Cocoa puff stories

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Say “chocolate” or “flavanols” and watch journalists leap with a Pavlovian response.

HealthDay reported:

“A cocoa drink rich in flavanols — the same antioxidants found in chocolate — may help people with mild memory problems improve their brain function, according to Italian researchers….

About 40 percent of the improved mental scores were the result of lowered insulin resistance seen in the higher-flavanol groups, the study said.”

Whoa.  No explanation was given for how 40% of the improved scores could be attributable to anything.

CBS News had this silly lead:  “Move over apple a day: Could eating a daily dose of chocolate be the key to a healthy brain?”

ABC News’ headline wasn’t any better:  “Chocolate Good for Heart and Soul … and May Improve Minds.”

MedPageToday included some important details many stories left out:

The study was limited because its short time-frame didn’t allow for conclusions about the extent of cognitive benefits and their duration. Nor can it establish whether the observed benefits are a consequence of the cocoa itself or a secondary effect related to general improvements in cardiovascular function or health. Also, participants were in good health overall and without known cardiovascular disease, so the population may be representative of all subjects with MCI.

The study was supported by a grant from Mars, Inc., which supplied the standardized powdered cocoa drinks used in the study.

A co-author is an employee of Mars, Inc.

The Sacramento Bee – in what is apparently a growing trend among some newspaper websites – just posted a Mars news release.

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Comments

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Dan Pendick

August 21, 2012 at 11:00 pm

Gary, good piece as always, but the HealthDay story actually has some nice critical perspective commentary on the research by Sam Gandy. Does this not deserve the spotlight, along with “silly” headlines?

And about that “silly” headline: The headline isn’t the story, and evaluating it as such seems unfair and perhaps a bit petty.

    Gary Schwitzer

    August 22, 2012 at 7:53 am

    Dan,

    Thanks for your note, but you apparently misread what I wrote.

    I didn’t say anything about HealthDay’s headline. I wrote about an evidentiary claim that needed explanation while none was provided.

    And as a journalist, I disagree that evaluating headlines is petty and unfair. It is part of the story, the lure of the story, the top of the story. It’s there for a reason and demands scrutiny. Many solid stories are undercut by silly headlines. Why shouldn’t they be improved?