Just in time for Valentine’s Day, this WebMD story reports on a Hershey-funded study about the potential health benefits of dark chocolate. Not surprisingly, we had some concerns.
While the study made an effort to explain that the chocolate used in this study bears little resemblance to your standard Hershey bar (a very important point to make), it fell down in other areas. It never applies any critical analysis to the premise that a food’s overall healthfulness is directly correlated with its antioxidant content. It didn’t explain that consuming chocolate "in moderation" means one small square (a fraction of a typical chocolate bar) per day at most. It credulously repeats the company’s claim that chocolate should be considered a "superfood."
Although research increasingly suggests that certain cocoa products may indeed have some health benefits, most chocolate sold in the United States is just plain old sugary candy. The chocolate that may be healthy for you is minimally processed and contains a high concentration of cocoa solids, which makes it taste bitter compared with milk chocolate. And even if you’re eating the good stuff, you can only eat a tiny amount each day or the extra calories will negate any benefits. Of course, companies that market chocolate would rather we focus on the benefits of this "potential superfood" and forget about all those inconvenient details.That’s why we need health journalists to remind us.
The story should have pointed out that the dark chocolate associated with health benefits is generally more expensive than other chocolates due to its high cocoa content.
Overall, WebMD’s characterization of chocolate as a "superfood" makes it sound like an arm of the Hershey marketing department. More specifically, although the story provides data on some of the results, it doesn’t quantify others and doesn’t point out that no actual health outcomes were assessed. In addition, it doesn’t identify misleading comparisons that might make chocolate look better than the other foods included in the study. Examples:
Starting with the headline, this story extols the health-promoting properties of the antioxidants found in chocolate, and it isn’t until the last sentence that we receive a hint of a warning about potential downsides of chocolate, such as high saturated fat and total calorie content. The story states, somewhat euphemistically, that dark chocolate is a "potential superfood to be enjoyed in moderation." The story should have cautioned that you will have to limit yourself to just a small square of chocolate per day – a fraction of a standard chocolate bar, and much less than what the average person consumes as a snack – to achieve any potential health benefits. If you eat any more, the weight gain caused by the additional calories will most likely negate any benefits from the health promoting antioxidants.
The story focused exclusively on the antioxidant content of chocolate compared with other so-called "superfruits," suggesting that the more antioxidants a food contains, the better it must be for health. Food marketers certainly want us to believe that more antioxidants equals better health, but it has never been conclusively established that antioxidants help prevent heart attacks or have any other health benefits. In fact, taking certain antioxidants in pill form has been associated with increased risk of death in some studies.
To be clear, all plant foods contain antioxidants, and we know that these types of foods generally are good for us. However, it hasn’t been proven that antioxidants are the active ingredient responsible these health benefits. Nor has it been shown that exotic superfruits or cocoa products confer more health benefits than "garden variety" fruits and vegetables that are much less expensive and more easily obtained. By making this story all about antioxidants and failing to provide the larger context, the story is likely to lead readers to overestimate the importance of the study’s findings.
This story did not exaggerate the effects of any diseases.
The story discloses that the research was conducted by Hershey scientists, and it solicits comments on the findings from an expert who was not affiliated with the study. Although this is enough for a satisfactory, we wish the story would have sought out someone with a more skeptical take on the results. This expert’s comments – "When looking for a sweet snack, a square of dark chocolate might, in fact, be your healthiest choice!" – don’t do much to help readers put the findings in the appropriate context.
The story never pointed out that everyday fruits and vegetables can be good sources of antioxidants. They are usually less expensive than antioxidant "superfruits" and have less fat and sugar than chocolate. In addition, drinks such as coffee, green tea, and red wine are also rich in antioxidants. And clearly, eating a variety of different foods is the best approach to overall health.
The availability of dark chocolate isn’t really in question, but it is important to point out that health benefits are associated with specialty chocolates that have a high concentration of cocoa solids and are minimally processed. Milk chocolate and other sweeter chocolates undergo a "dutching" process that softens the bitter taste of the cocoa but also destroys many of the antioxidants. The story was relatively clear on this point, so we’ll award a satisfactory.
Researchers have been exploring the health effects of chocolate for more than a decade. There have been dozens of studies on the subject (and perhaps as many Valentine’s Day news stories), and yet this story makes it sound like this study might be the first to document potential benefits. The story should have referenced the extensive literature that supports consumption of very small amounts of minimally processed dark chocolate for better health.
The story doesn’t seem to have lifted anything directly from this news release put out by the journal’s publisher.