So, what exactly is ‘taste’? We generally use this term in its emotional, hedonistic sense, to describe the tendency of food or drink to produce a pleasant sensation, to be delicious. Here, researchers had to contend with this everyday use of the word ‘taste’, albeit somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, we think of taste as one of the five distinct senses Aristotle classified alongside smell, touch, sight and hearing. On the other hand, the ‘taste’ of food seems to go beyond the simple activation of taste receptors embedded in our tongues, enabling us to distinguish between sweetness, saltiness, bitterness and sourness, the four ‘primary tastes’ to which we now add umami, a taste typical of Japanese food with a high glutamate content. In reality, as Brillat-Savarin rightly noted, it seems that this second aspect of ‘taste’ is primarily a result of our sense of smell, and that these two senses are inextricably linked in our appreciation of food and drinks. So as not to get bogged down in linguistics, specialists use the term ‘flavour’ when referring to the perception of food based on olfaction and gustation (among others things… as we will see below).
On a clinical level, neurogastronomy also has the potential to shed light into the behavioral patterns that lead to obesity and eating disorders. By understanding an individual’s relationship with food on a physical and psychological level, more curated treatments and solutions can be provided that focus less on what we eat and more on how and why we eat.
Take, for example, a small study from researchers in France who found that obese children’s taste buds are less proficient at distinguishing fats than the taste buds of non-obese kids. While the findings are preliminary, they shed light onto how taste perception can contribute to weight gain while also providing an added variable to consider in treatment regimens.
“Once we understand certain triggers and influencers and how the brain reacts to this, we can better predict outcomes and patterns,” said Lee. “That will have a significant impact in how we make our food choices. Right now, almost all the applied sciences that goes into this field of study is being funded by big food corporations to sell their products. If we can apply the same strategy to an overall approach to better nutrition and living, we can start to possibly make real impacts into diseases like diabetes and obesity.”
Enriching the dining experience and changing the lives of patients are all conceivable advantages that come with exploring neurogastronomy but, as with any budding new science, there are bound to be doubters who raise a brow at the discipline, asking the inevitable question: Is Neurogastronomy a real science? According to Han, who admittedly has a vested interest, there is no doubt about the legitimacy of the field, and he parallels the skepticism to the response to Masters’s and Johnson’s work on sexuality in the 1960s. “In the late ’50s early ’60s, if you had sexual dysfunction, you certainly didn’t go to a doctor to talk about it — it wasn’t science, it wasn’t considered biology, it wasn’t considered to be a clinical deficit or disease,” Han said. “Fast-forward to 2015, and it’s a multi-trillion dollar industry. It only took a few people to recognize that this is science and it’s the science of quality of life.”
“Similarly, neurogastronomy challenges the questions of quality of life,” added Han. “The sky is the limit, if you think about it.”
The 2016 ISN Symposium is attracted funding from the National Institutes of Health. The whole list of sponsors is below:
National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders – R13DC015972-1
University of Kentucky College of Medicine
The Food Connection