I’ll be teaching my class Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food at the Harvard Extension School this Spring semester 2015, as an open enrollment class. Anyone in the world (who meets these registration guidelines and who can afford to enroll) can take it. It’s my hope that this class will be the first step of many toward offering rigorous education on chocolate to a broader, more inclusive audience.
Class begins on January 28, 2015 and can be taken on-campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or online from anywhere in the world. Registration opens November 17, 2014. Here’s the course description:
AAAS E-119 Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food
This course examines the sociohistorical legacy of chocolate, with a delicious emphasis on the eating and appreciation of the so-called food of the gods. Interdisciplinary course readings introduce the history of cacao cultivation, the present day state of the global chocolate industry, the diverse cultural constructions surrounding chocolate, and the implications for chocolate’s future of scientific study, international politics, alternative trade models, and the food movement. Assignments address pressing real-world questions related to chocolate consumption, social justice, responsible development, honesty and the politics of representation in production and marketing, hierarchies of quality, and myths of purity. (4 credits)
Spring term 2015 (24223)
Carla Martin, PhD. Lecturer on African and African American Studies, Harvard University.
Class times: Wednesdays beginning Jan. 28, 5:30-7:30 pm.
Required sections to be arranged.
Course tuition: noncredit $1,250, undergraduate credit $1,250, graduate credit $2,200.
Online option available.
You can view a basic version of the syllabus and assignment plan here.
Please note that I do not set the pricing for classes and that any questions regarding payment and credits should be addressed directly to admissions counselors at Harvard Extension School. The class will be conducted in English.
I’m teaching a couple of new courses at Harvard University this semester. It seems only fitting to celebrate the two-year anniversary of this blog by sharing a detailed description of one of them, a direct outgrowth of the work that I’ve been documenting here. The course is entitled African and African American Studies 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.
Here’s a goofy Zeega trailer that I made to advertise the course last semester:
So far the course has had an exhilarating beginning. Harvard’s Pre-Term Planning figures indicated that I should expect 16 students in the class, which turned out to be a slight underestimation. On the first day 120 students patiently squeezed into a room designed for 60, then on the second day 165 filled up a newer, larger room. We’re presently three weeks into things, and it looks like our final enrollment figures will settle somewhere in the 190s. We are now comfortably ensconced in our third and final lecture hall, which is a perfect fit our large brood. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – come on people, it’s a class about chocolate .
A phenomenal team of graduate student teaching fellows has also been assembled to teach students in weekly small group section meetings. They hail from fields as diverse as African and African American Studies, Romance Languages and Literatures, Inner Asian and Altaic Studies, and Studies of Religion, and have expertise in Haitian Vodou, the American prison system, the history of Islam, and medieval European food culture. Each member of the team has a unique perspective on the course materials that greatly enriches our ability to reach students from a wide variety of disciplines. Combined, we have decades of award-winning teaching experience to dole out.
The course does not involve any traditional written papers or exams (perhaps another reason for the large enrollment?); all of the assignments employ digital tools and apps (e.g. TimelineJS, Storify, Glossi, Google Drive) that will allow students to practice new research skills, design attractive multimedia online products, and add to the body of public scholarship on chocolate. The students in this course are fantastic — they’re engaged with the materials, always ready to contribute to discussions, bursting with productive energy, and hungry for both sweets and knowledge. I will update the blog throughout the semester with information on the results of their work.
Thanks to the generosity of many, I’ve also been able to assemble an exciting line up of guest speakers and to plan several guided in-class chocolate tastings. Students will additionally be encouraged to take advantage of local chocolate-relevant collections at Harvard’s Peabody Museum (Maya and Aztec cacao vessels) and Schlesinger Library (cookbooks and advertisements), the Museum of Fine Arts (early American chocolate serving pots), and numerous chocolate shops (e.g. L.A. Burdick Chocolates Cafe, Taza Chocolate Factory). More on all this and other open access course materials in coming weeks.
Without further ado, here’s a summary of the syllabus:
African and African American Studies 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food
Spring Term 2013
Mondays and Wednesdays, 2-3pm + weekly section
This course will examine the sociohistorical legacy of chocolate, with a delicious emphasis on the eating and appreciation of the so-called “food of the gods.” Interdisciplinary course readings will introduce the history of cacao cultivation, the present day state of the global chocolate industry, the diverse cultural constructions surrounding chocolate, and the implications for chocolate’s future of scientific study, international politics, alternative trade models, and the food movement. Assignments will address pressing real world questions related to chocolate consumption, social justice, responsible development, honesty and the politics of representation in production and marketing, hierarchies of quality, and myths of purity.
