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How Fine Dining Chef Heston Blumenthal Could Change Mass Marketed Food for the Better

It's all about flavor perception.

Graham Denholm/Getty Images

The vast majority of people will never have the chance to taste Heston Blumenthal's food. The acclaimed chef has several successful UK restaurants, including three-Michelin starred the Fat Duck, which is perpetually booked up. And those who do snag reservations will pay handsomely for the experience: Dinner at the Fat Duck is nearly $400 per person, and that's before wine.

But even the average person who will never step foot inside one of Blumenthal's restaurants could still have their diet influenced by the chef's cooking. By now, anyone who's even vaguely interested in food is familiar with molecular gastronomy, the highly technical sect of cooking popularized by chefs such as Ferran Adrià that involves nerdy techniques like spherification. But as a new Blumenthal profile published this week by the New Republic explores, the British chef is focused on a newer culinary discipline known as neurogastronomy that could have broader implications on how people eat.

Rather than focusing on what can be done to food to in order to alter its taste, neutrogastronomy focuses on the human brain and how it can be re-wired to perceive food differentlyAs writer Maria Konnikova points out, taste and flavor are not one and the same: "When we try to imagine the flavor of something, we tend to focus on our mouth—the experience of placing, say, a ripe strawberry on our tongue. But that, in fact, is taste, and though we tend to conflate it with flavor, a vast chasm exists between the two." Taste is relatively objective, but flavor is something that can be manipulated.

Konnikova explains how, for many years, food manufacturers have attempted to sate people's innate desires for sugar, salt, and fat with low-fat, artificially sweetened substitutes. But "Instead of curbing obesity and metabolic disorders, these innovations seem to have resulted in the opposite." As it turns out, the body can't really be fooled by such substitutes, and the end result is that you just keep craving more sugary, fatty foods.

And that's where the type of neurogastronomy Blumenthal is playing with could come into play, as a way of making healthier food more satisfying: "Use real sugar, real energy, real fats and salts and the whole gamut of flavor, but do so in lower quantities, in a way that makes the result taste good and sends actual energy signals to the brain, creating an experience that is both psychologically and physically satisfying," Konnikova writes.

One technique that Blumenthal uses that could be applied to mass-market foods is called encapsulation, "in which he presents a flavor in a way that makes it seem far larger than it is," and he's used it at the Fat Duck for at least a decade. "With an encapsulation approach—a few strong bursts rather than dispersed flavor—Blumenthal has successfully reduced the salt content of multiple dishes in his restaurants. The final taste experience is just as salty overall, even though the amount of sodium has been reduced," Konnikova explains. "It’s a method that one could see playing out in mass-produced items, including your beloved Doritos, fast-food fries, snack bars, cereals, even packaged meals that rely on large doses of sodium to deliver post-frozen taste." (Imagine potato chips sprinkled with just a few large salt crystals to deliver a salty punch, rather than being thoroughly coated in large quantities of sodium.)

Other things that can influence people's perceptions of flavor include temperature, music, and the appearance of food, right down to the shape that something's served in. "The fact that why we eat what we eat originates in the mind rather than the palate is a powerful one. Properly harnessed, it could prove to be the key to succeeding where so many other nutritional interventions have failed," Konnikova concludes. Indeed, it seems Blumenthal's particular brand of cerebral cooking is bound to extend far beyond the reaches of his Michelin-starred restaurants — and even past the boundaries of our planet's atmosphere: The chef is currently working with NASA and the UK's space agency to revolutionize astronaut food and make zero-gravity meals more enjoyable.

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