More than 250 scientists, chefs, presenters and spectators gathered at UK HealthCare last weekend for the second-annual International Society of Neurogastronomy Symposium.
The term “neurogastronomy” was coined by Dr. Gordon Shepherd to describe a discipline of the biochemistry of food preparation, the molecular biology of the olfactory receptors, and the knowledge of odor images and the brain flavor system. The concept casts a wide net over several disciplines relevant to what we eat, why we like what we eat and how we eat. His life’s work was reflected in many of the topics covered at the symposium:
- The evolution of food and flavor, from ancient times to the Middle Ages (when people considered food as medicine) to the rise of modern cuisine as an expression of vanity (rich, multi-course meals were a reflection of a person’s wealth and social status).
- The complexities of flavor perception: humans have three receptors for vision (red, blue and green) and more than 1,000 receptors for odors.
- New research into the anti-inflammatory properties of food (olive oil shares one of the same molecules as that found in ibuprofen, which might give insight into the effectiveness of the Mediterranean Diet).
- The concept of food addiction and the potential role of stress reduction in decreasing the incidence of obesity.
- An analysis of the debate whether food addiction is biological (like a drug addiction) or behavioral (like a gambling addiction).
But it was Taria Camerino who stole the show. Camerino, an acclaimed chef, has a condition known as synesthesia, which means she experiences all of her senses, even her emotions, as taste.
Symposium participants crowded the microphones to ask Camerino questions: “Do you taste feelings?” (yes – “Fear tastes like blood and metal.”) “What did the presidential election taste like?” (“Like bitter, but also like hope, plus something astringent… something chemical… I know! Hairspray! Wow… that’s really weird!”) And, perhaps the most poignant question: “Can you help me cook for my husband who had radiation? He can still smell, but he cannot taste, and he’s miserable.” (“Start having him smell things. Vanilla, shortbread, lavender. When he gets to a smell he likes, make something with that.”)
During breaks between presentations, attendees could explore one of nine stations that demonstrated how taste involves more than the tongue. One table offered three gelatin cubes – one black flavored with mango, one green flavored with strawberry, and one yellow flavored with fish – to emphasize how what we see on the plate sets expectations for what we’re about to taste.
For her station, Camerino made hundreds of “lollies” – lollipops are her signature confectionery – for participants to taste while listening to the first two minutes of the 1812 Overture. People came away from her station moved and amazed.
“I tasted bitter, and then sadness, and then something more herbal,” said one taster. “How did she get the lollipop’s flavor to swell and subside with the music?” marveled another.
The day culminated with a recap of the Neurogastronomy Challenge, where teams of chefs, neuroscientists and clinicians went head to head to prepare dishes for cancer patients Erika Radhakrishnan and Barry Warner.
“When you are on cancer treatment, your taste and smell are affected, and not in a good way,” said Radhakrishnan. “It’s encouraging to see that quality of life for cancer patients is no longer on the back burner.”
“I consider my taste loss collateral damage – and I’m OK with that in the grand scheme of things,” Warner said.
“But there are a lot of professionals in this kitchen looking for ways to make things better for us, and I really appreciate their enthusiasm.”
You can watch a playlist of the Neurogastronomy Symposium below. It includes an interview with Camerino, footage of her presentation and more.