Gain subject matter expertise:
- on the history, culture, and taste of cacao and chocolate;
- on slavery, trade systems, and business ethics; and
- on big, pressing questions related to food politics, corporate social responsibility, the representation of race and gender in advertising, and labor rights and global trade.
- to engage profoundly with a large body of interdisciplinary primary and secondary sources of varying quality;
- to conduct historical, ethnographic, and digital research;
- to better understand analog and digital scholarship and media and how we store/find/share/create knowledge; and
- to communicate critically and thoughtfully through discussion, writing, and multimedia.
- by working on our own and in a collaborative, hands-on environment;
- by documenting the history and anthropology of chocolate; and
- by proposing creative solutions to pressing problems in the chocolate industry and making these solutions available to chocolate companies and the general public.
The following three foundational course texts are supplemented by book chapters, articles, websites, and films.
- Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
- Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2007. The True History of Chocolate. 2nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
- Mintz, Sidney. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.
Unit 1: Origins
Week 1: Introduction
Week 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”
Week 3: Chocolate expansion
Week 4: Sugar and cacao
Unit 2: Growing Cacao, Making Chocolate, Selling Sin
Week 5: Popular sweet tooths and scandal
Week 6: Slavery, abolition, and forced labor
Week 7: The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market
Unit 3: Representation, Labor, and the Ethics of Trade
Week 8: Race, ethnicity, gender, and class in chocolate advertisements
Week 9: Modern day slavery
Week 10: Alternative trade and virtuous globalization
Unit 4: Eating Chocolate
Week 11: Health, nutrition, and the politics of food
Week 12: Terroir and taste
Week 13: The food movement, haute patisserie, and artisan chocolate: the future?
While 2011 was a busy year for publishing on chocolate (see last year’s summary list here), 2012 ushered in a dizzying array of chocolate-related books from multiple genres. Below, you’ll find my picks for several of the best, as well as some from my to-read list.
If there are other recently published books that you don’t see listed here, I would love to hear your recommendations.
Note: It is the case with many of the chocolate cookbooks listed below that they will teach you surprisingly little about cacao and chocolate (and some of it will even be wrong). By all means, get chocolate-centric cookbooks for the recipes and inspiration, then couple them with a text that focuses on source ingredients cacao and chocolate like Presilla’s The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes for a more meaningful introduction to the topic.
Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America
2012 brought us another masterpiece from award-winning chef and scholar Maricel Presilla — Gran Cocina Latina. This cookbook, with more than 500 carefully researched recipes from Latin America, spans the genres of culinary history and ethnography. An entire section of the book is devoted to cacao and chocolate. It is of interest to chefs, home cooks, food travelers, and scholars.
The Elements of Dessert
A must read for hardcore pastry and cooking science geeks, this beautiful cookbook from celebrated pastry chef Francisco Migoya has over 200 recipes for exquisite, elaborate modern desserts.
Chocolates and Confections: Formula, Theory, and Technique for the Artisan Confectioner
This text is a standard for pastry chefs, bakers, and chocolatiers, now in its second edition. It has been significantly expanded and revised to include new recipes, formulas, and business advising sections.
This book has been everywhere this year — prominently displayed in bookstores, on several “best of” lists, and occasionally even selling out on Amazon. The praise is well-deserved, as the recipes, mixed with fun anecdotes from Keller, are instructive and scrumptious. The photography and design make the book worthy of coffee table fame, if you can tolerate the looking without cooking.
The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee: Growing, Roasting, and Drinking, with Recipes
A book not about chocolate, but another celebrated bean — coffee. This is an excellent, instructive text that takes the reader from coffee plant to tastebud. To the best of my knowledge, a similar book does not exist in the craft chocolate world (Presilla’s comes closest, perhaps), but one should.
Original 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book
A reprint of an American classic, of interest and use for almost all home kitchens. Historical chocolate recipes, too!
The sixth edition of a canonical educational text on baking.
Sugar and Spice: Sweets and Treats from Around the World
Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra is an award-winning food historian and writer. In this text, she has collected over 120 clear recipes for sweet treats from around the world. Stories and images make this book equal parts good read and useful cookbook.
The Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook: How to Make Truly Scrumptious Candy in Your Own Kitchen!
