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Neurogastronomy 101: The Science of Taste Perception

How chefs and scientists are working together to change the way we taste.

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Imagine sitting down for a meal after a long day. You're craving delicious comfort food that can lift your spirits with one whiff lingering from the oven. You indulge in a meal that tastes wonderful and leaves you feeling satisfied. Except, instead of macaroni and cheese, you're eating boiled broccoli. And thanks to a new science, the broccoli-loather in you genuinely loves every single bite.

This new science, called neurogastronomy, merges the science and culinary worlds by studying the human brain and the behavior that influences how we experience eating and drinking. First conceived in 2006, the field has now evolved into its own area of learning that delves into the molecular biology of the olfactory receptors, the biochemistry of food preparation, and odor images and the brain flavor system. Essentially, neurogastronomy shakes up how we look at food and taste: Instead of investigating how researchers can alter the taste of food by re-engineering what we eat, this science concentrates on how we can re-wire the brain to perceive food differently. Translation: it's not about genetically modifying carrots to taste better; instead, it is about making our brains think carrots are delicious. But even that aforementioned instance is just one component in the broad and diverse academic specialty.

Neurogastronomy shakes up how we look at food and taste... this science concentrates on how we can re-wire the brain to perceive food differently.

"Basically, it's chefs, scientists, and food technologists getting together to address taste profiles and flavor systems," said Dan Han, associate professor of neurology, neurosurgery, and physical medicine & rehabilitation at the University of Kentucky and a co-founder of the International Society of Neurogastronomy. "How it's different from what's been done so far is that we are truly looking at interdisciplinary ways to address issues by using information from different fields." From a consumer standpoint, the benefits of exploring neurogastronomy are two-fold: Not only can it help enhance the general dining experience, it can also help medical health professionals improve the quality of life of patients.

How Do We Perceive Flavor?

To truly comprehend what neurogastronomy is about, it's important to understand the basics of how we physiologically perceive taste. Not surprisingly, it all begins with our mouths and ends with our brain.

When you chew on a blueberry, enzymes in your saliva break down the fruit. Fragments of the gnawed blueberry will come in contact with your tongue's papillae — the thousands of wart-like bumps under the mucous membrane of the tongue. Each papillae contains taste buds, which in turn have anywhere from 50 to 100 chemical receptor cells that identify the five basic tastes: bitter, sweet, salt, sour, and umami. The papillae also have many sensory cells that recognize and analyze the morsels in your mouth, and transmit the information to your brain by activating nerve cells.

This, on a macro level, explains how we go from popping a blueberry in our mouth to recognizing whether it is sweet or sour. The micro level is far more multifaceted, as many other parts of our body play a role in how we perceive taste, from our olfactory senses to the sensation of touch. Understanding the complex brain processes that help us grasp why, what, and how we eat is, simply put, the exploration of neurogastronomy.

"Imagine what could happen if chefs and trained neurologists collaborate — the possibilities are mind-blowing."

While scientists have explored how we perceive flavor for centuries, it was not until Gordon M. Shepherd — who is recognized as the godfather of neurogastronomy — gave the subject its name in his 2006 publication in international research journal Nature. The field has accrued interest since — Shepherd has published a book (Neurogastronomy) in 2012 and a team of varied professionals have created the first International Society of Neurogastronomy symposium, where experts can meet and discuss advancements. Currently, the word serves as an umbrella term for all kinds of research that share a common theme of investigating how we perceive food, whether it be clinical applications or a generalized study of how chefs can manipulate variables to improve the dining experience.

A subject as complex as neurogastronomy requires dialogue between different groups of professionals including chefs, anthropologists, bench neuroscientists, biochemists, agriculture and food technologists, behavioral psychologists, clinical neuroscientists, and more. Chefs, in particular, play a pivotal role in the implementation of the field's knowledge.

