Food Matters Live 2017
I spent last week at Food Matters Live, held at ExCel London, meeting interesting people from the world of food. It’s an unusual event, mostly focused on B2B, with companies introducing new products in the main hall, but in the conference auditorium prominent figures from the world of food give presentations or join panels discussing a wide range of topics.
Heston Blumenthal presented one of the most interesting and entertaining in a session entitled, “To cook is to be human, so why isn’t it at the core of education?” Heston has recently helped the UK education authorities create a new school programme focusing on food science, practical cookery and understanding nutrition, the aim being to improve the next generation’s understanding of the importance of what they eat and to open their minds to adventure in food. He is an inspiring man, with a mind that rises above the separate academic silos of chemistry, physics and biology, instead combining aspects of each of these sciences in his approach to education and food.
He is also endlessly curious, and being a lateral thinker manages to make inspiring links between his many observances. In his talk he used members of the audience to illustrate the importance of all our senses in appreciating food, even exposing a quirk that seems to remain unexplained by science.
Heston’s sense test
After inviting three members of the audience to the stage he asked each of them to hold their nose. He then gave each of them a biscuit, of which they duly took a bite and started munching. None of them could detect a taste, just the crunchiness of the biscuit.
Allowed to breathe normally, with the second bite they discovered it was a ginger snap!
Heston’s wine test
This was a curious one, with the tester being James Winter, the food writer host of the session. Heston poured a glass of white wine and asked James to take a sip with the hand in which he would normally hold his glass and describe the taste. He then asked him to switch hands and take another taste. James confirmed it was different!
This difference was even greater when James stood up and put one foot forward to take a sip, and then switched onto the other foot. We don’t why, but it may relate to different hemispheres of the brain.
My favourite Food Matters Live events are the seminars, but this year there was a particular poignancy. The Just Routine stand was in the main hall, not far from the stalls of new processed foods promising all kinds of health benefits, never mind the ‘healthy snacks’ and ‘free-from’ folks (as I commented to a colleague, a ‘free-range’ or ‘organic, multi-grain, multi-vitamin “healthy” breakfast biscuit’ is still not an apple!). Surrounded by all this one appreciates how accustomed we have become to convenience food. Click an app or dial a number and 30 minutes later you can have virtually any meal delivered to your door without having to think too hard about it, but more of mindfulness in a moment…
Where I felt at home most was in the seminars in the upper story side rooms, where my team and I attended a range of interesting talks, hosted by specialists in their field and focused on food and health. Highlights included;
- diet and nutrition as key factors for healthy aging and disease prevention
- nutrition management of non-communicable diseases, including heart, cancer and diabetes
- nutrition for wellbeing
- tackling obesity
Two particular sessions touched upon issues close to my heart:
- Latest research findings on making health habitual: the psychology of habit formation
- Healthy choices: why psychology and the brain play a vital role
The second posed the question, why do so many of us choose unhealthy food over the healthy? The focus was the important role played by our brains in determining our diet, with the reasons stretching back into our evolution.
One brain, two systems
We may be blessed with one brain, but it operates two systems, with big implications:
- System 1 is often referred to as the ‘Monkey Brain”. Also known as the limbic system, it developed early in our evolution and controls automatic and instinctive responses. It’s perfect for executing familiar routines and habits, but it can also get us into trouble, as it acts on emotion, tends to seek immediate pleasure and operates at tremendous speed – virtually instantaneously with little effort.
- System 2 is the Rational Brain, the operation of our cerebral cortex. This system controls rational and logical thought. Capable of abstract thinking, offering a sense of choice and control, it can determine intentions and plan for long-term goals. It tends toward slower, more thoughtful responses that require mental effort.
So, why do these systems favour unhealthy food choices?
There are three important factors:
- Many of us have an innate preference for immediate rewards. Indeed, research programs, such as the famous Marshmallow test with four-year-old children, have shown that an inability to delay gratification and display a preference for future rewards is related to future BMI, intentions and unhealthy food choices.
- If this wasn’t bad enough, it also seems that ‘tastiness’ captures attention automatically – giving fast food outlets a big leg up in luring a passer-by to partake of their wares. Indeed, data from eye tracking studies suggests that ‘tastiness’ is processed faster than healthfulness.
- Failure to recognise self-control issues, or as Oscar Wilde put it, “I can resist anything but temptation.”
The implications are clear
- Engage the cognitive brain when temptation arises, otherwise the risk of ‘mindless’/‘monkey’ grazing rises.
- Establish the intention to focus on real food for better health and challenge your food history and past experiences
- Motivate yourself to make better food choices, envisaging a healthier you, while planning, shopping, cooking and tracking your path to eating smart.
Ultimately, to make healthier food choices we need to break the automatic link between unhealthy food and consumption behaviour. Don’t just eat with your eyes, take a moment to think. We are creatures of habit and feel at our most comfortable when we have established a routine, and as Buddha said, “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”
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