For DIY enthusiasts and candy lovers, this cookbook from the popular Liddabit Sweets brand clearly explains home candymaking with fun flavor twists. The photos are lovely and instructive, and the authors’ humor is entertaining.
Luscious Chocolate Desserts
For the reader who wants alluring pictures and mouthwatering, well-tested chocolate recipes designed for home cooks, this cookbook from Lori Longbotham, a former food editor at Gourmet, does not disappoint. 65-plus recipes, clear instructions, and easily-located ingredients make this ideal for someone obsessed with chocolate but new to cooking with it.
I’m Dreaming of a Chocolate Christmas
Award-winning chef and pastry chef Marcel Desaulniers provides 72 delectable chocolate Christmas recipes for home cooks. Includes a section on packing and shipping treats as gifts.
Rococo: Mastering the Art of Chocolate, Chantal Coady
Rococo is an elegantly branded product line from one of Britain’s top chocolatiers, Chantal Coady. In this exquisitely designed book, Coady tells the story of her business and provides a selection of plainly written recipes. Also great for display and gifting.
Chocolate to Savour, Kirsten Tibballs
Kirsten Tibballs, Australian chocolatier, pastry chef, Callebaut representative, and founder of the Savour Chocolate and Patisserie School in Melbourne, offers plainly written recipes for enthusiasts in this debut cookbook.
Patrick Roger, en quète de chocolat, Patrick Roger, Jean-Marc Dimanche
Eccentric French chocolatier Patrick Roger has here collected stunning photographs of some of his most celebrated chocolate sculptures, from an exhibit series that illustrates the dangers of deforestation to animals. These remarkable works of chocolate art feature orangutans, gorillas, polar bears, elephants, and more. In French.
Chocolat Café, Pierre Marcolini
Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini has produced a cookbook that brings together chocolate and coffee. The text has recipes, photos, advice on chocolate and coffee pairing, and stories from Marcolini’s life. In French.
Chocolat, Christophe Felder, Domitille Langot
Noted French pastry chef Christophe Felder’s enormous cookbook has approximately 200 recipes for chocolate and pastry, ranging from simple to challenging, traditional to innovative. Felder offers advice on tasting, flavor pairing, and working with chocolate. A good fit for pastry chefs and adventurous home cooks. In French.
Chocolat Menier, Vincent Boué, Hubert Delorme, Didier Stéphan, Héloïse Martel
This cookbook is the stuff of nostalgia for any who grew up eating Menier chocolate. Nearly 300 easy-to-make classic recipes for the home cook. In French.
Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate
Author, entrepreneur, and educator Pam Williams has long been a leader in the chocolate industry. (Regular readers will note that I took an online course at her school, the Ecole Chocolat.) Jim Eber, her co-author, is a specialist in food and business marketing. In this important text, they survey the current state of the chocolate industry — from cacao genetics to farms to marketing to the art of the chocolatier. A must-read for the serious chocolate geek.
Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa
This travel narrative from historian Catherine Higgs traces the travels of Englishman Joseph Burtt, hired by Cadbury Brothers Limited to investigate claims of forced labor on the cacao plantations of Sao Tome and Principe, through Africa. Burtt’s early twentieth century “fieldwork experience” of sorts, and subsequent slow, but deliberate reporting on the abuses he witnessed played a role in influencing a number of important changes in African labor practices and chocolate industry ethics. (This history is detailed in different form in Lowell J. Satre’s Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business) An important read for those interested in chocolate industry ethics, labor rights, African studies, and history of chocolate.
Taste Matters: Why We Like the Foods We Do
How do genes, maternal diet, culture, and physiology affect taste? Prescott ponders these questions in this fascinating, well-researched book. Interesting as much for the information it provides as for the potential it demonstrates for public health causes.
Coffee Life in Japan (California Studies in Food and Culture)
This book isn’t about chocolate, but it is about coffee culture, which presents interesting parallels and contrasts. A carefully researched, thoughtfully written history-ethnography-memoir about the experience of coffee in Japan.
Chocolate in Health and Nutrition (Nutrition and Health)
If ever there was an argument for keeping libraries well-funded, this book is one. Try to borrow it from the library if you can. (A WorldCat search shows where to find it.)
An academic text with a very high price point, this text is unique in its broad level scholarly, data-driven treatment of the research on chocolate and health.
The Science of Ice Cream
For ice cream professionals and serious enthusiasts, this book will not so much teach you how to make ice cream as about the science behind how ice cream is made.
