Health News Review

The following is a guest post by Kevin Lomangino, one of our story reviewers on HealthNewsReview.org. He is an independent medical journalist and editor who is currently Editor-in-Chief of Clinical Nutrition Insight, a monthly evidence-based newsletter which reviews the scientific literature on nutrition for physicians and dietitians. He tweets as @Klomangino.

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With the summer beach season in full swing, it’s time to starting thinking about ways to reduce your exposure to harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Thankfully, the folks at Draznin Public Relations are ready to educate you about an important new strategy for protecting your skin from sun damage: Eat more cocoa!

In a recent press release, Draznin offered to clue me in to the findings of a “standout” trial that adds to the “mountain of studies on the health benefits of cocoa.” The results show that a particular kind of antioxidant-rich cocoa “protected the skin from sun damage caused by UV exposure,” according to Draznin.

I thought I was up on all the latest claims about cocoa-based products, from the encouraging (but far from conclusive) cardiovascular effects to the downright dubious notion that chocolate is some kind of weight loss aid. But chocolate as sunscreen? I didn’t see how that could work unless you were smearing it across your skin like Coppertone. (Not a look I would recommend.)

For most of us, cocoa is something we like to curl up with next to a warm fire on a frigid winter night. Now Draznin wants you to pack it in your beach bag along with the floppy hats and sun umbrellas.

As it turns out, Draznin’s enthusiastic claims are based on a 6-year-old study, involving just 24 women, that was partially funded by the Mars Corporation. The researchers randomly assigned the women to receive a cocoa drink that was either high in certain antioxidant compounds known as flavanols (326 mg/d) or low in flavanols (27 mg/d).

At the beginning of the study and after 12 weeks, the women were exposed to a solar light simulator and the redness of their skin was assessed. Women in the high-flavanol group had 25% less redness after 12 weeks than they did at baseline, whereas the women in the low-flavonol group had no change in redness.

Interesting finding? Absolutely. And I’m not dismissing the idea that your diet might play a role in helping you resist the adverse effects of sun exposure. But as readers of this blog well know, a tiny, short-term, manufacturer-funded study isn’t much proof of anything when it comes to real-world health outcomes. And yet that didn’t stop Draznin from shamelessly hyping the results.

The “takeaway” from this study, according to Draznin, is that “cocoa consumption should be part of your daily and year-round skin-protection strategy.”

Not surprisingly, Draznin also offered to tell me more about a particular line of cocoa supplements that contain the flavanols claimed to be protective.

As far as I’m concerned, the only “takeaway” here is the ridiculous lengths to which some public relations firms will go to promote a product. It’s also a reminder that some firms will stretch any shred of evidence to give their product a veneer scientific credibility.

All the more reason for journalists and consumers to look critically at health claims and especially to seek an independent perspective on the significance of supporting research. HealthNewsReview.org has a very useful toolkit – a great place to get started with this kind of analysis.

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Publisher’s note:  Such PR efforts do sometimes hit their targets. The Minneapolis Star Tribune is one of the biggest papers in the country and they posted this piece of fluff on their website in the “Health” section.

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