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Too Good To Be True:

How to read the small print of chocolate and health studies, with Dr Tim Spector

There are a lot of scientific claims about chocolate! So we teamed up with Dr Tim Spector to ‘review’ these claims. 

Similar to the way we encourage you to check the ingredients on a chocolate bar’s label for its ingredients, and the details of the farm where the beans are sourced, we STRONGLY suggest you review chocolate-related health claims and how many people were studied, who funded the work and your own potential ‘cognitive bias’.

One of our mantras at Cocoa Runners is that “craft chocolate tastes better, is better for farmers, better for the planet and also better for you”.

This is one reason why we invited Dr Tim Spector to join us for a ‘Craft Chocolate Conversation’, and to discuss his latest book, ‘Spoon-Fed: Why almost everything we’ve been told about food is wrong‘. 

Tim is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, a craft chocolate aficionado, and one of the driving forces behind the crowdsourced covid-19 app (the one that works!). And his latest book is a passionate paean to the dangers and risks of ‘miracle cures’ and hyped scientific claims for all foods. At the same time, Tim has also spent the last 30+ years researching the microbiome of our gut, and he talks a tonne of sense about how different people respond to different foods (including chocolate).

A Quick History of ‘Scientific’ Claims for Chocolate

Throughout history, chocolate has been the subject of truly miraculous claims. Both the Aztecs and Marquis de Sade were convinced of its properties as an aphrodisiac. Earnest debates were held on its “humorous” properties by alchemists, doctors, barbers and quacks during the 17th and 18th centuries. And two of the first three US presidents (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) were keen that chocolate become the preferred drink in the US given it’s “nutritional benefits” (…and that it didn’t come from Great Britain).

Arguably, the modern fad for claiming that chocolate is somehow healthy can be sourced from a series of studies of the Kuna people in the late 20th Century, which highlighted their low rate of heart attacks and coronary problems. These health benefits were attributed to their predilection for a unique drinking chocolate recipe that is very high in flavanols (as well as eating lots of fish).

There may well be something in this. But it’s hard to translate their habits into ‘normal’ chocolate consumption, as the Kuna were drinking gallons (over 5 large cups or almost, 2 litres a day) of this beverage, which is crafted and fermented very differently to any normal chocolate bar.

But the genie was out of the bottle. The power of associating health benefits with chocolate was immediate. Loads more studies were launched all over the world. To journalists, the headlines from these studies are like catnip; after all, chocolate health studies make for great click bait.

‘Greatest hits’ from the “is chocolate good for you”? debate:

It’s fun (and also a little worrying) pulling highlights from the ‘chocolate-as-cure-all’ discourse. For those who want to read more, The Economics of Chocolate (ed. Mara P. Squicciarini and Johan Swinnen 2019), has a whole chapter entitled ‘Nutritional and Health Effects of Chocolate’ which collates various studies. Here are a dozen claims: 

  1. “…an average consumption of 10g/day of chocolate induced positive effects on cognitive performance, with maximum benefit depending on the variety of chocolate consumed (flavonoids-rich type) (Nurk et al 2009)”.
  2. “…a habitual chocolate consumption of 10g of dark chocolate per day (corresponding to 4.2g of cocoa) was associated with lower systolic blood pressure compared to no, or very low, cocoa intake (Buijsse et al 2006)”.
  3.  “…Almoosawi and colleagues (2012) found that 20g per day of dark chocolate improved cardiovascular risk factors in healthy, overweight and obese subjects”.
  4. “Research conducted in the Netherlands on young healthy women explored the relationship between appetites and levels of gastrointestinal hormones … results showed that smelling and eating 30g chocolate induced appetite suppression and were inversely correlated with levels of ghrelin, a hormone which stimulates appetite (Massolt, 2010)”
  5. 21 healthy men aged 25-30, were given dark or white chocolate for 28 days. They were given 25g three times a day (at 4,6 and 8pm). And those who were given dark chocolate saw a “decrease in blood sugar” (Rusconi, 2012).
  6. 15 women, aged 20-40 years, were given 100g of 70% dark chocolate (Di Renzo) in two 50g portions in morning and evening. “After chocolate consumption, a significant increase in HDL cholesterol level and a significant decrease of total cholesterol/HDL cholesterol ratio were observed”. And in addition “a reduction in abdomen circumference” was noted.
  7. Hermann and colleagues (2006) suggest that “70% dark chocolate improves vasodilation by 80% in young healthy smokers starting from two hours after chocolate ingestion and lasting for up to 8 hours”.
  8. “…people with an average age of 57 years who’d been eating chocolate five times a week for the last few years, and run 3-4 times a week, have a lower BMI that those who eat chocolate less often (Golomb and colleagues)”.
  9. In a study by Parker and Crawford in 2007, of 3000 people who described themselves as being depressed, 45% craved chocolate. “Chocolate is high in branch-train amino acids, and especially in tryptophan, which increases the blood level of serotonin, the neurotransmitter producing calming and pleasurable feelings”.
  10. “Chocolate was found to coat the teeth, thereby preventing tooth decay … Tannins in cocoa were found to promote healthy teeth as they inhibited the formation of dental plaque (Matsumoto, 2004)”.
  11.  “A double blind study of 30 healthy subjects divided into two groups one consuming a 20g per day of high flavanol level chocolate and one consuming a conventional dark chocolate … confirmed that a regular consumption of rich-in-polyphenols chocolate confers significant photoprotection and can be effective at protecting human skin from harmful UV effects (Williams et al 2009)”.
  12. “Chocolate is rich in theobromine (an alkaloid stimulant that acts on the body in ways similar to caffeine) and other compounds similar to caffeine) and other compounds similar to the cannabinoids, that act on the central nervous system, producing euphoric, aphrodisiac and stimulating effect (Di Tomaso et al 1996). It also contains phenylethylamine, a molecule  released during intimacy, when people are infatuated or fall in love, and it further promotes the release of serotonin … producing some aphrodisiac and mood lifting effects”. (No study quoted for this one, and to be fair, the authors say more work is needed on this).

It looks like if you smoke or are healthy, if you are male or female, looking to lower blood sugar, reduce the size of your “abdomen circumference”, end your cravings, cure your depression, think better or want to fall in love someone has done a study where the solution is “EAT MORE CHOCOLATE”!

Some scientific studies really are too good to be true.

So, to help you separate fact from (fantasy) fiction, here are some of Tim’s tips on seeing through the jargon:

  1. Just as we encourage you to check the ingredients in your bar of chocolate, check how many people the study has involved. In the above, I could rarely find the number of people ‘studied’.  
  2. Similarly, just as you want to know the farm/estate/co-operative where the beans in your bar are from, when checking a study it’s worth trying to find out who has paid for the research. Vox did some research in 2017 of 100+ studies carried out on chocolate by Mars and found “they overwhelmingly drew glowing conclusions about cocoa and chocolate … promoting everything from chocolate’s heart health benefits to cocoa’s ability to fight disease”. Similarly, when we dug into the health benefit claims for coconut sugar we discovered that the “proof” that Coconut sugar generates lower GI spikes was based on a study of 11 people financed by The Philippine Coconut Marketing Agency… Hmmm…
  3. Beware of what is variously described as ‘cognitive bias’, ‘motivated reasoning’ or ‘wishful thinking’. Psychologists warn us to beware that we all are more likely to notice what we want to notice. And this is very true when we see ‘justifications’ for savouring our favourite craft chocolate bars.
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