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Can Neurogastronomy Save the World?


As someone who travels for a living—writing about the best places to eat, hike, and sleep—I spend a lot of time on airplanes. Sometimes I’ve wondered as I look out at the clouds floating by the window or wait for my laptop to boot up: Why do the same snacks that satisfy me at my desk on the ground never seem to do the trick when I’m in the air?

Rachel Herz, PhD, has an answer: neurogastronomy. Herz is a neuroscientist who teaches at Brown University, and she’s the author of Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship with Food. The ambient noise in the average airplane cabin, she says, is 85 decibels. (For comparison’s sake, the average conversation is around 60 decibels.) Several studies have shown that perceptions of sweet and salty are skewed by noise. So my organic energy bar is plenty salty on terra firma … but in flight, with the engines whirring in my ear, it seems insufficient.

If you’re surprised that sounds can affect how salty something seems, get this: All your senses affect how your brain builds your perception of flavors and food. Sure, foods have taste molecules, and your tongue has receptors for these molecules. But scientists are learning that’s only part of the picture. Flavor isn’t inherent to food; it’s all in your head.

Neurogastronomy: It’s kind of a big deal

Neurogastronomy is “the relatively new science of how our brains ‘taste’ food, and that happens through our senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and even sound as you’re eating the food or making connection with it and your utensils or hands,” says Orsha Magyar, a neuroscientist and nutritional consultant.

Neurogastronomy isn’t just a fascinating area of study for scientists or a playground for Michelin-starred restaurants; it has the potential to change how we all eat. For starters, neurogastronomy can be harnessed to help food taste better and improve portion control, Magyar says.

Imagine a world where people crave foods packed with nutrients instead of empty calories. Envision chemotherapy patients, even with their diminished sense of taste, still enjoying hearty meals. Think of a future where our collective favorite foods are also the most sustainable ones.

That’s the world neurogastronomy could shape.

A brief history of a brand-new science

The term “neurogastronomy” was coined by Gordon M. Shepherd, MD, a professor of neuroscience at Yale Medical School. He first wrote about the concept in the journal Nature in 2006, and he followed up with a groundbreaking book, Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters, six years later.

Ask any chef, scientist, or food technologist how they first got interested in studying why people eat what they eat and crave what they crave, and they’ll likely mention Shepherd’s book. For Montreal’s famed Chef Frédéric Morin, the concepts were both revelatory and obvious. He had always felt that the playlist, wine, and entire dining experience were as important as specific menu items. “The idea that the whole thing was related to neurology made sense to me,” he says.

Morin was one of a number of thinkers who came together in 2014 to start The International Society of Neurogastronomy (ISN). Based at the University of Kentucky, ISN works to advance our understanding of brain-behavior relationships tied to what we eat. The society hosts an annual symposium to discuss these issues, and its members range from chefs to agricultural experts to neurologists and more.

Building a better plate

One of the things neurogastronomy’s pioneers are most excited about is how its principles can be used to design experiences that encourage diners to eat more fruits and veggies and fewer high-sugar and high-sodium foods.

Visual presentation—or plating, in chef-speak—may have a big role here. One study found that diners enjoyed salad more when the vegetables were arranged to mimic the composition of a famous abstract painter’s work. When the salad was simply tossed, they didn’t find it as tasty.

The power of visuals could be widely put to work by just changing the shapes of foods. In 2012—the same year Shepherd’s Neurogastronomy came out—candy company Cadbury changed one of its chocolate bars to have round-shaped segments instead of rectangular ones. Customers complained the bar was now too sweet … even though the recipe hadn’t changed. Their brains were—however inadvertently—bamboozled into disliking a quantity of sugar they’d previously enjoyed.

Of course, like all brain science, neurogastronomy is complicated. We can’t just wake up one day and trick our brains into thinking we like lima beans over chocolate. “That’s like trying to tickle yourself,” says Herz. “You need to take into account all the sensory and environmental factors.”

You also need to go slowly.

“Studies have revealed that we can learn to enjoy foods with a lower salt content (even up to 40 percent less) if we are exposed to a gradual reduction, and the same effect can be observed with fat content,” says Jennifer Peace Rhind, co-author of Cooking for the Senses: Vegan Neurogastronomy. The same is not true of sugar content, but, she adds, “Our liking for sugary foods can decrease with age. This suggests that our preferences can be changed or modified if the change is gradual. The use of herbs and spices can make low-salt foods more acceptable—but again, if their incorporation is gradual.”

Food as medicine

Steering diners toward healthier everyday choices is a noble enough goal—but those who champion neurogastronomy aim to go further.

“Neurogastronomy has been very important in getting us to understand how food can be medicine for people who are suffering different conditions or obesity issues,” says David Shields, the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina.

Dan Han is a co-founder of ISN, neuropsychologist, and self-described foodie. Through his work at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Han sees promise for those with brain injury, epilepsy, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s; people who’ve had strokes; and cancer patients. After all, “Chemotherapy can completely wreck taste and smell perception,” he says.

Hacks to help you eat healthier

  • See red. The color red is an inhibitor, says author Rachel Herz, PhD. (They don’t make fire engines and stop signs red for nothing.) Pour your late-night snack in a red bowl. Each time you reach in for another handful of chips, your brain will automatically stop at the sight of the color red. That split second may help you opt for portion control before emptying the bowl.
  • Don’t make it all about that bass. High-frequency sounds can make foods taste sweeter, while low-frequency sounds make them taste more bitter. When choosing your dinner playlist, avoid deep, bass-filled songs. You may just get away with using less sweetener in your dessert.
  • Bake it round. Bake your low-sugar cakes and pies in a round shape or serve them on a round platter. Circular desserts (think pie versus a sheet cake) are likely to be perceived as sweeter than rectangular ones.
  • Eat soup with a textured spoon. Rough spoons make foods taste saltier without any added sodium

Check out these drool-worthy dishes from chefs and recipe developers pioneering the science of flavor, in our article “Neurogastronomy in Action.”

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