Dark chocolate is hailed as a health elixir. Is this more hype than reality?
At Experience Life, our team enjoys its fair share of dark chocolate. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to find us passing a bar around during meetings, each of us nibbling on a couple of squares as we pitch story ideas or review new articles. So, when it came time to report on the latest findings regarding the superfood’s highly touted health perks, we were keen to learn more — about the feel-good hormones the treat triggers, as well as the myriad nutritional, cardiovascular, and neurological benefits dark chocolate brings.
Or does it?
As we dug into the research, we discovered a troubling pattern: The fine print in study after study revealed that they’d been conducted or funded by subsidiaries of the world’s largest candy makers: Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, Mars Science Advisory Council, Mars Symbioscience, and Nestlé Research Center, for example.
While this doesn’t necessarily rule out their findings as bad science, it does raise questions about bias, if simply in what was studied. And why.
“Candy and chocolate makers consciously invested in scientific research as part of a marketing campaign to instill chocolate as a healthy ‘superfood’ in consumers’ minds,” explains New York University nutrition and public-health professor Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. (Note: Nestle is not affiliated with Nestlé.)
“They want to sell more candy,” she says, “and health claims are a great way to do that.”
With Wonka-like exuberance, Big Candy has elevated dark chocolate to the status of a health elixir in the past 20 years, establishing it atop the superfood pantheon alongside green tea, red wine, and avocados. The halo effect has also enhanced the reputations of dark-chocolate-covered snacks, such as the superfood marriage of dark chocolate and blueberries.
But is dark chocolate truly as healthy as promised? When cacao (the raw, unprocessed seeds from which chocolate is produced) is processed into cocoa and blended with sugar and fats into dark chocolate, do the benefits really outweigh the potential harm to our health?
Chocolate is big business: U.S. retail sales grew 25 percent in the past decade, from $14.2 billion in 2007 to $18.9 billion in 2017. This growth occurred in an era when the broadening epidemics of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease have dampened overall U.S. candy sales.
Despite consumers’ health anxiety, Big Candy has been successful in boosting dark-chocolate sales by leveraging research to offset these concerns. It’s the same marketing strategy the tobacco industry, soda makers, fast-food franchises, and other beleaguered economic sectors have employed to rehabilitate unhealthy products, says Nestle.
“Coca-Cola spent a fortune on research aimed at demonstrating that sugars are not harmful and that any evidence to the contrary is junk science,” she explains. And Mars, Inc. — the world’s largest candy maker with its top-selling M&M’s and Snickers — has “invested millions of dollars in promoting cocoa as healthy.”
Big Candy made its intentions clear at the 2006 launch of the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, when the firm’s then chief global growth officer, Tom Hernquist, announced: “Our goal is to redefine the future of snacking by offering consumers products that provide proven health benefits and the superior taste they expect from Hershey. Our research is validating the significant health benefits of cocoa.”
The proliferation of studies has eased feelings of guilty pleasure for many dark-chocolate lovers. And the media eats up this research, splashing it across the front page or headlining it on the evening news. Who doesn’t love hearing that dark chocolate — and maybe all chocolate — is healthy?
To further appeal to so-called clean snackers, Hershey, in 2016, created “snackfections,” marketing-speak for hybrids of snack food and candy. These include some of the industry’s most successful product launches in years, including such chocolate-covered delicacies as goji berries, pretzels, snack mixes, nuts, and even potato chips.
The strategy is working. As the International Franchise Association’s 2018 Chocolate Industry Analysissummarized: “Growth of the chocolate industry over the last decade has been driven in large part by an increasing awareness of the health benefits.”
EAT CHOCOLATE, LIVE LONGER?
Big Candy’s research focuses on the benefits of cocoa flavanols, a term that was largely unknown to the average consumer before candy makers began promoting it.
Flavanols are a class of flavonoids — phytonutrients available in many plant-based foods and drinks, including tea and wine; fruits such as berries, cherries, apples, apricots, and grapes; and cocoa. But cocoa is special, Mars’s website states: “No other food on Earth can match cocoa’s unique blend of flavanols. That’s why experts refer to the cocoa bean as nature’s most surprising ‘superfruit.’”
In search of these experts, we sought out additional studies — only to discover that it’s tough to find any research on cocoa’s health benefits not connected to the industry. Of the dozens of studies we reviewed, every one of them was gushing in its findings.
Mars, Hershey, Nestlé, Cadbury, Spanish candy maker Nutrexpa, and Swiss giant Barry Callebaut (the leading producer of industrial chocolate for confectioneries) have sponsored hundreds of studies, as well as conferences, symposiums, YouTube videos, and documentary films — plus a constant social-media blitz. The American Cocoa Research Institute, whose members include the major industry players, often provides study supplies (cocoa).
Among the most prolific cocoa researchers is University of California, Davis, nutritionist Carl Keen, PhD. He’s helmed some 28 studies on the beneficial properties of cocoa flavanols since 2006 — the year he was appointed the first holder of the Mars Family Endowed Chair in Developmental Nutrition, part of a $40 million food-institute grant from Mars and Nestlé.
Keen believes the most impressive findings relate to cocoa flavanols’ potential to enhance vascular function to reduce blood pressure and prevent cardiovascular disease.
“The last thing we want to do is tell people, ‘Oh, just eat chocolate and that’s your solution to good vascular health,’” he says. “But the data are pretty exciting.”
