Chapter 1 Introduction of “Chocolate and the Nobel Prize”

This is an excerpt of Chocolate and the Nobel Prize: The Book of Brain Food.


The beverage of the gods was Ambrosia; that of man is chocolate. Both increase the length of life in a prodigious manner.

— Louis Lewin, Phantastica (1924)

I do not like chocolate. More accurately, I hate chocolate. Years ago, I visited Los Angeles, where chocolate is exceptionally delicious and quite popular. So on the day of my return home, as a souvenir, I bought a lot of chocolate—a large container and a box of a famous brand—for my wife. She liked it very much. As chocolate contains many calories, we made a rule: one piece of chocolate a day. It took over two months for my wife to finish all the chocolate. During that period, we were very happy. She enjoyed the chocolate. I enjoyed her happiness.

Unfortunately, not long later, things changed. My wife noticed that her body weight had increased by three kilograms. “Perhaps it was because of the chocolate,” she thought. She started to complain about the chocolate, and me, who bought it for her. That’s when I started to hate chocolate.

My story with chocolate didn’t end there. Several months later, a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine came to my attention. Chocolate again, but this time, with positive outcomes.

Eat chocolate to win the Nobel Prize?

The report was authored by Dr. Franz H. Messerli, a physician working at St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital in New York. Dr. Messerli was a chocolate lover who claimed to eat chocolate every day. Extending his love for chocolate, Dr. Messerli looked at the yearly chocolate consumption per person in 23 countries all over the world. Then he did something extraordinary. He retrieved the number of the Nobel laureates in these countries until October 10, 2011 (the report was published in 2012) and checked if it related to chocolate consumption.

Surprisingly, Dr. Messerli found a statistically significant association. The more yearly chocolate consumption per person in one country, the higher the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million persons in that country. The correlational coefficient, a statistical marker measuring how good two variables change with each other, was as high as about 0.8. A correlational coefficient this big would make any scientist excited.

Switzerland had the highest yearly chocolate consumption (over 12 kg per person) and the number of Nobel laureates (about 33 per 10 million people), followed by the U.K., Norway, Denmark, and Austria. China scored the lowest in both (less than 1 kg per person, and 0 Nobel laureates), falling behind Japan, Portugal, Greece, and Brazil. The U.S. with the Netherlands, France, Finland and several other countries were in the middle. Dr. Messerli further estimated that the minimum yearly chocolate amount necessary for a Nobel Prize is about 2 kg per person and that increasing yearly chocolate consumption by 400 g per person in a certain country could increase its number of Nobel laureates by one.

Chocolate for the Nobel Prize, seriously? This report has been controversial since its day of publication, as it is correlational and does not indicate causality. Some scientists even take it as a joke, since chocolate and Nobel Prizes seem far away from each other, and the correlation between them may come from a third, hidden factor. In line with this, a later report confirmed that the gross domestic product is a driver for both chocolate consumption and the number of Nobel laureates. The richer a country, the more likely its people are to eat chocolate. On the same note, the wealthier countries invest more in education and scientific research. And investment in education and scientific research is the main driver for the number of Nobel laureates.

Nevertheless, there does exist the possibility that eating chocolate may somehow increase people’s chance of winning the Nobel Prize. Chocolate is made from cacao beans, which are rich in the chemical compounds flavanols. Flavanols are polyphenols, which enhance cognitive abilities (see Chapter 2). Therefore, the habit of eating chocolate may have helped the laureates lay the foundation of their award-winning work. Polyphenols also promote health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer (see Chapter 2). Eating chocolate may have prolonged people’s longevity and helped the Nobel laureates to get their prizes.

These two explanations assume that Nobel laureates actually do eat chocolate and more so than the average person. But do they? Being residents in a country where people tend to eat more chocolate does not guarantee the Nobel laureates themselves eat more chocolate. If they never eat chocolate, then the story changes dramatically.

Are Nobel laureates more likely to eat chocolate?

A year after Dr. Messerli’s research, another short report answering this question came out in the journal Nature. A team led by Dr. Beatrice A. Golomb at the University of California, San Diego actually surveyed 23 male winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and economics, and asked them how often they ate chocolate. The team then compared those results to another survey of 237 well-educated and age-matched male control subjects. It turned out that 10 of the Nobel laureates, or 43%, ate chocolate more than twice a week, while merely 25% of the control subjects did so. By statistical inference, this result indicates that the Nobel laureates are more likely than the average person to eat chocolate.

Here another question comes up. When did these Nobel laureates develop the habit of eating chocolate? If they developed it long before receiving their prize, chocolate might have contributed; but if they developed it after receiving the prize, this suggests that people with superior cognitive abilities are more likely to realize the benefit of chocolate and eat it more often. Unfortunately, the above study did not answer this question.

Anyway, being unable to answer this question did not bother my wife. She started to claim that, as she had eaten so much chocolate, all she had to do was to wait for the phone call from the Nobel Committee in Stockholm. To this day, the call has not come.

Chocolate for the Nobel Prize, seriously?

Eating chocolate promotes health and cognitive functions. People with better health and cognitive functions have a higher chance of winning the Nobel Prize. The logic behind the link is reasonable, although we do not know exactly how significant chocolate is for the Nobel Prize, especially in the face of many other, arguably more important, factors.

The Nobel Prize is a symbol of outstanding contribution to human society. It is embedded in our nature to seek excellence. We want to be higher, stronger, and faster, not only physically but also mentally. The attempt to link chocolate to the Nobel Prize reflects this ultimate pursuit of excellence. It is an exploration of the diet approach.

To date, thousands of studies have been conducted to investigate the effect of various foods on the mind. The results have been fruitful. The diet approach towards enhancing human performance has been one of the major approaches, besides physical exercise (see my book Fitness Powered Brains) and natural environment (see my book CleverLand: How Nature Nurtures).

Thus, this book is not about how to win the Nobel Prize but about which and how foods benefit the brain and help us think more effectively, feel more positively, and sleep more soundly. This book is a collection of brain foods identified by the scientific community. It is a synthesis of over 400 scientific reports published before December 2017.

So if you are reading this book because you want to win the Nobel Prize, sorry. But by consuming more brain foods and consuming them right, I am sure your chance of winning the Nobel Prize—any prize—will increase. Enjoy.

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Go to Chocolate and the Nobel Prize: The Book of Brain Food.