“Antioxidants” in chocolate (and fruit): don’t buy the hype

Last week, just in time for Valentine’s day (clever science marketing or lucky peer review speed?), Hershey announced that cocoa is a “super fruit” with a paper in the Chemistry Central Journal (open access).

Here is a random sampling of just a few of many media takes on the press release:

From WebMD (and a great review of this by HealthNewsReview.org)

Researchers found the antioxidant activity of dark chocolate and cocoa powder was equivalent to or higher than that found in some other so-called “super fruit” powders or juices, including acai berry, blueberry, cranberry, and pomegranate.

Antioxidants are a group of compounds known to fight the damaging effects of oxidative stress on cells within the body and are increasingly thought to have many heart-healthy properties.

From The Telegraph:

In a test, they found that powdered dark chocolate contained more antioxidants and polyphenols – all of which are thought to protect the body from diseases such as cancer, and heart conditions.

The worst I found, from aolhealth:

Turns out chocolate isn’t just good for your health. It’s really, really good for your health. As in, “worthy of being called a super fruit” kind of good, according to researchers at the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition.

At least that one included a quote from Marion Nestle

There is no such thing as a super fruit. And the last time I looked, chocolate was still candy.

I of course, side with her.  Here is why.

Keep in mind this study was funded by Hershey, done by Hershey employees.  A lack of objectivity is apparent in the text.

First, after searching PubMed, this is as far as I can tell the first mention of “super fruit” in the scientific literature.  ”Super foods” or “super fruits” are terms created not in academia, but by the food and beverage industry as a marketing strategy.  Hershey managed to get it into the literature (if you are wondering how a cocoa bean is a “super fruit“, it is because it is actually the seed of the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree).  Should food companies be allowed to do this?  Their first reference in the paper is to this book.  While I haven’t read the book, some of the pages are free to read through Amazon.  In fact, there is some great information on the pages available, but I think this passage about ORAC (a method of measuring antioxidant capacity) is most relevant:

Here are a few facts: (1) ORAC is an artificial benchmark applying only to conditions in a test tube; (2) the ORAC test is fraught with technical inconsistencies as a measurement from lab to lab and often within a lab; and (3) there is no concrete, scientific evidence that ingesting more ORAC-enriched foods or superfruit juices means better antioxidant protection in the body or provides any specific health benefit.

In this “Twenty True Superfruits” list, there is no mention of cocoa.  His criteria for “superfruit status” does not include an ORAC rating at all.  Yet Hershey uses this book to establish that using ORAC is how the popular media defines “super fruits,” (direct quote: “high nutritive value is often based on the antioxidant capacity“) so they use ORAC as a part of their analysis. Maybe they should have read the rest of it?

ORAC is only one of many available assays, as i’ve described in my “superfruit” debunking article from last year.  One of the studies that I wrote about there used 4 assays to test the in vitro antioxidant capacity of several fruit juices and compared the list to the same juices measuring with only ORAC.

ORAC yielded this in order of potency:  Concord grape juice, red wine, pomegranate juice, black cherry juice, blueberry juice, acai juice, cranberry juice, orange juice, iced tea beverages, and apple juice.

While the 4 assays combined into 1 index, yielded this: pomegranate juice, red wine, grape juice, blueberry juice, black cherry juice, acai juice, cranberry juice, iced tea beverages, orange juice, and apple juice.

So using more assays can yield different results in antioxidant capacity.  Hershey even cites this paper in their discussion!  This of course is all measured outside of the body, and has no relevance to effects on health.  I have given a couple examples of very low bioavailability of polyphenols when they are ingested; in fact the research clearly shows that fructose is likely what is increasing antioxidant capacity in the body with fruit juice consumption.  There are many alternative theories as to how polyphenols are of value to health (some examples in the super fruit article, others I will be discussing in near future posts), so one must wonder why Hershey chose to use only ORAC in this study.

But they did and here is a quick summary of their tests: ORAC, total polyphenol content, and total flavonol content.

