Category Archives: food

Optimal Caffeine Consumption

Whether caffeine serves any purpose other than removing withdrawal symptoms is a topic of study with conflicting results, but if you’re an optimist as well as a fan of caffeine in any of it’s many forms you’re most likely consuming it sub-optimally.

Why not improve your caffeine knowledge and learning about the optimal way of consuming the world’s most-used stimulant; caffeine:

  • Consume in small, frequent amounts: Between 20-200mg per hour may be an optimal dose for cognitive function.
  • Play to your cognitive strengths: Caffeine may increase the speed with which you work, may decrease attentional lapses, and may even benefit recall – but is less likely to benefit more complex cognitive functions, and may even hurt others. Plan accordingly.
  • Play to caffeine’s strengths: Caffeine’s effects can be maximized or minimized depending on what else is in your system at the time.
  • Know when to stop – and when to start again: Although you may not grow strongly tolerant to caffeine, you can become dependent on it and suffer withdrawal symptoms. Balance these concerns with the cognitive and health benefits associated with caffeine consumption – and appropriately timed resumption.

So that’s one cup of regular coffee — with sugar and/or soy milk — every hour when performing relatively simple cognitive tasks.

How Sounds and Words Affect Taste

Background noises greatly affect how we taste food. I wrote about this earlier in the year — pointing out that this is the probable cause of bland in-flight meals — but how else can background noise affect our perception of taste, and can our non-gustatory senses affect how we taste, too?

To test this, molecular gastronomist Heston Blumenthal and professor Charles Spence conducted a fascinating experiment with some ‘bacon and egg’ ice cream and some varied soundtracks. The full experiment is described in a short extract from the book Art and the Senses that also neatly summarises the various ways that our taste perception can be altered by our other senses:

The disambiguation of the flavour of a food dish can be achieved by a number of means: either visually, by changing the colour of the food, verbally by means of labelling, by presenting pictures or other cues on the packaging, and/or by the presentation of auditory cues. […] Furthermore, even saying the word ‘cinnamon’ has been shown to activate the olfactory cortex (i.e. the part of the brain that processes smells). […] Playing the sizzling bacon soundtrack at the ‘Art and the Senses’ conference may therefore have influenced the audience’s perception of the bacon flavour in the ice cream simply by making them think of bacon. […] It is at present an open question as to whether simply writing the word bacon on the screen in the front of the auditorium would have had the same effect.

Is there a name for this experience? The best I can come up with is ‘gustatory crossmodality‘, but that sounds far too exciting (and is most likely incorrect). I’m hoping for a pithy, Gladwell-esque ‘Something effect’.

via @mocost

The Brain on Food: Everyday Chemicals

Regarding all the foods that we consume as a drugs is a wondrous way to examine and comprehend the complex interactions and subtle forces behind how everything we put in our mouths affects “how our neurons behave and, subsequently, how we think and feel”.

In a compelling article that suggests our shared evolutionary history with the plants and animals that we eat is the root cause of them having an affect on our body’s behaviour, Gary Wenk, author of Your Brain on Food, briefly describes how some of the chemicals present in ‘drugs’ such as chocolate, bananas, alcohol and nutmeg affect us:

We have all experienced the consequences of our shared evolutionary history with the plants we eat. For example, unripe bananas contain the neurotransmitter serotonin. When you eat an unripe banana, its serotonin is free to act upon the serotonin neurons within your digestive tract. The consequence is likely to be increased activation of the muscles in the wall of your intestines, usually experienced as diarrhea.

Many plants contain compounds that should be able to enhance your brain’s performance. For example, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants contain solanine and α-chaconine, substances that can enhance the action of acetylcholine, a chemical in your brain that is vital to memory formation. Your mood might be enhanced slightly by eating fava beans because they contain L-DOPA, a precursor to the production of dopamine, the reward chemical in your brain. Whether these food-borne compounds actually affect your brain depends upon how much you consume and your own personal physiology. This might explain why some people find it quite rewarding to eat potatoes or eggplants.

Morphine-like chemicals capable of acting upon the brain are produced in your intestines when you consume milk, eggs, cheese, spinach, mushrooms, pumpkin, and various fish and grains. Dairy products in particular contain a protein known as casein, which enzymes in your intestines can convert into beta-casomorphin. In newborns, that beta-casomorphin can easily pass out of the immature gut and into the developing brain to produce euphoria.

