Book: Neurogastronomy

Neurogastronomy: How the brain creates flavour and why it matters
Gordon M. Shepherd, Columbia University Press, New York (2013), RRP $41.95

Every chef knows taste is the last, and arguably the least important, element in the enjoyment of food.

Long before the mouth gets involved, other sensory mechanisms have already been deployed. Setting and company aside, sight comes first. We eat with our eyes. Then comes aroma, and considerations such as meal size versus appetite. Underpinning all this is expectation. If a burger at McDonald’s tastes like a Big Mac, that’s good; if a burger at Neil Perry’s Rockpool tastes like a Big Mac, that’s not.

Gordon Shepherd, a neurobiology professor at Yale School of Medicine, adds another layer of complexity to the business of food and flavour. Neurogastronomy focuses on “retronasal” smell, which arises at the back of the mouth when we swallow, and which the nasal chamber registers when we exhale.

This is the true route by which flavour is interpreted by the brain, he says. “It is important to realise that flavour does not reside in a flavourful food any more than colour resides in a colourful object.”

To learn that flavour is a neurological construct rather than something inherent in food is interesting, if not especially surprising. To learn that smell is not one but two senses (detected inwards through the nose, and outwards via the throat) is diverting, but not startling. People for whom smell is important – chefs, perfumers, winemakers – all know that it changes once inhaled. A rose still smells like a rose, and a chop still tastes like a chop, even if we don’t know exactly why.

The problem with Shepherd’s affable book is that it lacks clear intent beyond its description of, and advocacy for, the power of retronasal smell. The title suggests a field of food preparation – akin perhaps to molecular gastronomy – but the content goes nowhere near the field. The author cites Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001), but gives no more than a cursory critique of the fast food industry (too many flavour enhancers, and not enough roughage). Curiously, Shepherd does not deal with Schlosser’s profoundly troubling chapter in which he refers to US flavour scientists who create the distinctive odours of most consumer products.

There is little in the book’s 267 pages that provides insight into how, or if, retronasal smell is exploited in applied gastronomy or any other aroma-related field. Neurogastronomy would have made a fascinating magazine article. As a book it might not be quite to one’s taste.

This book is available in Australia from Footprint Books

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