Editor’s Letter – Brain Food Edition

December 2022

Cambridge Science Festival. Photo: © Raphael Edwards

By David A. Edwards, Ph.D., scientist, author, pioneering inventor

If we are what we eat, in a very real way, we eat what we are. “What we are,” in this sense, includes a collection of thoughts and emotions that preoccupy us at any given moment, a surprisingly large fraction of which happen to relate to the food that keeps us alive, and hopefully thriving. 

Unfortunately, what we are, and indeed the thoughts and emotions we have of food we might eat, is not accessed to an equal degree or with equal benefit. For better or for worse, we are led to eat what we do by the “brain food” we get exposed to as a function of the kitchens we grow up in, the restaurants we visit, and, sadly, our economic status and skin color …. 

This issue of Boston Hospitality Review is dedicated to the science and art of food experiences that take place principally in our brains, what is sometimes called Cephalic Food, or Brain Food, and to ways we can use what has been discovered over recent years to make healthy nutrition more accessible and more equitable than it is today.

On the evening of October 7, 2022, in the outdoor air next to MIT, we did a public experiment for the Cambridge Science Festival called Brain Food.  We proposed a pause, a deep breath, to delightfully explore the experience of food before it lands in our guts.  An experience of food that is completely in our brains, and not in our guts, Brain Food was largely an olfactory and visual adventure that took place around a conversation with thought leaders in science, mindfulness, fitness, and community dialog, which I led.  Over my years of teaching bioengineering and creativity at Harvard University, I had become fascinated with the potential of airborne sensory signals to reshape our experience of food and help us get back to the natural, intuitive sensory dialog with nature from which we evolved. This has led to scientific discoveries, Le Laboratoire (Edwards 2007), an experimental restaurant, and this evening.

Cambridge Science Festival. Photo: © Raphael Edwards

With Brain Food, you walked up to a cloud of sushi at the Brain Food Bar or passed the evening satiating your appetite with Mindful Chocolate. While you were at it, you might try out French Fry Memory or a (surprisingly moist) peanut butter & jelly berry. Meanwhile, we heard from some of the authors of this issue, including Harvard Professor Ellen Langer, Monell Institute President Nancy Rawson, and best-selling author and community leader Touré Roberts, as they talked about how our minds guide us to eat what we do, and how we might eat better, and enjoy it …

I had tried out Brain Food a few years before at NBC Studios in New York following a chance introduction to the music artist Questlove, cofounder of The Roots.  Alexis Rosenzweig, who manages Questlove’s creative food businesses, had learned of my experiments in flavor clouds and invited me over to try things out.  From clouds of taco to airy cotton candy, we sampled flavor clouds as droplets puffed out of a new food instrument called Nimbus. We discussed the science of olfaction as we went along, and why it was these flavors, which hung in the air like sea fog, were so much more powerful than the experience of smelling a warm taco or having a whiff of cotton candy.  At one point, Questlove sat back.  He regretted that his friend, Prince, who had died two years before, could not be with us.  Prince had apparently once shared a story of being a young man in Minneapolis, with too little pocket money to eat every meal. To get by, he had figured out a Brain Food trick. He would buy some gum, chew it until the piece of gum had lost its taste, and then walk into a local McDonald’s, sit down and smell fresh french fries. After a while, Prince would walk out with the sensation of having consumed a delicious McDonald’s snack.

Seriously? Yes. Our senses have surprising power over our bodies. How we can understand and use this power to improve nutrition access, to give to us all the natural desire to eat what actually benefits our health, and to enrich the delight of food without penalty for this enrichment, is the theme of this issue.  

How does olfaction work on our brains to make us want to eat one food, and not another, even when the first is bitter, and the second is sweet?  How can an environment, say a restaurant or a hotel lobby, make us more sensitive to the perception of aromas, so that we listen to them as our bodies were once conditioned to back when we lived in more intimate contact with the natural world? If Brain Food is fundamentally an olfactory experience, we begin our issue at ground zero, with an overview of the science of olfaction, and clinical discoveries shaping the future of food experience.

Might we design aromas for a particular guest, and deliver these aromas at the right moment, to help our guest crave a food that is dissonant with the foods she has been flavor-educated to crave so that she might wish to eat differently, and enjoy it? Nancy Rawson, president of the Monell Institute, one of the world’s principal think tanks of the science of scent and flavor, writes with Rachel Field, co-inventor of Nimbus, and of the early Nimbus experience called, oNotes, where the science of olfaction is leading us today, and how technology is racing alongside. It is famously difficult to capture an aroma and to share this aroma with another, as one captures a visual palette of colors and shares it in the form of a photograph. But science and technology are figuring it out.

Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University, widely considered the founder of mindfulness in academia, writes about Mindful Eating.  Olfaction aside, our minds can fundamentally influence how we perceive food so that one food can fill us up, and the same food, in the same quantity, can actually make us more hungry.  How we think about food, and how we think quite generally, can radically alter the outcomes of food on our bodies.  What does this mean about the ritual of the food experience? Might we create new food rituals in our restaurants and cafes that guide our guests to healthier, more beneficial eating?  Ellen takes us on an adventure in rethinking food, leading us to her idea of Mindful Chocolate.

The air we breathe matters. Science has shown us that dirty air dulls our flavor perception – dry air does too.  We are increasingly living in a world of dirty dry air. This is, surprisingly, even truer of our indoor environments than out of doors.  With urbanization and global warming, our windows are increasingly shut, and our air is conditioned to be dry. Fine particles trapped in the air recirculate around us.  What can we do to control the air we breathe so that we eat better, and breathe better, too? In The Air We Eat and Eating Well by Breathing Well, we write of the science of airway hydration, equity of access to hydrated airways, and what we can do to in a way “clean the air” so that all of us can “taste” food better by hydrating the air we breathe in whatever kitchen we find ourselves. Our food matters, of course. What are we learning about the future of food that can help us eat better, sustainably, and want to eat better, all of us?  This tallest question of the future of food is also a matter of Brain Food …. Marty Kolewe, CEO of FoodBerry, writes of a future of food that looks remarkably similar to the natural history of food.  In The Future of Food is a Berry, Kolewe explains why fruits and vegetables generally have a skin that keeps them full of water, and how the forms of fruits and vegetables are essential to natural nutrition delivery.  Most processed foods are far drier than natural fruits and vegetables, a consequence being that our brains crave them unnaturally.  Because dry processed foods are more commonly consumed by those of lesser economic means, hydration inequalities, in our foods as in our access to hydration more generally, are driving nutrition inequalities.  Kolewe suggests this might be changed by rethinking food in the form of the berry.

David A. Edwards, Ph.D., scientist, author, pioneering inventor


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