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.
I was green with envy last weekend as tweets and Facebook posts poured in with updates from the Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA. While I’ve never attended the festival, the largest gathering of bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the United States, it has been on my wish list since I started blogging. The schedule is packed with what look like excellent events — tastings, lectures, demonstrations, film showings, and just plain fun — many led by experts from the chocolate world. You can view the impressive line-up here [pdf]. Social media allowed many of us to experience the festival vicariously, at least in part. Check out the festival’s Facebook and Twitter pages or watch the trailer below to get a sense for the action.
The social media extravaganza surrounding the festival reminded me of how often I receive queries about chocolate and food events here at the blog. I keep a Google calendar of these events for my own reference and have decided to make it public via the “events” link on the top right of this page. There, you’ll find an ever-growing list of events in the chocolate and food studies world. A heavy emphasis is placed on events in the New England area where I live, but readers who live in other regions can still often find options closer to their own homes. Inclusion of an event on the list does not mean that I endorse the event or that I will attend it myself, but rather that I’ve identified it as a potential site for learning and research worth sharing with a larger audience. I strongly recommend double-checking all details with the hosting institution for each event, as I cannot regularly check for changes related to cancellations, etc, and some events do require entrance fees and/or early registration.
I’ll be working on the events page over the next few weeks to make it even more user friendly, hopefully with a dynamic map to aid in finding events in specific regions. In the meantime, I warmly welcome submissions of event recommendations. To fellow residents of the New England area — we’re fortunate to find ourselves in the midst of an especially vibrant food events scene. If you’re not hungry now, you will be soon!
If you were like me and followed the London 2012 Olympics with great enthusiasm, chances are that you’re feeling a bit of a void in your life now that the Games are over. So here’s a retrospective of a story that NBC didn’t cover: the chocolate Olympics.
Kraft/Cadbury was an “official sponsor” and the “official treat provider” for the London games, the only chocolate company allowed that status (Mars was the “official chocolate” of Beijing 2008), and launched a 50 million pound marketing campaign as a result. The campaign included printing the London 2012 logo on Cadbury products, selling chocolates made in the shape of the rather odd Olympic mascots, and crafting a social media strategy to amp up support for Great Britain’s athletes.
In typical Cadbury fashion, the marketing was quirky. The interactive online tool “The Cadbury Choculator” allows users to generate Games statistics in chocolatey measurements. For example, I learned that “The London 2012 Olympic Swimming pool is 208 wonderful Cadbury Dairy Milk bars wide” and “In Olympic Trampolining the gymnasts perform tricks at whopping 500 Cadbury Crunchie bars high.”
Cadbury also returned to its stop motion Crème Egg video style for the Games with an Olympic-themed “Let the Goo Games Begin” campaign:
Other chocolate companies were unofficially involved with the Games, by sponsoring athletes as “brand ambassadors,” setting up treat stands around London, and releasing products in “the spirit of” the Olympics. Regulations around the use of the Olympic symbols are strict, though, and unsanctioned uses, like those of bakers making bagels or cakes displaying the Olympic rings, were subject to accusation of trademark infringement. But, as is often the case, there were ways around the rules, and people who knew where to ask could still find plenty of chocolate diversity thanks to the thriving black market in the Olympic Park.
Chocolate and fitness
One aspect of the chocolate Olympics merits further discussion than it got in the mainstream press this year — the ethics of promoting candy to children, especially when linking it with fitness. While many enjoy debating the efficacy of advertising regulations, there is significant evidence demonstrating the harmful health consequences of advertising to kids. Cadbury seems to have chosen a different strategy this year due to bad press around childhood obesity in the past, focusing its marketing push on game-playing rather than chocolate consumption. Still, plenty of marketing to kids took place during the Olympics and will continue in the future, and some of it included chocolate.
