What is a Cosmeceutical? Can Chocolate Really Prevent Skin Aging?

Chocolate pieces

Sometimes it is tempting to think that the science of the cleanroom is all about lunar landings and semi-conductors. But the reality is that the spectrum of research conducted in contamination-controlled environments is much broader and cannot be confined to the traditional silos of heavy engineering or silicon-wafer technology. Take, for example, the innovations around jellyfish harvesting we discussed last week, or the lab-grown diamonds we focused on in June. And although hard science subjects that benefit the whole of humanity such as the technology developed for space exploration get a lot of attention from within the cleanroom tech industries, it is sometimes the innovations that make our lives better on an individual level that deserve our attention. Better living through nutricosmetics, for example…

If we take a long look at human history we see one commonality that runs, arguably, through all societies in all stages of development. And that is mankind’s ongoing search for ways to prolong life. To extend the duration of our existence so that we can reproduce, create, explore, and adventure into a world of myriad fascinations. We have dieted, imbibed potions, committed to spiritual practices, leveraged technology and medical science, poured our hopes into pharmaceuticals, or meditated ourselves into what we hope will be a prolonged time on the planet. In short: we have searched for the fountain of youth, the route to immortality. And we still do.

Before and after

And along the way, we have discovered some tips and techniques that assist in our quest. We have learned that exercise is – on balance – not a bad thing, that meditation can reduce stress, and that there is often a pharmacological solution to many of life’s ailments. And while we have certainly adopted many life-saving and life-promoting drugs, we have also attempted to endow some substances with a therapeutic benefit that they may, in fact, not really possess. Take, for instance, chocolate.

German scientist and one of the founders of modern agricultural chemistry, Justus von Liebig (1803 – 1873) was the first to note the importance of nitrogen in plant fertilizer. He also devised the Law of the Minimum, in which plant growth is dictated not by the abundance of nutrients but is limited by the paucity of one. Moreover, he is credited with remarking that ‘Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power…it is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.’

Fast forward to today and children’s author Amy Neftzger also believes in the power of chocolate saying ‘I’m pretty sure that eating chocolate keeps wrinkles away because I have never seen a 10 year old with a Hershey bar and crows feet.’(1)

Perhaps they both have a point? But, aside from chocolate’s much touted health benefits such as heart-protective flavanols which reduce blood pressure by supporting the production of nitric oxide in the endothelium, could this sweet treat actually have broader health benefits? According to Cambridge Chocolate Technologies (CCT), a developer of functional foods based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, the answer is a resounding yes. Per the company’s website, CCT is in the business of engineering ‘innovative, clinically tested, functional food products to enrich the daily diet with innovative ingredients and formulas from our ongoing research into the benefits of cocoa polyphenols and other natural antioxidants.’(2)Using a base 70% cocoa chocolate, the company has conducted clinical trials on over 3,000 participants to explore the ways in which polyphenols from cocoa affect free radicals, the toxic byproducts of oxygen metabolism. Having been granted two patents for nutraceutical products, CCT claims ‘clinically proven biological efficacy [through] a standardized production technology and superior quality control with CambridgeTechnology Quality Pass.’(3) From epicatechin’s effects on brain chemistry which lower the risk of stroke to the heart-protective inhibition of angiotensin-converting syndrome (ACE) it seems that chocolate is ‘the answer.’

Never heard of chocolate being used to improve the health of skin? It’s a lofty claim which we’d never come across before either.

So we dove into the world of nutricosmetics – also known as cosmeceuticals – with an eye to uncovering what they are, where they came from, and how far their regulation allows us to consider them safe. According to an article in Nutrition Insight, which reports on nutrition science and diet trends, the market for nutricosmetics is burgeoning as consumers move from traditional cosmetics which create the illusion of beauty through masking imperfections to formulations that create actual beauty on a foundation of health: ‘Cosmetics are usually all about makeup and this misinterprets the consumer need for healthy skin as the basis that leads to a more aesthetically pleasing appearance. People are now more aware of the fact that everything related to the “beauty from within” is more crucial.’(4)

It’s a subtle shift that seems straight forward on the surface: leverage the existing market for cosmetics and skin care with a different product which offers a higher level of effectiveness. But it does invite questions on regulation and the processing and use of ingredients that are Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS). Let’s take that other compound found in chocolate, resveratrol. Back in 2008 before nutricosmetics or cosmeceuticals were even ‘a thing,’ New York-based Biotivia, a supplier of nutraceutical supplements, ran afoul of the National Advertising Division of the Council for Better Business Bureaus (NAD). Responding to a complaint brought by a rival, the NAD demanded that Biotivia’s claims that their product was ‘manufactured in an FDA-certified plant [and] processed in an oxygen and UV-free clean room’ be removed from promotional materials, highlighting the importance of supporting evidence even at the level of the production process.(5)

And the important point to note here is that it was claims about the production process with which NAD had issue. Dropping references to FDA certification and the use of a cleanroom brought Biotivia largely back in compliance, which seems to have been an easy fix. This was not the case, however, for CCL. Let’s look at them now…