On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao
Rabbi Deborah R. Prinze traces the historical connections between Jews, religion, and chocolate in this unique text. While at times the links drawn are slightly overstated, the author’s passionate writing makes for a fun introduction to the topic.
Chicago’s Sweet Candy History (Images of America)
A book of photographs with trivia mixed in, this is an enjoyable way to picture 150 years of Chicago’s confectionery history.
The Trebor Story: How a Tiny Family Firm Making Sweets in London’s East End Became Britain’s Biggest Sugar Confectioner, Creating Iconic Brands Before Selling to Cadbury and Later Kraft Foods, Matthew Crampton
The lengthy title more or less summarizes this book, written by a fan of the Trebor family business in an engaging style. Of interest to those studying business or confectionery history.
Du Cacao et Des Hommes, Voyages Dans le Monde du Chocolate, Alfred Conesa
French researcher Alfred Conesa spent six years traveling the world investigating cacao and the lives of people who care for it. His resulting book is organized in two parts – the first describes the history of the cacao tree, the second traces the metamorphosis of cacao fruit from its first indigenous uses to present day popularity. The book is illustrated with artwork by cacao producers. Of interest to anthropologists, historians, agronomists, indigenous studies scholars, and serious chocolate enthusiasts. In French.
Peaches for Father Francis: A Novel
The third book in the best-selling Chocolat series, this story takes Vianne Rocher back to Lansquenet, the French village where readers first learned of her magical chocolates. While Harris’ descriptive style itself relies on stereotype, her writing makes the heavy themes of religious and cultural tolerance easy to stomach, and provides a heartwarming emphasis on the importance of food and chocolate to building community.
The Chocolate Thief
Paris, chocolate, romance, comedy — a fun read all around.
Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
A period drama fantasy, one reviewer aptly summed up this book’s style as “Jane Austen meets J.K. Rowling.” Plus there’s talk of an enchanted chocolate pot. An entertaining read for young (and young at heart) adults.
Palmeras en la nieve, Luz Gabas
Moving between colonial and present-day Fernando Pó (now called Bioko), the northernmost part of what is now Equatorial Guinea, the only Spanish-speaking African country, this novel is part dramatic intercultural love story, part ode to the magic of growing some of the world’s top cacao. The cacao is named Sampaka, just like the Barcelona-based company Cacao Sampaka (see what the author did there?). In Spanish.
Sweet Coco: Chocolate Maker’s Apprentice
Perhaps the only children’s book to describe the process of taking cacao from bean to bar chocolate, following a young girl’s magical journey with her favorite chocolate maker. I found the story and rhyming cloying at times, but the book is nevertheless instructive and well-designed.
Too-Loose the Chocolate Moose, 30th Anniversary Edition
It’s not easy being a moose made of chocolate. This millenial childhood classic has been rereleased for its 30th anniversary.
Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot
A moving, if somewhat romanticized, account of Operation Little Vittles, a candy drop initiative carried out by an American pilot during the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949.
La fabuleuse histoire du gâteau au chocolat!, Orianne Lallemand
This colorfully illustrated children’s story tells the tale of a troublesome dragon wooed by chocolate cake (with recipe). In French.
Ok, it’s not a book, but this French film is a delight! If you love chocolate, introverts, romance, and laughter, you must see it. In French with English subtitles.
What’s next on my chocolate reading list?
Cacao, Michèle Kahn
The world of tea is far vaster than we previously imagined. This was the conclusion that Trevor and I reached last Sunday after enjoying our holiday present to ourselves: a tea tasting at the acclaimed L’Espalier restaurant in Boston. Organized and hosted as part of a monthly series by accomplished Tea Sommelier Cynthia Gold, the event was dedicated to the 239th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party (known in its day simply as “the destruction of the tea”). On the menu were five teas – all of which were of the tea varieties that were dumped by the chest into Boston Harbor – and one colonial tea punch. We were tickled to learn that the record of which teas and how many thousands of pounds of each were on board the ship has survived, and it was quite the treat to try their present day incarnations.
Equal parts history lesson and tea tasting/pairing exercise, the event was a perfect combination of delicious fun and tea education. Over the course of two hours, Chef Gold wove together thoughtfully researched historical trivia, detailed notes on each tea, and advice on pairing tea with food.
The teas were, in order:
- China Green Young Hyson, Anhui Province (fun fact #1: It was George Washington’s favorite.)
- Fishhouse Punch, A Colonial Tea Punch
- Gunpowder Green
- Bohea Black, Wuyishan China (fun fact #2: It was Benjamin Franklin’s favorite.)
