The science of neurogastronomy, or how our brains perceive the flavor of food

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Can scientists trick the brain into thinking that broccoli tastes like chocolate? If so, could that help patients with low appetite regain motivation to eat?

Neuroscientists, physiologists and chefs hope research advances in taste and odor perception could make it possible one day to manipulate taste perception neurologically.

The concept, known as neurogastronomy, was the focus of a Nov. 7 inaugural international conference hosted by the International Society of Neurogastronomy, in Lexington, Ky., with demonstrations and presentations by researchers, scientists and chefs. Much of the discussion focused on manipulating flavor experiences using all the senses.

Some researchers in the field are asking a futuristic question: What if science could change the way food tastes by manipulating neurological signals inside a subject’s body, rather than changing external characteristics such as cooking style, feeding environment or the food itself?

“We could potentially revolutionize the flavoring of foods,” says Tim McClintock, a physiology professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the researchers who spoke at the conference. “Some people might find it creepy,” he concedes, as it could be jarring to have a known food with a completely different taste than expected, even if the change is an improvement.

There could be clinical implications for such neurogastronomic techniques, proponents say. They could help make nutritious food more appealing to people whose taste and smell receptors are greatly altered because of chemotherapy. In the case of patients struggling with compulsive eating or obesity, the techniques could make nutritious foods at least as enticing as foods they crave.

People who have lost their sense of smell as adults are another population that might benefit. Some of these people experience unpleasant “phantom” odors—one common phantom odor is cadavers, Dr. McClintock says—and these odors affect taste and flavor.

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