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These scientists want to make your brain enjoy broccoli

Neurogastronomy aims to help junk food addicts, cancer survivors, and COVID-19 patients.

By Stav Dimitropoulos

In March 2018, Kimberly Osborne, a 53-year-old patient services coordinator at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, served as a judge in an unusual cooking contest.

Two teams faced off with inventive culinary creations. The first team, led by pastry chef Taria Camerino, presented a blueberry pavlova — an Australian dessert. “It looked like a puff pastry. Just by looking at it, I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s going to be loaded with sugar!’” recalls Osborne. Most pavlovas are meringue-based and sugar-loaded. But Camerino’s team had replaced sugar with lucuma, a Peruvian fruit that has a sweet, somewhat nutty flavor and is believed by some to stabilize the human nervous system.

The second team, captained by restaurateur Jehangir Mehta, blindfolded Osborne and a fellow judge and had them taste tomato granita (an iced confection made from fruit), as well as coconut soup and delicacies made of cheese, mango, and pistachio. “The tomato granita tasted like ice cream,” Osborne recalls. “The cold, the consistency, everything was there.”      

This wasn’t your typical bake-off, and Osborne isn’t your typical foodie. She has diabetes. Two teams of neuroscientists and chefs faced the challenge of impressing her and her co-judge, who also has diabetes, with foods that didn’t contain a speck of sugar. Their creations were entries in the Third Neurogastronomy Symposium, which Team Mehta won.

Neurogastronomy, an interdisciplinary field, brings together neuroscientists, chefs, food technologists, and agriculture professionals with the aim of deciphering the human brain and people’s behavior toward food. Neurogastronomists don’t want to engineer broccoli so it tastes better; they intend to rewire your brain into thinking broccoli tastes better.

If they can do that, they could help great numbers of people: junk food addicts, cancer patients whose taste and smell receptors have been damaged by chemotherapy, and people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and head injuries who have lost their ability to enjoy food. Neurogastronomists might even be able to help the minority of COVID-19 patients — under 5 percent — whose senses of smell and taste may be permanently damaged by the virus. 

Neurogastronomy’s goal is to find “the most non-invasive ways to a heightened food flavor perception, without introducing unhealthy ingredients,” says Dan Y. Han, a professor of neurology at University of Kentucky who co-founded the International Society of Neurogastronomy.

“The only reason why we perceive foods that are high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt as tasty is because we evolved in an environment where these things were extremely hard to come by.”

Heather Brenhouse, a psychology professor at Northeastern University

Neurogastronomy isn’t just about enhancing flavors, either. Dulling them can be helpful, too. In the September 2020 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, Han and a team of University of Kentucky researchers encoded the protein receptors in the mouth that respond to cigarette smoke. “We hope we will soon be able to block them,” says Han. This could be huge for smokers who are trying to quit. When these receptors are shut off — say, by a pill, or a diet regimen — smokers may no longer enjoy the taste of smoke, which may help reduce their cravings.  “In the future, we could replicate this for people with obesity problems and provide them with an alternative to bariatric surgery,” says Han.

Health-care professionals have long preached about healthy, sustainable eating practices. Patients go to hospitals after strokes, seizures, heart attacks, or stomach cancers, and they’re given cookbooks, meals, and strict guidelines on what to do and what not to eat. Han sees this as futile.

“People just don’t do it,” Han says. “It’s not because they are stubborn or lazy. That’s arrogant. It’s because you tell people to curb their desire. It’s just not gonna happen.”

Deliciousness, Han argues, is at the core of human existence. “It’s actually pretty simple. You want salty, sugary, umami, and a little bit of bitter and sour,” he says. He argues that doctors cannot expect people to sacrifice what we have evolved to crave.

Undoubtedly, we must eat healthy, but we must also eat pleasant. Neurogastronomy promises to bridge the gap between the two. It aims to do that through more medical manifestations, but also through its flirtations with psychology and art, where it recruits all senses in experiments involving music, food portions, tablecloths, and the colors of plates.

But it’s not only about health and diet. “In the long run, we are creating a whole new balance system,” says Han. 

Neurogastronomy could have bigger-picture effects as well, including on agricultural practices, supporters say. People have become accustomed to certain tastes, in part, because those things are widely grown and end up being staples of our diets.

Most industrialized nations or regions base their agricultural output on monoculture, the cultivation of a single crop using the vast majority of available land. Corn is cultivated across 97 million acres of land in the United States — an area roughly the size of California. Burundi, a small country in east-central Africa, essentially grows a single crop: 34% of its export income comes from green coffee. Yet critics blame monoculture practices for dramatic soil degradation and water depletion, as well as heavy use of environmentally damaging fertilizers and pesticides.

But what if, instead of a vast corn belt, we grew different types of wheat with different flavor profiles — one a little sweeter, another more savory, another more salty, and a fourth more gelatinous? Many genetically diverse crop fields — polyculture — would be better for the environment, says Han. Polyculture is known to increase biodiversity, boost soil health, reduce fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides, and promote clean water runoff.

The challenge is, there has to be a demand for multi-crops. Currently, “there is a demand for single crops,” says Han. “Something that is not desired won’t create a demand.” That’s where neurogastronomy can step up.

“By understanding how the brain flavor mechanism works, we could make these multi-crops be perceived by the brain as desired flavors,” says Han. Neurogastronomy’s ultimate goal is for people to have balanced, healthy diets that are friendlier to the environment.

It’s an interesting, potentially realistic scenario, thinks Heather Brenhouse, a psychology professor at Northeastern University. The idea of people eating food that’s both tasty and healthy shouldn’t feel far-fetched, she says. “The only reason why we perceive foods that are high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt as tasty is because we evolved in an environment where these things were extremely hard to come by,” Brenhouse says. “So when they were available, it was in our best interests to do whatever we could to get them and to eat a lot of them.”

Now, these foods are all too available. And we often neglect flavors that we have also evolved to enjoy, from diverse spices, herbs, and macronutrients, Brenhouse adds. So creating delectable desserts with lucuma instead of sugar makes sense.

That said, Brenhouse pushes back on the idea that altering our perception of sustainable foods is the best way forward. “Instead, we need to train our brains to redistribute the value we place on different kinds of food,” she says. Instead of changing the way things taste to the brain, Brenhouse suggests, neurogastronomy might have more success by reinforcing flavors associated with diverse nutrients and associating them with pleasure. “They are inherently quite delicious,” she says.

Pleasure is a word Han can’t stress enough. In his mind, the stakes are higher than just diabetes-friendly pavlovas. Disruptions in flavor perception or desire for food, he argues, will affect people’s gastrointestinal system, their gut flora, and eventually their entire central nervous system, possibly contributing to psychological disorders. “When you’re really sad, or really anxious or nervous, you actually ‘feel it in your stomach,’” he says. Psychologically, spiritually, biologically, and physically, we are what we eat.

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Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer based in Athens, Greece. She has written for the BBC, National Geographic, Nature, Scientific American, Science, Runner’s World, Popular Mechanics, Inverse, and The Sunday Times.

Illustration by Mauco Sosa 


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