- China Black Congou, Anhui Province
- Lapsang Souchong
Three of the teas (Gunpowder Green, Bohea Black, and China Black Congou) were also paired with food inspired by colonial New England menus. While the tea, freshly steeped and served in glass stemware, stood out for its simplicity, there was more than enough sugar for an entire holiday season in the form of no fewer than seven distinct desserts. Especially noteworthy were the Brulee Indian Pudding with vanilla Chantilly cream, rum raisin scone, and squash macaròns.
My favorite of the teas was the China Green Young Hyson. A light, smooth, ever-so-slightly grassy green tea harvested “before the rains” in the Anhui province of China, it tasted of the gentle warmth of spring. Trevor and I both agreed that it was a paragon of subtle-tea. [wink] All of the teas, however, taught us something new about the flavor of properly stored and prepared tea as well as our own preferences.
The event menu and Chef Gold’s presentation got me thinking more about pairing tea and chocolate, which is something that I see often in bonbons but less in pairing events like those that involve chocolate and wine or, with growing popularity, chocolate and beer. Many chocolatiers prepare truffles, barks, and bars that bring together dark chocolate and Earl Grey, white chocolate and green tea, or chocolate and chai spices. And even though I tend to eat chocolate on its own, without accompaniment, I would welcome pairings that bring together excellent, well prepared teas with sophisticated, well made bar chocolate. The China Green Young Hyson’s spring-like quality and the gentle handling it receives in harvest and preparation reminded me immediately of Pacari Chocolate’s organic and biodynamic 70% Raw bar. One could also imagine a contrasting pairing of a smoky, meaty Lapsang Souchong with a chocolate bar like Patric Chocolate’s 70% Rio Caribe Superior that tastes of nuts and dried fruit, for example. Or a matched pairing of a jasmine-scented tea with a bar that has delicate, floral notes – the limited edition Rogue Chocolatier Piura bar of my taste memory dreams would be divine. The chocolate decadence cake with matcha sablé that we tasted this Sunday was a start, though muddied by an unremarkable cocoa powder.
Chef Gold’s recommendation for an online tea retail shop: Upton Tea, which also happens to be based in Holliston, MA, just west of Boston. We rushed home to order holiday gifts for some of our favorite tea lovers. I also spent a contented evening reading Chef Gold’s superlative book Culinary Tea, which provides a wonderfully clear introduction to the world of fine tea and over 150 creative recipes for using tea in cooking.
In short, I highly recommend attending a tea tasting at L’Espalier. Trevor and I plan to return soon ourselves. More on the related worlds of chocolate and tea to come.
After nearly two years of observing the chocolate news cycle, I’ve come to expect that scientific studies linking chocolate with health, wealth, and/or happiness will be widely cited in the media, most often with great enthusiasm and little skepticism. This past week proved no exception, with a study that made for catchy headlines like “Eat chocolate, win the Nobel Prize?,” “Secret to Winning a Nobel Prize? Eat More Chocolate,” and “Chocolate Consumption Directly Related To Nobel Prize Wins, Says New Study.”
These news pieces spread like wildfire through the chocolate world as chocolate companies and afficionados Facebooked and tweeted them with gusto. I often enjoy such stories myself — they can be fun and, hey, any evidence quantifying chocolate’s many virtues is welcome, right? There is a problem with this study’s viral path through the media and the chocolate world, though: its data does not support its claims.
I find it disconcerting that this kind of reporting on this kind of study so often goes unchecked by any broadly available dissenting response. Fortunately, I live with Trevor Bass, an expert on data and its many abuses. His take on the study is below.
I managed to score last week’s issue of absurdist scientific humor publication The New England Journal of Medicine, which includes a hilarious note on “Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates.” As I continued reading the issue and failed to see the humor in such knee-slappers as “Fibulin-3 as a Blood and Effusion Biomarker for Pleural Mesothelioma” and “Evaluation and Initial Treatment of Supraventricular Tachycardia,” I quickly came to the realization that NEJM is not intended as a satirical magazine. It is, in fact, among the world’s most prestigious peer-reviewed medical journals.
Inspired by recent findings that compounds in chocolate improve cognitive function, cardiologist Franz Messerli’s note questions whether there is “a correlation between between a country’s level of chocolate consumption and its population’s cognitive function.” Using the number of Nobel laureates per capita as a “surrogate end point” for a population’s percentage of wicked smahties, the study finds a “surprisingly powerful correlation between chocolate intake and the number of Nobel laureates in various countries” (23 in all). While he concedes that correlation does not imply causation, Messerli 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.”
