The last three decades have seen food companies spending millions of dollars in sponsoring research that backs the validity and health benefits of their products.
About Dark Chocolate Cocoa Flavanols Health Food Scientific Studies
Of note are the chocolate companies that have given grants to research organizations and academic institutions to help find out the good qualities of their favorite food ingredient –cocoa.
Some of the companies at the forefront of this include Hershey’s, Mars, Barry Callibaut, and Nestle. As you can see, these are some of the biggest names in the chocolate and cocoa industry.
While this has been standard practice among many nutrition and food companies as a whole, the reality is that many of these studies are often biased, and tend to tilt towards highlighting the benefits of these foods, while downplaying the risks.
As a result, there are far too few objective studies showing that these foods –many of them processed- have significant diabetic risk and are potentially dangerous to your health.
This goes to show just how much power and influence these companies have. It takes a lot of pull to get scientists and researchers who are dedicated to objective research, to conduct and publish biased and subjective research that will help these companies drive their revenue, even when it’s not in the interest of the general public.
The result of these company-favored research consistently outlines the possible health benefits. A series of studies examination by the folks at Vox, showed that almost every one of these studies which were funded by Mars highlighted and implied that all chocolate and cocoa products are incredibly beneficial to people’s health.
As a result, many of these cocoa based and chocolatey foods are now considered health staples, compared to the past when they were only seen as snacks. Naturally, because these research are funded by these companies, these studies go on to benefit their bottom line and inevitably attracts mention and hype from media outfits.
The combination of these factors have resulted in an increased demand for chocolate and other cocoa related products, because let’s face it, who doesn’t like it when their favorite foods are also labeled as healthy.
In fact, the chocolate market in the US grew by $4.7 billion USD in 10 years –between 2007 and 2017. And it’s interesting to note that this is in the face of dwindling candy consumption –as seen by Nestle’s intent to sell its candy business– and an all-out war on sugar and diabetes by recognized health institutions.
Why this is interesting is that chocolate typically contains a sizable amount of refined sugar –the same sugar that people are cutting out of their meals and eating less of.
Chocolate companies’ investment in these research and studies, and publishing them was a brilliant marketing strategy that has helped them survive and thrive in a relatively hostile industry climate.
Consumers now equate chocolate with well-known health foods, fruits and drinks like avocados, blueberries and red wines. In fact, sales are even driven more by health-seeking enthusiasts who spend more on high end dark chocolate –these are thought to have higher health benefits and antioxidant properties.
However, even though it looks like cocoa and its products have incredible health benefits, there’s a scarcity of studies that ACTUALLY prove this. Please read that sentence again before reading further.
If anything, cocoa often has to be mixed with high amounts of dairy and sugar to give you the desired chocolate that we have come to love and crave. Raw cocoa, without all the sugar and dairy, tastes very bitter and has a harsh texture.
So, when next you eat a Mars bar, remember that you’re not eating cocoa; just some high calorie content milk, cocoa and loads of sugar. But before we go ahead, let’s examine how these companies –Mars in particular- got us all hooked on chocolates.
Mars And The Successful Chocolate “Revolution”
In a bid to research and highlight the health properties of cocoa, Mars, Inc. set up the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science. This center has gone on to research and publish 140 peer-reviewed scientific papers.
These days, the company and its research team are not as focused on the health benefits of cocoa as much as they are interested in newly identified compounds called flavanols found in cocoa.
These compounds are now being touted and publicized for their seemingly incredible health benefits. Some nutritional experts are calling them the most recently discovered and powerful source of antioxidants –as if they didn’t exist in the past- that can also help heart health.
Whether this is true or not, it appears that when nutritional companies want a new marketing angle, they approach it from the position of heart health benefits. This makes sense because, well, who doesn’t want to live long and have a healthy heart.
These studies and research commissioned by these companies have shown the link between frequent flavanols consumption and a myriad of benefits. Some of these benefits include:
- Cognitive enhancement and mood boosting
- Improved vascularity and vasodilation
- Possible treatment of immune system disorders
- Possibly lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease
However, these sponsored studies commissioned in multiple universities and research institutions, many of which are Ivy League schools, all tend to report favorable things about cocoa. Which begs the question:
- Is there a bias in the research?
