Health vs. Profit – The Conflicting Responses by Scientists and Chocolate Companies to Advances in Scientific Understanding

Nutritionists and those in the food industry often find themselves with opposing opinions with regards to health and nutrition. It is often argued by chocolate companies that scientists do not have as strong of a grasp on the science of chocolate as they would lead you to believe (Nestle), and scientists argue that the food companies are too concerned with profits to care about the health of their consumers. Currently, nutritionists suggest limiting the consumption of candy and other high-in-sugar products. However, the scientific community’s stance on chocolate consumption has shifted with time – new advances in scientific understanding cause nutritionists to update their previous suggestions to better reflect the information available. Chocolate companies, in turn, are quick to point out how rapidly the nutritionists’ suggestions change, neglecting to mention how minute their updates may be. As the understanding of the nutritional effects of chocolate and sugar on humans has evolved, the scientific community has updated its suggestions on what individuals should be eating; however, chocolate companies have put much efforts into undermining the scientific advancements, both by attacking the credibility of scientific advancements, and by trying to persuade their customers that their products are healthier than they are.

To better understand the science of chocolate, it is important to discuss the perceived health benefits chocolate has had historically. Societies native to Mesoamerica, such as the Olmec and Mayan societies, consumed chocolate as early 1100BC (Squicciarini). The Aztec society thought cocoa pods were able to provide nourishment, fertility, and even an increased sex drive (Squicciarini). However, while “chocolate” in name, this chocolate is notably different than the chocolate we think of today. As the Mesoamerican chocolate migrated to Europe, chocolate began its human-induced evolution, as the Europeans added their own elements to chocolate, to fit their sweeter appetite, and extracted cocoa products (Squicciarini). Even still, this chocolate is not the chocolate we typically see in grocery stores. In the 17th century, European academics began considering chocolate as a remedy for certain illnesses. It is important to note here, however, that the illnesses of seventeenth century Europe were vastly different than those of modern day America. Twenty-first century health in America is characterized by obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses associated with overeating. However, in the seventeenth century, Europe often faced food shortages, and a much more common ailment was undernutrition (Lyons). Chocolate was considered a high-caloric food, and as such was able to fight malnutrition. Since the hallmark health characteristics of the seventeenth century are different than in today’s society, it seems rather silly to suggest that our chocolate could serve as a medicine in the same way. Moving into more modern times, chocolate has undergone even more changes. As our society built up a taste for sweetness, sugar was added in high amounts to chocolate, reducing its bitterness. Before 1914, hot chocolate drinks had nutritional value of high fat content and protein content, and were among the only hot drinks to have such properties (Squicciarini) Then, the Spanish started sweeting it with sugar cane, vanilla, and cinnamon, increasing its popularity drastically (Squicciarini). And even then, there were health concerns regarding chocolate. A characteristic ingredient of chocolate is theobromine, which is classified as a psychoactive alkaloid. This is the same class of molecules as nicotine, caffeine, and cocaine, and is often attributed to their addictive properties (Clarence-Smith). Let us take a look at both theobromine and caffeine.

Caffeine vs. Theobromine
Caffeine vs. Theobromine (Holsclaw)

Caffeine is a compound that is thought of as addicting (as well as vital for most college students). Its effect is greatly due to the fact that it greatly resembles the molecule cyclic adenine monophosphate (cAMP). cAMP helps expedite the process of delivering oxygen to the brain, and maintains blood pressure, both of which are important for remaining alert (i.e. feeling awake). The enzyme cyclic nucleotide phosphodiesterase (cAMP-PDE) recognizes cAMP as its substrate, and will break the molecule down, resulting in the feeling of drowsiness. The enzyme cAMP-PDE has evolved to recognize the cAMP, a naturally-occurring molecule in our bodies (unlike caffeine), (Spoto). Since cAMP and caffeine resemble each other chemically, cAMP-PDE is not able to distinguish the two, and thus can spend its time breaking down caffeine instead of cAMP (Montoya). In other words, the part of our body that is responsible for making us tired (cAMP-PDE) has to waste its time breaking down the wrong molecule (caffeine), so our bodies can maintain higher levels of the molecule that helps maintain alertness (cAMP). This is actually how many psychoactive alkaloids work in terms of alertness (Horrigan). When the similarities between caffeine and theobromine were first discovered, many nutritionists compared chocolate to cocaine, and suggested minimizing its use (Wilson). Despite its similar structure, however, theobromine is unable to perform this same function. Theobromine and caffeine do look very similar to humans, and have somewhat similar reactivities, yet are not the same molecule, (Beckett). cAMP-PDE is not able to recognize theobromine, in part because it is a smaller molecule, and unable to fit into the enzyme as well as caffeine, or its natural substrate cAMP, (Spoto). The addictive properties of chocolate have previously been placed on theobromine’s classification as a psychoactive alkaloid, but this is not able to cause the explained effect.

