Chocolate as a health food?

Will eating chocolate promote cardiovascular health? That’s what one study presented at last week’s American Heart Association annual meeting would have us believe. Scientists at the University of California studied the effects of a flavonol-rich chocolate product against a flavonol-poor chocolate product and found that the flavonol-rich chocolate promoted greater relaxation of blood vessels.

So what dietary component provided the healthy results? Flavonol, of course. And to no one’s surprise – because flavonols are anti-oxidants that have previously been shown to help the functioning of blood vessels. And how was this research reported? “Go-Ahead for Chocoholics,” said one article. “Some Chocolate a Treat For the Heart,” said another.

If you were selling candy bars, the message was just what you wanted to hear: Eat chocolate for a healthy heart.

And as a matter of fact, someone WAS selling candy bars.

The flavonol-rich chocolate product used in the study was a dark-chocolate Dove bar, which is made by Mars, Inc. – the popular chocolate candy company. And who funded the study? Sure – you saw it coming – Mars, Inc.

Chocolate, of course, is just one of the sources of flavonols, which you can also get from apples, broccoli, onions, various berries, tea, and wine. But Mars didn’t pay for this research to sell fruits and vegetables.

The amazing thing about this kind of “study” is that doctors and researchers who presumably have reputations to protect, sign on for these projects and go along with what they surely know is little more than an element in a marketing campaign.

In an article that appeared in FoodNavigator.com, co-investigator of the study, Marguerite M. Engler, a professor and vice chair of the Department of Physiological Nursing at the University of California at San Francisco, was quoted as saying, “The exciting news here is that blood vessel dilation increased in subjects who ate this commercially available chocolate product.” You have to wonder if she gave this quote as she passed out free samples of Dove bars.

But Professor Engler wasn’t the only one pushing chocolates. Dr. Carl L. Keen, professor and chair at the Department of Nutrition and professor at the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of California at Davis also expressed “excitement” about finding a food that “may have measurable benefits on health.”

Outside of the fact that it’s a bit of a stretch to call chocolate a “food,” neither Dr. Keen nor Prof. Engler addressed the ways that increased chocolate consumption might add to the widespread problems of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Maybe they just overlooked those details, being caught up in all the “excitement” and all.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for indulging in a piece of chocolate now and then. I just don’t fool myself into thinking I’m taking my vitamins when I do it.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute