My friend Robert Steinberg died this week after a 20-year bout with lymphoma, and I am much too sad to write about anything else.Robert, a physician whom I met briefly when he was a resident at UCSF, was already well into his illness when he gave up his medical practice to co-found Scharffen Berger chocolates with John Scharffenberger in the mid-1990s.We got reacquainted around then at a Chefs Collaborative meeting in Walpole, New Hampshire, where he introduced me to Burdick’s chocolates and, over the years, to much else about high-quality chocolate (see the book that he and John wrote).As a doctor, he had no illusions about the state of his health but there was no question that chocolate gave him reason to live. I managed to see him on most of my trips to San Francisco, but this last time – the weekend of Slow Food Nation – he didn’t feel well enough.He had been ill for so long, and complained about it so little, that I thought he would live forever.No such luck.Robert, farewell.This world will miss you.
I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area giving a bunch of talks. An agricultural engineer who works for USDA – and must have sneaked off work to come to one of them yesterday – tells me that if you look up the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) schedule, you get a message from Nestlé’s Nesquik “inviting all BART riders to take the Chocolate Line to their own Happy Place on Sunday, May 4, 2008.” Cartoon characters! Free rides for kids! Yummy marketing!
Oh dear. Chocolate is heavily hyped as a health food these days, but a new study says it doesn’t do much when compared to a placebo and has no measurable benefits for neuropsychological or heart health. Too bad. I haven’t seen the full study yet but I’ll bet it wasn’t sponsored by Mars. No matter. I’ll take chocolate over a placebo any time.
With perfect timing for the romantic occasion, federal investigators are looking into the possibility that Big Food is fixing chocolate prices, and in three different countries yet. The allegations? “Top executives at Hershey Co., Mars, and Nestle [no relation] met secretly in coffee shops, restaurants and conventions to set prices.” Although, as I discussed in Food Politics, it seems obvious from supermarket prices that such things must go on all the time, price-fixing is illegal. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Ordinarily I don’t pay too much attention to studies of single foods or nutrients on health because so many of them are “nutri-fluff”–attention getting, but not necessarily meaningful to health. But this one is such a good example of the genre that I thought I’d share it. Today’s foodproduction.com (Europe) talks about a study of chocolate consumption and bone density in 1000 older women (aged 70 to 85). Those who consumed the most chocolate (type not specified) had the thinnest and weakest bones. Does this mean that eating chocolate is bad for bones? Of course not. It could mean that women who eat a lot of chocolate are not eating healthfully, getting enough physical activity, or doing any number of other things that do not promote bone strength. When it comes to studies of single foods or nutrients, context is everything!
A comment on the previous post about chocolate asks why chocolate manufacturers think they have to put health claims on candy. The simple answer is that health claims are the only things that sell food these days. And chocolate candy is in trouble–you aren’t eating enough of it to keep these corporations growing fast enough. And on top of all that, the companies are all being sued for price fixing which, alas, is illegal. Health claims are an “eat more” marketing strategy. I think health claims–all of them–should be illegal. That isn’t going to happen but we could make our displeasure with such misleading marketing known to the companies.
Food Production Daily, my source of much interesting information about European production of functional foods, today reveals the bitter truth about chocolate. It quotes an article in The Lancet revealing that most of the beneficial antioxidants in cocoa are removed during processing. But a spokesperson for the chocolate industry says (my emphasis): “Anyone already on a healthy and balanced diet should be able to indulge occasionally in one or two squares of dark chocolate and benefit from a few health benefits as well.”
But of course. As I am always saying, promoting the health benefits of chocolate is about marketing, not health.
Canada has just finished a big investigation of price fixing in the chocolate industry so it seems that we are doing that too. We buy about $13 billion worth of chocolate a year and the industry is worried about prices because of the rising cost of commodities. But price fixing? That’s supposed to be illegal.