If you are an academic researcher, it is likely that your work will be annually judged to assess what impact it has had in the “real world”. This is a valiant attempt by universities to try and guide the cosseted ivory towers of academia to produce research that is useful and relevant, but sometimes the nature of the assessment can have unintended consequences.
One measure of impact is whether or not your research has been covered in the media. As this can affect future funding, I am sure it is tempting to occasionally concentrate research on subjects that might make for pleasing newspaper headlines. Perhaps for this reason, chocolate has become a hot topic in the world of nutritional research – after all, who doesn’t like a “now chocolate is good for you” headline.
With Easter nearly upon us, I fully expect a deluge of magazine and newspaper features on the supposed health benefits of our favourite indulgence. But what is the truth behind these claims? Is it just wishful thinking on behalf of a few publicity hungry food scientists, or is a Twix really a superfood?
As always seems to be the case in nutritional science, the truth is somewhere in between. There are reasonable studies that show dark chocolate has some positive short term effects on our cholesterol levels, and some research showing improvements in cognitive function.
A study on women’s emotional responses to eating chocolate when compared to an apple found that the chocolate induced more feelings of joy, and induced guilt in some of participants. I haven’t checked, but I presume that this particular study was conducted at the University of Stating the Bleeding Obvious by a Professor of Not Getting Out Very Much.
A study on women who consumed chocolate in pregnancy showed that they tended to have happier babies, although again, anyone who spends time interacting with real human people will know that denying expectant mothers chocolate would lead to high stress levels all round.
In news that is sure to please food snobs everywhere, most of the benefits seem to be found in high quality dark chocolate only. The normal, everyday chocolate treats we love so dearly are relegated to the role of “guilty pleasure”, confined to the naughty corner of dietary recommendation
There are many other studies, some of reasonable quality, looking at the positive effects of chocolate on stroke risk, blood pressure, metabolic syndrome and hypertension. There is a great deal of interest in the role of polyphenol compounds contained in cocoa, thought to have potential anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Conveniently, such compounds are also commonly found in grapes, so any tenuous benefits can be used to create “now wine cures cancer” headlines too.
In news that is sure to please chocolate snobs everywhere, most of the benefits seem to be found in high quality dark chocolate only, presumably because it is richer in the all-important polyphenols than say, Dairy Milk. The normal, everyday chocolate treats we love so dearly are relegated to the role of “guilty pleasure”, confined to the naughty corner of dietary recommendations. Which makes the huge Easter indulgence most of us are likely to partake in potentially troubling.
For scientists, polyphenol compounds may well have a future role in medical treatments, and any expansion of knowledge as to how our bodies interact with foods is always a worthwhile pursuit. But to use that research to create headlines is surely to miss the point. Chocolate, in all its forms, should represent joy, not medicine. It is a food of celebration – indulgent, pleasurable and hugely desired.
Easter is special because it is the one time of the year when many of us will allow ourselves to eat without guilt, to indulge with joyous impunity. Our obsessive medicalisation of food and a horribly reductionist approach to nutrition only helps to intensify the negative associations we have with an occasional indulgence, and Easter is one time when we set ourselves free.
When dietary guidelines are written, when nutrition blogs dispense advice, and when wellness gurus preach, few of them ever consider the importance that pleasurable indulgence has in developing a healthy relationship with food. For it is only when we allow ourselves to rediscover childish joy that we really begin to savour what we eat, and understand how complex our relationship with food can be.
Easter is a time when we happily indulge in a treat bigger than our head without usual the pangs of shame. This year, as you dig in, revel in this special time. Let it take you back to a point in your life when you ate from instinct and made choices just for pleasure. Savour the taste, the smell, the rich creamy mouthfeel, the complex flavour of fermented cocoa and vanilla that has inspired love and desire across generations. Consume your indulgence without the slightest guilt and remember – this is how eating should always be.