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How science and our senses can feed the world

June 23, 2020
Food at a table

The task at hand is daunting: creating enough food to feed our growing population while ensuring that it is healthy, sustainable and appetizing. Through neurogastronomy, experts can examine how our brains perceive flavor and, ultimately, help reshape the future of food.

There is something about the smell of grandma’s cooking, the sound of uncorking a bottle of wine and the look of a perfectly green avocado sliced down the middle. Smell, sound and appearance affect the way we taste our favorite foods. This information is critical to understanding how to solve our current food crisis — a crisis that involves the growing population, heightened instances of disease and the search for an ethical and sustainable food supply.

Dr. Dan Han, Psy.D., CELM, FANA, chief of clinical neuropsychology services at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, presented on this subject during the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience health and wellness session. How we feed the world moving forward is about more than just producing a sustainable food source— it’s about making it desirable. The way our brains analyze food and perceive flavor is known as neurogastronomy. But how can this scientific art help solve the future of food?

Current challenges

With a global food crisis quickly approaching, what specific challenges are humans facing with the current status quo? Dr. Han highlighted three major issues:

1. Population growth. The U.N. projects that there will be 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, and we need to know how we plan to feed them all.

2. Food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of a lack of money and other resources. And in the U.S. alone, 13% of the population — roughly 40 million people — are experiencing food insecurity.

“As an immigrant myself, when I came to the states in 1987, food insecurity was just not a part of the American dream. It was something that was unthinkable,” Dr. Han reminisced. “For a country that I love, that really hits home for me personally, so I wanted to see what I could do.”  

3. Disease. Our diets play a heavy role in our health, and it’s no secret that unhealthy food options are cheap and easily accessible. However, they can also cause disease.

“Because of our sedentary lifestyle and cultural changes, in terms of food, exposure and the types of foods (we eat),” explained Dr. Han, “we have, as a species, developed post-industrialization, cultural- and lifestyle-specific diseases that come from readily accessible sweets, unhealthy drinks, fast food and so on.”

Some of those diseases include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Subtypes of cancer
  • Chronic liver disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Metabolic syndromes
  • Renal failure
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stroke
  • Depression
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease and other vascular diseases

“Now, I am not the type to scold certain types of food industries, because God knows I enjoy a burger every now and then, and I certainly enjoy bourbon, being in Kentucky — all in moderation,” clarified Dr. Han. “The concept here that we need to prioritize is the concept of plenty, but in the right way. But when it’s executed in the wrong way, the consequence and the unseen side effects of certain types of overproduction are going to be affecting our individual health and our global health.”

Experts needed

Dr. Han proposed that what we need is an interdisciplinary solution. We need scientists, clinicians, agriculturalists, chefs, dieticians and specialists in various fields to partner up and use their individual expertise to solve this global crisis.  

“Everybody really needs to come together and bring their contributions and put them on the table so that we can integrate them for a planet of plenty,” explained Dr. Han.

Why is it important for people with different expertise to be involved in this effort? When leaders of different fields analyze their individual data, they tend to be blinded by “confirmatory biases”; there can be a tendency to read only the data that fulfills our narrative and pertains to a specific field. Preferably, various experts could work alongside one another and have a bird’s-eye-view of the full picture to better analyze the data.

 

Reference:  Cartoon of the blind men and the elephant. G. Renee Guzlas. Source: http://www.nature.com/ki/journal/v62/n5/fig_tab/4493262f1.html

Dr. Han referenced the parable of the blind men and the elephant but used scientists in his example. If one expert is looking at an elephant’s tail, it may seem like a rope. The trunk? A snake. The ear? A fan. However, if they were to take a step back and look at the data they have compiled as a whole, they would see the elephant — meaning their data would feature unobstructed, unbiased results. This teamwork is necessary in order to find the solution to feeding the growing population.

“While I respect all of my colleagues in many different fields, I personally have witnessed magic and beautiful data science illustrations come to light when everybody took off their blindfolds, came together and looked at the overall picture together,” said Dr. Han.

Now that a team of experts has been identified as a solution to our food crisis, how could this solution be implemented?

“A bunch of folks got together representing different fields and coined the term ‘neurogastronomy,’” Dr. Han explained.

The combination of culinary arts and sciences

Neurogastronomy is the pre-olfaction state visual data encoding, perceptual proliferation and episodic memory recall, followed by orthonasal and restronasal olfactory neural circuits interfacing gustatory experiential reward systems.

Need a translation? Here’s how Dr. Han defines it:

“What is neurogastronomy? It’s about food!” he said. “It’s about delicious food. It’s about food that’s in demand. It’s about creating supply scientifically and correctly and ethically so that we could address health and sustainability.”

If we better understand how people experience food, we can better create a healthy and sustainable supply.

Neurogastronomy is a combination of science and the culinary arts. By combining these different areas of expertise, there is a new ability to dissect the different flavors and appetites that contribute to clinical disease. On a macro level, this helps us focus on sustainability issues by “introducing this interdisciplinary concept by using what we know about flavor, smell, taste and the individual appetite,” explained Dr. Han.

While it’s easy to claim that we need to introduce healthier, more sustainable ingredients into our diets, people still won’t respond to these ingredients if they don’t taste good. Stimuli such as “colors, ambiance, lighting, the sound a chip makes when you bite into a crisp potato chip” all effect how we experience food. There various stimuli can help achieve the goal of an ethical and sustainable food supply:

1. Smell. “Taste is conceptualized as flavor,” explained Dr. Han. “Taste is formed by smell. That is why, when you have allergies, you can’t taste anything.” Therefore, the way food smells will amplify taste and elevate an individual’s experience with food.

2. Visuals. The food industry needs to prioritize visual stimuli when presenting food. But this is about much more than just presenting food in an aesthetically pleasing fashion.

 

For example, Dr. Han explains how people associate certain colors with certain tastes:

  • White: Salty
  • Brown: Bitter
  • Green: Sour
  • Red: Sweet

However, while we associate specific tastes with colors, the visual stimuli of how food is served requires a different set of rules. Dr. Han explained how a study in Great Britain showed that even though red food is associated with a sweet taste, a red plate is associated with danger. When food was served on a blue plate, on the other hand, consumption increased from 114 g to 152 g.

3. The brain: Structural, systemic and mechanical issues in the brain help us gain knowledge to create healthier ingredients, a better supply and the ethical distribution of ingredients that are more carbon-neutral and good for the environment “while satiating the demand of the human species,” said Dr. Han. Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and feeling (or touch) are all intertwined as a network in the brain. If we know how the brain responds to those variables, Dr. Han says that we can manipulate them for a more ethical and higher-yield gain.

Wrapping it up

The task at hand is daunting: creating enough food to feed our growing population while ensuring that it is healthy, sustainable and appetizing. Through neurogastronomy, experts can examine how our brains perceive flavor and, ultimately, help reshape the future of food.

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