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High Levels of Lead Found in Hershey and Other Major Chocolate Brands, Study Claims

High Levels of Lead Found in Hershey and Other Major Chocolate Brands, Study Claims


A new study from watchdog group As You Sow has found high levels of lead and cadmium in popular chocolates

This is certainly destressing news to hear after the post-Easter candy-binge.

While we were all munching on chocolate eggs and bunnies this past weekend, a study from non-profit group As You Sow was released, claiming that high levels of lead and cadmium were found in dozens of popular chocolate brands including Hershey, Godiva, Lindt, Ghirardelli, Mars, and Trader Joe’s. The watchdog group has filed legal notices against 18 of the offending brands for failing to provide proper lead exposure warnings to consumers.

According to the scientific test results, 35 of the 50 chocolate candies studied tested positive for high levels of lead or cadmium with some brands containing nine times the amount of lead deemed safe by the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.

Lead poisoning is a crucial health issue, as too much exposure through consumption or respiration could lead to mental health or learning disability issues. Exposure to both metals can lead to kidney and liver damage, according to Medical Daily.

"Lead and cadmium accumulate in the body, so avoiding exposure is important, especially for children," As You Sow President Danielle Fugere said in a statement. "Our goal is to work with chocolate manufacturers to find ways to avoid these metals in their products."

Unsurprisingly, the confectionary companies are vigorously defending their products. Hershey maintains that their products meet all USDA and FDA safety requirements and restrictions.

"People have been eating cocoa and chocolate for centuries with no evidence of a single incident of concern regarding these naturally occurring minerals," a Hershey spokesperson told The Washington Post.

The Daily Meal has contacted each of the candy companies named in the study and will update this story with responses.


The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Last modified on Sat 18 Aug 2018 15.59 BST

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed we’re still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of today’s snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets don’t say so, but the message we’re supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that it’s a “superfood”. Except it isn’t. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles – markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim – that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols “contribute to normal blood circulation” by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word “nutrifluff” to describe “sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study”. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. “Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. “The researchers involved feel it doesn’t affect the integrity and quality of their work,” she says. “But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.”

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the “file drawer effect”. Two of the aforementioned studies – those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health – are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. “It’s really hard to publish something that doesn’t find anything,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. “There’s a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.”

Then there’s the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect – famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov – to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

“The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate,” says Mellor. “Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.”

So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox – the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast – the source of most of the world’s chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. “Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery,” says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. “Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.”


The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Last modified on Sat 18 Aug 2018 15.59 BST

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed we’re still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of today’s snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets don’t say so, but the message we’re supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that it’s a “superfood”. Except it isn’t. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles – markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim – that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols “contribute to normal blood circulation” by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word “nutrifluff” to describe “sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study”. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. “Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. “The researchers involved feel it doesn’t affect the integrity and quality of their work,” she says. “But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.”

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the “file drawer effect”. Two of the aforementioned studies – those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health – are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. “It’s really hard to publish something that doesn’t find anything,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. “There’s a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.”

Then there’s the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect – famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov – to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

“The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate,” says Mellor. “Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.”

So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox – the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast – the source of most of the world’s chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. “Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery,” says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. “Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.”


The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Last modified on Sat 18 Aug 2018 15.59 BST

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed we’re still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of today’s snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets don’t say so, but the message we’re supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that it’s a “superfood”. Except it isn’t. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles – markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim – that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols “contribute to normal blood circulation” by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word “nutrifluff” to describe “sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study”. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. “Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. “The researchers involved feel it doesn’t affect the integrity and quality of their work,” she says. “But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.”

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the “file drawer effect”. Two of the aforementioned studies – those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health – are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. “It’s really hard to publish something that doesn’t find anything,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. “There’s a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.”

Then there’s the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect – famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov – to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

“The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate,” says Mellor. “Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.”

So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox – the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast – the source of most of the world’s chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. “Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery,” says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. “Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.”


The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Last modified on Sat 18 Aug 2018 15.59 BST

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed we’re still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of today’s snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets don’t say so, but the message we’re supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that it’s a “superfood”. Except it isn’t. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles – markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim – that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols “contribute to normal blood circulation” by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word “nutrifluff” to describe “sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study”. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. “Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. “The researchers involved feel it doesn’t affect the integrity and quality of their work,” she says. “But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.”

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the “file drawer effect”. Two of the aforementioned studies – those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health – are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. “It’s really hard to publish something that doesn’t find anything,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. “There’s a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.”

Then there’s the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect – famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov – to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

“The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate,” says Mellor. “Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.”

