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Chocolate consumption and Nobel Prizes: A bizarre juxtaposition if there ever was one

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Correlation of chocolate consumption with Nobel Laureates (Image credit: New England Journal of Medicine)

What makes a Nobel Prize winner? There’s several suggested factors: Perseverance? Good luck? Good mentors and students? Here’s one possible factor that I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams; chocolate consumption. Chocolate consumption tracks well with the number of Nobel Laureates produced by a country.

At least that’s what a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine – one of the world’s premier journals of medical research – claims. I have to say I found the study bizarre when I read it, and a few hours of strenuous, perplexed thought have done nothing to shake that feeling off. The study itself is amusing and rather brief and I think it makes for entertaining reading; what I am left contemplating is why this paper constitutes serious research and why it would have been published in a journal which over the years has presented some of the definitive medical findings of our time.

The paper starts by assuming – entirely reasonably – that winning a Nobel Prize must somehow be related to cognitive ability. It then goes on to describe a link between flavanols – organic molecules found among other foods in chocolate, green tea and red wine – and cognitive ability. Now I haven’t read the literature on flavanols and cognitive ability, but I am sure that flavanols themselves couldn’t possibly be responsible for improved cognitive effect, especially when they are part of a complex cocktail of dietary and environmental factors affecting brain function.

But let’s say that’s true; flavanols are indeed a strong indicator of cognitive function. From this idea the author basically jumps to the dubious and frankly bizarre question of whether chocolate consumption could possibly account for Nobel Prize winning ability. However, from a purely scientific standpoint the hypothesis is testable, so the author decides to simply plot the number of Nobel prize winners per 10 million people in different countries counted from 1900-2011 vs the chocolate consumption in those countries. The figures for chocolate consumption come from Caobisco and Chocosuisse and cover only four years, none before 2002. This fact itself makes any such comparison dubious to say the least; how can you compare two variables when they are sampled from such radically dissimilar sample spaces? And what about other compounds containing flavanols; why not also consider red wine or green tea?

In any case, a plot of chocolate consumption vs number of Nobel Prizes reveals a strong correlation of 0.79. Sweden is an anomaly (and the author thinks it could be a result of “patriotic bias” from the Nobel Committee); take it out and the correlation improves to 0.86. The graph in all its glory is illustrated above.

What does one make of this? Well, I have said before that if only three rules of scientific deduction were inscribed on the doors of every university and research organization in the world, one of them should be that “correlation does not mean causation”. Conflating the two can lead you to believe, for instance, that storks deliver babies. Now the author recognizes this, but what I find absolutely baffling is that he makes no attempt to dissect other possible contributing factors. In fact at the end of the article he acknowledges the existence of such factors and then proceeds to dismiss them by saying that “differences in socioeconomic status from country to country and geographic and climatic factors may play some role, but they fall short of fully explaining the close correlation observed.”

Some role? Well, I don’t know what to say. Or actually, I do. The most likely explanation for that correlation is that it’s caused by a third factor. We can be almost sure that for a variable like “cognitive function” which undoubtedly depends on thousands of environmental and genetic factors, there are going to be several co-dependent ones both correlated to it and causing it, and in fact causing each other. There’s also going to be thousands correlated with it but not causing it. Chocolate consumption is going to be a small dot in this complex universe of potential factors, and it’s certainly not the obvious one which would have occurred to me.

What other factor might possibly be related to the number of Nobel Laureates? I think the graph provides a strong suggestion and I am again surprised that the author missed speculating about it. The Scandinavian countries rank at the top of the graph on the right and they are known to rank high both on the Human Development Index (HDI) and in per capita income. Couldn’t it just be possible that higher chocolate consumption simply means greater affluence and an improved lifestyle? Put simply, people who eat more chocolate are likely to be better off (and perhaps even happier?). Greater affluence means better higher education, research opportunities and perhaps Nobel Prizes. I still don’t think this set of socioeconomic factors can be directly connected to Nobel Prizes, but I really think it’s far more likely to track with Nobel Prizes than chocolates and their flavanols. Other questions besiege my embattled brain; was chocolate consumption in Germany very high during those miserable post-World War 1 years when the country produced all those physics Nobel Prize winners? Does the high percentage of Nobel Laureates in Switzerland reflect its neutral, relatively peaceful status during wars rather than the health benefits of Swiss chocolate?

