This content-light release has a lot of persuasive power. For an eight-week, 90-person study, it makes some overly broad claims. Reporters should be wary.
The danger is that a vague release like this will be simplified to a misleading message such as, “To improve memory, consider chocolate.” CBC News has a terrific story about why that irresistible message is not accurate. The cocoa drink studied here isn’t chocolate at all, and it’s certainly far from what you’d find in a packet of Swiss Miss. And though we gave the release partial credit for mentioning in an editor’s note that this product isn’t commercially available, we think that caveat buried at the end will likely get lost in a lot of news coverage. It certainly did in this story based on the release that claims, “Chocolate may be good for your brain.”
One might say that everyone knows what a piece of chocolate costs. But this study isn’t about chocolate. It’s about a special concoction made out of the flavanols found in cocoa beans. As the release says, “the nutritionally matched drinks were specially prepared” using either “Mars’ patented Cocoapro process” or “a highly processed alkalized cocoa powder.” We have no idea what that would cost for a typical U.S. consumer to replicate in the kitchen, but if the cognitive benefits of this concoction are to be believed, then it would make sense to mention the possible costs.
The release does not include a single number related to the benefits, and notes merely that there was “signficant” improvement with some dosages of flavanols. The release is structured in such a convincing way, as is the accompanying video, that it almost makes you believe that you should go out and try to make one of these drinks for yourself. Where are the numbers to back these assertions up?
There is no explanation of harms, potential or actual, in the release. Our main concern is that consumers will think these findings apply to your typical chocolate candy bar, which is full of sugar and fat. While the release notes dryly that commercially available chocolate, “given its macronutrient profile … is not recommended as a health food,” we don’t think many readers will find this caveat that’s buried in an editor’s note at the end of the release. And even if they do, they might not understand what it’s getting at.
The news release clearly identifies the experimental design, but does not speak to any limitations of an 8-week, 90-person study. And while it highlights the improvements seen in some study measures, it does not mention that no effect was found for other cognitive outcomes. It glosses over such findings with statements like this one: “As cognitive function was normal for this aged population, this study shows that even cognitively healthy individuals can quickly benefit from the regular inclusion of cocoa flavanols in their diets.”
The release sets the right tone at the beginning and continues throughout describing loss of cognitive function dispassionately. In fact, we wish more stories treated aging this way: “It is normal for cognitive function to slightly deteriorate with age. Memory capacity begins to worsen, along with processing speed and the ability to form long-term memories.”
The release was issued by Mars Inc., and it says high up, “This study, conducted by researchers from Italy’s University of L’Aquila and Mars, Incorporated”. While the release references Mars throughout, and we don’t think any reporter would be confused about who was behind the study, the release could have stated directly that Mars funded the study.
The release compares three different types of cocoa drink. It does not compare these drinks to any other type of food or health intervention that may improve cognitive function. How do these effects compare to the sharpened focus observed, for example, with caffeine?
The news release states in an editor’s note that this test product is not commercially available.
The news release makes clear that this experiment is grounded in a larger research context, and that other studies of the effects of cocoa flavanols on cognitive function have been conducted.
The release skates along the line here, as does the video. It uses phrases such as “are encouraging,” and “support the idea that,” and “can play an important role”. We’ll award a satisfactory, although the cumulative effect of this language does bring the release to the brink of Not Satisfactory.