Superfoods and Superhype

The term “Superfood” has become part of our vocabulary. Such foods are the supposed antitheses of “junk foods” with the implication that if we gorge on them we can delay our earthly departure. The label “superfood” is usually backed by reference to some research that has little bearing on human consumption. There may have been something interesting noted in a laboratory experiment or in some animal feeding study in which rodents consumed far, far more than of the food in question than can be incorporated into the human diet.  One day it may be crocus extract or turmeric, the next day some mushroom you never heard of, or chocolate. Oh yes, chocolate.

Any study that suggests some positive effect attributed to chocolate is sure to get a good dose of press. Especially if the study appeared in a publication as prestigious as the New England Jornal of Medicine. And especially if it appeared with a headline like “Chocolate consumption, cognitive function & Nobel laureates.” The study focused on chocolate consumption per capita in different countries and related this to the number of Nobel laureates produced by those countries. The study was the brain child of Dr. Franz Messerli of St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York. He found that the Swiss lead the pack.  They consume about a third of a chocolate bar (40 grams) every day and have the most Nobel Prize winners per capita. They are followed by the Swedes and the Danes. Americans of course win a lot of Nobel Prizes, but when considered on a per capita basis they lag behind those countries. Indeed Americans would have to up their chocolate intake by about three quarters of a pound per person a year to produce another Nobel Prize winner.

Now let’s let the cat out of the bag. Dr.Messerli doesn’t really think that chocolate makes you smarter. He did want to show how easy it is to come to the wrong conclusion upon making an observation. The correlation between chocolate consumption and Nobel Prize winners is very strong but it cannot be interpreted as cause and effect. Scientists look for correlations all over the place and some eventually turn out to be useful because they turn out to have cause and effect relationships, such as high cholesterol and heart disease, smoking and lung cancer. But in the case of chocolate the link to intelligence is unlikely. It is more likely that chocolate consumption is correlated to the wealth of a country and high quality research is also correlated with a country’s wealth.  Therefore chocolate consumption correlates with high quality research which correlates with Nobel Prizes.

Of course you cannot rule out a direct chocolate effect. Flavanols found in chocolate really may give the brain a boost.  At least if you are a snail. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that the strength and length of snail memories could be enhanced by exposure to epicatechin, a compound found in chocolate. How did the researchers discover this? By training snails to close their breathing holes when dunked in water and examining whether the ones exposed to epicatechin would remember to keep their holes shut when dunked better. I must say I don’t really understand how they went about doing this. Maybe I haven’t eaten enough chocolate.

Print | posted on Monday, October 29, 2012 3:50 PM

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