Tricking the brain into healthy food choices

Tuesday, 06 October, 2015

Tricking the brain into healthy food choices

If you’ve ever found yourself unable to take a bite of a particular food, then you’ve experienced one of the outcomes of ‘neurogastronomy’ — a newly evolving science that examines the connections between our brains and our eating behaviours.

If you’ve ever found yourself unable to take a bite of a particular food, then you’ve experienced one of the outcomes of ‘neurogastronomy’ — a newly evolving science that examines the connections between our brains and our eating behaviours.

A group of internationally acclaimed chefs, bench neuroscientists, food scientists and clinical neurologists is exploring whether this brain/tastebud/stomach connection can be exploited to ‘trick’ people into making healthier eating choices.

According to Dan Han, PsyD, a co-founder of the International Society of Neurogastronomy, this isn’t about re-engineering food, but rather re-engineering the brain into perceiving food differently.

“The potential applications for this are extensive,” said Han. “Just about everybody knows someone who’s had cancer, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy or some other neurological impairment, and these patients usually have altered sense of smell or taste as a result. To be able to help these people have continued quality of life, despite their condition, should be an important part of our clinical practice."

Research into olfactory function is providing the first steps towards success. A group of scientists led by Tim McClintock, PhD, has developed a new test, called The Kentucky Assay, which can identify individual receptors and nerve cells in the nose that respond to specific odours — the beginnings of a roadmap of human olfactory capability, which directly affects taste. It’s a sliver of proof that neurogastronomy could prove to be a real proposition with some scientific muscle behind it.

Han says only recently has quality of life been considered a clinical outcome, yet huge numbers of patients can’t enjoy food as a result of their illness and never think to describe it to their doctors.

The concept of neurogastronomy wasn’t on Han’s radar until 2012, when he had a chance meeting in Montreal with chef Fred Morin at his internationally acclaimed restaurant Joe Beef.

“Fred was going from to table to table chatting with guests, and when he found out we were neuroscientists he sat right down,” recalled Han. “It turns out he’s a bioengineer by training and a big neuroscience fan. When we started talking about the need to bring disparate industries together to discuss neurogastronomy, he said, ‘If you get the neuroscientists there, I’ll bring the chefs’.”

And the International Society of Neurogastronomy was born.

The inaugural ISN Symposium will be held on 7 November 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky. This is the first time the ‘four pillars’ of neurogastronomy — chefs, bench neuroscientists, agriculture and food technologists and clinical neuroscientists — will meet to share their knowledge and begin a dialogue that, they hope, will ultimately lead to real changes in brain behaviour as it relates to food.

Han and his co-founders have structured the day to be very different to the typical scientific symposium. Instead of long lectures, there are several presentations in a TED-talk  format. The speakers will include:

  • Chefs: The Next Iron Chef runner-up Jehangir Mehta; James Beard finalist and Mind of a Chef host Ed Lee; Leah Sarris, program director for the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University; and Fred Morin of Joe Beef Montreal.
  • Scientists: Physiologist Tim McClintock; prize-winning experimental psychologist Charles Spence; and Gordon Shepherd, MD, Dphil, who coined the term ‘neurogastronomy’ — first in 2006 in an article in Nature and six years later in an eponymous book.

The symposium will be a true culinary experience as well, with tasting breaks to help participants grasp the fundamentals of flavour perception (sweet, salty, umami, etc) as well as chef-quality breakfast and lunch breaks.

The high point of the day will be the ‘Applied Neurogastronomy Challenge’, where teams of chefs and scientists will prepare dishes judged by actual patients with neurologically related taste impairments.

Han is anxious to begin the dialogue that might ultimately provide tangible improvement to quality of life for people with neurologically related taste impairments. “When the concept of neurogastronomy was introduced, people realised it was a need that had been there for a long time — ever since mammals started eating,” he said. “If we could get together and simply provide ways to help these patients enjoy a meal, break bread with family and friends and enjoy that process again, then I would be very proud of that contribution to clinical sciences.”

For more information about the ISN Symposium, visit

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