Eating candy for science

British researchers are seeking 150 diabetic postmenopausal women to eat a special chocolate daily to see if it reduces their risk of heart disease. Does this strike you as odd?

By Catherine Price
April 29, 2008 11:00PM (UTC)
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I just found a headline from CNN that might encourage some women to contribute their bodies to science: "Wanted: Women to Eat Chocolate for a Year." Yup. The study, sponsored by the University of East Anglia in England, will test whether flavonoids in cocoa reduce the risk of heart disease in diabetic women.

Now, I'm no scientist -- and I don't mean to stand in the way of anyone's chocolate binge -- but after reading the description of the article, I've got a couple of questions about its, um, scientificness:


1. It aims to track 150 postmenopausal women under the age of 70 for one year. (The women will have their risk of heart disease tested five times over the year to see if their risk has changed.) Is it just me, or does that seem like a small sample size and a short period of time to determine whether there is really any connection between a daily chocolate bar and your heart?

2. They're not even using regular chocolate. A Belgian confectioner has created a special bar that contains high levels of flavonoids and (as an extra flavonoid source) soy. Mmm. Soy chocolate. In addition to its potential untastiness, I might also point out that this chocolate is likely quite different from, say, the chocolate contained in Cadbury Cream Eggs. But somehow I doubt the titles of follow-up news articles are going to address the distinction. (Which do you think an editor would be more likely to run: "Licking Unsweetened Cocoa Powder Boosted With Additional Flavonoids Might Be Good for Your Health" or, alternatively, "Save Your Heart; Eat More Chocolate!"?)

3. To quote one of the doctors mentioned in the article, "If the trial confirms [that chocolate has a positive effect on heart disease risk], it could have a far-reaching impact on the advice we give to postmenopausal women who have type 2 diabetes." So in other words, in the future doctors might recommend to Type 2 diabetic women that they eat more chocolate? Really?


4. Also -- and this is a problem that plagues all nutritional studies that try to isolate the effect of one particular food -- how the hell are you supposed to tell what the women are actually eating? What if your chocolate-eating ladies also have healthier overall diets and lifestyles than their non-chocophile peers? And speaking of the control group, let's get real for a second: What woman isn't going to eat any chocolate for a year to begin with? From what I gather, it's a very popular food. Hell, if you want to examine what effect eating Scharffen Berger 60 percent cacao bars every day has on heart health, give me a call -- I think I may already be participating in that trial.

I understand the desire to try to figure out which foods might have a good impact on our health, but I think it would make more sense -- as Michael Pollan points out in his book "In Defense of Food" -- to spend less time focusing on the effects of individual nutrients and more on trying to get people to adopt lifestyles that we already know have positive effects. Like, for example, eating more fruits and vegetables. Or exercising more. Or, for that matter, eating less chocolate.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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