There are dates that remain forever etched in one’s memory: birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, even entrepreneurial starts. For Alan Frost, president of Boston-based FlavaNaturals, October 26, 2014, remains etched into his memory.
That’s the day his wife, Shari, summarily threw the New York Times on his lap and pronounced, “Told you I should be eating more chocolate!” The article she was referring to concerned a recent Columbia University study that linked flavanol antioxidants in chocolate to helping improve memory.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Frost, who had been working at Elan Pharmaceuticals until it was purchased by Perrigo, decided to take a step back from working in the industry.
“I was thinking of doing something more entrepreneurial,” he explains. And although the New York Times piece intrigued Frost, he was — to say the least — a bit “skeptical.” Nonetheless, upon reading the details about the study conducted by the university’s neuroscience department, Frost came away impressed.
The research focused on 50-60 year-olds drinking a chocolate beverage and seeing their memory improve. What fascinated Frost was that other studies conducted by Harvard University and others demonstrated that the benefits weren’t just applicable to an older age group, nor were they limited to memory improvement.
Increased flavanol consumption has also been shown to deliver cardiovascular benefits, improve mood, increase skin wellness and enhance exercise performance, he explained. And while the studies confirming these benefits were great, the challenging thing was finding a natural way to deliver the necessary amount of flavanols.
“You’d have to eat between five to 10 typical dark chocolate bars a day to get the amount of flavanols used in most of these studies,” Frost explained. And that’s where his quest to develop a delicious chocolate with the flavanol levels shown to deliver the desired health benefits started in earnest.
In conducting his research on the subject, the former “pharma guy” came across Barry Callebaut’s work on the same subject. That’s when the two paths crossed and a unique partnership was formed between the world’s largest cocoa and chocolate processor and a man with a vision.
“They liked the fact that I came from a different background,” he says. “I understood parameters from a health aspect.”
Barry Callebaut’s initial research had already established two key points. First, the flavanol content depended on the cocoa bean itself, which encompassed where it was grown and how it was cultivated. And second, the flavanols are easily destroyed during cocoa bean processing.
Capitalizing on Callebaut’s proprietary sourcing and processing methods, the companies embarked on a journey to develop a new chocolate. “We were looking for a specific flavor profile,” Frost says. “It had to be all natural and great-tasting chocolate. We drove a few people crazy at Callebaut, testing well over 100 recipes.”
Then there were also other practical considerations, such as having an adequate supply available to the market and ensuring that it was reproducible. It took nearly two years of testing and retesting to come up with the right process and formula. Soon after, Frost brought on Neely Cohen, an up and coming chocolatier and recent winner of the Food Network’s prestigious Sweet Genius contest, to develop healthy and delicious flavor profiles that paired well with the new chocolate.
FlavaNaturals, as the company is known, offers two products: FlavaBar chocolate bars, which come in six flavors and deliver 500 milligrams of cocoa flavanols, five times the amount found in a typical dark chocolate bar; and FlavaMix drinking chocolate, available in single-serving packets that deliver 900 milligrams or nine times the amount of flavanols typically found in a standard dark chocolate bar.
Four months into it, the company has begun selling its products through the e-commerce channel. As Frost explains, “We didn’t want to go out too fast.”
Currently, the company is in a dozen stores. Frost is also beginning to showcase the product to distributors and brokers.
“We understand that 97 percent of all chocolate is bought in stores,” he says. "But we want to study the local retail experience, testing it at coffeehouses, specialty food stores, fitness centers.”
What truly excites Frost is the benefit flavanols deliver.
“The profound benefits of cocoa flavanols on brain function, hearth health, skin wellness and exercise performance largely stem from improved circulation and delivery of oxygen and nutrients throughout your body”, Frost says. “In fact, flavanols can increase the flexibility of your blood vessels to expand by a remarkable 25% or more just two hours after consumption. This benefit builds with daily use, generally doubling over the course of two to three weeks”.
Consumers visiting the FlavaNaturals website are encouraged to take a FlavaMix 10-day challenge, which encourages them to purchase a 10-day supply of FlavaMix Unsweetened Drinking Chocolate packets with a blender bottle and recipe book. Those who incorporate the FlavaMix into beverages or foods for 10 consecutive days will receive a 15 percent discount on their next purchase. More importantly, they will have experienced all the benefits associated with flavanols, Frost says.
He encourages consumers who have taken the 10-day challenge to “tell us how they feel,” he says. So far, the “results have been terrific. The vast majority report that they feel their best more often and over 90 percent say they would recommend FlavaNaturals to a friend.”
And there is more research in the works.
“Harvard University has embarked on a five-year study of the benefits of flavanols involving 18,000 to 20,000 people,” Frost says. “I’m confident the results will be pretty remarkable.”
The pharmaceutical veteran also believes that flavanols can enhance performance in sports activities and is eager to advance research in this particular area. FlavaNaturals is currently in the planning stage of a study on athletic performance with an Ivy League athletic team.
It’s been nearly four years since Frost’s wife showed him the New York Times article. He candidly admits that the process to get to where we are now took much longer that anticipated.
“I expected to have a product out on the market in six months,” he says. Despite the various hiccups along the way, Frost sees nothing but more opportunities down the road.
“As a lifelong chocolate lover, I am so excited to deliver cocoa flavanol supernutrients at levels shown to offer amazing health benefits in one single dark chocolate bar or drink,” Frost says. “Chocolate used to be our weakness. With FlavaNaturals, it’s actually our strength. We’re changing the way people think about and consume chocolate.”