Eat Chocolate, Live Longer?
By JON GERTNER
For the past decade or so, Harold Schmitz, a boyish and bookish food scientist, has overseen research at Mars Inc., the global food company that makes everything from Snickers bars and Dove chocolates to Uncle Ben's rice and Pedigree dog food. One morning last spring, Schmitz met me in the lobby of Mars's North American headquarters, a sprawling industrial complex on a busy road just outside Hackettstown, N.J. The Hackettstown plant is crucial to the Mars business not just for its output -- half of the M&M's sold in the U.S. are produced here -- but also for its research labs. We reached these after Schmitz steered me through security turnstiles at the entrance, a series of carpeted office suites and a labyrinth of polished concrete hallways dense with the dusty, sweet scent of cocoa. The aroma grew deeper and more intense along the way, until it seemed all at once to seep past my nose and my throat and into my mind. Chocolate bars were all I could think about. ''It gets into your clothes too,'' Schmitz said amiably as we walked. ''We just get used to it.''
Schmitz has spent most of his time at Mars working on something known in-house as the ''healthy chocolate'' initiative, an expensive, 15-year investigation into the molecular composition and nutritional effects of cocoa, one of chocolate's primary ingredients. In recent years, these studies -- undertaken first by company technicians and later by Mars-financed academics in the U.S., Europe and Australia -- have prompted Mars to aggressively pursue patents for dozens of new (and often strange) methods of manufacturing and ingesting cocoa products. The claims, submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, that cocoa can be used ''in the maintenance of vascular health,'' or as an ''anti-platelet therapy,'' or ''in tableting compositions and capsule-filling compositions,'' at first glance seem more pharmaceutical in nature than food-related. Certainly they would seem to have little to do with the day-to-day concerns of a company known mainly for its candy. And yet Schmitz's mission is to ''reinvent'' cocoa and chocolate, as he put it -- to optimize both taste and health benefits and then help Mars cash in.
Fortunately for Schmitz, time and money are no object at Mars. As a private corporation -- without question among the three or four largest in the country, with yearly sales of about $17 billion -- Mars has no obligation to shareholders and no need to justify its larks. Indeed, the company's longstanding and intense culture of privacy has made it corporate America's supreme enigma. As a matter of policy, executives do not give interviews. The company's cocoa research has provoked a measure of puzzlement from its competitors, but Mars -- an eccentric, Wonkalike entity if ever there was one, effectively controlled by the semiretired Mars brothers, Forrest, 73, John, 68, and their sister, Jacqueline, 65, whose combined worth was recently estimated at $30 billion by Forbes magazine -- just goes about its scientific work without pause or comment.
Recently, however, Mars has started to peel back the wrapper. Company representatives gave me a couple of explanations why. Mars executives apparently believe a less murky image will help them attract talent, for one; for another, those same executives believe that Mars needs to respond to consumers' increasing demands to know more about the companies they buy products from. Neither of these exactly reveal what may be the real motivation, though, which is that Mars is about to start selling something new and vexingly complex, at least from a marketing standpoint.
Once Schmitz and I finally reached the Hackettstown laboratories, he handed me a white coat and safety glasses and took me inside. The lab had been cleared of Mars employees for my visit -- old habits of secrecy die hard -- except for one person: John Hammerstone, a colleague of Schmitz's who sat at a table in the large room, amid the loud hum of machinery, surrounded by a pile of cocoa pods and vials of cocoa. As we joined him, Hammerstone launched into a brief tutorial on the future of chocolate as Mars sees it, a kind of Cocoa 101.
Hammerstone picked up a yellow cocoa pod, a hard-shelled, lemon-shaped fruit, placed it on the table and smashed it open with a hammer. He then scooped out several large seeds -- what are known as the beans -- from the pulp inside. Next, he peeled the skin of one seed to reveal its deep violet hue. In a raw state like this, cocoa beans are exquisitely bitter and virtually inedible. Before they make their way into a chocolate bar, they must follow a convoluted route that begins in Africa, Asia or Latin America with their harvest from cacao trees; the process continues with their fermentation and sale, usually to wholesalers like Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill, and finishes with their roasting, transport, grinding and transformation into chocolate liquor, which can in turn be separated into powdered cocoa and cocoa butter. Producers like Mars and Hershey's then buy these raw materials. What we call chocolate is, essentially, the highly processed combination of the cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and sometimes powdered cocoa that are derived from the beans, and which is then combined with sugar, emulsifiers and (often) milk.
