Mars Inc. said yesterday it is holding "serious discussions with large pharmaceutical companies" about the development of a line of cocoa-based prescription drugs that could help treat diabetes, some forms of dementia and other ailments.
The McLean candy and food conglomerate for more than a decade has pursued research on the possible health benefits of cocoa flavanols, compounds contained in one of the basic ingredients of chocolate.
As about 20 Mars-funded researchers gathered in Lucerne, Switzerland, to discuss their latest findings, the company announced that it foresees a possible line of pharmaceuticals growing out of the work and that it was being pursued by drug companies interested in the medical applications of cocoa.
"We now know we have some intellectual property that pharmaceutical companies are interested in," said Marlene M. Machut, a spokeswoman for Mars.
She offered few details beyond that fact. "We're not ready to say who we're in discussions with. They are not small companies. They are big pharmaceutical firms," Machut said.
A company news release said the discussions included possible licensing and joint-venture agreements for drugs based on cocoa flavanol molecules that can be synthesized in a lab.
Whether M&Ms have more in common with aspirin than their shape remains a matter of dispute. Some nutrition experts dismiss out of hand Mars's claim that the flavanols found in cocoa are as beneficial as the company contends.
"This is about selling chocolate. Mars is only doing this because it wants people to eat more and more M&Ms," said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of nutrition, food studies and public health, who dismissed the idea of cocoa-based medicines. She has no relation to the European chocolate maker of the same name.
But the possibilities have been enough for Mars, a privately held firm that makes candy bars such as Snickers and Milky Way, as well as Uncle Ben's rice and pet foods, to spend millions of dollars each year on flavanol research and to develop new snack foods based around flavanol content.
The two-day Lucerne conference included Mars-funded researchers from academic institutions such as Harvard and the University of California at Davis, as well as European universities, who presented papers on the relationship between consumption of cocoa flavanols and things such as increased blood flow to the brain.
The company said cocoa flavanols had an "aspirin-like effect" that might aid in staving off blood clotting and lead to the prevention of strokes and other vascular ailments. The candymaker said increased blood flow from ingesting cocoa flavanols might also help fight diseases such as diabetes and dementia.
Today's agenda includes the discussion "The Potential Use of Cocoa Flavanols in Preventing Cardiac and Renal Disease; Targeting the Individual Susceptible to Damage."
"The mounting scientific evidence on cocoa flavanols is extraordinary. This is a scientific breakthrough that could well lead to a medical breakthrough," said Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, whose research on cocoa flavanols has been largely funded by Mars. Hollenberg's comment was included in a company news release.
Eager to boost its good-for-you bona fides, Mars earlier this month named Catherine E. Woteki, a former undersecretary of food safety in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as its director of scientific affairs. It recently started a new division, Mars Nutrition for Health and Well Being, that will develop "heart-healthy" foods. One of its first products on the market is CocoaVia, a granola-based crunch bar, an 80-calorie energy snack chock full of cocoa flavanols.
Critics said Mars has been attempting to make chocolate into a health food for years.
Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said "the evidence is iffy" that flavanols have the extensive benefits Mars contends.
Mars is owned by the three grandchildren of founder Frank Mars who have a combined worth of more than $30 billion, according to Forbes magazine. The company, which closely guards information about its operations, said it had $18 billion in revenue last year.