Any SAT-word loving geek can break down the word neurogastronomy. Neuro indicates brain and gastronomy links to food and culinary. There is a lot of interest in brain health and nutrition these days, looking at how our brain lights up when we eat certain things or the communication we get from our gut or how nutrients like choline can impact brain health. But none of these seems to fit into neurogastronomy specifically. So what is it?

I set out to find the answer this weekend at the Third Annual Conference of the International Society of Neurogastromy in Lexington, Kentucky on the campus of the beautiful University of Kentucky. As we often engage with diverse stakeholders, I am used to meeting people from a variety of disciplines but I have literally NEVER encountered such a group of diverse individuals – from health professionals such as neurologists, general practitioners and dietitians, to academics working in sociology, philosophy, psychology, food science and sensory science, to foodies such as world-renown chefs, culinary historians and master bourbon distillers (we were in Kentucky afterall). Oh yeah, and then there was the guy building the internet of food.

But we all gathered with the purpose, as set out by the ISN, of finding ways to improve public health through better understanding how our brains impact what, how, when and how much we eat. There were some great “Did You Know?”s coming out of the symposium. For example:

  • Did you know that while the area of the human brain that senses smell (the olfactory bulb) is smaller in humans than dogs, we have a similar amount of neurons and they can interpret the information in a much more sophisticated way? (John McGann, PhD, Rutgers University)
  • Human’s metabolic signals could be contributing information to our brains when we go to make decisions about food….especially when that food contains yummy elements like fat and carbs. (Dana Small, PhD, Yale University)
  • The “health halo” around foods labeled organic or billed as healthy alternatives not only make us eat larger portions of those foods, they could make us more judgmental of others or less likely to be willing to volunteer our time. (Rachel Herz, PhD, Brown University)
  • For the 30-40% of patients with epilepsy who don’t respond to pharmaceutical treatments, the ketogenic diet can all but erase symptoms (Dr John Rho, University of Calgary)
  • Similar to the flavor wheels used in the wine and spirits industry, creating a flavor wheel of vegetables can increase acceptance and diversify palates of non-veggie eaters. (Amanda Archibald, RDN, The Genomic Kitchen)

We have clearly not solved the obesity problem by looking only at how food impacts us from the neck down. Integrating the brain into the equation is an important next step to improving public health and I look forward to continuing the journey with the ISN.