01/15/2019 — Recently, a study from 2004 reemerged and went viral, claiming that eating a piece of chocolate could be more effective at quieting a cough than codeine. It sounded too good to be true—after all, we’d much rather eat a piece of chocolate when we’re feeling under the weather than drink icky-tasting cough syrup. We talked to Matthew Mintz, MD and clinical associate professor with the George Washington University School of Medicine, to find out the truth—and unfortunately, you should probably hang on to that cough syrup.
Rather than testing if chocolate is more effective at calming a cough than codeine, the study in question was actually testing one of the active ingredients in chocolate, theobromine. So instead of eating pieces of chocolate, the participants in the study were given theobromine (though it’s not clear how it was administered). And they didn’t test it on participants with a cold. “Rather than give it to people with a cough, what they did is they induced cough with an ingredient you find in hot peppers called capsaicin,” Mintz says. “And what they found is that if you take this extract from chocolate in high amounts before you give the patients this capsaicin, or this irritant, their cough is a little bit less.”
Since only 10 people participated in the study, it’s difficult to say if the results were accurate or not. “When you have a small sample size, you can’t really make definitive conclusions,” Mintz says. “You can’t say this study shows that chocolate is good for cough. Because one, it’s not the chocolate, it’s the component (theobromine). Two, it wasn’t used to treat cough, it was used to sort of see if it might work for cough.”
However, the results of the study from 2004 were intriguing enough that another study was done in 2017. This time, 289 participants with persistent coughs were tested—some were given theobromine, and the rest were given a placebo. The participants given theobromine did show more of an improvement with their cough than those who weren’t, but the results weren’t significant enough to determine that theobromine was effective. And again, the participants were only given theobromine, not actual chocolate.
But before you start unwrapping chocolate bars to test it for yourself, keep in mind that theobromine is just one ingredient in chocolate—so you’ll need to eat a decent amount before you’d potentially see any effect on your cough. “The amount that they used medicinally when they just gave theobromine, was probably close to one or two full chocolate bars,” Mintz says. “So that’s theoretically enough to do it, it’s not like you necessarily need 10 chocolate bars, but you need like two chocolate bars at least to get to those levels of theobromine. So that’s a lot of chocolate.”
Several articles have also claimed that sucking on chocolate can help with a cough—that as the chocolate melts, it’ll coat your throat, and soothe the nerves that cause you to cough. According to Mintz, it’s “theoretically possible,” but unlikely to actually work. “The nerve endings that stimulate cough are in the part of the throat near the windpipe. So, if you think about it, you don’t want chocolate going down your windpipe—that would make you choke,” Mintz says. “Those nerve endings are in the respiratory part of the back of the throat where you don’t want food to get.”
Unfortunately, the results of the studies that have been done just don’t prove that chocolate is better for a cough than traditional cough syrup. If you do come down with a cold or a cough this winter, you’ll probably be much better off with regular medicine and plenty of rest.