Why chocolate shouldn’t be dubbed a health food

 (Handout)
Chocolate bars

Chocolate has been getting quite a bit of positive press coverage this week. One study found that eating a daily dark chocolate bar can help lower blood pressure, while another found that drinking a cocoa beverage reduced the risk of mental decline in seniors. Previous studies have also suggested that chocolate consumption is linked with a lower body weight and fewer heart problems.

With all these positive findings, we should be making a point to include chocolate in our daily diets along with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, right?

I’ve actually heard that argument from some researchers, one of whom told me only half-jokingly that chocolate is her “favorite vegetable,” due to the high content of beneficial substances called flavanols in the cocoa bean.

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Flavanols have been associated with blood pressure lowering properties and may reduce inflammation to preserve brain function, but chocolate remains far from a health food—at least the way I consume it. Every time my parents come to town with a Costco-size bag of plain M&M’s, I put on a pound before they leave.

The US Food and Drug Administration has been keeping an eye on chocolate manufacturers to make sure they don’t overstep their bounds on health claims. The agency this week released a February letter sent to Hershey for advertising that its Hershey’s chocolate syrup was rich in calcium and fortified with vitamins and minerals even though the amount of added nutrients in the product was very low.

I’ve also noticed that chocolate bars—even dark ones that label their cacao or cocoa content—still call themselves “confections”. That’s because if chocolate manufacturers promoted their products to lower blood pressure or improve memory, the FDA would change the category of chocolate from food to drug and would require the industry to prove their health claims through large clinical trials involving thousands of participants.

So far, manufacturer-sponsored trials looking into the benefits of chocolate have been small—with fewer than 100 volunteers—and, like the new one on cognitive benefits, didn’t involve a placebo substance to see whether chocolate really has as big a health benefit as all of us chocolate lovers would like to believe it does.