According to neuroscientist Gordon M. Shepherd, in our brain, a french fry is identified as nearly perfect food. Potatoes are naturally sweet, but the french fry is also salty. Then there's the contrast of its crispy exterior and its warm, soft interior. Last, but not least, is its golden brown appearance. Now combine that with the savory fat of a burger and the carbonated sweetness of a soda and we immediately move into sensory eating overload.
Shepherd says the combination of these particular foods sets off a series of events in our brains. There's not much fiber in the meal, so we don't feel full while wolfing it down. The interplay among all these flavors constantly triggers a renewed interest in eating. It's all part of our daily trip through the "human brain flavor system." Shepherd and his colleagues are exploring how this complex process works and the chain reaction it puts in motion. It has led to a new field of study, called neurogastronomy, also the title of his book on the subject.
Traditionally, it has been believed that taste is what happens inside our mouths when we eat and drink. The study of neurogastronomy is finding that scores of other stimuli work in concert to create our experience — such as sound, scent and visual presentation of food — and that these experiences are as influential in how we experience food as taste. It is believed that learning how to tune the cerebral response more favorably to healthful foods might ultimately lead us all to healthier eating and healthier lives. Neurogastronomy also holds promise for managing disease, as researchers work to understand how a cancer patient's sense of taste changes during treatment and investigate how this insight might be used in creating satisfying diets for diabetics.
In the decade since its inception, the field of neurogastronomy has tried a number of experiments to prove its point, such as having diners experience a fine meal in a pitch-black restaurant. Not surprisingly, it greatly changed their experience and enjoyment of the meal. These findings set off a dining movement geared toward creating a multisensory environment, employing everything from wall projections to scent diffusers to illuminated plates to music synchronized to match the different courses of a meal.
Not that this is new. The fast-food industry has long mastered these triggers, with researchers analyzing every aspect of how their products are consumed to maximize enjoyment and sales.
Researchers are now studying how best to use non-taste-related sensations to drive healthy eating in school cafeterias, as well as at home, in an effort to advance healthful, affordable food. Among the innovations in the testing phase are the use of spoons that create the sensation of saltiness without any added sodium, healthy desserts served on specifically colored plates that naturally boost the perception of sweetness and maximizing the scent of food to make it taste richer without any added calories.
Beyond tricking our brains, the challenge is finding out what satisfies us and makes healthful food attractive in everyday cooking.
"A lot of that is finding ways to make people still feel satisfied without extra calories, fat and sugar," chef Leah Sarris, who runs Tulane University's culinary medicine program, told Grist.
"Doctors are dealing with a problem after it exists, but chefs can change the whole health of the nation," she added. "They are feeding people, which can cause or cure diseases. Chefs are starting to realize their impact on reversing health decline."
Meanwhile, David Shields, a food historian at the University of South Carolina, is combing Appalachia for remnants of some long-forgotten delicacies, such as morellos (sour cherries), tart Hicks Everbearing mulberries and Klondike strawberries. He believes that people are primed to embrace the particular flavors these fruits represent once again — what he calls a delicious paradox for the tongue of tartness and sweetness.
In the 1800s, sour and sweet were as inseparable as peanut butter and jelly. Popular in America were shrubs and switchels, refreshing elixirs made of vinegar, water and spices and lightly sweetened with honey, sugar or molasses. Back in the day, Southern households preserved their fruits in vinegar. Some of the nation's most popular berries were tangy, such as the Appalachian treats now being sought out.
By the middle of the 20th century, these tart-sweet delights had all but vanished. Sugar had become a flavor juggernaut, its success ushered in by sugarcane plantations, which released a flood of cheap sugar on the market. Before you knew it, households began preserving all the produce from their orchards in sugar instead of vinegar.
Once sugar became more abundant and affordable, who could resist? A love of sugar is part of our biology. According to molecular biologist Robert Margolskee, not only do receptors on our taste buds react to sugar but also specialized cells in the digestive tract release feel-good hormones that create the pleasing experience we associate with sweetness.
Flash-forward to 2015 and America's seriously unhealthy habit of consuming 22 teaspoons of sugar a day on average. But here's the good news: Sour is returning. Seems that as our taste for global foods grows more sophisticated, we're also rediscovering fermented foods, which enhance digestion, balance gut flora and boost the immune system. Similar claims have fueled growing sales of tangy Greek yogurt.
In the beverage aisle, shrubs and switchels are making a comeback, and sour beers, vinegar drinks, kefir and sour whey drinks are all making inroads.
That's a sour note that could be sweet news in advancing public health.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.