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.