IRA FLATOW, host:
Up next, why chocolate may be good for your heart. It's already known that those ingredients in cocoa we call flavinols appear to have a beneficial effect on the heart. These magic molecules have been shown to relax blood vessels, make them more flexible. But now, researchers from Germany, UC Davis, Harvard Medical School, and the Mars candy bar and chocolate-maker folks reported in a new research paper that they have identified the particular flavinols that have these benefits. And they've made a special top-secret cocoa that happens to be, well, happens to be just chock-full of them. This study is funded in part by Mars, who appears in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and we're joined by one of the authors of this week's study, Harold Schmitz, the Chief Science Officer of Mars, working out of McClain, Virginia. Welcome to the program Dr. Schmitz.
Dr. HAROLD SCHMITZ (Chief Science Officer, Mars, Inc.): Well thank you Ira, I appreciate that.
FLATOW: Tell us what you did, if you can give us a nutshell of the study.
Dr. SCHMITZ: Sure. What's really new and exciting with the science is that an extraordinary team of collaborators, as you mentioned, from Mars, and Harvard, and UC Davis, and Germany, came together to discover a novel and specific hypothesis describing why certain cocoas, as well as, and I think this is where it gets extremely exciting, as well as why certain other fruits and plant foods, may improve cardiovascular health when consumed on a regular basis. And obviously this is potentially very exciting, because cardiovascular health is such a significant public health issue today, not only in the United States but around the world.
What we did that has extended the research beyond where we've even taking it during the last five years, working on it, is that in addition to showing that a specific flavinol-rich cocoa could improve important bio-markers of blood flow and cardiovascular health. We actually, now, have purified out one of the flavinols in that flavinol-rich cocoa and showed that it alone has some, confers a lot of this benefit that we were seeing with the flavinol-rich cocoa. So it offers a significant clue as to why, not only cocoa, but other fruits and plant foods may also confer this extraordinary public health benefit.
FLATOW: Now what other fruits are we talking about here?
Dr. SCHMITZ: Cocoa, of course, is a fruit. And then apples would also contain some significant levels of flavinols, as well as (unintelligible), and, Mars actually, when we started doing the natural products chemistry, about 15 or 16 years ago, we not only surveyed what was in cocoa, but we did survey what was in, the flavinols in other plant foods. And in fact, Mars and the U.S. Department of Agriculture came together to create a database that not only shows the flavinols levels as I mentioned in different cocoas but also in other fruits and vegetables. Apples would be an interesting one, nuts, such as almonds, might have high levels of these depending on how they were processed and stored, and that sort of thing. It's a fairly wide array, but not every fruit and vegetable and plant, I would hasten to add, has this particular molecule.
FLATOW: Right. So is Mars now making a special line of chocolate with this special flavinol in it?
Dr. SCHMITZ: Well, one thing I would want to emphasize, although I realize chocolate is the word that most easily rolls off the tongue in this respect, but the research...
Dr. SCHMITZ: ...and we've been careful to state, was done on cocoa, so the story here is not really about chocolate. It's actually not really about cocoa. It really is about cocoa flavinols in certain cocoas. Keeping that in mind, I will say that Mars is now, after the some 15-plus years this sort of research and finding is getting us excited enough to think that we may have the basis to reinvent the way that we view making cocoa-based products. So, the answer to your question is yes, we absolutely are pursuing making new cocoa-based products with this special cocoa that we've been using in these clinical studies.
FLATOW: We're talking with Harold Schmitz, Chief Science Officer of Mars, Incorporated, on TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News.
Do you have a proprietary way of making this? Is it a trade secret, or could other cocoa-makers use this kind of flavinols?
Dr. SCHMITZ: Well, it's actually a combination Mars has developed through, again, a rather long-term project, which is unique, I think, for the food industry at this stage anyway. But Mars is a very different sort of company in that we can make these long term investments, that during the last 15 years we have found the following, and that is that in order to consistently make a flavinol-rich cocoa, which is the cocoa, pro-cocoa that we used in this study and others that we've done at Harvard and these other places, one has to pay attention to where the cocoa comes from, how the cocoa is harvested, how it's handled after it's harvested, then how it's handled once it reaches our factories in terms of the heat treatment, the roasting for flavor development, how it's actually mixed in with other ingredients. And so, the short answer to your questions is that, while it might be theoretically possible for others to make it. I think that they would need to spend about 10 or 15 years catching up with all the work that our guys have done and we now have a combination of both patents and what we would call proprietary secrets, and knowledge, that do allow us to uniquely make this flavinols-rich cocoa consistently.
FLATOW: Now the paper also draws from research with the Kuna Indians, of Panama. How do they fit into this story?
Dr. SCHMITZ: Well, that certainly is one of the more interesting aspects of the story to be sure. And that research, of course, was led by Professor Norman Hollenberg, from Harvard Medical School. But during the early 1990's, when we, when Mars chemists started being able to fractionate, we had isolated and identified the flavinols in cocoa, and then we started to fractionate them, and that was very important because we were, in effect, pulling apart a very complex mixture, and this allowed us to begin doing some very useful test tube studies, which gave us very specific information on which cluster, let's say, of flavinols in cocoa might have interesting health benefits. And one of the effects we saw was that in test tubes, certain of the cocoa flavinols were able to relax blood vessels via a mechanism that's mediated by a little chemical. Though little, it speaks large, it's won a Nobel Prize: the chemical is called Nitric Oxide. And nitric oxide is at the very center of cardiovascular medicine today.
And just as we were making this test tube discovery, we encountered Professor Hollenberg, at Harvard, and he had recently published a paper showing that the Kuna Indians, who live in Panama, some live in urban areas, have migrated there, but others remain in their home islands in the Caribbean coast, and he showed that the Kuna who lived in their home islands had a remarkable lack of age-associated hypertension, even though the levels of salt they regularly consumed in their diet was not low. In fact, it's about what we would consume. And so he asked the question, why is this? And when he started looking at what was in the Kuna environment he found that lots and lots of cocoa and lots and lots of essentially unprocessed cocoa, now this cocoa wouldn't necessarily be pleasant for you or I to consume, by the way, but they would consume it frequently. And when we showed Dr. Hollenberg our test tube data with the nitric oxide, as well as our knowledge of the natural chemistry of the flavinols in cocoa, it was a perfect match to go forward and do more research, because we do know that nitric oxide, blood vessel relaxation, all of that biochemistry, is certainly part of the hypertension story.
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we'll have to get, follow this story, because we've run out of time. Dr. Schmitz, I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us.
Dr. SCHMITZ: Well, it was absolutely my pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.
FLATOW: Harold Schmitz, Chief Science Officer of Mars, the candy maker.
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