Yangyang Wang investigates the science of cravings courtesy of Science Museum Lates
I am binge-watching The Great British Bake Off and visions of choux pastry, pastel coloured macarons, and chocolate tarts have given me a sudden sweet tooth. Unfortunately it is quite late so I will have to satisfy my cravings with some leftover biscuits: not quite up to the GBBO standard.
Cravings come and go at strange times and places, sometimes seemingly triggered by the weakest of stimuli, but what exactly evokes our desire for food? Why do we crave certain foods and are we in control of our food desires?
The latest Science Museum Lates event, Cravings: Can your food control you?, investigated ‘how the food you eat affects your body, brain and eating habits’. The evening consisted of several talks on how gut bacteria controls our minds and what we eat, plus a series of interactive exhibits provided free food to satisfy all this talk of cravings.
Mind to Gut
Dr Emily Grossman, a science communicator, discussed the various controls gut bacteria exert on the human body in a talk aptly titled ‘Gut Feelings’.
We often see the gut as a second brain, sometimes even preferring gut feeling to the rationale of our brains. The extent of influence of our guts has even been linked to the food preferences of certain cultures. The talk examined research which has shown that particular microorganisms present in the guts of Japanese people are adept at digesting seaweed and may give their host a propensity for such food. Whereas African children with a diet of sorghum crop have specific microbes which digest the cellulose found in this plant.
We once attributed food preferences to social and cultural experiences but it seems that biological make up could instead be the underlying factor. Our desires for certain foods may have less to do with our own wishes but instead a subterfuge for bacterial survival.
Sensing Food & Food for Thought
No exhibition on cravings could be complete without free food and this criteria was fully met through a ‘mystery tent experience’ provided by Danone. Visitors queued outside of said tent and promised to not touch or eat any of the displays before entering. Once inside, attendees were assaulted with the sights and smells of an assortment of sweets, in a similar aesthetic to a Katy Perry music video. The visual and olfactory appeals of different types of sweets were supposed to stimulate our appetite and the experiment ended with free yogurt to see if it could satisfy our elicited cravings. However, it was a pallid substitute for what was on offer in the tent. Sorry Danone, I think I’ll stick to Muller in future.
However, it was a very interesting experiment into how we perceive food. The way we consider food is not simply through taste but with all our senses and this exhibit raised some quite philosophical debate on what our favourite sense was. Food cravings appeal to us on a visual level; food is presented as an art form, which makes it attractive to consume and document through Instagram. The experience of food through taste and smells is fleeting; once eaten, it’s gone. It belongs to a specific time that we cannot recapture but can only replicate, which makes it even more special.
Food is also closely associated with memory; the reason we crave is because food can comfort, it can transport us back to a fond childhood event or favourite place. Food is more than just a physiological necessity, it’s a cultural experience.
Cravings: can your food control you? is open at the Science Museum from 12/02/2015 – 10/01/2016, free entry.
Featured image credit: Science Museum