How Chocolate Companies Contruct and Distort the Public Understanding of Healthy Food
Chocolate in its generic form occupies an archetypal position within the American diet. Complete with a palatable mixture of milk, some type of fat, and sugar – it is appreciated as a classic form of indulgence. And within the healthy/un-healthy binary thinking that permeates the American perception of food, chocolate has traditionally fallen in the latter category. Beginning in the late 20th century, the public became increasingly aware of the role of everyday diet in determining health, and more consumers sought to understand the nutritional value of the food they purchased. Chocolate companies, in order to capitalize on consumer interests, began to look for ways to rebrand their chocolate products as health foods. As what is considered “healthy” has changed over time, chocolate in America has evolved in response. A case study of two brands, Skinny Cow and Righteously Raw, demonstrates how what companies chose to market as “healthy” changed in response to an evolving understanding of health. The marketing strategies of these chocolate companies have generated more conversation about what makes food nutritious and perhaps given chocolate a more complex position within the diet. However, chocolate companies have continually failed to provide the whole truth to consumers, and their marketing claims, which cherry-pick information from scientific studies, fuel public misconceptions about what constitutes healthy food.
Skinny Cow and The War on Fat
When cardiovascular disease became the leading cause of death in America in the 20th century, scientists and health care providers scrambled to find a cause. From their efforts emerged the war on fat. Fat, especially in its saturated form, became the most vilified nutrient as scientific studies warned others about its high caloric density and ability to build up in the form of plaques within the cardiovascular system (Keys et al.). In 1977, a Senate Committee led by George McGovern published the “Dietary Goals for the United States”, which advised Americans to eat less high fat foods and obtain more caloric intake from grains, fruits, and vegetables. Fat was deemed guilty for causing the cardiovascular health epidemic (Oppenheimer and Benrubi).
What transpired in the food industry was the reduction of fat across almost all grocery store items. “Low-fat” labels started to appear on peanut butter jars, potato chip bags, and granola bar boxes. Chocolate was no exception. In 1991, Silhouette Brands Inc. launched Skinny Cow, which produced and sold low-fat, low-calorie ice cream. Soon, Skinny Cow’s product line expanded to include truffle bars and chocolate clusters. One of the brand’s advertisements is shown below.
The premise of this advertisement was that Skinny Cow chocolate tastes just as good as other generic chocolate bars while also being healthier. Throughout the advertisement, Skinny Cow emphasized the low-calorie content of their chocolate. Furthermore, on their boxes, they highlight the calorie and fat content by printing the numbers in bolded font and boxing them in color. While there was not necessarily an explicit heart-healthy claim in how Skinny Cow marketed their chocolate, their chocolate still capitalized on closely related consumer concerns
Skinny Cow, just like many other brands at the time, conflated low-fat and low-calorie with healthy. While the health dangers of excessive consumption of fat and calories have a scientific basis, what transpired in the market presented an oversimplified view of nutrition. Fat is essential for the human development process, especially at an early age, and is crucial for satiety and vitamin absorption. However, consumers pounced at the idea of a healthy chocolate, and Skinny Cow became very successful in the market. In 2004, Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream Holdings Inc., a subsidiary of Nestle, bought Silhouette Brands Inc. for $70 million (Dreyer’s Purchases Silhouette Brands – LA Times).
Righteously Raw and The War on Sugar
Statistics showed that heart disease rates declined from the 1980s to the 2000s, although at least half of this decrease has been attributed to improvements in medical and surgical treatments rather than risk factors (Ford et al.). Furthermore, heart disease continued to remain the leading cause of death in America, and obesity rates continued to climb at a steady rate.
The war on fat caused Americans to eat more carbohydrates, primarily simple carbohydrates and sugars, in place of fat (Aller et al.). Entering the 21st century, more and more people began to question the supposed “unhealthiness” of fat. Review articles criticized the poor correlation found in many studies between fat consumption and body weight (Tobias et al.). An increasing number of studies started to probe another nutrient, sugar, instead. The public response shifted to focus on reducing sugar consumption. In 2012, New York City’s Board of Health voted to ban restaurants from selling sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 oz. In 2014, an article titled “Ending the War on Fat” and written by Bryan Walsh was published by Time Magazine (Fat Is Good for You | Time.Com).
“New research suggests that it’s the overconsumption of carbohydrates, sugar and sweeteners that is chiefly responsible for the epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Refined carbohydrates–like those in “wheat” bread, hidden sugar, low-fat crackers and pasta–cause changes in our blood chemistry that encourage the body to store the calories as fat and intensify hunger, making it that much more difficult to lose weight.”
Chocolate companies responded similarly. In the 2000s, a number of chocolate brands, which marketed their chocolate on cacao content rather than fat or calorie content, sprang up. One of these companies was Righteously Raw, which was independently founded in 2004 by business woman Audrey Darrow. A picture of a packaged Righteously Raw chocolate piece is included below. The “Raw” part of the company’s name refers to how the company attempted makes its chocolate from raw cacao beans to increase the amount of antioxidants in the bar. The company claims that their beans are raw because they are not roasted. The “Righteous” part refers to how the ingredients of the chocolate are ethically sourced, meaning that cacao beans are only purchased from farms and growers who provide ethical working conditions for employees.
Different from how Skinny Cow marketed its chocolate, Righteously Raw, as seen on its packaging, emphasized the cacao content of its chocolate and the absence of refined sugar. From the nutritional information provided by Skinny Cow and Righteously Raw, it is evident that the fat content per serving increased by 3 grams while the sugar content fell by 8 grams.
