The Real News on Chocolate Is Not So Dramatic

We’ve come to expect inflated or simplistic “news” offered by careless, undertrained and/or headline-hungry media covering medical and health topics. Now, even the people in charge of publicizing a recent scientific study published in BMJ (formerly called the British Medical Journal) are guilty of pandering at best and dumbing down at worst.

“It’s official – chocolate linked to heart health” read the headline on the journal’s news release announcing publication of the study. As noted by Kevin Lomangino, editor of Clinical Nutrition Insight and a reviewer for , “Intrigued by the headline …, I searched the release for an indication that some prestigious independent body — the Institute of Medicine? a World Health Organization expert committee? — had come together to evaluate the evidence on chocolate’s cardiovascular effects. As unlikely as I found that prospect, I recognized that it could justify an ‘official’ declaration of an association between chocolate and heart disease outcomes.

“But no: the ‘official’ designation was apparently bestowed by a headline writer in the BMJ press office.”

It was just another attempt to suck you into a sexy story, not unlike the exuberant teaser by NBC news anchor Brian Williams: “The science that just might justify an American addiction.”

But the network reporting wasn’t done by a science or medicine reporter, and it made the same mistake so many such stories do: It claimed things not proved by the study, whose results invited further research, not categorical conclusions.

Although the BMJ news release did include the caveats to the study, much, if not most, of the popular reporting found them uninteresting. Irrelevant.

Yes, the study did find a correlation between high levels of chocolate intake and lower risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. But if you value useful information over partial information, you need to know, as the researchers noted:

  • the study had many important limitations;
  • the available literature on this topic is “limited and novel”;
  • more studies are required “to confirm or refute the results”;
  • the results might be explained “by some other unmeasured (confounding) factor” besides chocolate.

As Lomangino reminds us, most of the chocolate we love has a lower concentration of cocoa flavonoids — the plant molecules responsible for the salutary effects researchers confirmed — and lots of sugar, fat and calories. The more you eat of the latter, the higher your risk of developing a cardiovascular problem. So we need to study the particular constituents of chocolate that confer health benefits, and how to consume more of them and fewer of their unhealthful partners.

That’s not a wild claim, that’s science.

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