Nestle’s attempt to flog chocolate as a health food is a reminder of the need for scepticism when foods are being marketed on the basis of health claims.

Here are some reasons why:

  1. When you hear about research promoting the health benefits of particular foods, there’s more than a good chance it has been funded by the food industry. Industry-funded studies are more likely to produce results favourable to the industry than independently funded studies. This is true for food research and for pharmaceutical research.
  2. The food industry often promotes research “proving” a particular food is good for health on the basis of studies which do no such thing. Most such claims are based on laboratory-based or observational studies whose implications for health are far from clear. Remember how antioxidant supplements were promoted off the back of such research? When proper trials were done, many showed increased death rates amongst those taking antioxidants. Not that you will hear much about that from the billion dollar supplements industry.
  3. On my desk is a jar of Fluff, “the delicious American marshmallow spread”. I bought it because its label, with a big “fat free” star, symbolises the absurdity of so much health claims-based marketing. If you choose foods purely because of their health claims, you could end up with a very poor diet.
  4. The main message most of us need to hear is the one the food industry will never promote — eat less of most things. Marketing based on health claims is an effective way of countering this message.
  5. The chocolate industry’s gumption at promoting its product as a health tonic in these obese-aware times is up there with the spin doctors in the movie Thank You for Smoking. How do you counter public health concern about the global obesity epidemic increasing rates of heart disease? Promote your product as a heart tonic, of course. And never, ever mention its effect on waistlines.
  6. Medical and scientific journals are more likely to publish studies with positive findings. And the media is more likely to splash on studies with positive findings. “Chocolate has no benefits for heart health” is not nearly as appealing to audiences as the headline: “Chocolate boosts heart health”. So we tend to get an overly positive picture of the benefits of not only chocolate, but also medicines, technologies etc.
  7. The influence of PR on media stories is often not transparent. Earlier this year, for example, Yakult Australia invited me on a “study tour” of Japan to learn about the latest science on probiotics, including their use in surgical recovery and strengthening the immune system against influenza. (I politely declined). They said I was one of eight journalists invited and gave me the names of those who took the trip the previous year. I wonder whether any stories arising out of the trip declared the industry’s role in generating the coverage.
  8. The food industry, like the pharmaceutical industry, funds scientific research and meetings to generate fodder for its PR and marketing campaigns. When you next hear about the benefits of omega-3 oils, see if the claims can be tracked to this group.

The nutritionist, Dr Rosemary Stanton, does a good line on chocolate. It’s along the lines that if you like it, for heaven’s sake enjoy it — in moderation.

But don’t kid yourself that you are doing it for your heart’s sake. And if you are worried about your heart or your health more generally, forget the chocolate and food industry spin.

Get on your bike or put on your walking shoes, and leave the car at home.