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How 'Big Chocolate' turned chocolate into a health food

How 'Big Chocolate' turned chocolate into a health food
REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo
Chocolate is often cited, along with soda, as a contributor to the growing obesity epidemic, and calls have been made to add a “fat tax” to products containing it.

Over the past couple of decades, the idea that chocolate — particularly dark chocolate — can be a health food has become ingrained in the public’s consciousness.

But it’s not true. Yes, some research has suggested that certain micronutrients (flavanols) in cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate, may help with blood flow. But those studies are far from conclusive — and none has ever shown that cocoa actually protects against heart disease.

Furthermore, even if cocoa were good for our heart, it doesn’t follow that chocolate, which contains large doses of sugar and fat, would also confer the same health benefits. 

In fact, chocolate is often cited, along with soda, as a contributor to the growing obesity epidemic, and calls have been made to add a “fat tax” to products containing it.

A marketing ploy

So, how did so many people come to view chocolate as a health food?

“You can thank a decades-long effort by the chocolate industry,” writes health reporter Julia Belluz in a recent article for Vox.com. “Over the past 30 years, food companies like Nestlé, Mars, Barry Callebaut, and Hershey’s — among the world’s biggest producers of chocolate — have poured millions of dollars into scientific studies and research grants that support cocoa science.”

“Industry funding in nutrition science is not uncommon — grape juice makers and walnut growers sponsor studies showing these foods improve driving performance or cut diabetes risk,” Belluz adds. “But Big Chocolate’s foray into nutrition research is a great case study in how industry can steer the scientific agenda — and some of the best minds in academia — toward studies that will ultimately benefit their bottom line, and not necessarily public health.”

And it seems to have worked. Although candy sales overall have been falling in the United States in recent years, retail sales of chocolate have climbed — from $14.2 billion in 2007 to $18.9 billion in 2017.

Overwhelmingly positive

For her article, Belluz looked specifically at 100 health studies funded by just one company — Mars Inc. The recipients of this funding have included major institutions both here in the United States (such as the University of California, Davis, where Mars has endowed a chair in nutrition science) and around the world (such as the Heinrick Heine University in Dusseldort, Germany).

Belluz found that “nearly every one of the studies came to positive and favorable conclusions about cocoa or chocolate.” 

Among the findings: “Regularly eating cocoa flavanols could boost mood and cognitive performance, dark chocolate improves blood flow, cocoa might be useful for treating immune disorders, and both cocoa powder and dark chocolate can have a 'favorable effect' on cardiovascular disease risk,” writes Belluz. 

“Such overwhelmingly positive findings suggest this area of industry-funded nutrition science may be biased,” she adds. “… In other words, companies pouring money into studying a certain food and a specific set of questions about that food pushes the research agenda in a particular direction — one that the food companies favor.”

Hyped findings

Once those studies are published, they easily get hyped in the media. Belluz offers this example:

[A] Columbia University researcher, Adam Brickman, led a Mars-funded study, looking at how cocoa flavanols might affect the dentate gyrus, a region of the brain whose deterioration with age is associated with memory decline. His paper concluded that flavanols may improve dentate gyrus function, according to specific cognitive ability tests. 

But the university public relations team and the media hyped the findings, and turned a small flavanol supplement study into a big chocolate study. 

Columbia University’s newsroom touted the research as demonstrating that “dietary flavanols reverse age-related memory decline” — even though the study was small and preliminary. The research was then picked up by media outlets, including the New York Times, which trumpeted chocolate as a memory aid. 

“We [were] very careful about not referring to [the cocoa flavanols] as chocolate,” said Brickman. “Nothing was more upsetting than seeing the headlines along the lines of ‘eating chocolate cures Alzheimer’s,’ which was not what our study was about.” 

A distraction

As Belluz points out in her article, not all the research is this field is questionable. Indeed, researchers not funded by the chocolate industry are also examining the potential health benefits of cocoa’s flavanols, and Belluz describes in detail some of the more promising scientific findings to date.

But, she stresses, “when you look at industry-funded studies, one thing becomes clear: They tend to focus on the health attributes of cocoa: its impact on cardiovascular health or cognitive function. But they don’t address the role the cocoa delivery mechanism — sugary chocolate — may play in obesity. Most Mars and Hershey chocolates also contain very small amounts of the cocoa that supposedly promotes heart health — along with lots of fat, sugar, and calories.”

“The chocolate-industrial-research complex also distracts us from really important avenues of nutrition research,” writes Belluz, “like better understanding what in our food may be contributing to the parallel obesity and diabetes epidemics, and how we can solve vexing problems like malnutrition.”

“Chocolate certainly isn’t the solution here,” she adds.

FMI: You can read Belluz’s article at Vox.com.

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Comments (2)

Who's really at fault

I will admit, as a child, I tried to convince my parents that milk chocolate was healthy, because of course it contained milk. They were not as gullible though as the general public.

It seems there is a general theme (beyond Chocolate) that a researcher may conduct and publish a study, and an institution they are a part of, possibly sensing a good PR opportunity will promote their work, and in doing that, maybe simplify, extrapolate, etc..... and then it gets to the mass media, who go another step or two, and you get the examples such as the one cited above with the chagrined researcher looking at their little study with it's academically minded narrow preliminary finding, and the newspaper headline says they just cured cancer or Alzheimers, or my favorite - the 10pm news teaser which usually goes something like "A researchers right here in Minnesota may have cured obesity" and you find the story ends with "although doctors say that clinical trials may be 10 years away".

So in this example, what I don't know is if "Big Chocolate" did anything with these studies. Did they promote them, do they use these purported benefits in their advertising. Because if they are, that's one thing. If they are funding studies desperately looking for the silver lining that goes with all the other stuff in candy bars that's bad for you but tastes good, and these studies get picked up and twisted by the media, that's something else. As for the trend to positive studies, we know there is across all research a strong tendancy to publish positive studies and shelve negative ones - is that practice more apparent here or in line with general medical research? is there a clintrials.gov for this kind of work to know what's being conducted vs what gets published?

Always enjoy these types of articles in Minnpost please keep them coming

Media is the Massage

It is the media that seizes upon every study, odd or not, as big news and follows up on that with more stories that seem to prove the point. It is highly irresponsible of them. As for chocolate, who doesn't want an excuse to eat more? It does boost mood, and that's a good thing. It also has enough caffeine to provide an energy boost, so who cares. Obesity itself is not even necessarily a bad thing, and it is the perfect example of how the media mishandles information, and how Big Medicine picks easy targets to attack to deflect attacks on their Big Moneymaking. I just wonder what their next target will be? Who is an easy victim for them to target next? Of course, the "depressed."