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.