The average person should never model their diet after elite athletes who eat up to 12,000 calories a day to keep up with their workout regime. The vast majority of us simply don’t move around enough to need that much food. It’s therefore all the more unfortunate that the sponsorships elite athletes rely on to support themselves financially so often compromise basic nutritional wisdom. (Even American swimmer and eleven time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte sought out a healthier training diet after feeling that he could have performed better in the 2008 Beijing Olympics without typical breakfasts of “two or three McDonald’s egg McMuffins, some hashbrowns and maybe a chicken sandwich.”)
Several USA Swimming team members hawk chocolate milk for big bucks from the Refuel With Chocolate Milk campaign. I’d need to swim for 30 minutes to burn off the calories in the average serving of low-fat chocolate milk, and the sugar content is as high as in many sodas. Even beloved Massachusetts-based Team USA gold medal winning gymnast Aly Raisman is selling chocolate milk as “the best combination of carbohydrates and protein” for post-workout muscle recovery. Given the excessive sugar content, poor quality of the chocolate, and the mounting evidence against heavy milk consumption for health, the suggestion that this is an ideal post-workout drink for an average person is absurd.
Olympian love for chocolate
Of course, it wasn’t all marketing and sponsorships at the chocolate Olympics. Several Olympians went on the record about their love for chocolate “just because.” Great Britain’s medal winning triathletes the Brownlee brothers have been inspired by chocolate since childhood, Great Britain’s gold medalist heptathlete Jessica Ennis looks forward to splurging on chocolate on her weekly cheat days during training, the USA’s all around gymnastics gold medalist Gabby Douglas enjoys “all kinds of chocolate,” and India’s medal winning badminton player Saina Nehwal said “I’m going to eat a lot of chocolate now. It’s okay if I put on some weight,” when asked what her plans were after the Games. Team USA’s lightweight rower, Nick LaCava, who is 6’3″ tall and, incredibly, weighs in at 156 pounds on race days, has a chocolate business background. He was a co-founder of customizable chocolate bar company Chocomize before living out his Olympic dream.
Let’s keep it real
The oldest Olympic torch bearer at these Games, 100-year-old Diana Gould, shared the key to long life with the UK’s Telegraph. According to her century of wisdom, one can live a long and happy life with a good attitude, healthy habits that include lots of walking, and a bit of chocolate each day.
Usain Bolt was awarded a huge chocolate bar in the Czech Republic’s Golden Spike athletics event in May 2012 and went on to win three gold medals in the London Olympics (there’s a cute video of tiny children racing against him and then sharing chocolate here). As delicious as that chocolate might have been, it was not responsible for making him the fastest man in the world. Twice. Nor should chocolate companies suggest that it was.
We’ve seen Women Being Seduced By Chocolate In Stock Photos and Women Alone With Chocolate in TV Commercials. Now, here are thirteen examples featuring male-female relationships as depicted in television advertisements for chocolate.
First up, there is the common theme of women sexualizing men with chocolate. These commercials tend to go something like this: Women check out an attractive man. The man is in possession of chocolate. Women decide they want the man’s chocolate. All hell breaks loose.
Lindt Lindor Truffles and Roger Federer “Airport” commercial:
3 Musketeers “Catwalk” commercial:
AXE Dark Temptation commercial, particularly disturbing for its play on blackface
Second, there’s the related theme of women dissatisfied by men finding solace in chocolate. These ads often show men in embarrassing circumstances or failing women romantically while the women enjoy chocolate instead of the men’s company.
Here’s a suggestive FLING Chocolate dressing room ad. “It’s naughty… but not that naughty.”:
M&M’s 2012 Super Bowl commercial marked the debut of a judgy new female character, Ms. Brown.:
A Nestle AeroBar commercial from South Africa, where a pair of rowdy male sports fans make certain not to interrupt a special lady’s private chocolate time because “Everyone knows not to interrupt a lady and her AeroBar.”:
A Nestle “Voodoo” commercial, which manages to merge ugly stereotypes of gender and religion. “As it melts in your mouth, it’s melting your heart.”:
A DOVE Chocolate commercial where a woman’s boyfriend takes on the role of chagrined caretaker because she exists in some sort modern-day female hysteria characterized by orgasmic memory loss upon chocolate consumption.:
Third, we encounter a paired set of themes. The first and more common of the two is that of men selling women chocolate, romance, and sex.
