As the burgeoning field of neurogastronomy seeks to explain our preferences and perceptions of food, it finds the answers have as much to do with our minds, the environment, and the rest of our senses as it does with our sense of taste. In her new book, “Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship With Food,” neuroscientist Rachel Herz delves into this world by looking at research on everything from how sound influences eating to why it’s a good idea to sit farther away from the all-you-can-eat buffet if you want to limit your portions.
Herz is a neuroscientist who specializes in perception and emotion at Brown University and Boston College. The author finds food a natural extension of her research interests and a worthy field of study for someone who has been obsessed with food since she was a little girl who couldn’t resist squeezing the bread.
Q. Is research on sensory perception and food a relatively recent undertaking?
A. I would say that there’s been a lot of rigorous, empirical research from the sort of psychological, cognitive neuroscience end of things in the last 10 years or so. But (delving into) the perception of what we’re consuming has been around for 70 or 80 years. For instance, Louis Cheskin, who was an advertising innovator in the mid-20th century, decided that the 7UP can should have a limey color to it, because the idea was that the yellowish green of the can would actually make people perceive that the drink was more lemon-limey. That was a very big advertising and marketing success.
Q. It’s easy to imagine that marketers try to influence sensory perceptions to get us to buy things.
A. Cinnabon is a classic example of this. They may be a kiosk in the middle of the food court of a mall. Nowhere in that space is anyone baking cinnamon buns. But the aroma of the cinnamon buns is actually being pumped out from their kiosk environment. That’s a really potent lure, whether you’re hungry or not. Other things may have more subtle impacts once you’re inside a restaurant. Things like really loud or fast music actually makes people consume more quickly and leave more quickly as well, but it decreases the experience for the diner because loud music can dampen our sense of taste, especially sweet and salty, making food less attractive to eat.
Q. You write about an experiment where people were given the same milkshake labeled as rich and decadent or low-calorie and then had different metabolic responses to consuming it. Why is this important?
A. That’s an amazing study. This is one of the things I didn’t know and was blown away by how powerful these mind-sets or placebo effects are for changing things we really don’t think we have any conscious control over like our metabolism. It shows that how we perceive the calorie content, the richness, the decadence totally overrides that and can either make you burn a lot of calories or hardly burn any. It’s is quite fascinating that our minds are manipulated by the labels that we see from the point of view of our metabolism, not just our behavior.
Q. How else can labels influence us?
A. We also tend to think that foods that are labeled organic have fewer calories than that exact same food under conventional labeling conditions, even when there is objective information given that they’re actually the same. We even, believe it or not, think that it’s OK to forgo working out after we’ve eaten something organic compared to if we’ve eaten a conventional version of a treat, like a cookie. This has to do with the fact that we think that “organic” means we’re doing something actively promoting our health and exercise is obviously also actively promoting our health. We feel we can forgo one side of that equation if we engage in the other.
Q. How does sitting farther away from the buffet make us eat less?
A. This is capitalizing on the fact that we’re inherently somewhat lazy. If you’re really physically hungry, you’re going to expend whatever energy you can to get to the food. But if you’re not actually hungry and it’s just a question of thinking “Gee, that was really tasty and I want more,” the less that it’s in arm’s reach, the better it is for you. This helps also with things like if you have a plate of cookies or a container of potato chips on your desk or in front of you while you’re watching TV. It’s really easy to just be putting your hand in it and not even realize you’ve consumed it all. Seeing food in and of itself is attractive. So, when we’re looking at food, it’s a motivator. But if it takes more effort to get to it, that can certainly be a very easy thing to kind of rein us back.Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org