One byproduct of this process is that the candy bar you eat today may include a combination of cocoas from three different continents. Another is that the traditional processing methods -- especially the fermentation, roasting and what's known as ''dutching,'' which is the addition of alkali to mellow flavor -- strip the nutrients, and especially the organic compounds known as flavanols, from the beans. The majority of commercially available dark and milk chocolates do not have significant levels of flavanols. Nor do commercially available cocoas. ''Ten years ago,'' Hammerstone said, ''a Dove bar had almost nothing.''
Yet the fact that Mars has been juicing up the flavanol levels in its Dove bars over the past few years was not exactly the point of Hammerstone's demonstration. Consider instead the CocoaVia bar, which Mars introduced last year and currently sells over the Internet. For Mars, CocoaVia is a problem solver. Over the past few years, as concerns over childhood obesity and carbohydrates have risen, the growth in sales of candy and other snack foods has slowed noticeably. Meanwhile, the market for functional foods, a broad category that includes everything from calcium-fortified orange juice to cholesterol-lowering Benecol spread to drinkable supplements like Ensure, has been increasing by up to 14 percent annually. Though Mars might like us to think otherwise, chocolate could never pass as a functional food, because of its high levels of fat and its high number of calories. By and large, the common perception of cocoa and chocolate's health attributes have preceded any actual hard science; only now is that science taking shape in large-scale, double-blind experiments that lend credibility to the idea that flavanols impart very real cardiovascular benefits. Yet Mars is nonetheless placing a bet on flavanol-rich cocoa -- a main ingredient in CocoaVia, but one that is mostly free of the rich cocoa butter in chocolate. ''This little bar represents the culmination of a lot of research,'' Schmitz said, handing me a CocoaVia. ''But it's really only the beginning. We're still learning, but nobody here questions the idea that the opportunity is immense. It's a complete business now. It's not just a research-and-development kick.''
As soon as the marketing department deems the consumer market ready -- perhaps within the year -- Mars intends to start selling a new line of products, most likely a powdered cocoa or cocoa drink that, while not explicitly promising to lower blood pressure, say, or increase blood flow (a potential boon for those suffering from vascular disease), will nonetheless be backed by a number of coming studies that suggest a range of possible, and significant, health benefits along these lines. And Schmitz seems to hope that cocoa -- or more precisely, his cocoa, which means cocoa processed according to Mars's special methods, with extremely high flavanol levels -- will then turn out to be among the most potent and popular functional foods yet created.
Functional cocoa got its start at Mars around 1990, just after witches'-broom, a fungal infection, destroyed the Brazilian cocoa crop. At the time, Mars executives wondered if unlocking the chemical makeup of cocoa beans might somehow lead to the synthetic replication of the beans' taste, which would offer some protection against future agriculture catastrophes. By the early and mid-1990's, Schmitz recalled, he and other Mars scientists were doubting they could mimic chocolate's distinctive (and highly complex) flavor chemistry.
Schmitz, however, was becoming excited by reports in the science press on the health benefits of antioxidants in green tea and red wine. The flavanol compounds he was analyzing in cocoa beans had chemical similarities to the compounds he was reading about in those studies. And so, under his direction, Mars began several test-tube experiments at the Hackettstown labs to see if cocoa had any effect on the cardiovascular system -- in particular, on the endothelial cell lining inside blood vessels. Early on, Schmitz began to focus on whether cocoa flavanols could stimulate the production of nitric oxide and ''relax'' this lining. The relaxation of the endothelial layer results in better blood flow. That relaxation, in simplest terms, is good for the cardiovascular system.
When Mars's research produced encouraging results, Schmitz said he knew that if the company's next step -- human testing -- turned up compelling data, Mars would need to change the way chocolate has been made for at least the past century to bring a flavanol-rich chocolate to the market. By the late 1990's, various scientists at Mars were doing just that, working with growers in Indonesia and Brazil to see if they could preserve flavanol levels at the cocoa beans' harvesting and processing stages; their goal was to identify the right kind of cocoa bean (there are a number of genetic varieties) and to settle on a gentler, minimal-fermentation, lower-heat processing method that Mars could make proprietary. The biggest obstacle was flavor. Hammerstone, Schmitz and other Mars technicians worked on making a flavanol-rich cocoa taste good -- a tall order, since flavanols impart bitterness and astringency ''like a young wine,'' Hammerstone said. Ultimately, the company claims, well over a hundred Mars employees around the world were recruited to produce a marketable, consistent-tasting, flavanol-rich cocoa. ''The initial results were very discouraging,'' Schmitz said. ''The cocoa we were creating was difficult even for the lab subjects to choke down. There were times where we really did wonder whether this was possible.''
