Why food is nothing without texture

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Yvonne Kuiper

Yvonne Kuiper is a neuroscientist and nutrition specialist in the Faculty of Science at the University of Auckland.

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Mind room

The appearance of our summer ice cream is just as important as it gets. We know a lot about how our brain responds to taste but we need to know more about how we like it and why we like certain designs.

Think of the old summer, ice cream cone: what happens to our brain when we bite?

First, groups of brain cells in the somatosensory system begin to function. These brain cells are linked to our ability to touch, heat and pain. The mouth of the ice cream warms the body, covering the tongue and inside of the mouth, releasing aromatic oils.

Immediately the orbitofrontal cortex of our brain enters and shows how much better the taste is. The two areas begin to communicate, and the link is much stronger when the ice cream is high in fat and, fortunately, the scent you love.

For fans of real ice cream, a great response begins. Another part of the brain, the cingulate cortex, which is thought to respond to thoughts and emotions, identifies the ice cream as a source of happiness and shows that your body is growing. With all the brain power running, we are encouraged to repeat what has happened, over and over, until the amazing ice cream is left.

The implication is that taste, which is defined as salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami, is not responsible for driving good brain fluids. The structure of what we eat is also important.

Personal differences in preferences and desires affect this brain response. If you love ice cream, the combination of sweet taste, which is an essential oil, makes for a very beneficial brain response.

My research looks at how our brain responds to the structure of our food. Food design is a very important factor if we like or dislike food. Imagine eating pavlova without wet outside which is a gooey sweet place? Few of us would agree with the pavlova that did not have a good look, except out of respect for the owner.

We also know that eating an apple and drinking the same water are two different things. The appearance and chewing of apple flavors makes us feel full, the same juiced glass does not.

There are many questions about how the brain responds to food. Another problem is that learning about the brain while eating is difficult. Researchers want to determine which parts of the brain are targeted when eating certain foods. MRI scans (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) show what is happening in our brain.

The problem is it needs to be as quiet as you can during the recording. To find out what is going on we need to test the brain while people are eating and thus, moving. This is a painful task because chewing requires moving the head. If the person moves too much the MRI scan will be blurry and a few will be revealed.

We deal with this problem by allowing students to bite slowly and then asking them to be quiet while examining their brains. We use custom-made lorries to help us analyze areas of the brain that recognize the structure of food. Our research is one of the first studies to use solid foods and not beverages.

So why is it important to understand how the brain responds to food? The big issue here is that New Zealanders are facing the problem of obesity. One out of every 3 people in New Zealand over the age of 15 is now overweight, and this figure is on the rise.

One of the problems is that we live in a shelter. There has never been a time in human history when high-calorie, sugar and fatty foods have been available and affordable for most people. However, our brains have not been affected by these changes in food availability and their wires are still connected to high-energy foods.

Fighting obesity is a war on several nations. High fat and sugar intake are at the heart of this issue. In order to discover and understand the genetic makeup of fats and sugars, we need to understand how our brain responds to their diet. We know that different parts of the brain light up to taste and smell, as well as seeing our favorite fat and sugar foods. What we do not know is how our brain perceives and appreciates the foods that greatly disrupt this process.

By exploring which parts of the brain are affected by food production, we can map out how the attractive appearance, especially the form of fat, combined with sweet taste, stimulates communication between the brain parts and enhances our reward responses.

With the map, we can explore possible ways in which fat, in general, is hard to resist and perhaps ultimately answers the question of why we get the best ice cream.

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