Chocolate best for cough? How to spot misleading headlines

The Pediatric Insider

© 2019 Roy Benaroch, MD

I’ve got a new course out – The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media available in video from The Great Courses or audio from Audible. Both have trial offers, free returns, yada yada, check it out! I didn’t cover the chocolate-for-cough story below in the course, but if you find it interesting, or want to learn more about the best way to review health articles with a skeptic’s eye, this course is for you! Why not buy a copy for a friend, too? (Hey, never hurts to ask!)

Everyone loves chocolate, and nobody likes to cough. So when headlines like these appeared, it made a big media splash:

Apparently Chocolate Might Be Better for Treating Coughs than Honey and Lemon – from UK’s Metro

Chocolate Fights Coughs Better Than Codeine, Says Science – from allrecipes.com

Chocolate Is a Better Cough Suppressant than Medicine, Study Says – from The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Never Mind Honey and Lemon, the Best Cure for a Cough is CHOCOLATE: Leading Professor Busts Common Cough Myths… — from The Daily Mail

Looks good, huh? Chocolate for a cough – and the headlines say it’s better than medicine, based on Science! These are legit, big news organizations (well, maybe not allrecipes.com, but I threw that in there to illustrate just how pervasive these stories can get). You’d think they would have dug a little bit to see if their own headlines were true.

But they didn’t. If you want to know what The Science really says, you have to read past the headlines and past the media spin. The best way to do that is to look at the actual study – where the information, originally came from. If you review the articles above, many just point to each other, or quote experts. But with a little digging, I found the actual study that lead to these headlines here.

So what did the study actually show? They didn’t compare chocolate to codeine, or honey, or lemon – so any headline that made that comparison is false. And the study medicine itself wasn’t just chocolate, it was a mixture of three active medicines in a chocolate base. So any conclusion that it was the chocolate itself that made the difference is, well, silly and unjustified.

The study compared the chocolate-mixed medicines (a brand called “Unicough”) to another kind of cough medicine, called “simple linctus,” which contains a single ingredient not found in Unicough. If the authors wanted to look at the potential effect of the chocolate, they should have compared two identical products, one with and one without chocolate. But that’s not what was done.

And: the study itself was negative. That is, for the primary endpoint of the study, there was no difference in cough among people taking the chocolate-containing Unicough versus the “simple linctus.” There were some differences in what are called “secondary outcomes,” but that doesn’t mean the study showed that Unicough was superior. And: the study itself was funded by the manufacturer of Unicough, and one of the authors was a Unicough employee. Somehow that wasn’t mentioned in the fawning media stories.

The chocolate-for-cough study was misrepresented, and its conclusions reported incorrectly. Unfortunately, this is common in media portrayals of health news. There were some skeptical outlets that tried to present the other side of this story, but as so often happens the voice of reason was too little, too late. The story had already developed a life of its own. If you think chocolate might help your cough, go ahead and try it – but don’t be fooled by headlines like these.

Eager to learn more about interpreting media stories? Check out my new course! I cover many more examples of both good and bad reporting, and will teach you how to tell the difference. They’ve got it at Amazon too! What are you waiting for?! Go buy buy buy now!

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Explore posts in the same categories: In the news, Pediatric Insider information, The Media Blows It Again

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