Yet by around 2000, Mars had a product good enough to start mixing into M&M's and Dove bars. (The company continues to work on the cocoa's flavor and on boosting its flavanol levels.) Mars stopped short of rolling out a purely functional powdered cocoa or cocoa drink; in part, Schmitz explained, the company still didn't have the taste chemistry down well enough to build a product around it. But Mars also wasn't sure how strong the case for the effects of cocoa yet were. And you can't really sell a functional food without the function.
In its recent history, the Mars company has financed some dubious and embarrassing science -- most notably in the early 1990's, when it supported research that resulted in a claim that chocolate was actually good for your teeth. It has also sponsored reams of legitimate research. Helping to create scientific studies (and related spin, frequently) that boost its products' appeal has been a hallmark of Mars's public-relations strategy for the past decade. This, too, is the case for its high-flavanol marketing campaign, which may have required as much forethought and expense as the creation of the high-flavanol cocoa itself. From the start, Schmitz's objective was to pursue broad scientific credibility for the project. In the mid-1990's, the company, at Schmitz's behest, undertook a strategy of distributing cash and high-flavanol cocoa to academics. Mars's largess was directed almost exclusively to respected, independent researchers who publish their results in peer-reviewed journals.
This investment first bore fruit in the late 1990's, when a study by Carl Keen, chairman of the nutrition department at the University of California, Davis, reported that the flavanols in cocoa appeared to have a healthful, aspirinlike effect on platelets. While Mars had spent at least $800,000 financing Keen's studies, Keen told me he had no qualms, then or now, about using private-industry money, despite the potential for perceived bias; if other food companies spent as much as Mars on studies, he said, the science of nutrition might be much further along. In Keen's opinion, moreover, the early data from the Mars-sponsored cocoa experiments are so persuasive that they may lead to a reconsideration of links between disease and diet. ''Some of the drugs we have today are so powerful that it's unrealistic to think of food as having the same effect of reducing blood pressure as, say, ACE inhibitors,'' Keen said, referring to the commonly prescribed class of drugs to combat hypertension. ''But I would argue that there will be a number of foods in the future that will help in maintaining health, or can be used with drugs, and will have a preventative use.'' Mars's cocoa, he added, which is far richer than many green teas and red wines in flavonoids (the class of naturally occurring compounds that include flavanols), is at the top of his list.
Ratcheting up Keen's expectations are the latest studies from Norman Hollenberg, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine. In 2003, Hollenberg and an assistant professor, Naomi Fisher, published a paper in The Journal of Hypertension offering exactly the kind of evidence Schmitz dreamed about: cocoa flavanols appear to stimulate the production of nitric oxide in blood vessels, which in their subjects had the effect of relaxing the endothelial lining and increasing blood flow to the extremities. Hollenberg and Fisher both believe this has positive implications for diabetics who suffer from a range of afflictions tied to poor circulation. This month, a paper that Hollenberg wrote with Schmitz for The British Journal of Cardiology assembles the most recent data to bolster the case that cocoa flavanols may have therapeutic potential for those afflicted with various cardiovascular diseases.
When I visited Hollenberg in June, in his cozy book-lined office tucked away on the ground floor of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, he said he was even more encouraged by a pilot study he concluded a few weeks earlier. The project measured whether subjects who drank a cup of high-flavanol cocoa had an increased flow of blood to the brain; on average, participants registered a 33 percent increase in blood flow. Hollenberg called the results ''a grand-slam home run.'' And he sees potential applications for the vascular (non-Alzheimer's) dementia that afflicts millions of Americans and is believed to be caused by poor cerebral blood flow. No drug on the market, Hollenberg added, appears to do what high-flavanol cocoa has done in his initial studies.
