Chocolate and Valentine's Day | The Body of Evidence

Chocolate and Valentine's Day


Happy Valentine's Day, faithful readers. Here's some helpful advice. Don't buy your sweetheart chocolates. Buy her diamonds. Or designer footwear. Or start doing the laundry at home. That works too.

If you want to find out why, read up in my latest article in the Gazette. Towards the end, you'll also find out how to get good luck all year round.


On Valentine's Day, a number of
strange things will happen. The price of roses goes up dramatically, restaurant
reservations become impossible to secure, and you are likely to see an article
telling you that chocolate has a number of health benefits.

There are many, too many, articles
that claim that chocolate can prevent heart disease, lower your cancer risk,
cure you of diabetes, lower your blood pressure, treat your asthma and
essentially cure every disease there is.

People trying to sell you on the
chocolate-is-good-for-you story will usually resort to something about
anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidants are a common tool used to promote the health
effects of the fad du jour. Unfortunately, large human trials with
anti-oxidants have not shown any reduction in cardiovascular disease, or
cancer, or anything else.

Also, most people don't tell you that
the process of converting the cacao been into chocolate robs it of most
anti-oxidants anyway, so the point is moot. At this point somebody will say,
yes but dark chocolate has more anti-oxidants than milk chocolate. True, but
the amount of anti-oxidants in both is minimal and unless you're drinking raw
cacao (which is so bitter as to be virtually unpalatable) you're really not
getting any anti-oxidants anyway. And for that matter, if you really feel like
you need more anti-oxidants, why not go eat some fruit. Fruit has lots of

A great review of the health effects
of chocolate can be found in a 2009 issue of the journal Circulation. It is a great, if highly
technical, read. Especially the last line where the authors disclose that they
received research grants from Mars Inc. and Nestle. After reading that I got so
depressed that I went to eat a chocolate bar, which of course just made me feel

But my favourite chocolate study was a
2012 paper in the New England Journal of
Medicine that linked chocolate with Nobel Prizes. Researchers, and I'm not
kidding, went onto Wikipedia and other websites to get numbers on Nobel Prizes
and chocolate consumption per country. Many people found the study bizarre and
some suspected that it was a piece of satire.

Eric Cornell, who won the Nobel in
2001 for physics, certainly thought so, because he said, "Personally I feel
that milk chocolate makes you stupid. Now dark chocolate is the way to go. It's
one thing if you want like a medicine or chemistry Nobel Prize, OK, but if you
want a physics Nobel Prize, it pretty much has got to be dark chocolate."

Cornell was obviously joking, but the
reporter from Reuters published the quote and Cornell later had to publicly

The paper had an obvious scientific
problem. How do you know that the people who eat chocolate in any given country
are the people who win Nobel Prizes? In fact, you don't. The problem with that
specific type of research has a name, the ecologic bias. The ecologic bias
occurs when you make the faulty assumption that what is true for a whole
country is true for an individual. Swedes may eat a lot of chocolate overall,
but Swede Nobel laureates may not.

So all this to say that chocolate is
not health food. If you eat enough of it, you will get fat. Believe it or not,
somebody actually wasted scarce research money to do a study
to prove that chocolate causes weight gain.

There's no harm in a little
indulgence, but the oft-repeated myth that dark chocolate is good for your
heart borders on self-delusion. So if you're looking for a heart healthy
Valentine's Day gift, you would probably be better off with fruit rather than a
box of chocolates. Actually, on second thought, fruit probably won't go over
too well. Better stick with diamonds. It's hard to go wrong with diamonds.

Postscript: Few people are aware of
the legend that if you kiss a cardiologist on Valentine's Day, you will have
good luck year round.