This Laima Chocolate ad from Europe closely links chocolate and symbols of romance and promises of intimacy – a beautiful bed, flowers, doves, a handsome man, pajamas.:
This highly sexualized European commercial targets women by portraying a group of scantily clad muscle-bound men making cookies.:
This Turkish commercial for Biscolata Starz biscuits also aims to entice with erotic imagery.:
Less common is the second in the pair — the theme of women selling men chocolate, romance, and sex. Two examples come from Ms. Green, the first (and until this year, the only) female M&M’s character.
Here’s an ad from the Middle East, showing the female green M&M, Ms. Green, being coy and flirtatious, with two other male M&Ms vying for her attention. The song is Baddi Doub, by Lebanese singer Elissa, and its highly suggestive lyrics include lines like “Let me drink of your love” and “I want to melt.”:
And finally here’s an American commercial featuring Miss Green sensually selling Mint M&M’s Premiums, rendering her male M&M counterparts senseless.:
Watching all of these ads one after the other like this really drives home the old maxim “sex sells” (or “sexism sells,” in several cases above). In the case of chocolate, the marketing is heavily geared toward women yet also disconcertingly focused on stereotypical gender roles. I admit that while some of the ads make me chuckle, I’m mostly bored by their similarity. C’mon now, marketing firms. Let’s see something different for a change!
More chocolate TV advertisements — with still other approaches to traditional gender roles — to come in the next post.
The blog lives! It’s been an exciting few months behind the scenes, resulting in this extended absence from posting. More on recent developments soon.
In February’s Women Being Seduced By Chocolate post, I explored the heavily gendered and sexualized images of women consuming chocolate in stock photographs. As a follow up to these still images, I’ve been exploring moving ones — specifically images of women in television advertisements for chocolate. TV commercials offer a slightly more nuanced (though just slightly) approach to chocolate marketing and stereotypical gender and sex roles.
Here are nine examples featuring women alone with chocolate in commercials. Variations on this theme are to come next week. These ads were produced within the past five years (most within the past two or three), and some are currently running on TV where I live.
Most of the ads depict women craving, testifying, or dreaming about chocolate, then eating it, all in various states of sensual arousal. The ads also frequently portray chocolate as a guilty pleasure or consolation prize, thus toying with societal norms surrounding abstinence and gender performance. In a space of time as short as 15 to 30 seconds, a woman is introduced, caricatured, and titillated by chocolate consumption, depending on how we, the viewers, choose to interpret things. See for yourself:
Russell Stover cuts right to the chase with this ad, called “Women Love Chocolate”:
Previously featured in the Chocolate Rooms post, this Kellogg’s Special K ad depicts chocolate cravings as a woman’s guilty pleasure that can make dreams come true without expanding waistlines:
DOVE Chocolate’s “Only Human” commercial offers chocolate as a consolation prize for the physical and emotional challenges of femininity:
This US ad for Werther’s Original Caramel Chocolates gets more suggestive about what chocolate can do for a woman. “I just want to sink into this sofa with a bag of these…”:
The UK Werther’s Original Caramel Chocolates ad takes the suggestion even further, showing a woman having a strong, if bizarre reaction after trying the sweets:
Ghirardelli’s “Rendezvous” commercial has a simple message. A woman + chocolate = a sensual love reward:
Two more DOVE ads, the first from the US and the second from Russia, suggest that eating chocolate is a total body physical pleasure:
Perhaps the most boldly obvious is York Peppermint Pattie’s “Get the sensation,” a series of commercials with similar content. In this example, a woman takes a bite with sensuously parted lips, goosebumps rise on her skin, her pupils dilate, and her breath quickens. Subtle, it is not:
What do you think?