This news release tortures the results of a basic biology cell culture study until it coughs up a headline about cocoa preventing diabetes. Researchers isolated several compounds from cocoa and found that one of them (but not the others) appeared to help rat cells in a lab dish secrete more insulin. But the headline and lead paragraphs about chocolate overwhelm the details and cautionary statements buried below. In particular, the photographs provided with the release show Hershey’s chocolate bars spilling out of medicine bottles that are blatantly labeled as “Dark Chocolate” and “Take by mouth as needed or desired.” Only a profile photo of two researchers gives a hint of the lab dishes, rat cells and esoteric compounds that were the real aspects of the study.
Facts are easily overwhelmed by more basic forms of communication. The release plays with the dream that candy could prevent diabetes. It displays medicine bottles overflowing with chocolate, labeled with fake dosing instructions. The teasing lead and strong images are the sort of communication that bypasses critical thinking and plants suggestions in the minds of readers. Writers of news releases must take responsibility for the effect of their overall message. Burying factual statements below the fanfare is not acceptable.
Making the study seem as if it shows the mechanism of an already proven physiological effect in humans, when the study only was looking for some basic cellular level effect in rats, is dishonest.
This line of research is only at the most basic conceptual level so cost projections are unrealistic. However, there is an undercurrent in the message that suggests that this particular fraction of cocoa could be turned into a drug. When the release states that “researchers believe the starting point is to look for ways to take the compound out of cocoa, make more of it and then use it as a potential treatment for current diabetes patients” it suggests big profits for a drug company, not the cocoa bean growers of South America.
This news release would have been fine if it had stuck to the statement in the last paragraph that the research points the way toward refining specific compounds and then testing them as potential treatments. But that measured summary is negated by the absurd suggestion near the top of the release that people might get some benefit by eating a lot of cocoa (even though the release then questions its own suggestion). It’s strange that one of the researchers gave a quote about eating chocolate when their journal article clearly states that the key insulin-secreting beta cells “won’t be exposed to sufficient concentrations under physiologic conditions.”
Neither the release or the study provide any hard numbers for context, only a description of the results and the drawings, which make the differences seem much less than “dramatic.”
Aside from mentioning that chocolate has a lot of sugar in it, harms are not discussed in the news release. Not only is eating lots of chocolate (stuffed with fat and sugar) likely to increase, not decrease, a person’s risk of developing diabetes, the research paper states that other cocoa components they tested made things worse by decreasing insulin secretion.
The release leads with a tease about people eating chocolate to prevent diabetes, but in fact the study included neither people nor chocolate, only rat cell cultures exposed to a variety of compounds extracted from cocoa. The rat cells produced more insulin when exposed to one of the components they tested, while the cells produced less insulin in the presence of other components, as well as when exposed to total cocoa extract.
The researchers clearly stated that, “The purpose of this study was to 1) determine the effect of different cocoa flavanol fractions on β-cell function and 2) identify potential mechanisms underlying these effects.” While there is a reference deep in the release to the actual (very narrow) purpose and results of this study (identifying a compound worthy of further study), that note is obscured by all the preceding hype, images and cute references to eating chocolate as medicine.
Diabetes is a widespread and serious health threat. However, the careless wording of this news release (and the skewed news coverage it encourages) could well mislead people who do not have diabetes to use the headlines as an excuse to eat more chocolate. The implication of the news release is that this compound can be given to people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes with the goal of delaying their “descent” into overt diabetes, but this could lead to over-treatment of mild diabetes.
The release notes that, “This research was funded, in part, thanks to grants from the Diabetes Action Research and Education Foundation and the American Diabetes Association.” The researchers did not list any relevant disclosures in their journal article. The release does not include funding from the “Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and the Hatch Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture” that is listed in the journal article.
The release does not put this potential treatment into context with available treatments. However, the research is far too preliminary to even begin making comparisons to alternatives.
Readers of the entire release are told that this work is an early step toward developing compounds for testing. However, the headline, lead paragraphs and images (featuring Hershey’s bars) all conspire to imply that the researchers looked at chocolate found on candy shelves.
Cocoa is widely available, the compound being investigated in this study is not, and the researchers don’t give any idea about how hard it is to extract it.
The release notes near the bottom that this study advances earlier research by identifying a compound that improved beta cell function. However, the lead about chocolate misleads readers by implying there is something new about studying the effects of cocoa extracts on beta cells, even though the journal article includes a long list of previous research on the topic.
The first quote in the release overwhelms all the cautionary statements that follow:
“You probably have to eat a lot of cocoa, and you probably don’t want it to have a lot of sugar in it,” said study author Jeffery Tessem, assistant professor of nutrition, dietetics and food science at BYU. “It’s the compound in cocoa you’re after.”