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Oh No, Canada... Chocolate's Not Health Food?

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It stands to reason that some foods are good for you—salads, spinach, carrots, that kind of thing.  But it's even better when your favorite pleasures turn out to be advisable. 

Millions of Brits are surely glad to know that their tea is full of antioxidants. Count me among those who are pleased to note that a glass of red wine is good for cholesterol and the heart.

Then there's chocolate. For millions, the news that chocolate was full of flavanols that might lower cholesterol and reduce blood pressure was the best news since Adam and Even figured out where babies came from.

That doesn't mean a Snickers bar, of course. The health claims are reserved for dark chocolate with high cocoa content and cocoa powder.

The claims are probably overblown. Two years ago, a search and metanalysis of the Cochrane database turned up 40 pilot studies on chocolate and health. The improvements in blood pressure were there—but they were small.

Cochrane's is a database of all the studies it can find around the world on natural health supplements and therapies. It's massive and there's no better source anywhere. But even a search through Cochrane's couldn't come up with good randomized, controlled studies that linked chocolate to a reduction in heart attacks or strokes.

Then a few days ago, an article published in Trends in Food Science and Technology piled on. Scientists at the University of Manitoba reviewed 17 studies on chocolate that were conducted over the past 20 years to investigate whether cocoa flavanols lowered blood pressure.

This is not going to make chocoholics happy. The evidence was “inconsistent” and “conflicting.” Nine of the 17 studies showed a small decrease in blood pressure. Eight studies did not.

The bottom line in all this is that there is no scientific evidence to justify an “authorized health claim” for chocolate in either the US or Canada, where the latest bad results came in.

Then again, your friends probably don't know about the cachet of an “authorized health claim.”

To gain that status, the claims must be backed by strong scientific evidence and then approved by FDA after a thorough review. It's not easy. FDA has approved only 12 such claims since 1990. But those claims are valuable because food and supplement makers can point to them in marketing and on product labels. An example of this kind of claim is “Adequate calcium and vitamin D as part of a healthful diet, along with physical activity, may reduce the risk of osteoporosis in later life.”

Canada says chocolate isn't worthy of a claim like that yet, and it doesn't appear that one will be coming anytime soon.

But if you love chocolate, there is other good news from England. Professor Alyn Morice at the University of Hull says chocolate is better than codeine for suppressing a cough. It coats the throat and soothes. He should know, Professor Morice is the head of Respiratory Medicine at Hull Medical school and an international authority on treating coughs.

The catch is that he bases his opinion on research on a sticky cough medicine with cocoa in the ingredients. Sipping a warm cup of cocoa won't keep the throat coated and do the same.

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