Instead, the reason chocolate can seem so addicting lies in a different class of molecules, called saccharides, more commonly referred to as sugar. Americans are commonly said to be addicted to sugar, and add excessive amounts of sugar to everything. Sugar is commonly being added to more and more foods, and those foods are increasing in their sugar content over time (Hyde). Our chocolate products’ sugar content is increasing (Hegelman), and our modern-day scientists and nutritionists are alarmed (Nestle). Scientific studies have consistently warned us of the dangers of excessive sugar (diabetes, obesity, etc.), and as new research is performed, the results are increasingly worrying (Squicciarini). However, chocolate companies put an interesting spin on this – they claim that the new results in the scientific research must contradict each other, and as such are unreliable (Nestle). They also point out that different studies measure health through different techniques, and since it isn’t uniform, it must be open to interpretation. It is a quite brilliant strategy actually, to claim that the data presented by the scientific community, the data which scientists themselves admit to updating, is too inconsistent to be worth reducing chocolate consumption. These chocolate companies rely on the consumers to not fully understand the research, and agree with their argument that the scientific figures change with each update, instead of realizing that each update creates further evidence for limiting our chocolate intake. They are thus able to present themselves as more easily understood, and no less credible. This allows these companies within the chocolate industry to claim that no foods are inherently “bad,” and that dieting and nutritional advice is too variable by the individual to be applied so broadly. This continues the theme of scientific advancement reshaping the nutritional food pyramid into the future, as the chocolate companies are attempting to immobilize our consumption patterns, in direct opposition of nutritionists creating a change over time in our consumption patterns to help keep us more nourished.

However, this is not to say that chocolate companies are totally void of arguments involving science. Many chocolate companies use science in their advertisements to attempt to trick the consumer by using scientific and nutrition buzz-words that actually have very little meaning. First, to discuss this point, it is necessary to distinguish between two terms: chocolate and confectionery. Chocolate companies advertise themselves as chocolate companies, but focus most of their attention on chocolate confectionery. Chocolate is defined as “A preparation of the seeds of cacao, roasted, husked, and ground, often sweetened and flavored, as with sugar and vanilla,” (Martin), while confectionery refers to sweet foods, often sweetened with sugar. A more representative title of companies such as Hershey’s and Mars would be “confectionery companies,” rather than chocolate companies. This distinction is important because there are health benefits associated with chocolate that are not associated with confectionery. For example, chocolates have high polyphenol and methylxanthine contents (Ackar), both of which are antioxidants, and associated with antiviral, antiallergenic, and anti-inflammatory properties, among other beneficial characteristics (Manach). This is something which chocolate companies love to advertise, but is less significant than they claim (Squicciarini). By using chocolate in their confectionery products, these companies are accurate in claiming their product has these properties. However, when discussing this feature in chocolate in their advertisements, they fail to establish that the “chocolate bar” they are selling is not entirely chocolate, but instead has a certain (and often small) amount of chocolate in it. Looking at this Hershey’s advertisement shows how they use this sneaky tactic in promoting their brand.

