Food myths and what happens when the industry pays for nutrition studies

When you grab a bag of Barkthins, a product billed as “snacking chocolate” that is made of slivers of pretzels or nuts in a light coating of dark chocolate, you won’t see anything about health on the label. The U.S. government won’t allow it, but the nutrition claim is no longer necessary. Among consumers, dark chocolate might forever have a halo of good health.

“The idea that dark chocolate is a health food is pervasive in society. Everybody believes that,” says food policy expert Marion Nestle (no relation to the company), professor emeritus at New York University and former Chronicle columnist.

Chocolate is only one example. At the checkout line, magazine headlines scream that chia seeds will detox your body and white beans will ease joint pain, even though few such claims are backed by real science. Nestle has long raised the alarm about how nutrition claims in advertising, news articles and labels — at least when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows it — are often based on industry-funded studies. Her latest book, “Unsavory Truth,” is devoted to the subject, and new examples crop up so often that she devotes a weekly post to them in her Food Politics blog.

“There must be something about the way that humans are hardwired,” says Nestle. “It’s this degree of magical thinking that feeds into the way human psychology works, and the food companies that do that kind of research know this very well.”

The example of chocolate goes back decades. In the 1980s, candy companies like Mars began sponsoring research they said demonstrated a connection between chocolate and heart health, and started putting the claim on certain products before the government cracked down on it, saying the claims were unproven. Even though the idea was faulty — for one, the healthful components in raw chocolate tend to be destroyed in the roasting process — we all bought it. Who doesn’t want to feel righteous about eating candy?