The chocolate science hype machine

How did chocolate become a health food?

Along with pomegranates, blueberries, and kale — dark chocolate is now a health food.

At Vox, we started to wonder: How in the world did a candy become a superfood?

In our investigation, we found that you can thank a decades-long effort by the chocolate industry.

Over the past 30 years, food companies like Nestlé, Mars, Barry Callebaut, and Hershey’s — among the world’s biggest producers of chocolate — have poured millions of dollars into scientific studies and research grants that support cocoa science.

Industry funding in nutrition science is not uncommon — grape juice makers and walnut growers sponsor studies showing these foods improve driving performance or cut diabetes risk. But Big Chocolate’s foray into nutrition research is a great case study in how an industry can steer the scientific agenda — and some of the best minds in academia — toward studies that will ultimately benefit their bottom line, and not necessarily public health.

At Vox, we examined 100 Mars-funded health studies, and found 98 of them drew positive or favorable conclusions about cocoa and chocolate — promoting everything from chocolate’s heart health benefits to cocoa’s ability to fight disease. This research — and the media hype it inevitably attracts — has yielded a clear shift in the public perception of the products.

One small and flawed study, for example, about the short-term effects of cocoa supplements on cognitive function, was picked up by media outlets, including the New York Times, which trumpeted chocolate — not just cocoa dietary supplements — as a memory aid.

“Mars and [other chocolate companies] made a conscious decision to invest in science to transform the image of their product from a treat to a health food,” said New York University nutrition researcher Marion Nestle (no relation to the chocolate maker). “You can now sit there with your [chocolate bar] and say I’m getting my flavonoids.”

Amid an obesity epidemic, this new niche of nutrition science has helped build an aura of health around chocolate — and increase consumer demand. Chocolate retail sales in the US have risen from $14.2 billion in 2007 to $18.9 billion in 2017, the market research group Euromonitor International found, at a time when candy sales overall have been waning.

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