I have to quite plainly admit that this is one of the strangest and most bizarre papers I have seen in a long time. As I said before, the hypothesis itself is not unscientific per se, but the methodology and conclusions are simplistic at best, the complexity of the system and other possible contributing factors are hardly acknowledged and the paper in general is just not something which I would have expected to appear in the NEJM. Is this really supposed to be serious research? Could it be possible that this is a spoof akin to the absolute zero paper from 1931? My head spins. I think it’s time for me to munch on a few Toblerones to improve my cognitive function (the author himself reports a daily diet of Lindt’s dark varieties).

Note: I thank Nick Terrett for pointing out the paper and for useful discussion.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. dubay.denis 7:47 pm 11/20/2012

    I vote for it having been done in jest. When you describe the written report as amusing and the author reports eating Lindt dark varieties in the paper, sounds like they were simply having fun. Maybe they really ran the correlations, but as you suggest, the analysis left a great deal out of the picture to make the case for chocolate.

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  2. 2. Laroquod 9:12 pm 11/20/2012

    I believe this was explicitly admitted to be a joke; what’s truly funny is how many outlets reported this as some variety of ‘chocolate causes nobel prize winners’ in the headlines, even when they were totally cognizant of that it was intended as a prank; they still felt bound to report the correlation as if it is somehow possibly significant. The whole thing really showed up some science reporters; in spite of themselves they could not help from playing their appointed roles by treating even the most facile, admittedly frivolous correlation as if it carries great weight of meaning.

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  3. 3. curiouswavefunction 9:15 pm 11/20/2012

    No one would be happier than I if you could point me to a link where the author explicitly admits that it was a prank. It totally looks like a prank, quacks like a prank and walks like a prank, so I really hope it’s a prank.

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  4. 4. stargene 12:49 am 11/21/2012

    Your various objections are well intentioned,,, however,
    chocolate is indeed a secret driving engine of cerebral
    brilliance, which was suspected at least as early as the
    First Solvay Conference in 1911, where Planck submitted
    a tentative theoretical result with graphs of der Koffee,
    vs der Koffee laced with der Tschocolat, along one axis
    and “Die really gut und grossen Ideas” along the other.
    Ever skeptical, Solvay yelled he would sooner believe
    space would bend like “die Pretzelen!” This sparked
    Einstein’s interest even as he and Madame Curie were
    inhaling a Dutch chocolate cake, for purely experimental
    reasons. The rest is history.

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  5. 5. m103168 10:26 am 11/21/2012

    It’s chemicals besides flavanol antioxidants. Like anything that’s not a specific chemical, it’s the type of synergistic effect it produces due to the cooperation of all the chemicals in it: flavanols, theobromine, PEA, caffeine, etc.

    Many cultures in the past have viewed it as something sacred, because it puts you in your element as a human: well-being and focus. It also makes sense that older cultures and current Europe feel this way. They tend to be healthier, there’s not so much noise from society and unhealth to prevent them from sensing the more subtle effects of chocolate. Yes, we know it’s not cocaine or aderrall or even redbull.

    Also, good quality dark chocolate is needed, otherwise the high proportion of sugar to cocoa is going to obscure the effects. The type of cocoa bean and its preservation in the quality of processing is also a factor.

    Do a search for chocolate chemicals. Here are some results:

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  6. 6. voyager 4:37 pm 11/21/2012

    Way to suck more fun out of our increasingly drained lives. Drink a cup of hot cocoa every morning, be shamed and then reborn, and Happy Thanksgiving.

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  7. 7. kyri 6:07 pm 11/21/2012

    It’s not that we have a special craving for chocolate here in Switzerland. We only eat this much in order to maximise our output of Nobel Laureates.

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  8. 8. Statisticator 5:42 pm 01/17/2013

    Endless debate between correlation and causation!
    What about the impact of chocolate consumption on crime?

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