“He was a bold man who first ate an oyster.” – Jonathan Swift
Food blogs are everywhere. These blogs discuss very specific categories, such as: vegan, gluten-free, paleo, meat only, diet trends, juices, smoothies and many, many more. When you think about it, food consumes much of our day. Everyone eats on a regular basis (or we would not survive), nearly everyone cooks (even a bag of microwaveable popcorn counts) and everyone has visited a restaurant (McDonald’s or five star…it does not matter!). More than that, food often enters into our cultural and familial practices. If you google ‘food science’ or ‘science of eating’, you will find hundreds of blogs about the best foods, urban farming, healthy eating and diet trends. Are we obsessed, or should food should consume much of our lives?
The mind plays a huge role in our understanding of food. This is important when trying to explain the mechanics of eating. Humans are the only species that have created such ritual and awareness of our food prior to eating, meaning, for humans eating is more about culture and less about instinct. It is curious to think about the gradual changes in the way that humans have experienced food. Imagine how the invention of fire changed diets, or much more recent, microwaves! Scientists now know that each time we swallow, we use twenty six muscles and six cranial nerves. In fact, each bite breaks down into something like thirty two sensory steps, and that is prior to swallowing!
Eating is the only human activity that requires every single one of your senses. We investigate foods visually first. Second, we must interact with a food in some way through touch. Possibly it needs to be cooked, or sliced, or perhaps we could eat it whole. This determination is made by experience and knowledge, which combines sight, touch and possibly fragrance. All foods have some sort of fragrance, though, as with all senses related to food, we can overpower this sense completely. Other times, the sense of smell overpowers us: think of onions that make the eyes water, or garlic bread baking in the oven, or gingerbread cookies. In fact, smell often creates the strongest memories related to food.
Chances are that you have a favorite food (possibly one you grew up with) and would be able to identify it quickly. Chances are also pretty good that you have a least favorite food. Ironically, sense of smell often drives the memory of your favorite food, but not necessarily of a least favorite food. Least favorites may be driven by any number of issues, all of them sensory based. For example, if you avoid slimy textures, then the thought of yogurt or oysters will create the sensation of sliminess in your mind, strong enough to drive you away over and over again. Also note that the slimy touch may be the way you classify the feel of yogurt on your fingers. Or it may be the way that you classify it on your tongue. Either way, you would be correct, but the two different opinions are in fact very different levels of experiencing a food. Obviously, touch involves much less skill than actually tasting a food on your tongue.
Touch actually affects the way that we taste food and includes the longest list of possible interactions with food. Touch is so crucial because we generally interact with foods in our hands, lips, cheeks, tongue, roof of mouth and back of throat. All of these ‘touches’ will feel different, especially as a food breaks down from something like a hard cracker into a soft, swallowable bolus. Taste, obviously, is last in the list of steps. It is more than touch, but less than eating. We can taste things without eating them. This sense probably developed to warn us of poisons or dangerous foods, but also allows us to enjoy the experience that keeps us alive. Auditory experience with food usually involves the crunch, slush, juice, and lip-smack sounds while chewing or eating. However, when we hear other people eating, that can affect our meal too.
The final point we want to make about the science of eating is how disorganized it really can be. Your sensory experience of food will override any factual knowledge you have about food, making it difficult for scientists to pinpoint what drives us to eat certain foods. The mind parses only the information that it wants when confronted with a food option and this, like fingerprints, is absolutely unique to every individual. Most people assume that a hungry person will eat, but that is not entirely true. Our minds can override the sensation of hunger (or of fullness) anytime it chooses. Some people do not enjoy the sensation of feeling stuffed (think Thanksgiving dinner-full), yet, we repeatedly eat foods that are bad for us! Therefore, the mind drives eating much moreso than internal sensory cues.
Many pieces of literature develop characters through the use of daily meal rituals (such as tea time) and food culture: think about Proust’s madeleines, or Oliver Twist’s porridge, or the large amounts of food delivered to Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Food has a lot to say about us as individuals and as cultures. Bon apetit!