The fact of food

According to Prof. Niv, scientific advances can potentially show us whether or not our eating habits are conducive to healthy living, or just a matter of convenience.

FILM STILLS: ‘As Needed.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
FILM STILLS: ‘As Needed.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Betty Botter may have missed a trick. Perhaps there was nothing wrong, after all, with using bitter butter with her batter, as suggested by late 19th-  early 20th-century American poet Carolyn Wells in her oft-aired tongue twister. Prof. Masha Niv would go along with that and has some factual collateral to back up her viewpoint.
Niv is associate professor, vice dean for research and development at the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s outlet in Rehovot. Her field of expertise is taste and how we experience the vittles we pop in our mouth. Niv will share some of her knowledge with her audience at a lecture she will present, together with her husband, Chef Avner Niv, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on March 24 at 8:30 p.m. as part of the ninth edition of the annual Art and Brain Week, sponsored by the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC), of the Hebrew University. The festival program will run March 24 to 30.
ELSC director-general Orit Ozana feels the marriage of cerebral and creative endeavor makes for natural bedfellows.
“This year, Art and Brain Week, a tradition of connecting the ELSC with the Jerusalem Cinematheque, expands the concept of art and offers a fascinating and enriching interface of leading brain-sciences researchers with art from different spheres, and a range of cultural institutions here, in Jerusalem.”
The event also gives scientists a chance to get out of their labs and communicate directly with the ordinary man or woman on the street.
“This is an opportunity for the researchers from the academic world to share the relevance of their research work with the public at large, and its importance and impact on our lives, now and in the future, together with touches of contemporary art.”
There is a saying that there’s no accounting for taste. Prof. Niv has been trying to address that very topic in the most precise and scientific of manners for over 20 years. From the outset, it was clear to her that she would invest her skills in investigating a less popular side of our eating habits.
“I decided to concentrate of bitter flavors,” she says, adding that she has physiology on her side. “There are many substances with a bitter taste, and there are a lot of receptors for bitter flavors.”
Surprisingly, considering our general tendency to develop a proverbial sweet tooth, the bitter-sweet receptor equation leans heavily in the direction of the former.
“As far as we know, for sure, we have one sweet receptor with two parts. There may be more, but we can’t be certain about that at this stage,” Niv notes. “Humans have 25 receptors for bitter flavors. Chickens, for example, have three, and cats have 12. Different creatures have different amounts of receptors. There seems to be an evolutionary aspect to this.”
If you are feline fan, don’t try offering your cat sweet food. “They don’t have any taste receptors for sweet things,” says Niv. “None of the predators like sweet food.” “Anyway, it’s bad for them,” adds Avner.
THE NIVS’ Art and Brain Week presentation goes by the name of “The Sense of Taste: Myths, Tastings and Scientific Revelations.” Prof. Niv will take a clinical look at some of our “accepted truths” as regards what constitutes tasty food and how we take that information on board with our tongue.
What about conditioning? If we have so many receptors for bitter flavors and just the one for sweet food, how come the majority of us hanker after sugary substances more than the savory stuff? Meanwhile, Avner, the chef of the family – who also is on the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment staff as a lecturer on food and wine – will shed light on the “slow food” movement in Israel, which promotes the use of locally-sourced food and traditional cooking methods. That offers advantages in terms of both individual health and the environment.
According to Prof. Niv, there is more to our sense of taste than meets the tongue. “This is a fascinating field of science,” she says. “It transpires that taste is not just experienced in the mouth, it also reflects on other parts of the body. And it not only connects with food, it also indicates substances excreted by bacteria. So in fact, it is a means of tapping into interbacterial communication in the body, and to react to that.” Basically, as alternative health practitioners are wont to state, we should be attentive to our body and how it feels about what we ingest and subject it to.
But how many of us are really in tune with our bodily mechanisms and consider the implications of what we imbibe? If more of us were sensitive to what is good for us and what damages our physical fabric, the vast majority of the thousands upon thousands of eateries dotted around the country, at our rapacious beck and call, would rapidly go out of business or not be opened in the first place.
Surely that is a matter of self-conditioning. We are all constantly exposed to brainwashing commercials that patently demonstrate just how blissful life could be if we only, for example, bought ourselves a family-sized pack of chocolate snacks crammed full of succulent raisins, nuts, yogurt cream and what have you. And what about a lovely labor-saving vegan schnitzel, which any hardworking mom can just pop into the microwave oven and, hey presto, it’s ready to devour. In fact, mom doesn’t even need to leave work early for that. Her young offspring can manage that themselves. Now, isn’t that a neat state of affairs that keeps the kids fed and the shekels rolling in?
According to Prof. Niv, scientific advances can potentially show us whether or not our eating habits are conducive to healthy living, or just a matter of convenience. “There is a new technique called optogenetics, that allows you to direct a light at a sensor, which stimulates certain parts of the brain.”
NIV GOES on to relate how this was demonstrated at a conference at the Edmond J. Safra Campus of the Hebrew University at Givat Ram, by Chilean-born molecular geneticist and neurobiologist Charles Zuker.
NO ACCOUNTING for taste: Prof. Masha Niv and chef Avner Niv.(Courtesy)NO ACCOUNTING for taste: Prof. Masha Niv and chef Avner Niv.(Courtesy)
“He showed us how a mouse was given something bitter to drink, and how it recoiled from it and refused to drink. Then, in the experiment, the scientist activated the area in the brain that controlled the reaction to the [sweet] drink and the mouse backed off from that liquid – and the other way round, too.”
To my unscientific humanistic way of thinking, that sounded more than a little troubling. That implies that possibly, not too many years down the road, food manufacturers, for example, may be able to elicit the desired consumer response to their commercials by surreptitiously activating different brain cells.
“Yes, that is a little scary,” Niv admits, “but you would need a very intricate system to control that.” And, she says, there is an upsides to the approach. “I know that treatment of clinical depression can be addressed by stimulating different areas of the brain.”
Back to the less-agreeable flavors business, Niv observes that the majority of medical drugs have a bitter taste.
“They say that if it’s not bitter, it will not heal you. If something is naturally bitter, there is a good chance it can have a healing effect.” Meanwhile, Avner notes that animals, which are less prone to consumerism-oriented marketing, generally know what’s good for them. “Dogs will eat something bitter if they feel they have a problem with their stomach and need to throw it up.
Then again, there’s that pesky matter of habit.
“In terms of the brain, it is very interesting to consider the factor of adaptation,” says Niv. “We have things we are born with, and we know that they change over time.”
But are we capable of making a conscious decision to change those habits? We might be chocolate guzzlers, chain smokers or like more than a tipple a day. Apparently, the jury is still out on that one.
What is clear after a session with the Nivs is that our gastronomic choices – and I use the noun advisedly – may not all be a matter of free will. There is a range of considerations, conscious and otherwise, that lead to our decisions about what edibles to purchase and imbibe.
“They once ran an experiment whereby they blindfolded people and gave them white wine to drink and they thought it was red wine,” says Prof. Niv.
“There is at least one type of grape that is almost impossible to discern whether the wine made from it is white or red just from the flavor,” says the chef. Watching what you eat may not be the way to go.
As with all the festival slots, all lectures are followed by a movie screening. The film that goes with The Sense of Taste program is the highly entertaining Italian picture Quanto Basta.
Other topics to be addressed during the course of the week include Alzheimer’s, abstraction, political thinking, social psychology and machine-human interaction.