Work and World

The Chocolate Science Hype Machine

These are peanut m&ms. This is you eating a lot of peanut m&ms
after seeing stories about chocolate’s unbelievable health benefits. Carlos also just loves peanut m&ms. Almost every week you can open the newspaper,
or turn on your favorite news website — not Vox, but other news web sites — and notice
that there are stories about the purported health benefits of chocolate. Chocolate can help you live longer, it’ll
make your nails shinier, it’ll help you lose weight. There are so many stories about chocolate
and its health benefits and we just love to gobble them up. But chocolate hasn’t always been a media
darling. In the past, it was thought to cause acne. No, this is just regular adult acne… I don’t drink enough water. And this article from 1997 even called it
“addictive.” At Vox, we started to ask ourselves how did
chocolate become a health food? It turns out, there’s a reason behind the
chocolate madness. In 1982, Mars, which is one of the world’s
biggest chocolate makers, established something called the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Sciences. And its aim was to learn more about the cocoa
bean and understanding cocoa and chocolate’s effects on the body, and whether it might
have any health benefits. Vox examined the Mars sponsored research and
found that out of a hundred studies we identified
over the last 40 years, 98 of them had positive or favorable conclusions. That’s a pretty big number, and it made
us wonder – what’s so magical about chocolate that it’s getting these glowing reviews? Flae-vah-nols, Flah-vah-nols, Flae-vah-nols,
Flah-vah-nols, they’re micronutrients that are found in the cocoa bean and they’re
thought to have antioxidant properties. Mars’ initial focus was on the overall benefits
of chocolate, but it shifted to this specific compound. Some of these studies concluded that flavanols
could boost your mood and cognitive performance, and that both cocoa powder and dark chocolate
can have a “favorable effect” on cardiovascular disease risk. Which sounds awesome, but it doesn’t mean
all kinds of chocolate have the same health benefits — or any health benefits at all. Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and cocoa
beans aren’t the same thing. To understand why, we have to check out a
cocoa tree near the equator. Just kidding, this isn’t Borders, folks. Cocoa or cacao beans come from these trees. The beans are roasted and ground into what
we know as cocoa powder or cocoa butter. Dark chocolate is made mostly from cocoa butter
and typically has a higher percentage of cocoa. Milk chocolate is created from cocoa and,
well, milk. The difference is that it goes through more
processing with added ingredients. It has more fats and sugar and less cocoa
— that’s what makes milk chocolate so sweet. But it’s also the reason milk chocolate
isn’t your best bet for these flavanols. One of the big problems with flavanols, is
that when you process chocolate you end up killing them off. In addition, different types of cocoa beans
have varying amounts of flavanols to begin with. So, different kinds of chocolate contain varying
amounts of the compound manufacturers have been basing their studies on. So, the reason companies are funding so much
science, they’re putting money into their own science and research institutions, and
they’re funding chairs at universities… And the reason they’re doing that is to
sell more chocolate. Chocolate is big business. Chocolate sales have gone up from $14.2 billion
in 2007 to $18.9 billion in 2017. And Mars isn’t the only company profiting
from this. Some of the world’s biggest chocolate makers
are also funding cocoa science, hyping it up to be the next big thing to help you lose
weight, or remember where you left your keys. When the media, and press offices interpret
some of these studies, we like to write “chocolate” in our stories even though the studies were
only looking at cocoa beans or cocoa supplements. Despite a growing obesity epidemic, this niche
of nutrition science is steering health-conscious consumers toward premium and gourmet dark
chocolate. These products are now seen as “healthy
indulgences.” In short term studies, researchers have found
that flavanols can lower blood pressure or improve cognition by certain measures. But none of these things have actually been
studied in long term research on endpoints that really matter for health. Well then, do these studies even matter? So I want to be clear, these studies aren’t
necessarily bad studies, many of them have passed peer-review and been published in prestigious
journals. But when you design and interpret a study
there are all kinds of ways that bias can be introduced. This study published in Nature Neuroscience
is a good example of that. In 2014, this Mars-sponsored study looked
at whether cocoa flavanols could prevent cognitive decline. The problems with this study? It ran for only 12 weeks, involved a small
number of participants, and focused on narrow outcomes that made the results unreliable. Okay… maybe there’s more hype around the
benefits of chocolate than there should be. But like what’s the worse that can happen
if you eat a bunch of chocolate? A little bit of anything isn’t really bad
for health. But chocolate is also filled with a lot of
sugar, calories and fat. And consuming a lot of those things would
counteract any health benefits you might get from the flavanols or the antioxidants in
even the best cocoa. Right, so you probably want to eat chocolate
in moderation, and not be this guy eating a bunch of it in one sitting … dude… Are you still filming me? to say, lower your blood pressure because
there’s no excuse, er, science to back that behavior.
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ch5ClOB9AE

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