Serious Reads: Neurogastronomy, by Gordon M. Shepard

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

20120129reads.jpegImagine you're in your favorite local restaurant, chewing on a piece of crusty, warm sourdough bread. Your waiter approaches with a steaming bowl of tomato soup, along with a melty grilled cheese. A deep inhale of the soup's aroma hits the back of your palate and your mouth begins to water. Doesn't it seem as though you can taste it already?

The phenomenons of smell and taste are still subjects of much research by scientists around the world. Neurobiologist Gordon M. Shepard has attempted to make this field accessible to the food-lovers set in his new book, Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters. His takeaway messages are clear, but in between it's easy to get lost in the terminology of this scientific book.

Shepard describes the field of what he terms "neurogastronomy," which integrates the research of anthropologists, biochemists, molecular biologists, behavioral psychologists, and more. He discusses recent breakthroughs in understanding the physiology of taste and smell, and paints a picture of how taste and smell molecules create a flavor experience in the brain.

There are lots of fascinating tidbits in the book that I have already begun unloading on friends and family over dinner. For instance, the near-mythologized "supertaster" is demystified—research has shown that those with a higher number of taste buds and increased sensitivity to bitter flavors are apt to higher flavor sensitivity than the average eater. Also, did you know that much of your flavor experience happens when you exhale after taking a bite of food? This "retronasal smell" occurs when we "send puffs of smell from our food and drink... backward up through our nasal passages as we chew and swallow."

But between these fun facts is a whole lot of scientific jargon to plow through. Shepard makes a good attempt at breaking the information up to make the book more readable—short chapters, paragraph titles, and illustrations highlight important points. However, so many fields of research and experiments are described in the book that it would be hard for even a science-savvy reader to keep up. There's no question that this book is relevant and important; but it is certainly an educational investment, rather than a quick and easy read.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.