Can Neurogastronomy Save the World?

This new science could help everyone love eating healthy, sustainable food.

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.”

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

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.

Han is also working to get chefs involved in taking scientists’ research and putting the concepts on a plate.

That’s where Kentucky celebrity Chef Ouita Michel comes in. Michel works with ISN in a role she describes as “the questioner.” Her job is to “provide some kind of bridge from practice to research.”

Michel became interested in neurogastronomy after cooking for her mother, who had lung cancer. Michel’s mother had never smoked and was a “super health nut” who loved kale and broccoli. When her sense of flavors changed and her appetite waned, meal replacement drinks were unappealing—after all, she’d never eaten a lot of processed foods. Thanks to that personal experience, when Michel was introduced to Han, she realized she could make a difference.

On a volunteer basis, she cooks for Hope Lodge, an American Cancer Society facility in Lexington, Kentucky, focusing on dishes with fewer acids and sodium. This can make the meals more palatable to chemo patients, to whom food often tastes metallic. Emphasis is on creamy, not dry, foods with smooth textures and high nutrient values. Coconut milk and chia seeds are some of the ingredients she relies on to achieve those textures.

The greenest science?

According to Han, neurogastronomy may help address global health crises like food shortages by the year 2050. While most discussions of food shortages are focused on population growth, Han says, “No one looks at the root cause of what causes those shortages, which is the way in which humans have a preferred flavor profile. If people demand sugar, then we grow sugar.”

If neurogastronomy can be tapped to “create desire for ingredients with the smallest carbon footprint,” then it can have a huge impact on global hunger and climate change.

Bring a little neurogastronomy into your life

Neurogastronomy certainly sounds fascinating—world-changing, even— but how can you put it to work in your own kitchen?

Many experts in the field liken neurogastronomy in action to mindfulness or eating mindfully— terms that they concede are overused to the point of near meaninglessness. (Case in point: As of press time, there are more than 16 million posts using the hashtag #mindfulness on Instagram.)

But hashtags and catchphrases aside, the idea is that the more we pay attention to what and how we’re eating, the more likely we are to appreciate those foods and make better choices. That moment of attention—dimming lights, adjusting music, saying grace—helps us digest our food better, says Morin.

Magyar, the founder and CEO of NeuroTrition Inc. (which combines neuroscience and nutrition to create brain-friendly menus), notes, “New science is even saying that mindfulness itself rewires the brain to promote brain and mental health and even has positive effects on our microbiome.”

Atlanta’s Taria Camerino is a chef, breast cancer survivor, and consultant who helps her clients transform their eating habits. “As a society, we have become addicted to processed foods,” she says. When she starts working with new clients, she tells them they can eat as much as they like of whatever they want … as long as they follow some basic rules.

One client kept a drawer of chocolate for midday crashes, but they were low-quality sweets. Camerino urged her to stock dark chocolates that were farmed without slave labor; products with fewer preservatives. But she told the woman she could eat as much of the good stuff as she wanted.

Within three days, the client discovered one bite was enough. “She realized she didn’t want chocolate as much as she wanted the break from the workday,” explains Camerino. Paying attention to the sounds around her, the environment where she was taking her break, and the ingredients in her snack led the client to make healthier choices.

Home cooks can incorporate principles of neurogastronomy by being mindful throughout every step of the cooking process. Gregor Law, co-author of Cooking for the Senses, says that “when we are preparing ingredients and cooking, seasoning and using herbs and spices, we are actively tasting and observing as we progress. It requires our full attention and respect. Awareness is heightened. It is about balance and congruence—and also about carefully chosen contrasts, which can enhance our perception of different elements of a dish.”

In short, he says, “It needs to be an immersive and active process. It is not something that you can learn simply by reading.”*

Trick your brain

These four easy tricks can help you witness the power your mind has over your palate.

  1. Plug your nose when eating your favorite foods. Smell accounts for 85 percent of our perception of flavor. Observe what happens when it is gone.
  2. Experiment with cutlery of different weights. Eat the same foods with a heavy knife and fork and a lightweight set. How did your experience differ?
  3. Listen to recordings of the ocean while eating something briny. What does your brain tell you about what you’re eating?
  4. Eat with wooden or bamboo silverware and examine the effect. (Hint: For chemo patients, switching up silverware can address some of the metallic aftertaste issues.)

*To get into that active process, try the drool-worthy dishes in our article “Neurogastronomy in Action.”

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