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Chef Heston Blumenthal

There’s a fascinating article in the New Republic — not to be confused with the equally fascinating Food Republic — about acclaimed British chef Heston Blumenthal and the modernist fare at his newly remodeled Fat Duck restaurant in England. The stuff he’s serving these days isn’t geared just toward your taste buds but basically to all of your senses (smell, sight, sound, touch). The article links Blumenthal’s innovative cooking to an emerging new branch of science called neurogastronomy, and it deals with the psychology of food.

According to this field of study, taste and flavor are two very different things: “Taste is an experience composed of only five elements: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami…. Flavor is at once a broader and more powerful property than taste, one that marries the senses and their associate properties — memory, experience, neurobiology — to create and control the way we eat.”

The promise of neurogastronomy is that by focusing on the brain instead of the body, we may be able to alter eating habits in a different way.

Why is this important? Well, for one thing, food manufacturers have spent years trying to steer us toward purportedly healthier diets by tricking our taste buds, using substitutes like margarine and artificial sweeteners instead of the fat and sugar we innately crave. Only it hasn’t worked. Our bodies register the same taste, but our brains can tell the difference. So we end up craving more of the real thing. Moreover, many of the artificial substitutes have turned out to be just as harmful as, if not worse than, the genuine article.

The promise of neurogastronomy is that by focusing on the brain instead of the body, we may be able to alter eating habits in a different way: “Use real sugar, real energy, real fats and salts and the whole gamut of flavor, but do so in lower quantities, in a way that makes the result taste good and sends actual energy signals to the brain, creating an experience that is both psychologically and physically satisfying.”

Chef Blumenthal does this sort of thing right now at Fat Duck through a method he calls “encapsulation,” essentially presenting flavor in smaller but more intense bursts. Larger grains of salt, for instance, but fewer of them can result in the same taste but with less consequence on the health side.

Things like sound, sight and temperature also impact how our minds perceive flavors. This, the article suggests, may help to explain the whole brouhaha over the busted mythology surrounding $10 Mast Brothers chocolate bars: “What they lacked in flavor they more than made up for in artisanal-seeming wrapping. Perhaps this was also one of the reasons the blowback against them was so harsh. People felt deceived, as, in a sense, they were.”

So it was all in our heads! Great — now how can we trick our brains into thinking we got our $10 back?