Hershey's Dark Chocolate Kiss Advertisement
Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Kiss Advertisement (Hershey’s)

Here, Hershey’s states “antioxidants in the chocolate reduce free radicals in your body and keep your skin looking younger longer.” While this information is not false, it is presented in a misconstruing way. The advertisement makes it seem as if their Hershey’s Kiss has a particularly high content of these antioxidants, and discusses their existence rather than their concentration or effectiveness. This is not an isolated incident within the food industry, many other advertising campaigns utilize similar scientific inexactitudes. Many products are advertised as “reduced sugar,” “whole grain first ingredient,” etc. Each of these phrases are buzz-words that seem to imply either an added degree of nutrition, or a lesser degree of unhealthy ingredients. And while these statements are technically truthful, these facts are rarely as relevant as they would appear. For example, when a chocolate company claims that its product has reduced its sugar content, that often means that the products’ sugar has been replaced with a sugar-like ingredient. Let us take the example of Heinz’ Reduced Sugar Tomato Ketchup. While their ingredients list does not list “sugar” anywhere, it instead includes the ingredient sucralose, a sugar derivative (Schober). It even specifies that sucralose is not an ingredient that they regularly include. Sucralose is an artificial sugar whose safety is still disputed within the scientific community: it has been shown to increase the pH level in the intestines (Abou-Donia), and increase body weight, levels of P-glycoprotein, and risk of leukemia (CSPI), and even DNA damage (Sasaki) in rats. And while some of these scientific studies have been contested, they are often done so by those invested in the products. For example, Trevor Butterworth claims, in vague terms, that these studies are inaccurate, and that it is important to “scrutinize the data,” (Butterworth). However, Butterworth has a history of attacking scientific research in the world of nutrition, and is known to have connections with GMO companies, who produce the products he defends (Malkan).

Annotated Reduced Sugar Tomato Ketchup
Heinz’ Annotated Reduced Sugar Tomato Ketchup (Coach Calorie)
Annotated Ingredients of Reduced Sugar Tomato Ketchup
Heinz’ Annotated Ingredients of Reduced Sugar Tomato Ketchup (Coach Calorie)





And this brings us back to the chocolate companies. They use scientific wording (inaccurately, mostly) when it suits them, and then attack (with vague wording and emotional claims) any science that opposes their views. This is not a tactic unique to the chocolate industry, but in fact was perfected by the tobacco industry beforehand. Marion Nestle examines the sales strategies within the tobacco industry in her book Food Politics. She states that “Cigarettes use science to sow confusion about the harm that cigarettes can cause,” (Nestle), in addition to techniques of targeting children, the impoverished, and expanding their market globally. This parallels how the chocolate industry, and the greater food industry, market their products. Just as tobacco targeted children in their advertisements, chocolate and fast-food companies do the same, through television advertisements, product placement in media, internet advertisements, and even within their schools (Story). And just as tobacco companies expanded their markets internationally, the chocolate industries are competing for China’s chocolate market (Martin) Just as the tobacco companies had great success, chocolate companies are seeing similar results (Story). As children are making more demands on their parents for chocolate confectionery products they see on television, their parents’ relent with the result that children are consuming much higher levels of sugar (Story) Nestle does discuss how to prevent this, by citing the largely successful anti-smoking campaigns. She discusses the four pillars of the anti smoking campaigns: the firm research base that smoking does cause cancer, the clear message telling consumers not to smoke, the clear strategy for intervention focusing on smokers and nonsmokers alike, and strategies that do more than just address education, but address cultural measures as well (such as taxing cigarettes and preventing them in restaurants). She puts forth a proposal on how to do the same for the fast food and confectionery companies which mirrors the anti-smoking campaign. However, attempts to reduce the appeal of high-caloric food advertising has been met with opposition – the FTC was restricted in their ability to censor TV advertisements in backlash to their proposal to prevent inaccurate claims by food companies directed at children (Story).

The scientific understanding of both chocolate and sugar has grown considerably since the introduction of chocolate in Mesoamerica, yet this science is often overlooked. The companies who stand to profit off of the sales of chocolate confectionery attempt to discredit any science that would hinder their sales, while advertising their own products through the use of overly-simplified, and thus irrelevant scientific oversimplifications. Chocolate is not inherently a toxin to be avoided at all costs (assuming you aren’t a dog), but chocolate confectionery is much more processed sugars than the original cocoa it derives from and is named after. The pursuit of scientific advancement, and of scientific inquiry on the individual level is vital to avoid falling victim to false claims, such that every chocoholic can know exactly what he or she is ingesting.


