Candy giant Mars Inc. recently launched into the healthy snacks world with goodnessKnows (“we all need a really good snack!”), with a major rollout in Boulder and Denver in March and April. If you’ve heard the radio commercials or seen the side-of-bus ads, you may have had the same reaction I first had: “Mars, maker of Snickers and M&Ms, is now claiming to make healthy snacks?” But my skepticism gave way to delight when I tried a sample (delicious and completely satisfying); then when I read the ingredient list (zero red flags; all ingredients are real foods I recognize and can pronounce, such as dried cranberries, brown rice syrup, pumpkin seeds, almonds, dark chocolate … and it’s even low in calories and sodium!); and finally, after I had the chance to meet with Mars representatives to hear the goodnessKnows story.
When I first saw goodnessKnows, most interesting to me was the symbol on each package that says the snack contains “200mg cocoa flavanols: supports circulation of nutrients.” The back label elaborates: “Our select cocoa beans are uniquely handled to retain cocoa flavanols which help support the healthy circulation of nutrients and oxygen, brain to bare feet.” In brief, Mars has verified (and has backed up with more than 130 peer-reviewed studies) that flavanols help the body access nitric oxide, which helps widen blood vessels, thereby improving circulation and benefiting cognitive and cardiovascular health.
We’ve all heard that dark chocolate contains healthy flavanols, but could it be that Mars, with its deep-pocket resources, has discovered a therapeutic amount of dark chocolate that makes goodnessKnows a legitimate healthy snack? Apparently, yes. In April, I got to meet with Mars’ chief agronomist, Howard Shapiro, PhD (founder of the organic-food company, Seeds of Change), who detailed the Mars’ dedication to develop cacao in such a way that the beneficial flavanols are preserved. According to Shapiro, no other chocolate product can quantitatively verify that the cacao hasn’t lost its flavanols at some point during processing, from harvested bean to edible chocolate. Mars is the only manufacturer, he says, that has been able to preserve the flavanols from start to finish. Armed with this result, the company developed the goodnessKnows snacks specifically with the intent to provide not only a tasty treat but one with a truly beneficial dose of dark chocolate (as well as good fats from nuts and seeds), all in a 150-calorie, low-sodium package.
(Quick but important digression here: I also learned that sustainability is a key value for Shapiro and family-owned Mars Inc. They work with small farmers in Bahia, Brazil, at the Mars Center for Cocoa Science, to increase yields and improve soil quality using eco-friendly, sustainable methods; and they’re fostering education and long-term cultural strength through founding the Virginia Mars School for elementary kids. It’s not just about profits. Who knew?)
Does Mars’ claims regarding their unique flavanol-preserving methods mean everything we’ve heard about dark chocolate being good for us isn’t true? Yes and no. When I ran the goodnessKnows story by DL’s medical editor, Robert Rountree, MD, he replied: “The claim that cocoa percentage can’t be equated with the amount of cocoa flavanols is entirely correct. I don’t know if Mars is entirely correct that all other cocoa products are devoid of flavanols; I’ve been told by some manufacturers that the Dutch-alkali process is what removes most of the flavanols, so at least theoretically an organic chocolate that is minimally processed would have at least some flavanols left.” Rountree also noted a new study that found a significant inverse relationship between chocolate consumption and blood pressure; namely, after following nearly 20,000 subjects for at least ten years, researchers found that those who ate the most chocolate -- an average of 7.5 grams a day -- had lower blood pressure and a 39 percent lower risk of heart attack or stroke, compared with those who ate an average of 1.7 grams of chocolate a day (European Heart Journal, April 2010). And in this case, the research doesn’t even specify what kind of chocolate or the cocoa percentage.
Even so, as Rountree points out, “I do have to give Mars a lot of credit for listing the actual flavanol content of their products, in contrast to most other chocolate producers that have been happy to let the consumer believe that dark chocolate is inherently healthier without taking the extra step of actually doing the assay.” Mars has raised the bar, so to speak, by crafting a healthy snack with this kind of real-food and nutrient profile, with a backstory of a commitment to sustainability and improving the lives of cacao farmers with whom they work. And best of all: goodnessKnows snacks TASTE GREAT. So my hat is off to them, and I’m buying these healthy snacks by the boxful. Look for goodnessKnows at your grocery store (here in Colorado, they're at King Soopers, Sprouts, Sunflower, and Whole Foods), sold singly and in boxes of five, in three flavors: Almonds & Berries, Very Cranberry, and Roasted Nuts & Grains.