Neurogastronomy – How Our Senses React to Food

Closeup of a male chef with eyes closed smelling food in the kitThe nose knows

When you walk into a bakery, your sense of smell is overwhelmed by the scent of sugar. You drive past a steakhouse and your mouth waters. Just after you’ve eaten a meal at your favorite restaurant, the wait staff strides by with a sizzling fajita and you’re hungry all over again.

The flip side: You have a cold and are suffering from nasal congestion. You can’t taste a thing and you don’t even have much interest in food.

What’s going on?

According to Dr. Gordon Shepherd, author of Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor, and Why It Matters (Columbia University Press, 2011), the nose experiences flavor and this flavor/taste sensation is called neurogastronomy. Shepherd, a Yale University neuroscientist, contends that the flavor experience is a major brain activity. The aroma we smell gives us as much of the flavor we actually taste as chewing or sipping.

As we eat, the back of the mouth stimulates the nose. The brain processes smells as spatial patterns and, from this and other senses, creates our perception of flavor.

In this way, just the smell of a childhood food, for example, can trigger memory. Neurogastronomy affects nutrition, food preferences and cravings, and therefore also dieting and obesity.

But other senses affect our eating habits, too, including the sense of sound. The crunch of a potato chip or pretzel often invites us to chow down. If that sound is moderated, scientists suggest, our eating will be, too. One restaurant serves a seafood dish complete with sand, foam, and seaweed. It also comes with a conch shell and a pair of iPod headphones. Part of the dining experience involves using the headphones to first hear the sounds of waves and seagulls before imbibing. Indeed even the music played in a restaurant or catered event affects the way we eat.

Chefs have long known the visual effect of food. That’s why they meticulously craft a dish’s presentation. We eat with our eyes, they’ve learned. Here, color and texture play significant roles. And this is where molecular gastronomy is used to full effect.

How do you experience taste?

Try this experiment. Cut up some pieces of apple and onion. Pinch your nose so you can only breathe through your mouth. Indiscriminately, take a piece of the apple-onion into your mouth. Suck on it. Do you know which one it is? Without the sense of smell, you really can’t discern the taste. Now, release the hold on your nose. Do you know whether you have a piece of apple or onion now?

One food scientist explains it like this: We only have the ability to experience five tastes—sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami (the taste of glutamate, separate and distinct from salty). But, we can smell hundreds of millions of olfactory stimuli.