By Adam Cailler
HANDS up all those who ever heard of ‘neurogastronomy’? Wikipedia des-cribes it as the study of flavour perception and the ways it affects cognition and memory.
But for neuroscientist Rachel Herz, it is much more than that.
The New York-native has dedicated her life to the field, which she talks about in her new book, Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship With Food (WW Norton, £17).
Rachel dedicates the book to “everyone who loves to eat” — hence why I set up this interview.
“This is all about trying to understand the person who is eating the food and the act of eating the food itself from the point of view of how the brain, mind, emotions and senses are all involved in the experience of eating,” she said.
“Everything around you interacts with your senses when it comes to food. In fact, a lot of it involves how we think, see, feel and taste the food.”
Rachel, who had a secular Jewish upbringing, pointed out that food is more than just food.
She explained: “We have very complex interactions with food. This has to do with all kinds of factors that are in the world around us, beginning with the basics of our senses and how our eyes, ears, nose and mouth tell us information about the food.
“It has to do with the environment we are in. It has to do with our own moods and emotions and feelings and personality.
“And, so, this whole complex dance is the relationship.
“My goal in writing this book was to give people the knowledge of all the factors that go into their relationship with food, so they feel they are able to control their experience of food rather than feeling like food is controlling them.”
As well as spending time living in New York, Montreal and Paris, Rachel lived in the exotic English city of . . . Coventry.
She laughed: “There was nothing special about it, other than my mum was an English professor and my dad taught maths at the university.”
She also spent time working at the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia.
The MCSC is a specific science centre that works to understand taste and smell to benefit health and well-being.
According to research in Rachel’s book, foods we like and are more familiar with — which for most of us are comfort foods like pasta, pizza and all the things we really shouldn’t be eating — make us feel more full and satisfied.
Why? Well, it has nothing at all to do with calories (thankfully).
She said: “There is a fair bit of research that shows that the calories in the food are not what’s driving our feelings of fullness, satisfaction and hunger.
“It’s what we think about the food.
“When we think a food has more calories — whether it does or doesn’t — it makes us feel more satiated and we eat less of it. We also have a more intense metabolic reaction to it.
“So, in fact, we burn more calories when we think we are eating something that has high calories, regardless of the real caloric content.
She added: “The same thing goes for food that we think has low calories, except our metabolism can stall.
“It’s not like there’s this fact of nature out there that is food and we respond to it in a logical, consistent and objective way.
“Instead, there are all kinds of features about the environment and our own perceptions that are guiding, shaping and dictating our experience of food and changing things in shocking ways.”
On television, there are always channels showing a food programme of some kind.
Rachel said: “Watching television itself creates weight gain and there’s research to prove a correlation between the number of hours of television watched and the number of pounds gained.
“When we’re distracted we tend not to realise what we are eating, not savour the flavour and, in turn, we are not satiated — so we eat more.
“Having food in front of you, easy to reach, is another peril. Food advertising, even healthy food, makes people eat more.”
It’s common knowledge that we eat with our eyes. And Rachel confirmed that how food is presented can “really influence” how much you are going to like what you’re about to eat.
She said: “People need to be aware of all the different things going into their belief system with respect to food and how their expectations may be altering their perception.
“The colour red makes us think things are sweeter while green can make us think things taste more sour.
“Take the case of red and green grapes. Let’s assume they have equal sugar content. If you closed your eyes and ate those grapes, you would think they tasted equally sweet.
“But, if you ate them with your eyes open, you would tend to think the green grapes were more sour.
“So, knowing all the factors that affect our senses and our mind when it comes to food is really important.”
So what tips does Rachel use herself to combat the perils of food in the modern world.
She said: “I really do try to think twice. Portion control is always a good idea.
“If I have a snack, I’ll put it into the smallest bowl I can find.
“I also try to keep food away from where my hand naturally goes, if I’m watching TV.
“We also need to capitalise on our inherent laziness.
“If there are sweets on the desk and they are six feet away, you are less likely to want to get them than if they are on the desk in front of you.”
Because of Rachel’s book, and a career full of research, she already has plans to make another book focusing on the sensory end for children.
She explained: “Educating children about food and their experiences is really important.
“It would be a good way of building on what I’ve already done rather than branching into something totally new at this point.”