By Nicole Garneau, PhD
This is going to sound like a "no duh" story, but trust me
scientists are really only just getting started to understand how
expectations about what we are about to eat can actually trick our
brains into thinking something tastes good or bad, regardless of
how it "really" tastes.
To put it plainly, the flavor we anticipate and beliefs about that
flavor bias our perception before the food even touches our
tongues, and even during and after we actually eat.
"Odors and tastes are seldom perceived in isolation; they are
often anticipated by cues and expected." Dr. Dana Small of Yale
gave a presentation this morning that really nailed this home. In
it she used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to show
how flavor understanding in the brain is complicated by
expectation. For example, her most recent work looks at how we
label food and the beliefs we associate with those labels (e.g.
nutritional and healthy vs junk and treats) affects perceived
pleasantness ratings of those foods.
Dr. Small's preliminary data demonstrates that the parts of our
brain that light up when we have a milkshake (i.e. a treat) also
light up when we have a drink formulation that is called a "treat"
so we can trick our brains into thinking something healthy is more
tasty. But the really crazy thing is that those same parts of the
brain do NOT light up when that same exact drink formulation is
labeled as "healthy/nutritious." Like the scientists working on
this study, my brain jogs right to the obesity epidemics in
industrialized nations like America. Not surprisingly, early data
show that increaed BMI and decreased sensitivity to reward both
seem to magnify the effect. Yikes!
Photo Credit: David Berkowitz
Talk about food for thought, we humans have some seriously
complex relationships with our environment and what we consume
(presumably in the name of survival). In light of this I think it's
fair that we put a hold on blaming the evolution of our taste
system for why we crave sugary foods (we need glucose for
respiration, etc.) and look more closely on how as a society we
shape food perception. It will be fascinating to watch how this new
research focused on integrated sensations and perceptions of food
plays out and what discoveries will come from it.
On a related, but far less controversial note, Dr. Small's
presentation also included interesting human behavoir aspects in
the context of wine tasting. So for all of you out there who are
joining me on the Museum-led wine tasting and canoe trip down the
Gunnison River this summer (
click here for more info), have I got some great surprises and
experiments for you.
Cheers to a great day of taste and smell science on the coast of