AChemS 2012 Day 2: The Flavor of Things to Come

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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 sunny California!

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