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Chocolate Consumption and Nobel Laureates

What makes a Nobel Prize winner?  Intelligence?  Determination?  Luck?  How about chocolate?  Believe it or not, a paper published last October found that the average per capita chocolate consumption correlates well with the number of Nobel Laureates that it produces!

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The methods of this study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, were simple.  The author gathered statistics on the average chocolate consumption per capita for each major country and then plotted it against the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million people. Surprisingly, the authors found a strong linear correlation between the two (r=0.79, P<0.0001)!  When the authors excluded Sweden from analysis, because of possible internal bias of the Nobel Committee in Stockholm, the correlation was even stronger (r=0.86)!

After this paper was published, headlines boldly read “Chocolate Causes Nobel Prize Winners.” But can we really make this conclusion?  Absolutely not.  My statistics teacher’s voice rings in my head: “Correlation does not mean causation.”  In other words, just because two variables correlate well, it does not mean that one causes the other.

To be able to make such claims, you would have to study the actual consumption of chocolate by the Nobel Laureates themselves and compare it to the general public in their country.  Were the Nobel Prize winners actually eating more chocolate than other people, or this correlation merely the result of other variables?  For example, if the data are adjusted for per capita income or if the human development index is taken into consideration, would the correlation still be as strong?  Are people eating more chocolate simply because they are better off and have better socioeconomic situations, or are they more educated and have more research opportunities?

This study is not completely off base, however, as chocolate is known to have many effects on the brain.  Chocolate contains compounds called cannabinoids, which are similar to ecstasy, morphine, and marijuana.  These fatty acids act either to increase the release of dopamine into the synapse or to block the re-absorption of dopamine back into the neuron.  Either way, dopamine continues to act on its receptors and triggers the reward pathway.  Other than making you feel happy, chocolate may also boost cognitive abilities.  In a 2009, researchers showed that elderly men and women who consumed foods rich in flavonoids, like wine, tea, and chocolate, performed better on many cognitive tasks in a dose-dependent manner.  Moreover, dark chocolate has some of the highest magnesium content of any foods.  Since magnesium was shown to help treat Alzheimer’s disease, it is likely that dark chocolate may also aid in preventing age-related cognitive decline.

So, even though we cannot claim that eating large amount of chocolate will morph you into an amazing scientist, it couldn’t hurt to munch on a few Toblerones to improve your cognitive abilities.  Well, at least, that’s what I tell myself!

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References:

Messerli F.H. (2012). Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates, New England Journal of Medicine, 367 (16) 1562-1564. DOI: 

Nurk E., Refsum H., Drevon C.A., Tell G.S., Nygaard H.A., Engedal K. & Smith A.D. (2008). Intake of Flavonoid-Rich Wine, Tea, and Chocolate by Elderly Men and Women Is Associated with Better Cognitive Test Performance, Journal of Nutrition, 139 (1) 120-127. DOI: 

Image made by Simon Danaher CGI & Design (see visu.co) via Dribble.com