So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox – the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast – the source of most of the world’s chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. “Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery,” says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. “Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.”


The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Last modified on Sat 18 Aug 2018 15.59 BST

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed we’re still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of today’s snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets don’t say so, but the message we’re supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that it’s a “superfood”. Except it isn’t. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles – markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim – that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols “contribute to normal blood circulation” by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word “nutrifluff” to describe “sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study”. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. “Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. “The researchers involved feel it doesn’t affect the integrity and quality of their work,” she says. “But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.”

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the “file drawer effect”. Two of the aforementioned studies – those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health – are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. “It’s really hard to publish something that doesn’t find anything,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. “There’s a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.”

Then there’s the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect – famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov – to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

“The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate,” says Mellor. “Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.”

So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox – the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast – the source of most of the world’s chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. “Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery,” says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. “Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.”


The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Last modified on Sat 18 Aug 2018 15.59 BST

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed we’re still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of today’s snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets don’t say so, but the message we’re supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that it’s a “superfood”. Except it isn’t. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles – markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim – that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols “contribute to normal blood circulation” by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word “nutrifluff” to describe “sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study”. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. “Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. “The researchers involved feel it doesn’t affect the integrity and quality of their work,” she says. “But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.”

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the “file drawer effect”. Two of the aforementioned studies – those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health – are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. “It’s really hard to publish something that doesn’t find anything,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. “There’s a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.”

Then there’s the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect – famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov – to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

“The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate,” says Mellor. “Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.”

So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox – the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast – the source of most of the world’s chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. “Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery,” says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. “Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.”


The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Last modified on Sat 18 Aug 2018 15.59 BST

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed we’re still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of today’s snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets don’t say so, but the message we’re supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that it’s a “superfood”. Except it isn’t. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles – markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim – that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols “contribute to normal blood circulation” by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word “nutrifluff” to describe “sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study”. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. “Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. “The researchers involved feel it doesn’t affect the integrity and quality of their work,” she says. “But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.”

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the “file drawer effect”. Two of the aforementioned studies – those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health – are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. “It’s really hard to publish something that doesn’t find anything,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. “There’s a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.”

Then there’s the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect – famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov – to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

“The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate,” says Mellor. “Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.”

So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox – the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast – the source of most of the world’s chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. “Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery,” says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. “Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.”


The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Last modified on Sat 18 Aug 2018 15.59 BST

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed we’re still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of today’s snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets don’t say so, but the message we’re supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that it’s a “superfood”. Except it isn’t. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles – markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim – that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols “contribute to normal blood circulation” by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word “nutrifluff” to describe “sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study”. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. “Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. “The researchers involved feel it doesn’t affect the integrity and quality of their work,” she says. “But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.”

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the “file drawer effect”. Two of the aforementioned studies – those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health – are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. “It’s really hard to publish something that doesn’t find anything,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. “There’s a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.”

Then there’s the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect – famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov – to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

“The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate,” says Mellor. “Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.”

So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox – the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast – the source of most of the world’s chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. “Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery,” says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. “Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.”


The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Last modified on Sat 18 Aug 2018 15.59 BST

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed we’re still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of today’s snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets don’t say so, but the message we’re supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that it’s a “superfood”. Except it isn’t. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles – markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim – that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols “contribute to normal blood circulation” by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word “nutrifluff” to describe “sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study”. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. “Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. “The researchers involved feel it doesn’t affect the integrity and quality of their work,” she says. “But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.”

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the “file drawer effect”. Two of the aforementioned studies – those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health – are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. “It’s really hard to publish something that doesn’t find anything,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. “There’s a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.”

Then there’s the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect – famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov – to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

“The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate,” says Mellor. “Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.”

So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox – the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast – the source of most of the world’s chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. “Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery,” says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. “Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.”


The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Last modified on Sat 18 Aug 2018 15.59 BST

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed we’re still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of today’s snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets don’t say so, but the message we’re supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that it’s a “superfood”. Except it isn’t. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles – markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim – that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols “contribute to normal blood circulation” by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word “nutrifluff” to describe “sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study”. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. “Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests,” she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. “The researchers involved feel it doesn’t affect the integrity and quality of their work,” she says. “But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.”

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the “file drawer effect”. Two of the aforementioned studies – those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health – are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. “It’s really hard to publish something that doesn’t find anything,” says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. “There’s a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.”

Then there’s the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect – famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov – to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

“The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate,” says Mellor. “Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.”

So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox – the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast – the source of most of the world’s chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. “Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery,” says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. “Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.”