Chocolution

Changing chocolate for good

The Chocolution's guide to interpreting food research

Nick Johns-WickbergComment

Ever have trouble keeping up-to-date with what’s healthy and what’s not? We don’t blame you. Trying to interpret what seems like a constant barrage of claims and counter-claims from the food industry is enough to give any consumer a headache.

This Choc Tuesday we’ve put together a guide to help you sift through the facts (and the fiction) to make the right dietary choices for you and your family.

1.    Don’t believe everything you read in the media

Just because something appears in the mainstream media doesn’t mean it’s true, or, more specifically, doesn’t mean it tells the whole story. This is especially so when it comes to food science, a complex and ever-changing research arena that can be fraught with ambiguity, even for professionals.

Misinterpretations – deliberate or otherwise – can appear at any stage in the process. A misguided conclusion from a researcher, pressure from industry figures funding the research, a sensational headline and clever marketing can all twist the facts and lead the consumer to an inaccurate conclusion.

Read nutrition articles carefully and look for the extra information that explains the catchy title. For example, you might see a headline like: “New study shows chocolate is good for your heart!” However, read a few sentences in and you’ll almost certainly discover that “Eating a small amount of dark chocolate every day can lead to reduced blood pressure in middle-aged people.”

That mitigating information might seem disheartening, but if interpreted correctly will allow you to make informed, intelligent and realistic decisions about your food. Use it to your benefit; let it help you choose the right chocolate.

2.    Take a look at the original research

Any reputable media outlet, journal or website that reports a claim about nutrition should reference – and preferably include a link to – the original research. If you see a health claim in the media that interests you, surprises you or just doesn’t sound quite right, we encourage you to hunt down the original research and investigate for yourself.

Food research can lead to ambiguous health claims - always put them to the test!

Food research can lead to ambiguous health claims - always put them to the test!

Scientific research can be incredibly dense and difficult to interpret. Don’t be afraid, though. Remember it is likely that you have as much scientific training as the journalist who wrote the article; if they can make sense of it, so can you!

Be patient when you’re poring through nutritional research; it might take several read-throughs to get a clear idea of what’s going on. Here are a few simple things to keep in mind:

•         The most important information is included in the abstract (at the beginning) and conclusion/discussion (at the end). Read these sections carefully to get a broad understanding of what the research found.

•         Always check the methodology used by the researchers. For example, did the participants come from a broad cross-section or were they from a specific sample group based on age, gender or physical health? Did the research examine chocolate, per se, or did it focus on one nutritional component of chocolate that appears in differing quantities depending on the type and quality of the chocolate? Factors like these can have a big effect on the usefulness of the results and how they apply to you.

•         Check the number of participants were involved in the study. As a general rule, the larger the sample size, the more accurate the results are going to be.

•         Studies almost always include graphs and tables displaying their results. Pay particular attention to these, as they’re the easiest way to wrap your head around the data.

•         Don’t worry if you can’t understand all of the scientific jargon used in the study. As long as you grasp the methodology and the broad significance of the results, you’ll be able to see how the actual science relates to the claims you read in the media.

The next time you hear about a research breakthrough that seems too good to be true, use these guidelines to help you interpret the science.

3.    Follow the money

Researchers need funding for their work. Most food and nutrition research is funded by major industry players with a vested interest in the results. These two facts are inescapably linked. That link can, of course, affect studies and how they are portrayed to the public.

Always check the ‘Acknowledgements’ or ‘Conflict of interest’ section of the study to see where the money has come from and whether the authors declare any conflict of interest, such as funding from a major food company or lobby group. If you haven’t heard of one of the study’s sponsors, a quick Google search should tell you who they are and whether or not they have a vested interest.

It’s worth keeping in mind that just because a study is funded by an industry player doesn’t necessarily mean the science is inaccurate or useless. Most scientists have integrity and will deliver accurate findings that, if interpreted correctly, can benefit the consumer. However, the presence of vested interests can potentially have some negative impacts:

(a)    Sponsors expect the research they’re funding to show their product in a positive light and often commission specific studies that are likely to produce positive results. They might also exert pressure on researchers to produce the positive result, or at least imply it.

(b)    Most researchers rely on the industry for future work. This might lead them to avoid or abandon studies that they expect will reflect negatively on the industry. Industry-funded research that has negative findings might also never make it to publication.

Completely independent studies are rare but extremely valuable. These are often carried out by universities or government health agencies with no external funding and provide the most impartial results.

If you’re looking for further references, Marion Nestle (of no relation to the chocolate company) runs an excellent website called Food Politics where she keeps track of conflicts of interest in industry-sponsored food research.

4.    Look for the information that’s not there

When it comes to food and nutrition news, the information you don’t see is extremely important. For example, you might read a press release from a large chocolate producer announcing the findings of a study, sponsored by the same chocolate producer, telling you that the flavanols found in chocolate are good for your heart. What that company’s press release won’t tell you is that their chocolate might be low in flavanols and high in sugar – a very different food from what was recommended in the research.

Being able to see when bits of the story are missing is an important part of analysing food and nutrition research. Always check the wording of an announcement carefully and consider whether the product a company offers matches up to the broader health claim it wants you to associate with that product. Ironically, when it comes to chocolate, the health research sponsored by big producers actually provides evidence supporting high quality artisan chocolate instead of the cheaper quality chocolates those companies produce.

Join us on a scientific and cultural journey to discover the chocolate we deserve.

Join us on a scientific and cultural journey to discover the chocolate we deserve.

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We’re looking forward to sharing a wealth of chocolate information and research with you over the coming weeks and months. This will be a joint journey – together we will make it through the storm of information out there and find the chocolate we deserve. We absolutely believe in the many health benefits associated with cacao and good quality chocolate and we want to show you the science behind that belief, the science that’s inherent in the nature of the cacao tree itself. At the same time, we want you to critically analyse the research presented to you so you can understand how it relates to the chocolate you know, discover the kind of chocolate that can have a genuinely positive impact on your health and, most importantly, make up your own mind.

Use this guide as a resource to help you get the most out of the information we share with you, so that you can cut through the marketing, separate the science from the spin and choose the best food for you and your family. If you’ve found this guide useful, please share with two friends so we can spread the word!

Viva la Chocolution!