Does ice cream make kids smarter?

I enjoy reading The Economist during dinnertime, a source of convenient insight and quick information that I generally trust to have some level of class and be reasonably unbiased. In the rare cases where opinion is wheeled onto center stage on a trolley, it would be clearly labelled “THIS IS AN OPINION. NOT FACT”, so nobody unknowingly swallows it to end up suffering an ill reaction. But a couple weeks ago, an article The beneficial effects of ice-cream on intelligence – a delicious correlation left me in want. Sure, it reminded me that I hadn’t had ice cream in weeks, but the article straight up from its title, made me spit out half of my dinner (a confit tuna tartine, if you were wondering).

It’s like that moment when you hear the bubble containing your prince charming pops and out hops a silly google-eyed frog.

First, correlation is correlation is JUST correlation. And not in a million years, not EVER, will it mean causation. Consider two statements:

  1. Red cars are more likely to be involved in car accidents than any other colour.
  2. Driving a red car is more dangerous than driving a car of any other colour.

Both say the same thing, right?

Not quite. The first one is a statement about correlation and the second is about causation. A correlation acknowledges a pattern in an observation. It is a description, and is completely acceptable. However, the second is a statement of a causation, that the colour red itself has an influence on a driver’s likelihood of getting into a car accident. This is not acceptable, because obviously if the colour red really made a car more dangerous, all the red cars would be recalled. In this case, it is actually psychology at work as seeing the colour red tends to arouse excitement and aggression in people, and drivers of red cars usually pick that colour because its boldness resonates with them. I’m probably wrong with this last explanation, but forgive me, I’m no psychologist.

Now, back to ice cream. From the graph, one could say that for most countries higher per capita consumption of ice cream tend to be observed with a higher PISA educational performance test score. But by stating that eating ice cream somehow makes you smarter, they’re implying a cause and effect relationship that is found not even in the most all-things-fit dietitian’s handbook. But of course, most people would’ve already headed out to grab a tub of Breyers or Ben and Jerry’s upon reading the title.

But let me make this clear, despite my burning desire for the opposite to be true: ice cream does not make you smarter.

Scooping back into the graph, you’ll see a bunch of uber-smart Asian kids from rich East Asian countries (Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong) who are way too smart for the amount of ice cream they eat. (Them Asian parents are strict!) Some rich white countries who are eating way too much ice cream for their brain to absorb (brainfreeze!). And places like Peru, Brazil, Germany, and Canada where the kids are eating just the right amount of ice cream for their IQ.

That definitely made logical sense to me.

Said no one ever.

So how do we explain this weird semi-solid pattern? I’m no economist, or social scientist, or education specialist or whatever, but I do know a thing or two about ice cream, so let’s start there.

There are a few things that ice cream needs: ice, and cream. See? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure stuff out.

Now ice** does this inconvenient thing where it melts, so in order to have ice (or ice cream), we need refrigerators. Refrigerators are one of the best things that came out of the industrial revolution. They are typically quite pricey, and you’d only get one if there’s a reliable source of electricity in your house. Even now they are only widely distributed in fully industrialized countries. In India, for example, less than 10% of households have a refrigerator (only a portion of which would include a freezer). In the United States on the other hand, of those households below the poverty line (living off less than $1 per day per person), 97.8% have a refrigerator. In other words, the availability of refrigeration, depends on the presence and extent of a nation’s level of industrialization, wealth, and access to stable sources of electricity. This would explain why developing countries don’t eat much ice cream.

As for this cream thing, it comes from dairy cows which require tons of land. In East Asia, the population density index or number of people per square kilometer is between 336.33 for Japan and 7987.52 for Singapore. Compare that to the average minimum land requirement per dairy cow of 0.0074 square kilometers or maximum density of 135.91 cows per km2 , and you’ll realize that a single cow can be worth up to 59 people in terms of land requirements. Now you see why dairy’s just not that big a deal in East Asia, in fact, signing up to do dairy production in East Asia is probably the worst deal ever. The unavailability of dairy, and the fact that East Asian food cultures were virtually dairy-free for thousands of years largely explains why Asian kids don’t eat much ice cream.

For developed nations with tons of land for their population such as Australia, Sweden, Finland, and United States whose population densities range from 2.91 to 32.45, they have the perfect conditions for eating ice cream. And I mean, it’s ice cream, so sky’s the limit.

Now what about the middle countries that seem to follow the rule? A bunch of things, but the main relationship between ice cream consumption and educational test scores among kids I would say is this: since ice cream is more or less a product of wealth, industrialization, basic utilities and infrastructure, land, and western culture, it should be closely related to student test scores which shares much of the same inputs. (Again, East Asian culture would be an outlier as its emphasis on early education exceeds that of the already strong emphasis in Western culture. And land isn’t really an issue with learning.)

I don’t blame the Economist, really, after all the fun the article provided me. But now I wonder what they’ll post next – “Eating rice turns you Asian”? That’ll be a fun one.

**Ice cream used to be cream poured into a bucket surrounded by ice, have ice cream machines now, where you freeze the bowl so you don’t need chunks of ice.

For the foolishness of God

is wiser than human wisdom,

and the weakness of God

is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:25

Orange Pekoe Ice Cream

Orange Pekoe Ice Cream – about 1 pint

  • 375 ml half-and-half or 18% cream
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 165 g brown sugar
  • 8 orange pekoe tea bags, cut open
  • 2 earl grey tea bags, cut open
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  1. Empty the tea bags into a small saucepot and pour in the cream. Bring almost to a simmer on medium low heat, stirring constantly.  Turn off the heat as soon as the mixture begins to boil. Remove from heat and place on a trivet. Cover and let steep for 5 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, whisk together the yolk, sugar, and salt until pale.
  3. Strain the steeped cream through a fine sieve into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly to prevent cooking the eggs.
  4. Strain the mixture through the sieve again back into the saucepot.
  5. Cook on medium low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat.
  6. Cool completely before chilling overnight in the fridge.
  7. Once the custard is completely chilled, churn in an ice cream machine for about 25-30 minutes, or until the consistency of buttercream frosting. (I like to churn it slightly past the creamy gelato stage because I find the ice creams tend to be a bit too solid and hard to scoop with the smaller amount of air incorporated.)
  8. Enjoy immediately (the biggest joy of making your own ice cream), or

The teas suggested here are just the beginning – I’ve made the same recipe using chai and thai tea as well, I just can’t tell which one I like better! Want to next-level it? Scoop it into a whisky glass and top with home-cooked boba! You’re welcome.

Thoughts? I'd love to hear them!

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