You may have heard the latest health food craze: Dark chocolate is a “super food.” Allegedly high in flavanols, cocoa is often added to smoothies, protein bars, and most certainly chocolate products for an added nutrient and flavour punch. But, what if this obsession over cocoa and dark chocolate isn’t quite as healthy as we’ve been led to believe?
As it turns out, big chocolate companies like Nestlé and Mars have spent millions of dollars to fund research and scientific studies that purport the health benefits of cocoa and dark chocolate. That’s a clear conflict of interest, and we’ve seen how large corporations can impact “expert opinions” and “scientific data” before.
The sad truth is, the results of scientific studies are often less about accuracy and more about reflecting the desired outcome of whoever is funding the research. The question here is: Is chocolate actually healthy for you, or was this data swayed based on corporate interests in order to convince consumers that chocolate was healthy?
Of course, we know that the chemical-ridden, sugar-filled milk chocolate you’d buy at a conventional supermarket is not healthy for your body, but a lot of people have this false idea that dark chocolate, no matter what its ingredients, “isn’t so bad.”
And we’re wondering, just how bad could this be for you?
Big Chocolate Companies Fund “Pro-Cocoa” Research
Over the last 30 years, chocolate companies including Nestlé, Hershey’s, and Mars have been spending millions of dollars on funding research and scientific studies that support the health claims surrounding cocoa.
You see cereal with added dark chocolate to it all the time, even if it’s in the organic section of the supermarket. Many would argue that’s because it’s rich in iron and is apparently very nutritious, but is it actually, or is this just what chocolate companies want you to think?
“Mars and [other chocolate companies] made a conscious decision to invest in science to transform the image of their product from a treat to a health food,” explained New York University nutrition researcher Marion Nestle (and no, she has no relation to the corporation Nestle). “You can now sit there with your [chocolate bar] and say I’m getting my flavonoids.”
Much of the research funded by these companies pertains to a group of compounds called flavanols, which are micronutrients found within tons of different fruits and vegetables. Flavanols can also be found in cocoa, and are high in antioxidant properties.
Vox performed a review of 100 different health studies on cocoa that were funded, supported, or influenced by large chocolate companies and found that an astonishing 98% of those studies were positive. The remaining 2% found chocolate or cocoa either had minimal effects on health or posed some risks.
Among the findings in the Mars-sponsored health studies: Regularly eating cocoa flavanols could boost mood and cognitive performance, dark chocolate improves blood flow, cocoa might be useful for treating immune disorders, and both cocoa powder and dark chocolate can have a “favorable effect” on cardiovascular disease risk. The institutions that received Mars support stretch across the US and all over the world — from UC Davis to Harvard and Georgetown universities, from Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany, to the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The issue at hand is, these companies could be establishing a research bias for cocoa and chocolate. Not only could the results of these studies be influenced by these corporations, which clearly have a vested interested in the outcomes, but, by only focusing on one compound, they’re forcing the science on cocoa and dark chocolate to become fairly linear.
In addition, this research is often used to back the ideology that all chocolate is good for you. In reality, if dark chocolate has lots of refined sugar in it, is highly processed, or isn’t organic, then it’s not good for you. But, when consumers hear that chocolate has these magical compounds in it that are high in antioxidants, many will start to justify eating it, despite the potential health risks of the other ingredients.
These companies then use this research to help advertise the health benefits of dark chocolate. For example, take a look at this Nestlé article, featured on their webiste, which claims dark chocolate is beneficial for human health and can be considered a part of a “healthy, balanced diet.” Can the additional refined sugar, milk fat, and potential pesticide residue found in your dark chocolate also be considered a part of a healthy, balanced diet?
The media hasn’t helped in clarifying any of this, either. Headlines like “Good news for chocolate lovers: The more you eat, the lower your risk of heart disease,” or simply “Chocolate is good for you” by major mainstream news outlets have encouraged consumers to think that chocolate is great for the body, regardless of the type. Many of these claims are exaggerated or unsubstantiated, causing further confusion about what’s healthy and what’s not.
Tons of these companies actually own, run, or influence giant research facilities on cocoa, such as the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science in Brazil, Mars Symbioscience, and Nestlé’s “Nestle Chairs” sponsorships at various research institutions. Although this could be completely harmless, it could also mean that the research is impacted by their corporate interests.
This has happened countless times in the past. For example, Monsanto has funded pro-GMO studies and has ghostwritten safety reviews on GMOs which are then published under the names of “trustworthy” scientists (read more in our CE article here), even though its herbicide, used on GMOs, is carcinogenic.
False claims about nutrition happen all the time when it comes to our food system, and our thought processes often perpetuate these claims as well. People think gluten-free products are healthier because our brains immediately assume that just because a product is “free” of an ingredient, then that must be a good thing. Big companies will use marketing techniques and ‘science’ to make us think that something is healthy, when in reality it’s not.
Take the “Got Milk” ads, for example. We’ve been led to believe we’re getting a healthy source of calcium when we drink milk, when in reality we cannot actually intake that calcium without equal parts magnesium. Instead, we’re just getting a healthy dose of fat, high calories, pus, blood, and hormones, all while increasing our risk of some very serious diseases, including cancer.
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Most of us don’t question these ads, which is in part because of what doctors and governments tell us. The North American governments advertise that meat and dairy are part of a healthy diet, when research suggests otherwise. The government has a vested interest in meat and dairy sales because they subsidize these industries and have spent significant amounts of money on education that promotes the supposed “health benefits” of these foods.
It’s very clear that many of us really trust corporations and the government when we see certain ads that make health claims. However, given all of this information, it’s equally clear we need to do our own research. So, what’s the official verdict on dark chocolate?
Is Verdict Is in on Dark Chocolate?
New York Times best-selling author Michael Moss put it well when he said in his book Salt Sugar Fat: “Dark chocolate probably has some beneficial properties to it . . . but generally you have to eat so much of it to get any benefit that it’s kind of daunting, or something else in the product counteracts the benefits. In the case of chocolate, it’s probably going to be sugar.”
So, how much chocolate would you need to eat in order to enjoy the health benefits from those super nutritious flavanols chocolate companies advertise as being so good for you?
The following image will give you a pretty good idea:
Although conventional chocolate, including dark chocolate, is not good for you, some high-quality cocoa products and organic chocolate and cacao can be good for the body, but often times only in small quantities. Keep in mind that chocolate, regardless of its maker, is usually still high in sugar (even if it’s organic), fat, and calories.
All of this being said, this is a wonderful reminder of the importance of doing your own research. It’s crucial that we check who is funding certain studies in order to identify any conflicts of interest, and then form our opinions accordingly.
Like many foods, chocolate certainly has some good and bad qualities. What’s important for us to remember is, just because something has some good nutritional properties to it, doesn’t mean these negate the bad. In the case of chocolate, even if you’re eating an organic brand, you could still be getting some sugar, unhealthy fats, and whatever else is in your chocolate bar outside of the cocoa/cacao.
If you’re looking for a good chocolate fix and would prefer to stick to a healthier brand, I’d recommend taking a look at Giddy YoYo or Chocosol products, both of which offer chocolate made with 100% cacao — no dairy, no sugar, no chemicals, just pure chocolate!
Much love, my fellow choco-holics.
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