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Men from Mars want you to eat more chocolate

Man from Mars

Is there life on Mars?

Apparently so. In fact, Mars even has a global director of plant science named Howardyanashapiro. And he has a plan for Earth.

Before you barricade your family in your basement you should know I’m talking about the candy company, not the planet. (Sorry – couldn’t resist.)

But Howard-Yana Shapiro actually does have a plan for a sort of world domination.

Candy code

Oil, rice, chocolate bars – worldwide supplies are short on all of these essentials.

How the oil and rice shortages will play out is anybody’s guess. But Mr. Shapiro and his famous candy company aren’t going to sit back while the world runs low on chocolate.

Late last month, Mars, Inc. announced a partnership with IBM and the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Mars is investing about $10 million to underwrite a project in which ARS scientists will sequence cocoa’s genetic code. IBM computational biology scientists will then comb through the code, looking for patterns. With any luck, breakthrough data will enable cocoa farmers to simplify and accelerate the breeding process, expand yields, and improve cocoa quality.

But men from Mars are quick to point out that it’s not just about the candy. In fact, Mars executives plan to share the results of this research with cocoa producers around the world, and they’ve even taken steps to make sure no one can exploit the research by taking out a patent on the plant’s key genes.

Buffing the halo

Over the past few years you’ve probably heard that dark chocolate contains natural chemicals that are actually good for the heart. And we can thank Mars for getting that message out.

For about two decades Mars has sponsored research (some in partnership with ARS) that reveals the benefits of consuming cacao flavanols. As you may recall from past e-Alerts, flavanols are antioxidant chemicals that help protect cells that line the heart and blood vessels. Dark chocolate contains a higher flavonol content than milk chocolate.

As a market research analyst told the Washington Post, all this research, “provides a health halo to a product that’s otherwise considered unhealthy.”

But is the halo well deserved?

In the e-Alert “You Can Call Me Hal” (6/17/04), I told you about this unintentionally hysterical quote from a “Nutrition Fact Sheet” compiled by The American Dietetic Association (ADA) with a supporting grant from Mars: “If you have diabetes, ask your health professional how to incorporate chocolate into your eating plan.”

Yeah that’ll be my VERY FIRST question on my next doctor visit.

That fact sheet is no longer available on the ADA web site unless you provide a password. Maybe someone realized just how embarrassing the quote was. (You can still find it on some web sites, such as lowcarb.com.au. And it appears to be offered straight up, totally free of irony.)

But here’s a little fact that Mars doesn’t spend much time dwelling on: Flavonoids are plentiful in apples, broccoli, onions and various berries – all of which qualify as real food. And then there’s green tea, which not only contains flavonoids, but also epicatechin (an antioxidant that inhibits platelet clumping).

No doubt, the new Mars genome-mapping research will be useful to scientists and cacao producers all over the world. And in the bargain, hopefully many new people will find out about the benefits of flavonoids. But let’s not forget that Mars is in the business of selling TONS of candy: Snickers, Twix, M&Ms, Milky Way, Three Musketeers, Dove ice cream bars, Starburst, Skittles, and, of course, the Mars bar.

Want to get a laugh out of your health professional? Next visit, ask him how to incorporate more Twix into your eating plan.

And if he doesn’t laugh, it might be time to get a new health professional.

Sources:
“USDA-ARS, Mars, and IBM Launch Joint Project to Sequence and Study the Cocoa Genome” Mars, Inc. press release, 6/27/08, mars.com
“Unwrapping the Chocolate Genome” Kendra Marr, The Washington Post, 6/26/08, washingtonpost.com