"Chefs are leading culture and science in so many ways; this is just another facet of a larger discussion where chefs can influence science and really have an impact of how we look at food, nutrition, and health for the next generation," said Edward Lee, a Louisville-based chef and owner of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood. "It is really important work. We have already seen how chefs have made huge impacts in agriculture and nutrition and food distribution. Imagine what could happen if chefs and trained neurologists collaborate — the possibilities are mind-blowing."

What Can Neurogastronomy Do?

The findings in this emerging discipline can benefit chefs and restaurant owners by discovering factors that could be used to improve the dining experience. Charles Spence, a leading researcher in the field from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory of Oxford University, has extensively researched topics from how to craft dishes that appeal to the colorblind to how the specifics of cutlery (e.g. size, weight, and color) impact the perceived taste and flavor of food. The latter research, for instance, has revealed that food was rated the saltiest when sampled on a knife, and that a lighter spoon made yogurt appear to be denser. Other notable conclusions drawn from Spence's research include the facts the white plates make food taste sweeter and heavy cutlery is best.

"Every time a chef writes a menu or plans a dinner, we are playing in the field of how the brain reacts to certain influences," said Lee, noting that neurogastronomy gives chefs an outlet to apply a scientific approach to make more-concrete findings. "Mostly, we are doing this in small ways. But it is trained in us to always try to predict or guess what the customer wants — it may not be an intentional applied science, but it is what we do everyday. The idea is really to combine the rigor of a scientific approach to something that we do naturally and unscientifically."

For medical professionals, the relatively new science opens doors, as it can potentially function to improve the day-to-day life of patients suffering from illnesses where they have a changed sense of smell or taste — say, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, or epilepsy. In fact, according to Han, the practical applications of the field can be an "important part" of clinical practice.

"Every time a chef writes a menu or plans a dinner, we are playing in the field of how the brain reacts to certain influences."

"One of the things I see commonly in stroke, head trauma, and cancer patients, is change in smell and taste," Han said. "That's a huge part of quality of life that is not addressed. I refuse to accept that because of a medical condition, one no longer has the capability to enjoy food. There really is an opportunity for growth. If we could manipulate variables through science and interdisciplinary artistry of the culinary masters to help people with such impairments enjoy a meal again, I think that's a big deal."

On a clinical level, neurogastronomy also has the potential to shed light into the behavioral patterns that lead to obesity and eating disorders. By understanding an individual's relationship with food on a physical and psychological level, more curated treatments and solutions can be provided that focus less on what we eat and more on how and why we eat.

Take, for example, a small study from researchers in France who found that obese children's taste buds are less proficient at distinguishing fats than the taste buds of non-obese kids. While the findings are preliminary, they shed light onto how taste perception can contribute to weight gain while also providing an added variable to consider in treatment regimens.

"Once we understand certain triggers and influencers and how the brain reacts to this, we can better predict outcomes and patterns," said Lee. "That will have a significant impact in how we make our food choices. Right now, almost all the applied sciences that goes into this field of study is being funded by big food corporations to sell their products. If we can apply the same strategy to an overall approach to better nutrition and living, we can start to possibly make real impacts into diseases like diabetes and obesity."

"The sky is the limit, if you think about it."

Enriching the dining experience and changing the lives of patients are all conceivable advantages that come with exploring neurogastronomy but, as with any budding new science, there are bound to be doubters who raise a brow at the discipline, asking the inevitable question: Is Neurogastronomy a real science? According to Han, who admittedly has a vested interest, there is no doubt about the legitimacy of the field, and he parallels the skepticism to the response to Masters's and Johnson's work on sexuality in the 1960s. "In the late '50s early '60s, if you had sexual dysfunction, you certainly didn't go to a doctor to talk about it — it wasn't science, it wasn't considered biology, it wasn't considered to be a clinical deficit or disease," Han said. "Fast-forward to 2015, and it's a multi-trillion dollar industry. It only took a few people to recognize that this is science and it's the science of quality of life."

"Similarly, neurogastronomy challenges the questions of quality of life," added Han. "The sky is the limit, if you think about it."

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