  • The ORAC antioxidant capacity showed that Cocoa per gram was greater than acai, blueberry, cranberry, and pomegranate powder.   Cocoa was significantly greater than the others, and acai was significantly greater than blueberry, cranberry, and pomegranate.
  • The ORAC antioxidant capacity showed that Dark chocolate per serving was significantly greater than the juices plus a cocoa beverage (with 12 grams cocoa powder).  The cocao beverage was in line with the juices.  All of these were significantly greater than a hot chocolate mix (alkalinization, which “mellows” the flavor, destroys polyphenols).
  • The total polyphenol content of cocoa powder per gram was greater, but not significantly, than the others.
  • The total polyphenol content of dark chocolate per serving is significantly greater than pomegranate, which is significantly greater than acai, blueberry, and cocoa beverage, which is greater than cranberry, and lastly the hot chocolate.
  • The total flavonol content per gram of cocoa was significantly greater than the juices (at lest 20 mg/g greater).
  • The total flavonol content per serving of dark chocolate was significantly greater than a cocoa beverage (535.6 mg vs 400 mg), and both were greater than a hot cocoa mix, acai, blueberry, cranberry, and pomegranate juice.
    • They defined 1 serving of dark chocolate as 40 grams; I believe this would be about 4 mini squares of this Hershey product which is about 180 Calories!  They used 1 cup (240 ml) for 1 serving of fruit juice or the cocoa beverage.  The cocoa beverage used 25 grams sugar, 1 gram salt, and 12 grams natural cocoa powder.  The hot cocoa mix was 28 grams.
    • They analyzed 3 brands per fruit powder and fruit product (not specified).

So their serving sizes seem pretty realistic, but it should be pointed out that Hershey set them.  It is difficult to generalize these results as serving sizes and compositions will be different between brands/products.

Another finding is that between 3 different brands of acai juice, ORAC value, total polyphenol content, and total flavonol content varied significantly between each.

Conclusions

The authors write:

The high concentration of flavanols, as well as other flavonoid compounds not tested in this study, contributes directly to the observed TP and ORAC values of natural cocoa and dark chocolate.  Cocoa powder thus provides nutritive value beyond that derived from its macronutrient composition.  Based on this criterion, and borrowing terminology from popular media, cacao seeds should be considered a “Super Fruit” and products derived from cacao seed extracts, such as natural cocoa powder and dark chocolate, as “Super Foods” The high concentration of flavanols, as well as other flavonoid compounds not tested in this study, contributes directly to the observed TP and ORAC values of natural cocoa and dark chocolate.  Cocoa powder thus provides nutritive value beyond that derived from its macronutrient composition.  Based on this criterion, and borrowing terminology from popular media, cacao seeds should be considered a “Super Fruit” and products derived from cacao seed extracts, such as natural cocoa powder and dark chocolate, as “Super Foods”

Seriously?  How about we do away with the non-scientific terms “super fruit” and “super food” instead?  But they want even more:

Current FDA regulations do not require that antioxidant capacity and/or polyphenol content be provided on food labels.  Inclusion of this information, as has been suggested previously [10], could assist consumers in differentiating between brands and in making healthier food choices.

If it is physiologically irrelevant, lets not confuse consumers more.  The “super fruit” thing is already abused enough by marketers to make absurdly expensive and unhealthy products.  Juices often claim a high ORAC value but are loaded with sugars/calorically dense, and liquids do not provide the satiation that solid foods do, this is well established by research.

There is a large body of research suggesting cocoa/dark chocolate may have some beneficial effects on health in certain contexts (especially disease).  The polyphenols in chocolate certainly deserve studying, and are being studied.  But I have a serious problem with Hershey making all of this noise using mainly ORAC to support the outdated theory of polyphenols as antioxidants.

Oh and recall that this is from the company that the American Dietetic Association partnered with recently for a public health campaign.  Pity.

Reference

Crozier SJ, Preston AG, Hurst WJ, Payne MJ, Mann J, Hainly L, & Miller DL (2011). Cacao seeds are a “Super Fruit”: A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products. Chemistry Central journal, 5 (1) PMID: 21299842

  • http://twitter.com/RobinJudice Blazing Bayou

    Great analysis Colby. I’ve personally been trying to get the benefit of dark chocolate by mixing unsweetened dark chocolate powder (for cooking) into nonfat plain yogurt, then adding in a bunch of blueberries, black berries and some chopped walnuts. The berries sweeten it just enough and the non-fat yogurt helps balance out the fat in the cocoa powder and the walnuts. It makes a great breakfast!

