A study author says his research on chocolate keeps getting misreported. Experts say it’s not unusual for misleading health stories to spread online.
If it sounds too good to be true… it probably isn’t.
Yet, misleading health stories making exaggerated claims continue to be circulated widely online.
The latest in a long line of such stories suggests chocolate can be used as a cough suppressant.
Headlines around the world suggested chocolate is more effective than cough syrup when it comes to treating the common cough, with articles citing a study that reportedly supports this reasoning.
But the man reported as the study’s author says the headlines are grossly misleading.
“It’s totally fabricated. It seems as though the idea that chocolate might help cough has its own life. The story takes a life of its own. It becomes an urban myth,” Alyn Morice, a professor and head of cardiorespiratory studies at Hull York Medical School in the United Kingdom, told Healthline.
The study that’s been misreported in the media was first published in 2016 and involved a chocolate-flavored cough syrup.
But Morice says the suggestion that it was chocolate responsible for a suppression in cough is untrue.
Experts says a reduction in cough was more likely due to the demulcent in the medicine, which provides a soothing effect, or the fact that the syrup contained an antihistamine.
“Every year now at about this time of year, which, of course, is the cough and cold season in the Northern Hemisphere, it reappears,” Morice said.
“It’s caused a lot of discussion. My secretary has been looking at the comments page of our own local paper, and 400 people have commented on this. Some say, ‘Yes, chocolate works for me,’ and maybe it works for them and that’s fine by me, but scientifically there is no evidence it will work,” he said.
Morice’s study isn’t the first to be inaccurately reported and circulated widely.
Dr. Nina Shapiro is a professor of head and neck surgery at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and author of the book “Hype,” which explores exaggerated health claims.
She says inaccurate health stories come up all the time.
“It happens often because you can take one piece of information or one result from a study that could be a side result or small factor, but you can take that information and blow it out of proportion to make it media-friendly and popular to the lay population,” Shapiro told Healthline.
“It’s very easy to misinterpret a good study or the connotations of the data. Even if it is a solid piece of work, it can easily be looked at tangentially where the information is completely turned upside down,” she said.
Another case touting chocolate as curative occurred in 2014, when headlines declared that chocolate could help with memory loss.
The stories were based on a small study, partly funded by Mars Inc., that looked specifically at a naturally occurring molecule found in tea, certain fruits and vegetables, and cocoa called flavanols.
For the study, the researchers used a specially formulated flavanol drink to test its impact on 37 participants. They found improved memory function for those who consumed a high-flavanol diet.
The researchers noted that the findings couldn’t be equated to eating a normal chocolate bar. In the manufacturing process to make chocolate, most of the flavanols found in the cocoa plant are removed.
Despite this, it was widely reported that chocolate could be the answer for memory loss.
Shapiro says studies involving chocolate can often be misreported for the sake of a good headline, which can be confusing for the general public.
“Chocolate is either going to save the world or it’s going to kill us all,” she said. “What are you going to want to read as a news consumer? Are you going to want to read that chocolate is neither here nor there or an extreme?
“The problem is… we have so much quick access to information on the internet and stories are coming out so quickly that there’s pressure to keep up as a journalist. There’s pressure to keep up as a health consumer or a media consumer,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro also points to another study that came out in 2017 that stated chocolate was protective in reducing a type of arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation.
“It was a large study, 50,000 people, but there were so many missing factors, so many confounding variables that weren’t really addressed, so even though it sounds like ‘Wow, I can eat chocolate and not only will it stop my cough it will help my heart,’ it’s jumping the gun on so many levels,” she said.
In some cases, misleading health stories do little damage, but the potential for public harm from a poorly reported story can be significant.
Dr. Robert Raspa, a practicing family physician in Florida, is just one of the many doctors working with patients who are confused or angry due to something they’ve read in the media.
“It really erodes patient trust. Doctors have been saying one thing for a long time, and then a newspaper article or a sensational report comes out and suddenly it’s ‘Why have you been lying to me all these years?’ or ‘Why didn’t we know this before?’ Even if it’s not true, (people think) it must be true if it’s in the news,” Raspa told Healthline.
It’s one thing to eat some chocolate.
However, on other issues, such as vaccination, Raspa says conflicting information online and in the media has had a polarizing effect on the public.
“Everybody has gone to their corners and have their sources because they are skeptical,” he said. “Politically, they’re skeptical of one way or the other and medically they’re skeptical. We have many patients who won’t give any vaccines to their children, and that study was totally debunked.”
Both Raspa and Shapiro say stories that involve diet or luxuries, such as chocolate or red wine, are often quick to be misinterpreted and go viral because people are looking for a quick fix for their health.
“Everyone is looking for a miracle and everyone is looking for the answer, and everyone would like to find something a little bit different that may be curative,” Shapiro said.
“Folks would like to have something easy to fix their lives, and food would be easy,” Raspa added.
“People want to validate what they’re already doing. If they don’t drink coffee and coffee is bad it’s ‘See that! You people are crazy!’” Raspa said.
“Everybody needs to have a family doctor they can trust and talk about things that they read to see if it’s right for them,” Raspa continued. “By and large, the medical community understands how to read these studies and knows you, the patient, and whether this would benefit you as a patient.”