A few years back, Cadbury Chocolate did a survey and announced with great fanfare that more than half the women in the UK would rather curl up with a chocolate bar than let a man get a leg over. That's not good news for those British men who like to boast that they've got more than a stiff upper lip!
Seems the researchers asked 1,524 adults how they like to treat themselves. About 66 percent of the women saw chocolate as a "mood enhancer," and the 18-24 year old women even knew industry buzz about chocolate "releasing mood enhancing endorphins."
The most startling find was 52 percent of the women said they'd choose chocolate over sex. As one of the women put it, "Chocolate provides guaranteed pleasure."
Two things about this quote struck me right away: First, McDonalds and other fast-food franchises have built their businesses on the guarantee of the exact same mediocre experience every time. Secondly, seems to me a love affair with chocolate need not be an "either-or" proposition. How about "and-both." In other words, enjoy chocolate and sex together! Whether or not chocolate arouses us with phenylethylamine and other potent "love chemicals," it's a time-honored gift in courtship rituals.
This headline-grabbing study from the Brits was just one of many in a marketing push for chocolate that's been going on for a good five years now. To determine which studies are valid, which justify hope, which are mere hype — and why — would take a massive book. For now, let me simply share some naughty bits, starting with two great headlines I found in my email box from Nutra-Ingredients-USA:
- "Nestle builds science to support cocoa polyphenol claims"
- "Hershey builds on health portfolio"
Notice here what Big Choc is "building" — a "science base" that can help chocolate shed its image as a "bad snack" to emerge as a "health food" with "goodness benefits." As senior vice president Michele Buck of Hershey said, "This interest is driving explosive growth."
To date, most of the health claims for chocolate have centered on cocoa's antioxidant capacity. Although the studies are inconsistent, some evidence does link cocoa's polyphenols, flavanols and other antioxidants to a positive effect on circulatory system diseases, mental health, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, inflammatory diseases and weight loss. Mainstream media has even teased with headlines such as, "Should cocoa flavanol be classed as a 'vitamin'? The chocolate industry, of course, has taken this hype straight to the bank. And with few people aware that for bitter cocoa to taste good and become the chocolate we all love, sugar — sometimes a lot of sugar — goes into the mix.
Scientists not in the employ of Willy Wonka or other chocolate companies seem less convinced. An article in the April 2007 issue of the American Chemical Society's journal Chemical Research in Toxicology quoted scientists from Rutgers University sounding a sober warning:
"Although consumption of dietary phytochemicals such as flavonoids has been suggested to have beneficial biological effects including the prevention of cancer and heart disease, there is considerable evidence to suggest that such compounds are not without risk of adverse effects. The risk of adverse effects is likely increased by the use of pharmacological doses in prevention/treatment and supplement situations . . . that may increase the bioavailability of test compounds."
Besides the polyphenols found in chocolate, the Rutgers team was concerned about excessive consumption of green tea polyphenols and genistein from soy. Having personally researched genistein in depth for my book The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America's Favorite Health Food, this definitely resonated with me. The takeaway: Always look long and hard at the marketing behind any health claims, however impressive they might first appear!
Now what about those British ladies? Knowing the ins and outs of study design, data recording and conclusions, I expect they didn't really say what Cadbury said they said. (Sad if really true.) One thing's certain though: when it comes to chocolate, the marketing is way ahead of the science. In time, that will undoubtedly sort itself out, though it may take someone — not me! — writing The Whole Chocolate Story. In the meantime, The Naughty NutritionistTM would like to know whether chocolate — presumably dark, unsweetened, traditionally processed cocoa nibs— was the secret to Montezuma's legendary reputation as a lover.