Works Cited:

Ackar, Djurdjica, et al. “Cocoa polyphenols: can we consider cocoa and chocolate as potential functional food?.” Journal of chemistry 2013 (2013).

Abou-Donia, Mohamed B., et al. “Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats.” Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A 71.21 (2008): 1415-1429.

Beckett, Sheilah. The science of chocolate. Vol. 22. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2000.

Browning, Lynnley. “New Salvo in Splenda Skirmish.” The New York Times: Business Day. N.p., 22 Sept. 2008. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Butterworth, Trevor. “Controversial Italian Scientist Says Splenda Causes Cancer.” Forbes. N.p., 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. Cocoa and chocolate, 1765-1914. Routledge, 2003.

CSPI. “CSPI Downgrades Sucralose from “Caution” to “Avoid” – New Animal Study Indicates Cancer Risk.” Center for Science in the Public Interest. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

CSPI. “CSPI Downgrades Sucralose from “Safe” to “Caution” – Group Cites Need to Evaluate Forthcoming Italian Study Linking Artificial Sweetener to Leukemia in Mice.” Center for Science in the Public Interest. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

Hegelman, Carl. “How the Snickers Bar Changed Over Time.” Web log post. The Billfold. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.

Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Kiss Advertisement. Digital image. Hershey’s. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Heinz’ Annotated Ingredients of Reduced Sugar Tomato Ketchup. Digital image. Coach Calorie. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Heinz’ Annotated Reduced Sugar Tomato Ketchup. Digital image. Coach Calorie. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Holsclaw, Cindy. Caffeine vs. Theobromine. Digital image. Bead Origami. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2017. <;.

Horrigan, Louise A., John P. Kelly, and Thomas J. Connor. “Immunomodulatory effects of caffeine: friend or foe?.” Pharmacology & therapeutics 111.3 (2006): 877-892.

Hyde, Dan. “Does your breakfast cereal contain more sugar than before?” The Telegraph. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Lyons, Albert S. “Medical History — The Seventeenth Century.” HealthGuidance for Better Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Malkan, Stacy. “Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry.” Web log post. U.S. Right to Know. N.p., 12 Dec. 2016. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Manach, Claudine, et al. “Polyphenols: food sources and bioavailability.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 79.5 (2004): 727-747.

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 1: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” Harvard, Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 6: The rise of big chocolate and the race for the global market.” Harvard, Cambridge, MA. 8 Mar. 2017. Lecture.

Montoya, Gina A., et al. “Modulation of 3′, 5′-cyclic AMP homeostasis in human platelets by coffee and individual coffee constituents.” British Journal of Nutrition 112.09 (2014): 1427-1437.

Nestle, Marion, and Michael Pollan. Food politics: how the food industry influences nutrition and health. Berkeley, CA: U of California Press, 2013. Print.

Sasaki, Yu F., et al. “The comet assay with 8 mouse organs: results with 39 currently used food additives.” Mutation Research/Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis 519.1 (2002): 103-119.

Spoto, G., et al. “Caffeine, theophylline and bamifylline are similar as competitive inhibitors of 3′, 5′-cyclic amp phosphodiesterase in vitro.” INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF IMMUNOPATHOLOGY AND PHARMACOLOGY 10.2 (1997): 153-158.

Schober, Tony. “10 Ways Food Advertising Tricks are Misleading You.” Web log post. Coach Calorie. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Story, Mary, and Simone French. “Food advertising and marketing directed at children and adolescents in the US.” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 1.1 (2004): 3.

Squicciarini, Mara P., and Johan F. M. Swinnen. The economics of chocolate. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2016. Print.

Wilson, Philip K., and W. Jeffrey Hurst, eds. Chocolate and Health: Chemistry, Nutrition and Therapy. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2015.


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