Chocolate's health touters 'may have misunderstood local reality' of tribe

Low blood pressure findings among the Kuna tribe a springboard for Mars Inc.'s research, but Canadian geographer finds a different story.

How much cocoa do Kuna really consume?

For proof of chocolate’s healthy magic, scientists often point to members of the Kuna, an indigenous tribe in Panama, famous for their consistently low blood pressure even as they age. It was an observation that sent scientists to their remote Caribbean islands more than a decade ago looking for their secret.

One group of researchers observed that the Kuna had a high intake of locally grown cocoa, drinking up to five cups a day as part of their spiritual rituals. They suggested the cocoa could be a potential source of heart-healthy compounds.

When Canadian cultural geographer Jeffrey Barnes went to Panama to investigate the cocoa drinking Kuna, he found a different story.

"I had been researching with the Kuna people for about five years. I was really looking into the different ceremonial and ritual uses of what we know as chocolate, cacao, and as it turned out people were increasingly abandoning the actual ritual uses," he said. When they did use cocoa, he said they mostly used imported powder from Colombia.

Late in his research, he said he came across that earlier study, funded by Mars Inc., the chocolate company, reporting the high daily cocoa consumption. The Kuna findings had become an important foundation for the company's research into the health effects of cocoa flavanols. And the story of the Kuna is often cited as proof of the health effects of chocolate.

"That was really an important springboard for our research program," said Catherine Kwik-Uribe, scientific director at Mars.

Working to understand cocoa

Because his observations of Kuna cocoa consumption were so starkly different, Barnes thought he had missed something and went back to Panama, to the same island where the Mars research was done, for a closer look.

"I looked into how much locally grown cacao people were actually consuming and the results were quite outstanding," Barnes said. "It would appear as though they are not consuming much at all."

"Recent studies may have misunderstood the local reality in their depictions of the Kuna people of Ailigandi as prolific consumers of locally derived cacao," he concluded in a paper published in 2013 in Human Organization, the peer reviewed journal of the Society for Applied Anthropology.

The response to his myth-busting findings? Complete silence.

"The media is always plastered with news about how healthy chocolate is for you," he said. "I was dismayed to find that no one picked it up."

Mars, meanwhile, says it has moved beyond the Kuna findings.

"While the Kuna presented an interesting hypothesis, it was important for Mars to go forward with the right studies to really understand the effects of cocoa flavanols, and that’s where we are today," said Kwik-Uribe.


Kelly Crowe

Medical science

Kelly Crowe is a health and science reporter, who previously spent more than 30 years reporting on a wide range of national news and current affairs for CBC News.