Hollenberg, like Keen, is not shy about his corporate sponsorship; he conceded that his work would not have been possible without Mars. In the early 1990's, the Harvard professor was researching whether certain genes might offer protection from the onset of age-related hypertension. In a few select cultures around the world -- in parts of New Guinea, for instance, and in the highlands of China -- men and women consistently show no increase in blood pressure as they age. Some years ago, Hollenberg also happened to come across an article written in the 1940's by an Army surgeon in the Panama Canal Zone, noting that the Kuna Indians, in the San Blas Islands of Panama, had extremely low blood pressure, and that it did not climb as they got older. ''The Kuna had a few things going for them,'' Hollenberg said. ''They were close, and American Airlines flies direct from Boston to Panama City. I didn't have a lot of money, but I had a lot of frequent-flier miles.'' The problem was that Hollenberg's initial visits turned out to be disappointing. He recorded low blood pressure readings for the Kuna, but he found little evidence of a protective gene. When islanders moved to the mainland, for instance, their blood pressure increased, which genetic protection ought to prevent. And yet, one thing struck him: the Kuna living on the islands drank a significant amount of locally grown, minimally processed, high-flavanol cocoa. Those living on the mainland did not.
Hollenberg soon stopped looking for protective genes and started focusing on cocoa. In the mid-1990's, with his support running low, a search for grant money led him to the American Cocoa Research Institute, a trade organization of confectioners; a few days later, Harold Schmitz called. ''Before I knew it,'' Hollenberg said, ''I was flying to Panama with Mars's lawyer to meet with the Panamanian Ministry of Health so they could sign permission papers for the study.'' Mars has since covered the bulk of Hollenberg's projects in Panama and Boston, costs easily amounting to more than a million dollars. Yet this may prove a pittance in the long run. For one thing, Hollenberg, who sits on the advisory boards of several drug companies, has advised the company as it considers sharing its cocoa research with a large pharmaceutical company. (Mars told me it is currently in talks.) And Hollenberg has been forceful in pushing the idea of selling cocoa as a functional food. Early on, he said, he told Mars's top executives: ''You know, I don't think the issue is whether there is going to be a flavanol-rich cocoa made for human consumption. The issue is, who is going to profit from your investment?''
In Hollenberg's view, there's a fortune at stake. ''It's going to be a billion-dollar market, you can bet on it,'' he said. ''It's going to be on every mother's shelf. And a year from now, when the news starts trickling out, every old person is going to buy it.'' He added: ''I think it's a long-term strategy. If one could persuade school districts, which are terribly concerned about junk food, to put vending machines in to provide flavanol-rich hot chocolate and cold chocolate -- well, do you happen to know who owns most every vending machine around the world?'' I did happen to know. While Hollenberg overstated things somewhat, Mars is a huge player in the vending business. Not only is it among the leading providers of electronic components in vending machines, but it is also the top company in vending-machine candy sales. (Mars is second only to Frito-Lay in overall snack-food sales at those machines.)
''It could happen,'' Hollenberg continued, seemingly entertained by the fine carpentry -- tongue into groove, tenon into mortise -- of such a business strategy. ''And to think that Mars began all this without a product in mind. Who knew?''
But selling a mass audience a high-flavanol cocoa, for example, is by no means simple. The marketplace is littered with functional-food failures from big, smart companies like Nestle and Campbell's, which thought they could design a best-selling yogurt or a frozen dinner with health-conferring properties. This largely explains Mars's caution. When I visited the Hackettstown headquarters a second time, this past summer, I sat down with Schmitz and Jim Cass, the marketing vice president at Mars charged with creating a campaign for the coming line of high-flavanol products. Cass told me that with CocoaVia, the company has decided for now to restrict the bars directly to consumers on the Web. This way Mars can create a database of buyers and even contact them individually, to understand how they're reacting to the product and how large the potential base might be for similar foods. Cass explained: ''It's something that we've talked about -- how far can these healthful benefits go? To the kids' market? Maybe. And we'd like to maybe understand that. Is this just a market for boomers, or those who lead an active life, or the wellness seekers? That's why we're taking this calculated learning approach before we do anything on a national or much larger basis.''
There are other hurdles that have nothing to do with marketing, however. Hollenberg's cocoa-flavanol findings -- though effectively duplicated this summer by Mary B. Engler, a non-Mars-financed professor at the University of California, San Francisco -- could lose some of their promise as they are tried in larger and more involved trials. Then there's the uncomfortable fact that Mars is, first and foremost, a candy maker. As Carl Keen, at U.C. Davis, put it: ''If Mars were some sort of juice company, they would find this far easier to market, but they're in a difficult position because they're a confectionary company. The marketing here is much, much more difficult than if they were selling a fruit or a vegetable.'' Schmitz, too, has no illusions about what's ahead. ''Nutrition is already controversial,'' he said, ''and you can imagine that chocolate nutrition is about 1,000 times more controversial.''