In 2015 it was reported that the CCL, by then ranked 36th in the Sunday Times HSBC International Track 200 league table which ranks growth via international sales data, had moved to a ‘purpose-built premises to expand its operations further. Occupying over 100,000 sq ft, the new building is comprised of offices, warehouse and cleanroom facilities. The new 80,000 sq ft warehouse is capable of holding over 9000 pallets, increasing capacity from 2300 in the previous building. The inclusion of ISO Class 8 cleanrooms provide CCL with an environment that controls airborne particulate contamination. This combined with a small on-site lab allows for extended quality control and testing, including FTIR analysis, bulk density and mesh testing, and plays a key role in the company’s commitment to quality excellence.’(6) And the drive to investment on this scale is explained by CCL’s operations manager, Oliver Stephens, who is quoted in a report by Food Ingredients First: ‘“It’s an exciting time for CCL and for the industry, with sectors diversifying in line with rising consumer awareness about health and nutrition. These new, innovative spaces are where we see future growth developing. The ingredients we work with are no longer just about supplements. We’re moving into the functional food and drink, free from and FMCG sectors. Changing attitudes mean that consumers are demanding healthier choices across all areas of food. New ingredients are an exciting and innovative way of delivering these benefits.”’(7)

But with regard to health benefits the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) sees it differently.

In a ruling that was upheld last week, the ASA objected to the description – and therefore marketing – of CCT’s Esthechoc, a chocolate product that the manufacturer says helps the consumer to ‘regain firmness, radiance and luminosity.’(8) The individually-portioned squares of 72.6% dark chocolate are dairy- and gluten-free and contain astaxanthin, said to be ‘the world’s most powerful antioxidant.’(9) The science behind Esthechoc’s alleged benefits depends upon the fact that human skin is self-renewing every 28 days. Ingesting highly bioavailable key nutrients during that cycle can, the company maintains, positively impact the development of new skin on the cellular level. Moreover, CCT reinforces the idea that its product offers a significant physiological benefit by stating that it is the ‘world’s first nutricosmetic with a strong, scientifically proven impact on the metabolism of ageing skin.’(10) The end result of eating this ‘patented delivery system’? ‘More youthful, healthier, and beautiful skin.’ (11)

And this is where the ASA has issues.

According to the assessment ‘According to Regulation (EC) 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods (the Regulation), which was reflected in the CAP Code, only health claims listed as authorised (sic) on the EU Register of nutrition and health claims (the EU Register) could be made in ads promoting foods.’(12) Given that CCT brands Esthechoc as a way to ‘regain your skin health and slow down the ageing (sic) process’ a causal relationship is implied between the product and health benefits to the consumer. Per the definitions of the Regulation, this means that CCT’s marketing constitutes a health claim which must be authorized on the EU Register and be accompanied ‘by a relevant specific authorized health claim.’(13) Moreover, Esthechoc was claimed to also assist in post-surgical healing, an assertion the ASA finds to be a breach of its guidelines. According to the article in Nutri Ingredients, ‘consumer interpretation [would believe that] the product could aid the healing process by treating or curing skin reddening and oedema (sic) experienced after plastic surgery and during recovery.’(14)

Perhaps it is ultimately incumbent on the consumer to take a step back and reflect on the claims made by any product in terms of their alleged health benefits.

Especially when the product – like chocolate – is one which is almost universally beloved. Perhaps if it seems too good to be true, too simple a solution, perhaps it is just that: an attempt to cast a food that is a treat as a cosmeceutical with health-promoting properties. Or maybe enjoying a square of dark chocolate per day really can enliven aging skin. Like most consumers, we would very much like to believe this.

Whatever the case, there is a company that knows how to write a good disclaimer for their own product which is used as an ingredient in dietary supplements, functional foods, and cosmetics. While noting the more than 40 years of research including 160 clinical trials, Horphag Research  supplies Pycnogenol®, an extract of French maritime pine bark, for use in products supporting cognitive, respiratory, eye, and joint health, among other applications. But while the company is certain of its own raw material, it makes no claims of efficacy or safety in products in which it is an ingredient. To wit, the company’s disclaimer: ‘Horphag Research supplies Pycnogenol® as a raw material to companies that produce a variety of Pycnogenol®-containing products. Horphag Research does not make any claims regarding the use of these finished products and each manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that the claims made for and use of its products comply with the regulatory requirement of the locations in which it markets its products.’(15)

With an additional webpage entirely dedicated to specific points regarding liability and warranties regarding corporate data, perhaps Horphag Research’s caution is overblown. But in this time of potentially misleading marketing, an abundance of caution may indeed be necessary to ensure a further four decades of business…

Chocolate as an anti-aging supplement? Are cosmeceuticals really the Fountain of Youth or just another way to promote age old products in a new light? We’d love to know your thoughts!


  1. https://www.agebuzz.com/quote/amy-neftzger/
  2. http://www.cambridgechocolate.com/
  3. ibid
  4. https://www.nutritioninsight.com/news/Do-your-homework-Consumers-seek-science-backed-nutricosmetics-ingredients-expert-says.html

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