- Is it possible that these research might even be tampered with?
- Is this research being used to tie up the same researchers who would have been open to more objective research?
- Is the deck stacked in the favor of these companies?
Richard Bazinet of the University of Toronto seems to think so. According to him, “By spending a lot of money on one topic but not another, [it] can sort of create a publication bias,”.
To put it simply, it means that the companies sponsoring these studies can phrase research questions about specific foods in a way that encourages the research to go their way and reach the conclusion they want. The Cochrane review of Chocolate Research seems to think so too.
Even worse, these companies can single out those research teams and organizations that have reported favorable outcomes and “reward” them by getting them to carry out other research that may favor their products.
The Media’s Role in the “Conspiracy”
Sponsoring research is just one part of the equation. The second part is getting the media to report these outcomes. Naturally, because chocolate is such a favorable treat, many journalists jump at the opportunity to report the “good news”.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a filler or an editorial on chocolate, the media unwittingly joins in the “conspiracy”, resulting in even more sales of cocoa based products. A quick search for chocolate and cocoa based news items indicates a huge number of published articles, many of them praising the benefits of these products.
Interestingly, some of these news items are often a misinterpretation of the actual study results. For instance, a Columbia University study on the effect of flavanols on memory concluded that the compounds might play a role in improving the functioning ability of a specific brain region –the dentate gyrus- that’s associated with memory decline.
But, when mainstream media got ahold of the story, they spun it to include chocolate as a possible memory aid and even a possible food for preventing and curing for Alzheimer’s. These two outrightly false claims were never the intent or the goal of the research team.
In fact, there have been multiple instances of news media outlets completely fawning over cocoa so much that they don’t even verify the claims or double check the “research” before publishing it.
To prove this, a journalist published a false report about chocolate aiding weight loss, and many other media outlets immediately jumped on the story, with many going on to further praise the “unlimited” benefits of chocolate.
It appears that mainstream media isn’t willing to do any due diligence when it comes to chocolate and cocoa.
So, Does Chocolate Have Actual Benefits?
Independent studies of cocoa and chocolate have found some degree of association between flavanols-rich chocolate consumption and temporarily lowered blood pressure, as well as a slight increase in the body’s nitric oxide levels.
Nitric oxide plays a critical role in the dilation of blood vessels, thus improving circulation within the body. This is coming at a period when heart health is a priority in the US. Other non-sponsored research that were carried out on the benefits of cocoa indicated that eating moderate amounts of cocoa or chocolate that’s rich in flavanols might help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
But, there’s no concrete evidence that it actually does help reduce the risk of the consumers suffering from cardiovascular related diseases. All the studies have shown is they might play a role or help. Nothing definite.
This is owing to the fact that other lifestyle habits were not factored into the experiments. Even more is the fact that by the time cocoa is processed and transformed into chocolate, the heat would most likely have destroyed the flavanols as these compounds can’t withstand extreme heat.
This is why nutritional scientists in Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, are carrying out a large scale randomized controlled trial referred to as COSMOS.
This study which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, Pfizer and Mars, is focused on cocoa supplements as against chocolates as the supplements tend to contain higher quantities of flavanols compared to chocolates that have very little or none.
Chocolate Just Might Be Doing More Harm!
In the meantime, it does appear that chocolates are actually doing more harm to our health. It is one of the many sources of added sugars, which are directly responsible for the increase in health conditions like metabolic syndrome, diabetes and obesity.
The truth is that because of its high sugar content, it might be best to limit its intake, or switch to some of the other high end, premium, organic cocoa products like dark chocolates.
The thing about this is you may need to eat pretty sizable quantities to benefit from the flavanols present in the chocolate. Many chocolates tend to contain very small amounts of actual cocoa and large amounts of sugar, dairy and fat… all of which can result in increased weight gain and risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Instead of eating huge amounts of chocolate, think of them as treats, because that’s what the big chocolate companies call them anyway. Until the COSMOS trial or other randomized and highly objective studies can prove that it really does have incredible health benefits, take them in moderation.
In the meantime, if you really need to eat that much flavanols, raw fruits and vegetables that are highly rich in heart healthy flavanols might just be a better option compared to scarfing down loads of sugar filled chocolates –even dark chocolate.