Interestingly, the calorie content when serving sizes are equilibrated does not change significantly, meaning that the energy which was provided by sugar in Skinny Cow chocolate was substituted for by fat in Righteously Raw chocolate. Other components, such as sodium and cholesterol, did not change significantly either. This change in nutrition comes from the change in ingredients used to make chocolate. As shown on the ingredients list for Skinny Cow chocolate, sugar was the highest quantity ingredient in the bar. Looking at the ingredients listed for Righteously Raw’s 83% Pure Dark chocolate, cocoa butter is the highest quantity ingredient followed by cocoa powder.
Righteously Raw has defined “healthy” chocolate to mean chocolate that is dark and minimally processed. They manufactured their chocolate in a way which capitalized on recent popular studies that have explored the antioxidant content of red wine and cacao as having heart protective properties. In the 1990s, antioxidants began to draw public attention as scientific studies suggested they could protect against heart disease by preventing the buildup of free radical species (Antioxidant Vitamins and the Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease – American Family Physician). In terms of chocolate, people were led to believe that the darker a chocolate is, the healthier it must be. This claim does have some scientific merit to it. Studies by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have reported that even the small amount of antioxidants present in chocolate have been found to have a heart protective effect in observational studies. However, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has been much more cautious in advising an increase in chocolate, even dark chocolate, consumption (“Study Strengthens Case for Heart Benefit in Chocolate”). Dr. Elizabeth Motofsky reported that
“Eating excessive amounts of chocolate is not recommended because many chocolate products are high in calories from sugar and fat and could lead to weight gain and other metabolic problems. But moderate intake of chocolate with high cocoa content may be a healthy choice.”
Thus, while Righteously Raw seems to correctly assert the benefits of antioxidants, it’s incorrect in its implicit claim that increasing its brand’s chocolate consumption will improve health.
Righteously Raw also runs into trouble in claiming that it has a higher nutritional value from the rawness of its ingredients. By definition, raw food is not heated to temperatures exceeding 118 degrees Fahrenheit in its preparation. The exact “rawness” of its cacao is questionable given that all cacao beans must first be fermented, a process which often exceeds temperatures of 125 degrees Fahrenheit. And whatever the case, farms, not companies themselves, control the bean fermentation process. Righteously Raw claims that roasting the cacao beans destroys many beneficial polyphenols within the beans. However, this claim has not been supported by scientific studies. The roasting process itself does not necessarily destroy antioxidants and in some cases can even make antioxidants more bioavailable (Scapagnini et al.) Furthermore, both the fermentation and roasting process help kill harmful pathogens that would otherwise pose a new, separate problem to consumer health. Overall, Righteously Raw in creating and branding its chocolate selected different parts of scientific studies which fit the company’s story. Despite there being scientific support to some aspects of its claims, its claims in their overall entirety remain problematic.
Beyond the scope of nutrition, both Skinny Cow and Righteously Raw address and are themselves implicated in different social issues. Skinny Cow, as demonstrated in the video advertisement and as evidenced in their femininely packaged items, specifically markets to women. The cow mascot features a measuring tape around its waist, and the company’s marketing scheme promotes the gender-specific expectation that women need a slim waist to be appealing. Righteously Raw on the other hand has arguably less gendering in its advertisements. However, its unit price is significantly higher than that of Skinny Cow and generic chocolate brands, such as Hershey’s. On the its company website, one bar of chocolate, which is 57 grams, sells for $5.99. By contrast, Skinny Cow costs around $1.85 per 60 grams of chocolate and Hershey’s costs around 80 cents for the same amount. Such a steep price difference, whether justified by ethical practices and ingredient quality or not, raises the issue of who is able to afford to eat healthy. Is healthy chocolate something that everyone has the chance to enjoy, or is it just a fashion statement for America’s well-off? While it would take several more blog posts to explore these issues in depth, these questions serve as a reminder of the limitations beyond having sound scientific studies and transparent marketing in terms of helping people eat healthy.
A Grain of Salt
America continues to have a health problem, and consumers, especially those endowed with the time and financial resources to do so, have demonstrated interest in how they can adjust their diets based on recommendations from public health officials. In the midst of massive cardiovascular health concern, there has been a dream that there exists food which consumers can eat the same way they might take pills as a cure. Chocolate, in its indulgent splendor, was and continues to be an especially appealing target for a miracle food. Companies have tried to sell this dream of a healthy, guilt-free chocolate. However, as with almost all food fads, this chocolate dream falls prey to common sense and the moderation mindset. Ultimately, while companies have been pushed by nutrition regulations and consumer interest to report more on their nutritional content, they have also cherry picked from studies and fueled misconceptions about what constitutes healthy food. Their explanations often suffer from oversimplification and generate misconceptions about nutrients, such as sugar and fat. Perhaps one good thing that this discordant conversation has produced is a more complex understanding of chocolate and its health value in the diet. For chocolate lovers and companies alike, it is likely for the better that chocolate is not strictly in the unhealthy category of food. And as for when and how much to consume of chocolate, it seems wisest with the current body of knowledge to continue to enjoy it as an occasional snack or dessert.
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Antioxidant Vitamins and the Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease – American Family Physician. https://www.aafp.org/afp/1999/0901/p895.html. Accessed 3 May 2019.
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