Chocolate love

January 8th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, celebs, chocolate, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, weight loss | 12 Comments »

Chocolate love

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 8, 2004
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· With painful inevitability, that old chestnut about chocolate’s health-giving properties popped up on the health and women’s pages of almost every newspaper, as is traditional at Christmas. The Daily Express eagerly pointed out that it’s “a good source” of flavanols, antioxidants, magnesium, zinc and iron. And in the Telegraph: “Chocolate is good for you,” says Chloe Doutre-Roussel, chocolate buyer at Fortnum & Mason. “It has minerals such as fluoride for the teeth and potassium, like bananas.” Doutre-Roussel is, we are told, “an ultra-slim Frenchwoman… Although she eats 1lb of chocolate a day, she weighs a mere 7st 12lb.” Mars, which has been lavishing money on research into the benefits of chocolate for 10 years now, started this tradition five years ago, employing PR consultancy Grayling Healthcare to send out press releases such as “Media Alert: News for Chocolate Lovers this Christmas”.

So, whatever the truth is about minerals, the manufacturers of Galaxy and Milky Way must have been disappointed by recent research showing that what few antioxidants there are in cocoa beans are hardly absorbed from milk chocolate at all. Manufacturers first flaunted chocolate’s healthiness during food shortages after the first world war, and only stopped when we started measuring and labelling the contents. Just as that process got going, the 1930 Food and Drug Review said: “The magic words ‘health giving’ are today the most overworked and loosely applied in the advertising lexicon.” – 74 years ago.

· The Mail on Sunday’s “integrated health expert” Dr Ali was busy this week writing about headaches. “The skull,” he claims, “contracts and expands a dozen times or so each minute to push the [cerebrospinal] fluid round, but tight neck muscles and misaligned skull bones can disrupt this process.” You don’t need to be a doctor like Ali – whose clients include Prince Charles and Geri Halliwell – to know that the skull is a rigid box of bone and, since you asked, the fluid is kept moving by the waving movements of cilia lining the ventricles, respiratory and arterial pulsations, postural changes and the pressure gradient between the places where it’s made and reabsorbed. Ali, despite qualifying in Delhi and Moscow, is not registered with the General Medical Council because, his website informs us, “the treatment which he personally provides uses massage, diet, yoga and natural supplements and oils which do not need prescription”. Why not rob a bank and visit him anyway, at his “Integrated Health Centre”, just off Harley Street.

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12 Responses

  1. That Science Coverage We All Hate | Cosmic Variance said,

    September 8, 2005 at 10:57 pm

    […] He makes several observations that I’ve made in the past, and that I also constantly rant on about at dinner parties (which might explain why I have not been invited to any for a while), and so I’ll tease you with some extracts, which will hopefully encourage you to go and read the whole article, and then come back here and chat with us about it, ok? It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science. Science stories usually fall into three families: wacky stories, scare stories and “breakthrough” stories. Last year the Independent ran a wacky science story that generated an actual editorial: how many science stories get the lead editorial? It was on research by Dr Kevin Warwick, purporting to show that watching Richard and Judy improved IQ test performance ( Needless to say it was unpublished data, and highly questionable. Wacky stories don’t end there. They never end. Infidelity is genetic, say scientists. Electricity allergy real, says researcher. I’ve been collecting “scientists have found the formula for” stories since last summer, carefully pinning them into glass specimen cases, in preparation for my debut paper on the subject. So far I have captured the formulae for: the perfect way to eat ice cream […] the perfect TV sitcom […], the perfect boiled egg, love, the perfect joke, the most depressing day of the year […], and so many more. A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story. Every Christmas and Easter, regular as clockwork, you can read that chocolate is good for you (, just like red wine is, and with the same monotonous regularity…. These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable. At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are – of course – a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform the most crucial function for the media, which is selling you, the reader, to their advertisers. […]

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    June 16, 2006 at 6:47 am

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