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Science

Chocolate is not exactly brain food, Japan admits

Shoddy research behind report backed by government and confectionery maker Meiji

Cocoa beans and chocolate bars at a shop in Tokyo. The government has backed off claims that eating cacao-rich chocolate could rejuvenate the brain.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Facing criticism over a government-backed report that said chocolate could reverse brain aging, the Japanese Cabinet Office admitted that the claim was "inappropriate." 

The report, released in January last year, was compiled by a government-sponsored team and confectionery maker Meiji, part of Meiji Holdings. It said that eating cacao-rich chocolate for four weeks could expand and rejuvenate the brain's cerebral cortex.

Meiji followed the report by buying a full-page newspaper advertisement that appeared to tout the efficacy of chocolate. "Does the brain become younger with high-cacao chocolate? New discoveries" the advertisement said, accompanied by a photo of a chocolate bar and illustration of the brain. 

Questions were raised over the reliability of the research as there was no comparative data to ascertain effects on people who ate chocolate and those who did not. The findings were based solely on those who ate chocolate.

Suspicion that the research was shoddy prompted the Cabinet Office and outside experts to try to verify the findings, leading to the Mar. 8 announcement that the report lacked sufficient evidence.

Norihiro Sadato, professor of neuroscience at the National Institute for Psychological Sciences and participant in the test to verify the report, said there are are "usually big" differences in perception between the scientific community and industry.

The flawed claim stemmed from the leader of the research team rushing to achieve results and the confectionery industry looking for science to support advertising.

The research into chocolate was part of the Impulsing Paradigm Change through Disruptive Technologies Program, or ImPACT, a government initiative aimed at encouraging innovation.

The research team was led by Yoshinori Yamakawa of NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting, part of NTT Data, acting on a proposal by Meiji. Yamakawa had a great deal of control over the budget and other matters.

On March 8, Yamakawa said he "feels responsible" for the inadequate research.

Fumiyasu Komaki, professor of statistical science at the University of Tokyo and another participant in the verification test, said the findings "could mislead the public that the data was supported by scientific evidence."

The Cabinet Office plans to redo the experiment, this time including subjects who do not eat chocolate.

Despite the Cabinet Office's announcement, Iekuni Ichikawa, a specially appointed professor at Shinshu University and well-versed in research ethics, warned that "some people would continue to believe the data even after it has been repudiated."

ImPACT is similar to programs in other countries that encourage high-risk, high-impact research. The Japanese government will pour 55 billion yen ($515 million) into the project's 16 initiatives over five years through fiscal 2018.

The latest case highlighted the difficulty of dealing with such research.

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