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Chocolate and Hype!: Bite Sci-zed

3 minutes

I like chocolate a lot. This statement comes as a surprise to absolutely no one in my life. And so every time a new health claim about chocolate comes out in the news, I get about five different emails in my inbox happily titled about how chocolate is saving me from Alzheimer's, and lowering my blood pressure, or keeping me skinny. So before we talk about how you can sift through the hype to find the science and decide what advice you are or are not going to take, let's talk about chocolate. Chocolate begins as the seed of the cacao tree which is fermented, and cleaned, and roasted, and ground to create cocoa mass. The cocoa mass is then liquefied and separated into cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The ratio of cocoa solids to other ingredients in chocolate is what gives us a wide range of flavors. The darker the chocolate, the greater the amount of cocoa solids. These solids contain alkaloids like theobromine. Theobromine is a bitter, mild stimulant with a very similar shape to caffeine. This means that, though they are far, far milder, its effects on the body are very similar to those of caffeine. So let's take a look at one of the most recent chocolate health claims, and see how you can look at the science, and sift through all the media hype to find out what's really underneath. In August, a review of research was published that looked at the link between chocolate and blood pressure. A summary of the review is available online. And I'll link it here-ish, so that you can go look at it yourself. I got this link from one of the news articles I was reading about the study. So it's something that is readily available and that you can go and hunt down yourself. So the review is titled "Effect of Cocoa on Blood Pressure." OK, that title makes sense. It says that researchers looked at 856 different patients from 20 different studies who were all given flavanol-containing chocolate for trials ranging from 2 to 18 weeks. Here's where you would have to do just a little bit of googling to find out that flavanols are compounds found in chocolate that have been linked to heart health. They found that participants who were given flavanol-containing cocoa products, often dark chocolates, had a small but statistically significantly lowered change in blood pressure. So that sounds OK. More dark chocolate, lower blood pressure. But if you read a little deeper into the study, you find that they note that they found these drops in the two week trials but not in the longer trials. They also note that they looked for correlations among subgroups that maybe age played a role, or sugar content of the chocolate, or baseline blood pressure, but that anything they did find would have to be studied further. In sum, researchers did a review and said, hey, there might be something here. We should study this. But the media took this and said, and I quote, "Dark chocolate and cocoa powder may help lower blood pressure." OK. "Dark chocolate can lower your blood pressure without weight gain," says new study. Mm. And my personal favorite, "Prescription chocolate? Study may sway some docs." Now, none of this is to say that the study is wrong or to criticize the media-- OK, a little bit-- or to say that you shouldn't eat chocolate. It's just to say that sometimes it's good to look past the headlines and do a little poking around in the science yourself. This way, you can make your own informed decisions. And my decision? Go forth. Do science.

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In this episode, host Alex Dainis uses articles on chocolate to demonstrate how to approach scientific claims. In this case study, she demonstrates how to interrogate scientific findings and experiments.

Media Details

Runtime: 3 minutes

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