Tag 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 Best of Mark Bittman’s The Minimalist

Earli­er this year The New York Times pub­lished the last of Mark Bittman’s The Min­im­al­ist: a weekly column designed “to get people cook­ing simply, com­fort­ably, and well”.

To hon­our this occa­sion he reviewed the 1,000+ dishes that have appeared in his almost 700 columns, the cul­min­a­tion of which is a list of Mark Bittman’s favour­ite twenty-five recipes from thir­teen years of writ­ing The Min­im­al­ist:

via Fat is Fla­vor (Where you can fol­low Carl’s pro­gress as he makes all twenty-five of the dishes.)

Food-Based Body Clock the Key to Jet Lag

The primary cause of jet lag (or desyn­chro­nos­is as it’s cor­rectly known) is the dis­rup­tion of our cir­ca­di­an rhythms based on the daily light–dark cycles we exper­i­ence. How­ever this is only the case when food is in plen­ti­ful supply, with new research sug­gest­ing that cir­ca­di­an rhythms based on food avail­ab­il­ity are able to over­ride those of the light-dark cycle. This could offer us a simple and effect­ive way of pre­vent­ing jet lag: fast­ing for six­teen hours pri­or to your new time zone’s break­fast time.

I men­tioned this in passing two years ago (just before under­tak­ing a 25-hour Sydney to Lon­don flight), but after recently com­ing across the study again I felt com­pelled to point to it in more detail.

Research­ers at Har­vard Med­ic­al School and Beth Israel Dea­con­ess Med­ic­al Cen­ter in Boston have now pin­pointed a second [bio­lo­gic­al clock] that is set by the avail­ab­il­ity of food. […]

Clif­ford Saper, the seni­or author of the study, said this second clock prob­ably takes over when food is scarce. It may have evolved to make sure mam­mals don’t go to sleep when they should be for­aging for food to stay alive.

Dr. Saper says long-dis­tance trav­el­lers can prob­ably use this food clock to adjust rap­idly to a new time zone.

“A peri­od of fast­ing with no food at all for about 16 hours is enough to engage this new clock,” he said in a state­ment released with the study. Once you eat again, your intern­al clock will be reset as though it is the start of a new day […] and you should just flip into that new time zone in one day.