Saturday, December 20, 2014

Another crazy study-How about getting the benefit of dark chocolate through a pill?

Chocolates come in a variety of hues, shapes and tastes. Who is not attracted to products based on chocolates such as slabs, pastries, frozen desserts, many versions of confectioneries, dairy products etc? Whether an adult or a kid chocolate is always irresistible and this trait forms the basis of a roaring multi billion dollar industry across the world with a few giants operating out of the US and Europe dominating the industry. The health protecting properties of chocolates, more specifically some cocoa components, have emerged only recently and vow, look how the chocolate landscape is changing dramatically during the last few years.

Do we eat chocolates for their health benefits or enjoying the fine texture and delicate flavor? Most consumers will opine that they like them because they enjoy eating them to give a high sensorial satisfaction. Admittedly chocolates also have a health story to tell which is very compelling to listen to. Accumulation of a large body of scientific information during the last two decades and high degree of awareness among the consumers about the close linkage of food to good health have combined to create a euphoria and demand for a particular variety of chocolate called "dark" chocolates. These chocolates, also referred to as "bitter" chocolates, have high cocoa solids, some time to the extent of 90%, obviously containing far less sugar than that in conventional sweet chocolates. Why this shift in interest from sweet chocolates to bitter chocolates? Is it because of high sugar content in the latter or for any other reasons? The answer lies in the presence of a group of bioactive organic substances going under the name flavonoids in cocoa. 

Why this focused interest on flavonoids? Because they are reported to be beneficial in guarding the heart and protecting against cardiovascular disease and arterial related disorders, so common among people in many developed countries. Cocoa beans as they are present in the unfermented pods have very high flavonoid content but successive processing which the pod undergoes before reaching the final product stage brings down the level drastically. The final ready to eat chocolates will be having a fraction of this beneficial component compared to what was originally present. Still the concentration of flavonoids in bitter chocolates with high cocoa content is considered to be useful to get some of the benefits attributed to flavonoids.  

The jury is still out whether the health benefits attributed to cocoa are exclusively because of the flavonoids which are present in high levels in cocoa beans or other components which have not been studied properly. Methylxanthine, peptides and minerals in cocoa are known to have some influence on the health of humans. Still overwhelming evidence, available as of now, points to the predominant role flavonoids play, possessing high antioxidant properties, on the heart and brain health. Unfortunately all biological materials are vulnerable to inherent enzyme degradation and cocoa is no exception to this rule. Fresh cocoa pods are subjected to external fermentation to free the beans and debitter them before processing into chocolate products and loss of flavonoids can be any where from 30-70% between the pod stage and emergence of final products. High flavonoid cocoa are produced by Ecuador and according to industry experts if the process is carefully controlled almost 70% of flavonoids can be retained through the process. So called dark chocolates are bitter to taste because of the presence of high concentration of flavonoids which normally the processors reduce it through their processing operations. 

A recent report that some motivated scientists are working on a project to encapsulate the "health" promoting active principles from cocoa is both amusing and exciting. Amusing because if man is to depend on only pills containing various identified factors in food for good health what is the role of food itself in the lives of people? Exciting because such capsules will eventually be produced by pharma industries using standardized ingredients with assured purity and stability while cocoa by itself is a veritable mixture of many components with different properties with no assured value for a particular brand made by a particular manufacture. In the case of cocoa flavonoids, there are six sub-groups coming under this class of chemical entities in plants which include chalcones, flavones, flavonols, anthocyanins and isoflavonoids and cocoa is supposed to be rich in flavonols having the health boosting properties. Here again we have to content with monomers, dimers, trimers up to decamers, all categorized as cocoa flavonols. But flavonols can have stereo isomers also some of which are more bioactive than others. For example (-)epicatechin is six times more active than its stereoisomer (+)epicatechin and others like (+) catechin and  (-)catechin. 

In such a complex situation what will a future pill contain and how can it be made stable against undesirable stereoisomeric changes? It is well known that during the rigorous processing of cocoa highly active (-)epicatechin tends to transform into less active (+) epicatechin thus reducing the overall beneficial effect of the flavonols in general. The attraction of scientists to flavonols comes from the classical study on a section of population in Panama which consume more than 900 mg of cocoa flavonols in their diet every day through a drink made traditionally from cocoa beans and their health index was some thing unbelievable. Heart attack, cancer and diabetes cases among this population were just 10% , 6% and 20% respectively that of the national average! 

One interesting fact that emerges from this projected study is that one of the giants in chocolate industry is supporting this effort obviously with funding and one is puzzled by their interest in producing a pill that will compete directly with their products. One can understand if active cocoa growing countries or corporates are involved with this effort because positive results are bound to expand cocoa demand giving the economic incentives in future. Currently cocoa is in short supply and chocolate products are anticipated to be costlier due to this supply crunch. Probably far sightedness in hoping for a production glut in future and natural concern for the health of the consumers could have driven their push in creating a health pill out of cocoa.

As of now consumers should be weary of buying all and sundry brands of bitter chocolates or dark chocolates at a premium unless the label indicates the flavonol content in an unambiguous way. Probably it is time regulations are brought in to compel makers of these specialty chocolate products to declare the flavonol content on the label.


No comments: