Third Neurogastronomy Symposium Explores What We Eat and Why
Humans have a complex relationship with food: it is sustenance, it is a livelihood, it is an emotional reward, and it can be medicine. As the obesity epidemic illustrates, it can be the opposite of medicine, too. Neurogastronomy encompasses a number of disciplines to address that relationship, including basic science, nutrition, psychology, agriculture, food science and health.
The third annual International Society of Neurogastronomy Symposium brought scientists, clinicians, chefs and foodies from around the world to Lexington earlier this month to share knowledge and discuss how various disciplines can work together to solve health and sustainability issues.
The biological process of flavor perception is the nexus for many aspects of what we eat and why and therefore the key to solving many of the world's issues around food; for example, could we eliminate famine by making edible weeds taste less bitter? Would we be healthier if we could make broccoli taste like chocolate?
Gordon M. Shepherd, a professor of neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine and the father of Neurogastronomy, aptly describes the process of flavor perception using the concept of a potato chip. We all recognize their saltiness (taste) and flavor (smell), but our mouths might begin to water when the bag crackles open (hear) and see the chips piled inside (sight) and continues when we crunch a chip between our teeth (hear, feel/touch). The entire process triggers signals to the brain that connect with our emotional centers and produce memories that evoke strong emotional responses to food.
So, can we harness those responses for good? The symposium's presenters, from scientist Deitmar Krautwurst to master distiller Chris Morris to food historian David Shields to psychologist and book author Rachel Herz, all agree there is an opportunity to make the world a better place through the manipulation of flavor perception.
One of the perennial favorites of the symposium is the Applied Neurogastronomy Challenge, where two teams of neuroscientists and chefs compete in an Iron Chef-like contest, preparing dishes judged by actual patients with taste challenges. The challenge was renamed this year in honor of Gina Mullin, a judge from Year One who succumbed to her cancer last year.
The Gina Mullin Challenge this year pitted Team Camerino (led by internationally-renowned pastry chef Taria Camerino) against Team Mehta (led by New York restaurateur and Next Iron Chef runner-up Jehangir Mehta) and were judged by Rosemary Woodruff and Kim Osborne, both of whom battle diabetes.