It's not reassuring that Mars seems unwilling to draw a clear line between making subtle health claims for chocolate and making forthright health claims for cocoa. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that Mars draws a clear line, then seems to step over its edges, much like an artful politician. In both of my visits to Hackettstown, for instance, Mars executives made it clear that they think it's irresponsible to claim that their research suggests in any way that eating more of their chocolate is good for you. That's why the company does not draw attention to the fact that M&M's, say, now have more flavanols than competing brands. The notion of pushing a ''healthy'' candy, especially to kids, is perhaps one of the last remaining taboos left in the marketing world. At the same time, Mars executives weren't hesitant to claim that their research has created an upside: it can ''reduce the guilt'' from the daily chocolate habit, especially if the daily habit includes a Dove dark bar, which caters to adult palates and contains about 150 milligrams of flavanols. It's hard not to imagine that a sister brand, like M&M's, would benefit from that same upside.
To consumer food advocates like Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, this borders on the absurd. Nestle (who is not related to the food company) says she thinks guilt is part of chocolate's inherent appeal; she also takes the position -- extreme, by her own admission -- that no food should be packaged with health claims, not even wine, walnuts or blueberries. ''Everything isn't a health food,'' Nestle said. ''Or put it another way: unprocessed foods are health foods. Once you start in on processed foods, you're talking about marketing. This is marketing, pure and simple.'' Her position is echoed by consumer groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has criticized Mars in the past for making health claims for chocolate, and which has tried (generally without success) to call attention to questionable health claims, often carefully and legalistically worded, for new functional foods. ''What has happened is that we've gone from having virtually no health claims on labels to a free-for-all where companies can say almost anything they want with almost no evidence,'' said Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director of the center. ''It has gotten so that consumers can't identify the foods that truly may be beneficial. The overall trend is good news for the industry and not such good news for the consumer.''
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has not taken a position on Mars's high-flavanol cocoa, or on CocoaVia, which is currently packaged with the suggestion, ''Be good to your heart everyday.'' And at Mars, Cass and Schmitz remarked that they don't think too highly of what's in the functional-foods marketplace at the moment, either. Both men said they consider the science on their cocoa so promising for consumers, and the product so natural and unadulterated, that they're loath to compare it to anything currently available, perhaps with the exception of red wine, which exploded in popularity in the early 1990's after several studies revealed potential health benefits. Nevertheless, the novelty of what Mars is doing, and the fact that it is a food producer and not a drug maker, makes it hard to know where to come down on the company. If the flavanol research holds up, do you applaud a mammoth multinational corporation that probably spent tens of millions in an effort to ''capitalize'' (as Jim Cass put it) on a product that may help confront a leading cause of mortality in America? Or do you instead doubt its intentions -- and likewise its products -- because Mars cares only about fattening its bottom line?
Hollenberg, for one, is unfazed by how deeply the business and the science are intertwined. In his Boston office, he told me that years earlier, he worked on the team that began to explore the effects of ACE inhibitors -- a once-in-a-lifetime experience, he had always thought, until he started getting his flavanol results a few years ago. ''This is big news,'' he said, ''from the point of view of the future of cardiovascular medicine -- we think. But there is going to have to be the investment of millions of dollars to convert 'we think' to 'we know.' '' Hollenberg said that those millions ultimately won't come from Mars, since the company's interest in expensive cocoa studies would certainly diminish once it created its line of products and had assembled a portfolio of strong scientific studies. That would only make sense, Hollenberg admitted with a shrug. Also, he speculated, the day Mars moves on may not be so far off.
Hollenberg then took me into the lab next to his office and asked an assistant to make me a cup of experimental high-flavanol cocoa -- the kind that Mars is still tinkering with as a commercial product, he said. I had just seen the charts on Hollenberg's subjects who had responded to the drink (which contains about 500 milligrams of flavanols) with a massive increase in blood flow to their brain, some by as much as 40 percent. I took a taste. As far as I could tell, there was little physical reaction; I felt more alert after a few sips, a symptom perhaps attributable to the caffeine (a fraction of what's in a cup of coffee) or, more likely, to the liveliness of its flavor. The taste is more akin to a dark, fruity, slightly bitter chocolate.
''Now, that's not so bad, is it?'' Hollenberg asked.
And it wasn't, I had to admit. Not bad at all. Then again, we were only talking about the taste. The harder question was how good it is.
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