Chocolate and the Nobel Prize

So, this is a goofy paper that just came out in the New England Journal of Medicine: Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates.

The basic story: nations that consume more chocolate per capita also have more Nobel Laureates.

The proposed mechanism: dietary flavonoids, which are abundant in chocolate, increase cognitive function and therefore a more chocolate-loving populace is a smarter populace and more likely to produce Nobel Prize Winners.

More, and some different mechanisms, below the fold.

So I think everyone has a raised eyebrow at this point, right? Because, seriously? It’s not like eating more chocolate will win you a Nobel. And there are a bunch of potentially confounding variables that, to be fair, the authors acknowledge at least a little bit. (They basically say “well, correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does imply some direction of causation, or that they’re both caused by the same thing…”) And most of the obvious qualms fall into that last category: confounding variables which would cause a nation to have more Nobel Laureates as well as higher chocolate consumption.

By André Karwath aka Aka (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
By André Karwath aka Aka (Own work); Do these chocolates really help you think better? And if so, how much?

For example, there’s a distinct western bias in Nobel Prizes. And chocolate is more prevalent as a treat in Northern European diets than East Asian ones. So, maybe, the fact that the Swiss love chocolate, and also happen to know some folks in Stockholm, could be throwing a wrench in this whole analysis. (In support of this: Sweden itself has way more Nobel Laureates than ‘predicted’ by its middle-of-the-road chocolate consumption. But then again, Swedes probably know some folks in Stockholm.)

Or, perhaps, this has to do with socioeconomic status. People who have the time to sit around and think all day enough to win a Nobel Prize are, probably, coming from upper-middle-class or richer backgrounds. And so the stronger the academic class is in your society, the more likely the academics on the Nobel Committee will award one of your countrymen. A strong academic class correlates with things that are basically luxury goods: for example, chocolate.

Before you accuse me of not getting the point, I do. It’s a silly study with a silly finding and a cute chart showing a correlation. I get it, really. I liked it. I read it and laughed. I loved the papers on the genetics of magic in Harry Potter as well (although those have the advantage of being explicitly and entirely frivolous due to their basis in fiction). But this is an actual real-world correlation, and so as frivolous as it is it can be an interesting lens to examine the world we live in.

Figure 1 from "Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates" from the New England Journal of Medicine
Figure 1 from the paper. The only figure. It’s a cute graph. And some kind of correlation going on.

Which brings me around to a potentially interesting gem of truth: is chocolate (in individuals) really linked to improved cognitive outcomes? Well, it’s been reported in rats (here). And in elderly patients, flavonoids have been linked to resistance to dementia and improved cognitive function (here). And there is a potential for a host of other health benefits for flavonoids and flavonols (here) (much of the talk about red wine, green tea, and chocolate being good for you likely comes down to these molecules). Which may or may not be a reason to subsist entirely on chocolate and green tea (I suspect that there are a few essential nutrients that diet would be missing), but is kind of cool in and of itself.

Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth is a geneticist working for a shady government agency and therefore obliged to inform you that all of the views presented in her posts are her own, and not official statements in any capacity. In her free time, she is an aerialist, a dancer, a clothing designer, and an author. You can find her on tumblr at madgeneticist.tumblr.com, on twitter at @lysine_rich, and also on facebook or google+.

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  1. I’d be interested in seeing why there’s such a drastic difference between Finland and Sweden. They’re right next to each other geographically, their chocolate consumption is nearly the same, but the number of Nobel Laureates from Sweden is nearly triple that of Finland. There’s a similar discrepancy between Germany and Switzerland.

    Sweden and Germany definitely look like outliers on that graph but that might have more to do with emigration than chocolate. If you’re a bright German or Finn, it might be to your advantage wander across the border and study in Geneva or Stockholm.

  2. Steve D- Not to imply anything untoward, and I’m just spitballin’ here, but it might have to do with the fact that all of the Nobels (except for the Peace prize) are awarded by Swedish academic organizations.

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