    • http://www.recomp.com Colby

      Thanks, that sounds like a tasty combo. How much powder do you add? I’ve honestly never experimented with it.

  • Julia

    Respectfully, I’m wondering whether you’re being overly skeptical because you “have a serious problem with Hershey making all of this noise…”.  Over-skepticism can be another type of bias.  OK, so ORAC isn’t a 100% reliable measure.  Probably the best would be to look at blood free radical scavenging, although that’s expensive.  But to say that “chocolate is just a candy” and that there isn’t any evidence that suggests that cocoa may be good for you is probably overstating your case. 

    • http://www.nutsci.org Colby

      Hi Julia,

      I never denied that cocoa might have some health benefits. You must have missed the sentences I wrote right before the bolded one:

      There is a large body of research suggesting cocoa/dark chocolate may have some beneficial effects on health in certain contexts (especially disease).  The polyphenols in chocolate certainly deserve studying, and are being studied.  But I have a serious problem with Hershey making all of this noise using mainly ORAC to support the outdated theory of polyphenols as antioxidants. 

      My beef is with Hershey pushing a pseudoscientific marketing term into the scientific literature by using ORAC. The term “super fruit” harms public health messages because it doesn’t accurately represent the potential health benefits of the fruit.

  • Mik

    Nothing is wrong as long as you have natural, unsweetened cocoa. Research suggests that cocoa is good for your health and you can enjoy it daily as part of a healthy diet. The truth is it is Mayan superfood.

  • Calvin Barajas

    I eat fair-trade unsweetened 99% cacao chocolate every day. It’s bitter and I add it to my cereal every morning. When companies reduce the cacao content, start adding sugar, and add lactose, that’s when the problem begins (becomes candy).

  • chris

    your an Idiot!

    • Emily

      ah, the irony.

  • chris

    the person who wrote this is going against Scientific data and is full of bullish and propaganda for the pharma police

  • organic woman

    Adding sugar to the cocoa powder negates the positive benefits. It is a known fact that sugar decrease/compromises immune function and fuels disease, especially cancer. I eat only unsweetened dark chocolate. I prefer to eat cacao beans, which are high in nutrients such as magnesium. If you can’t handle the bitterness, add stevia (not the commercial kind which has been adulterated-meaning Truvia). Hershey’s is masking the fact that they sell garbage! It’s not even good chocolate, regardless of the nutritional value. Hershey is trying to use science to boost their sales by convincing the misguided consumer who will believe without researching for themselves. I have cancer, and I do my own research. Always question what you are told, particularly the source and what they look to gain from the information they disseminate. Your health depends upon it. I wish that I had learned this lesson sooner.

  • Kevin Ryan

    What did Einstein say? Something like, the result of any serious scientific investigation can only ever be to have twelve questions growing where only one grew before. Or something like that. And that is not all he said. What works is real. Damn the thing else. :) Good article.

  • Origin

    Science is marketing’s bitch these days. Really it’s just faith in a group of “really smart people” who prove this attribute with slips of paper given to them by other assuredly “really smart people” who live in universities that worship smartness.

    So, I just have to say that identifying “scientific” terms from others is a foolish denial of the fact that all this is just corporations selling us crap we don’t need. Faith in scientific credibility is moronic.

    All groupthink cults are about insuring their own long term survival it doesn’t matter if it’s a religious cult, a gender cult, a philosophy cult , a profit cult or a altruism cult, they all oppress the will and habitat of the family and the individual. If a group uses a symbol or a brand to identify itself , it sees the human tribe, family, individual as food.

  • Mike

    “Keep in mind this study was funded by Hershey, done by Hershey employees. A lack of objectivity is apparent in the text.”

    Yes. And you are sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry, so what’s the difference Colby?

    There are more than enough studies, not sponsored by Hersey or other chocolate manufacturers, which proves it is one of the most powerful anti-oxidants on earth.

    These kind of articles just make me use more raw cacao powder, because it’s apparently so healthy, the pharmaceutical companies fear for their profits and have to hire useful idiots like you Colby, to try and discredit this wonderful anti-oxidant.