October 10th, 2012

Chocolate and Nobel Prizes Linked

You don’t have to be a genius to like chocolate, but geniuses are more likely to eat lots of chocolate, at least according to a new paper published in the august New England Journal of Medicine. Franz Messerli reports a highly significant correlation between a nation’s per capita chocolate consumption and the rate at which its citizens win Nobel Prizes.

Building on research raising the possibility that the flavanols in chocolate may enhance cognitive performance, Messerli “wondered whether there would be a correlation between a country’s level of chocolate consumption and its population’s cognitive function.” Using a country’s success in winning Nobel Prizes as a surrogate for “the proportion with superior cognitive function” in that country, he analyzed the relationship between the number of Nobel laureates and the yearly chocolate consumption per capita in a given country.

Messerli reported “a close, significant linear correlation (r=0.791, p<0.0001) between chocolate consumption per capita and the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million persons in a total of 23 countries.” The relationship was even stronger when Sweden, the home of the Nobel Prize, was removed from the calculations, as it appeared to have won more Nobel prizes than expected based on its chocolate consumption. Switzerland, on the other hand, “was the top performer in terms of both the number of Nobel laureates and chocolate consumption.” (It should perhaps be noted at this point that Messerli, a hypertension expert who lives in New York City, was born in Switzerland and reports in his disclosure statement that he consumes chocolate daily, “mostly but not exclusively in the form of Lindt’s dark varieties.”)

Messerli duly points out that correlation does not prove causation, but, he writes, “since chocolate consumption has been documented to improve cognitive function, it seems most likely that in a dose-dependent way, chocolate intake provides the abundant fertile ground needed for the sprouting of Nobel laureates. Obviously, these findings are hypothesis-generating only and will have to be tested in a prospective, randomized trial.”

Regarding Sweden’s status as an outlier, Messerli writes that “one cannot quite escape the notion that either the Nobel Committee in Stockholm has some inherent patriotic bias when assessing the candidates for these awards or, perhaps, that the Swedes are particularly sensitive to chocolate, and even minuscule amounts greatly enhance their cognition.” Messerli also raises the possibility that reverse causation may explain the main finding, “that is, that enhanced cognitive performance could stimulate countrywide chocolate consumption.”

6 Responses to “Chocolate and Nobel Prizes Linked”

  1. Antonio Reis, Ph.D says:

    Hi Larry,
    Good story!I think the reason why highly significant correlation between a nation’s per capita chocolate consumption and the rate at which its citizens win Nobel Prizes, is very trivial: Obviously chocolate consumption per capita is related to the level of wealth and then with level of education that is a condition for Nobel prizewinners to appear.
    Let me tell you another similar story: There is a strong and graded correlation between the number and severity of fires in a particular city and the number of firemen in the same city. Some far-sighted politicians have developed the very smart strategy that consists of dropping down the number of firemen with the purpose of lowering the number of fires. Of course, this has nothing to do with the cholesterol/heart disease story: Voilá!

    • Thanks, Antonio. I agree with you that wealth and education almost certainly play a vital role here. Here’s another related idea I had about this study: serious scientific research, like chocolate, is a luxury.

  2. The extrapolation that per capita chocolate consumption(was it controlled for type?)may correlate with wealth and, therefore, quality of scientific output as deemed by the Nobel committee has a parallel in another international competition. Olympic medal counts correlate with a country’s GDP.

  3. Jose Gros-Aymerich, MD says:

    Do the developing nations have trustable records of chocolate consumption? Is there a correlation of income of countries with its chocolate eating behaviors? Is the chocolate consumption rate of a place a variable independently linked to the Nobel price incidence on it, and the influence of other variables is ruled out, for example, the ranking of its universities in world-wide classifications? Chocolate has many beneficial effects, some point specially the dark variety, containing more than 70% cocoa proportion, but initially, the concept of some special beneficial effects of chocolate eating will be good mainly for the people in the cocoa business, that finally will be good also for many, in the way it was said: “What is Good for General Motors is good for the USA”. Salut +

  4. Jean-Pierre Usdin, MD says:

    Conflits of Interest!

    This Messerli’s study put the finger on the confits of interst:

    1/ Sweden is the country were the Nobel Price is delivered and Sweden citizens are the most frequently rewarded.

    2/ thereafter Messerli finds a correlation between Nobel price winners and Switzeland’s inhabitants. Guess what? Switzerland is the first country concerning chocolate consumption. May i continue? he was born in Switzeland and has some link with a famous swiss chocolate maker.

    3/I think these are the only things that are important in this study: focusing on disclosure.

    4/ the study does not answer if EEC (2012 Peace Nobel Price) is the winner in chocolate eaters

    My conflits of interest I unfortunatly prefer belgium chocolate…

  5. Hi Larry,

    This interesting study is, as Antonio, Jose, and others have said, purely correlational and in no way directly assesses cause-effect. There could, for example, well be an underlying genetic factor that positively affects cognitive functions and also predisposes to a taste preference for chocolate. Since we know there are strong genetic factors in both cognition and taste preference, this alternative explanation of the chocolate effect is quite feasible.

    Studies done to date have shown either correlations of chocolate consumption with cognitive function or acute, short-term effects of chocolate. The latter are informative but don’t directly address the issue of the powerful long-term effects that would be needed to actually improve cognitive functioning to such an extent as to contribute to the individual’s probability of winning a Nobel Prize. Moreover, some double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have failed to find any effect of chocolate on cognition (e.g., Crews et al., 2008).

    A final thought is that our knowledge of the chocolate effect could be considerably enhanced through research into the components of chocolate that underlie its effect on cognitive functioning (if there is one). For example, chocolate contains caffeine, which has been widely and consistently shown to acutely improve cognitive functioning, and dark chocolate contains far more caffeine than does milk chocolate. A 50% chocolate bar contains about 450 mg of caffeine per pound, while a 90% bar has about 800 mg/lb. Of course, caffeine is only one component, and there may well be other components that also underlie the possible enhancement of cognition.

    The seemingly positve effects of chocolate on cognition, cardiovascular health and – who knows – maybe love life! – are no doubt dear to the hearts of Lindt, Hershey, Godiva, and many other companies. Clearly, however, much more research is needed before we can assert that chocolate has potent long-term affects cognition.