Yet marketing claims venture much further than the data. “Based on a significant body of published research, consumption of cocoa flavanols has been shown to improve blood-vessel function, thereby helping to support the health and function of the cardiovascular system,” promises the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science website. The site links to more than 140 Mars-funded studies stretching back to 1999.
Among them is a Columbia University Medical Center report (funded by an “unrestricted grant” from Mars) with the headline “Taking Cocoa Flavanols Can Reverse Memory Decline as We Age.” While the randomized controlled trial found some impressive gains in cognitive function, it included only 33 participants.
Then there’s another Mars-funded paper on cocoa — from UC Davis — entitled “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity?”
As Keen summarizes a further study: “The benefits of chocolate can be enjoyed without guilt as part of a healthful balanced diet.”
Big Candy’s goal is not simply selling chocolate, however. Candy makers are launching cocoa-based health supplements and more. In 2015 Mars unveiled CocoaVia in capsule, smoothie-powder, and snack-stick forms; numerous candy makers and supplement producers now offer cocoa-flavanol pills and potions. Meanwhile, a new spectrum of beauty products includes cocoa-based skin creams, shampoos, bath oils, and other health-promising ointments.
And that’s only the beginning. Since 1999, Mars has successfully patented dozens of cocoa-flavanol “inventions,” including anti-inflammatory painkillers, cardiovascular medicines, and cancer fighters. The company has even obtained a patent for a cocoa-flavanol toothpaste or other application to combat periodontal disease.
If Mars has its way, someday we could be eating a chocolate bar a day to keep the doctor away.
All of this brings us back to this question: Is dark chocolate truly good for you? Despite the preponderance of glowing industry-funded studies, the answer is yes — and no.
First, it’s important to realize that the industry is spinning the research: Although Big Candy marketers hail the study findings on chocolate, most research is actually done on cacao and cocoa.
Cacao indeed appears to contain a wealth of health-giving properties, including vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, C, D, and E; minerals such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc; and antioxidants like flavanols and polyphenols. Cacao also boosts feel-good hormones, such as serotonin.
But cacao is heavily processed to make cocoa, often including fermentation (inspiring some scientists to deem chocolate a probiotic), alkalization (a.k.a. Dutching, which extracts bitterness), and high-heat roasting. This processing can destroy flavanols and their healthy properties.
Second, because flavanols inherently have a bitter taste, manufacturers add sugar, cocoa butter (a fat found in cacao), and other fats to transform cocoa into chocolate.
“Pure cocoa offers nutrients and has health benefits, but pure cocoa is not the same as a candy bar, and marketing is clouding facts for the purpose of sales,” explains Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, strategic director of the food-industry watchdog group Dietitians for Professional Integrity.
“It would be like touting the health benefits of apples when you’re selling apple pie. An apple is 100 percent apple, whereas an apple pie also includes flour, sugar, added fats, etc. If a tablespoon of sugar is added to cocoa, then the health benefits of cocoa are mitigated.”
THE SEARCH FOR HEALTHY CHOCOLATE
One researcher without ties to Big Candy is nutritionist Mary Engler, PhD, who began studying chocolate in 2000 at the University of California, San Francisco.
“Ethical issues are definitely a concern for research funded by companies that have a vested interest in the product, as the validity of the results may be in question,” she warns.
Still, Engler is a strong advocate of dark chocolate — depending on which chocolate you choose.
“It is important that the extra calories and fat be considered with chocolate,” she advises. “By choosing dark chocolate with almost twice or more of the amount of flavonoids in milk chocolate, you are making a healthier choice — with less sugar as well.”
Not all dark chocolate is created equal, however. In fact, “dark chocolate” is itself a marketing term; the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not regulate how much cocoa must be included in a bar to label it “dark,” as it does with milk chocolate.
And currently, there’s no easy way to determine the flavanol level of a bar. “Percent cacao is standardized on a food label, and a higher cacao content should yield a higher level of cocoa flavanols, but unfortunately it’s not a reliable indicator of flavanol content,” says Catherine Kwik-Uribe, PhD, global director of applied scientific research for Mars Symbioscience.
Mars is striving to standardize the complex and expensive tests used to gauge flavanol amounts. For now, though, researchers agree that consumers can only go by the broad maxim that flavanol levels are roughly in proportion to the cocoa percentage.
If a bar has 60 percent cocoa, that means the remaining 40 percent is filler. This is typically sugar, vegetable oil or other fats, vanilla, and milk (dairy can block absorption of flavanols).
To reap the benefits of dark chocolate, a number of experts advise, eat 1.5 ounces daily. That’s about half of a typical bar.
Still, even half of a fair-trade, ethically sourced, organic dark-chocolate bar with 70 percent cocoa contains 12 to 18 grams — about 3 to 4 teaspoons — of added sugar. That’s equivalent to a glazed Dunkin’ Donuts doughnut or a Hostess Chocolate CupCake (both of which also include processed flours that your body converts to sugars).
Your best option is to choose chocolate bars with 85 percent or higher cocoa; sugar content typically drops to 5 grams or less per serving. You can also snack on unprocessed cacao nibs, grind cacao with your coffee beans, or add 100 percent unsweetened, nonalkalized cocoa powder to a smoothie.
And you can reframe your love of dark chocolate as an occasional treat with potential health benefits. As Marion Nestle says, “Chocolate is candy, best consumed in moderation.”