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Dodgy food science: eating press releases is bad for you

Chocolate pilchards, anyone?

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Chocolate is not just (possibly) good for your brain, it can ward off strokes, dementia, heart disease and cancer.

Marvellous news, indeed. But as before, it has been brought to you by a scientist partially funded by Mars. The chocolate company.

Such a shame, because until then we were quite enjoying the thought of heart disease being prevented by a high fat snack.

The research was conducted by Professor Norman Hollenberg from Harvard Medical School. He spent some years studying the Kuna, a tribe native to central America. This group consumes an unusually large quantity of cocoa and suffers lower rates of stroke, cancer, heart failure and diabetes than people on mainland Panama.

But a closer examination reveals (sadly) that it is not in fact chocolate that even might do you good, but epicatechin, a substance found in unprocessed cocoa beans, tea, some fruits, and vegetables.

There is also some suggestion that the protection against disease the Kuna enjoy is in fact genetic, not cocoa related, since they seem to stay healthy even when they move to the mainland. Along with the fact that epicatechin is removed during the production of chocolate, this rather spoils the picture of the Mars bar as a health aid.

But for all our scorn, Hollenberg says the flavanol could be incredibly important to diet, and argues for its development into a supplement.

This kind of thing arguably falls under the heading of nutritionism, a trend much loathed by Dr Ben Goldacre, The Guardian's Bad Science columnist, and lamented in the New York Times not long ago by Michael Pollan.

In his aricle, Pollan predicts that this will be the year of the fatty acid as "wonder nutrient". And he is not proving wrong, so far.

Today on his blog, the excellent BadScience, Dr Goldacre notes that a startling piece of research is about to take the nation by storm.

A very small sample group (four children aged from 8 to 13) were fed fish oil supplements, encouraged to eat more fruit and veg, and do more exercise. Within three months, their brains showed marked increases in, wait for it: a biochemical indicator of brain growth.

That sounds good, until you realise (or Goldacre points out) that this is not actually anything substantial. It is an indicator of growth, not actual, measured growth. Which doesn't actually tell you a whole lot about the effect of the pills on the four kids in question, but makes for a lovely scientific sounding headline.

Further, all the press release's claims of one of the boys in the research group discovering a new love of reading and declaring himself "bored of television" wither somewhat when you discover that this research is not published anywhere, and is as impartial as, for example, chocolate-company-funded research into health benefits of chocolate.

Goldacre writes: "This experiment is part of the promotional activity for a Channel Five documentary on children and diet later this week, it is unpublished, and was funded by the production company Endemol."

Endemol referred us to Channel Five when we called them to get more info on the research. So far, Channel Five has not returned our call. ®

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