolate and gives the media more to think about than amusing headlines remains to be seen. For the moment, though, pharmaceutical researchers can stick to eating chocolate.