Food/Nutrition Columnist
The Connection Between Your Brain And Food
Jun 3, 2013 - 12:03:38 AM

( - Your brain and the food you eat are more intimately connected than you realize. The initial reason for eating is survival, but for most of us eating has transformed into a pleasurable experience. How did this happen? Your brain did it because brains have the ability to continuously change with experience and training.

Your brain is finely tuned to food. The orbital frontal cortex is the main region of the brain that is stimulated by eating. Food enters the mouth where you think you are tasting food. But, taste - sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami - is actually a small part of the flavor of food.

Smell makes up 85% of your perception of food. Somatosensory reactions (touch and feel), vision, and taste make up the rest. The old saying, we eat with our eyes, is true. What a particular food looks like is the first message of acceptance or rejection sent to the brain. If the food passes the look test, you'll place it in your mouth.

The texture or mouthfeel of the food is your next experience. If you have had a bad experience with slippery food, you could gag or reject the food even if it is something you have never eaten before. Textural aversions are always related to a previous experience. They are real and often hard to overcome. Crunchy textures, like chips, are usually received favorably even if the actual flavor of the chip you are eating is not your favorite. It is texture that is driving your decision to eat.

If you intensely dislike a food, this is hard to change. An aversion to a particular food or group of foods is a very long lasting memory and similar to post traumatic stress. Your connection to the food can be separated by a long period of time but when confronted with the food again your dislike is as intense as ever. You may react to the sight of the food, its mouthfeel, or its odor.

As you wet and chew food odors are released. At the top of your nose you have olfactory epithelial cells that receive odor molecules from the mouth and send these smell receptors to the brain. Our brains can recognize odors very precisely. The smell of good aged parmesan cheese comes from a 9 carbon compound. The smell of dirty gym socks is the result of a 10 carbon compound. Your brain knows the difference.

As humans, because we walk upright, our smell capacity is diluted. Plus, we have smaller noses than most animals. Even a small obstruction, like the minor inflammation of a cold or seasonal allergy, will cut down on the ability to smell and may affect our desire to eat. It is a reason we often lose our appetite when we have a cold. In fact, with a stuffed up nose, if you close your eyes, you can't perceive the difference between a grated apple and a grated onion.

There is a theory that the reason children dislike foods is because the most intense odors are 5 to 10 inches off the floor. They perceive odors more strongly than adults. As they get taller these food odors become less stringent and more acceptable.

The system connecting our nose and brain has nerve endings that can perceive temperature through smell. Capsaicin found in chili peppers, opens this channel and we perceive heat when we eat chilies, though no actual heat is generated. Menthol, often used to flavor gum or cough drops, produces the sensation of cold. The odor of onions opens this system, too and makes our eyes tear.

Your brain, not your mouth, defines the flavor of a food. In order to do this it relies on taste, touch, vision, smell and even temperature. Eliminate any one of these and your experience with a particular food will measurably change.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with sales of more than 8.5 million books.

Look for:

The Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2013

The Calorie Counter, 6th Ed., 2013

The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012

The Diabetes Counter, 4th Ed., 2011

The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011

The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010

The Fat Counter, 7th ed., 2009

The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008

The Cholesterol Counter, 7th Ed., 2008

Your Complete Food Counter App:

For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to:


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