Reportedly, when contacted by the Associated Press, “Sven Lidin, the chairman of the Nobel chemistry prize committee, had not seen the study but was giggling so much when told of it that he could barely comment.”
Indeed, one doesn’t require a doctorate in statistics to find serious flaws in the study. It was clearly intended as tongue-in-cheek to some degree by Messerli (who has according to NPR published around 800 peer reviewed papers) and NEJM (which also according to NPR has a history of occasional tomfoolery), though to what degree I can’t quite ascertain. Scientists’ riotous senses of humor aside, I would have expected dozens of more subtly troubling logical leaps to be followed by winky faces.
Given the absence of sufficient semicolon close parentheses, I worry about the misinformation generated by this study. The media has run wild with it in the past week, citing it widely with often far too little skepticism – an excellent example of a phenomenon I’ve recently started calling quantitative exceptionalism. A comment cardiologist Sanjay Kaul provided to CardioBrief sums up the dangers well: “This article highlights, with a touch of whimsy, caveats that challenge the interpretation of findings of observational studies. From the use of surrogate endpoints (based on biological plausibility and the results of preclinical studies) to the distinction between correlation and causation, confounding (whether the effect size is too large to be explained away by confounding), and the hypothesis-generating nature of the inferential process. Careful consideration of these issues is likely to help navigate through the labyrinth of misinformation and disinformation these types of studies are particularly prone to generating.”
Messerli is no stranger to the harmful effects scientific misinformation can have. Last year, he was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article about mistakes in scientific studies as one of a large number of doctors who (understandably) fell prey to an erroneous paper in the Lancet, another highly respected medical journal. Hundreds of thousands of patients were affected, and Messerli argued that the Lancet had a “moral obligation” to withdraw the paper. Granted, doctors around the world aren’t likely to begin writing prescriptions for dangerously high doses of chocolate based on Messerli’s note in NEJM any time soon, but the difference is one of magnitude rather than direction.
A few examples of things I found more troubling slash hilarious about Messerli’s note:
- The use of the number of Nobel laureates as a surrogate endpoint for cognitive function is…how do I say it?…strange. In fact, the number of Nobel laureates probably has a lot more to do with a country’s wealth. As Nobel laureate Eric Cornell told Reuters, “National chocolate consumption is correlated with a country’s wealth and high-quality research is correlated with a country’s wealth…therefore chocolate is going to be correlated with high-quality research, but there is no causal connection there.”
- Messerli writes: “Obviously, these findings are hypothesis-generating only and will have to be tested in a prospective, randomized trial.” Considering that countries in the study have at most a few Nobel laureates per million population, imagine the enormous expense, financial and otherwise, of such a trial. A properly controlled study would deprive millions of the joys of chocolate.
- While the note warns in multiple places that causation has not been proven, its language repeatedly justifies causation based on tenuous logic. For example, Messerli writes that “it would take about 0.4 kg of chocolate per capita per year to increase the number of Nobel laureates in a given country by 1” and even refers to a “minimally effective chocolate dose.” He justifies such remarks only with references to prior studies linking cacao consumption and cognitive function, which are many leaps-of-faith removed from these conclusions.
- Messerli writes but has no justification for this statement: “it is difficult to identify a plausible common denominator that could possibly drive both chocolate consumption and the number of Nobel laureates over many years. 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.”
- The study appears to use chocolate rather than flavanol or cacao consumption figures, and the types of chocolate consumed in the studied countries varies significantly. Another gem from Cornell’s interview in Reuters: “It’s one thing if you want like a medicine or chemistry Nobel Prize, ok, but if you want a physics Nobel Prize it pretty much has got to be dark chocolate.” I wonder how considering less economically correlated forms of flavanols like green tea would change the results.
Is Messerli deserving of an Ig Nobel Prize for this gem? According to the Annals of Improbable Research, which awards the prizes annually: “Every Ig Nobel Prize winner has done something that first makes people LAUGH, then makes them THINK.”
Regardless, I’m left wondering what foods predispose you to becoming an Ig Nobel laureate. Foods that leave a funny taste in your mouth? Personally, I’m going to stick with salad.
Trevor Bass is a quantrepreneur and data scientist who lives in Cambridge, MA. Visit his professional site here to learn more about his work.