There’s much more like that in the article, concluded with Wenk arguing that this shared evolutionary history is why plants and animals from other planets will probably not harm or sustain us if we ever travel to distant, Earth-like bodies.

The Drinkers’ Bonus: Alcohol Intake and Increased Earnings

Drinking alcohol — and the increased social capital that it leads to — may not just be responsible for a possible increase in life span; it may increase your earnings, too.

In an analysis of both the General Social Survey and the published literature, researchers for the Reason Foundation show that alcohol drinkers earn, on average, 10% more than abstainers (pdf). This is known as the drinkers’ bonus.

Recent studies indicate that drinking and individual earnings are positively correlated. Instead of earning less money than nondrinkers, drinkers earn more. One explanation is that drinking improves physical health, which in turn affects earnings (Hamilton and Hamilton, 1997). We contend that there is an economic explanation. […]

Drinkers typically tend to be more social than abstainers. As Cook (1991) explained, drinking is a social activity, and one reason people drink is to be sociable. In the medical literature, Skog (1980) showed that moderate drinkers have the strongest social networks. Furthermore, Leifman et al. (1995) documented a negative relationship between social integration and abstinence. Whether abstainers choose not to be as social or whether organizers of social occasions involving drinking exclude abstainers is unclear. Abstainers may prefer to interact with other abstainers or less social people. Alternately, abstainers might not be invited to social gatherings, work-related or otherwise, because drinkers consider abstainers dull.

Corcoran et al. (1980), Montgomery (1991), and Putnam (2000) each made convincing cases that social networks are important for finding jobs and earning promotions. Montgomery (1991) explained that companies prefer acquaintances of employees because employees screen potential candidates and thereby reduce the cost of search. Approximately half the workers surveyed in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics found their job through friends or relatives, and one-third reported help from acquaintances in obtaining their job (Corcoran et al., 1980). Therefore, a person with more contacts will have more labor market options (Burt, 1997). Granovetter (1995) suggested that a large quantity of weak ties or friends-of-friends may be most important to garnering the best job offers.

Thus, if social drinking enables greater social networks, it will also increase earnings. In terms of search theory: the more one drinks, the more people one knows, and the more people one knows, the lower the marginal costs of search.

The study is packed full of excellent references to published studies (as you can tell from the above excerpt), so I suggest reading the accessible (and very short!) report. It’s also worth noting footnotes four and five, describing how this is just like all investments in capital, in that an optimal level exists: “you must drink more than 21 drinks per week to earn as little as a non-drinker”.

via @phila_lawyer

Drinking Levels and Mortality Rates

Despite the various and severe health risks that come with drinking, abstaining from alcohol appears to increase your risk of dying prematurely. The reasons for this are not clearly known, but it is thought to be because drinkers are more likely to belong to a community (albeit one that drinks), and a feeling of community is strongly correlated with happiness and longevity.

Even after controlling for nearly all imaginable variables — socioeconomic status, level of physical activity, number of close friends, quality of social support and so on — the researchers […] found that over a 20-year period, mortality rates were highest for those who were not current drinkers, regardless of whether they used to be alcoholics, second highest for heavy drinkers and lowest for moderate drinkers. […]

These are remarkable statistics. Even though heavy drinking is associated with higher risk for cirrhosis and several types of cancer (particularly cancers in the mouth and esophagus), heavy drinkers are less likely to die than people who don’t drink, even if they never had a problem with alcohol. One important reason is that alcohol lubricates so many social interactions, and social interactions are vital for maintaining mental and physical health. […]

The authors of the new paper are careful to note that even if drinking is associated with longer life, it can be dangerous: it can impair your memory severely and it can lead to nonlethal falls and other mishaps […] that can screw up your life. There’s also the dependency issue.

The correlations between alcohol intake and various health outcomes (both positive and negative) is confusing and varied. A few things seem to be for sure: it can be good and it can be bad; no causation has been proven; and the effects differ between the sexes.

Update: I forgot to link to the published study (Holahan et al., 2010)… the Results section is the one worth perusing. For those without full access to the study (ahem), Overcoming Bias provides the full list of controls.

Update: Jonah Lehrer discusses this study in an article titled Why Alcohol Is Good for You, emphasising the social side of drinking as the key to longevity.