Are we what we eat? This was the question that food experts and more than 350 participants from around the world came to EMBL Heidelberg to discuss in this year’s EMBL|EMBO Science and Society conference, 6–7 November. Here is our bite-sized A–Z of some of the highlights.
A is for appetite
Why are foods loaded with fat, sugar and salt so difficult to resist? asked Jason Halford, head of the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Liverpool. Halford, who has studied the impact of branding and food promotion on children’s food preferences, argued “tackling obesity requires better understanding of the role of the modern food environment in influencing appetite,” – and subsequently eating behaviour, food intake, and biology.
B is for breakfast
Chocolate sprinkled on toast, or ‘Hagelslag’ (a real tongue-twister in Dutch!), was the hook Ben van Ommen used to urge a ‘systems view’ of food and health. “Ultimately, the goal should be to deliver health advice that empowers individuals to switch from ‘disease thinking’ and towards ‘optimal health thinking’,” said van Ommen, who is principle scientist at the Dutch Organisation for Applied Scientific Research.
C is for conversation
Can conversation trump consumption? asked Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, a sociologist from Columbia University. “The meal is a vehicle of socialisation,” she said. “The real pleasure in eating comes from knowing how to talk about it – ultimately conversation creates culture, socialises food, and civilises appetite.”
D is for digital seasoning
Inspired by research led by Charles Spence, a psychologist from the University of Oxford, London-based restaurant House of Wolf invited diners who had been served a dessert of cinder toffee lollies to use their mobile phones to ring one of two numbers should they find the delicacies not to their taste. On one line was music chosen to enhance the sense of sweetness, on the other a tune to bring to mind a feeling of bitterness. “It seems we associate higher notes, such as a tinkling piano, with sweetness and deeper more resonant tones with bitterness,” Spence said.
E is for extremely large brains
The gradual transition from our earliest hominid ancestors, predominantly herbivorous gatherers, to modern humans, the ultimate masters of tools, happened not after, but before our energy-hungry grey matter began to expand at an unprecedented rate, explained Mark Thomas. Thomas, who is professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London, assessed evidence of the evolution of the human diet over the past three million years, and argued that subsequent increases in food security permitted us to afford “such a fundamentally expensive and extravagant organ”.
F is for farming
“Apart from the invention of the first tools, there has been nothing more dramatic to change the way we eat than the onset of farming,” added Thomas. He emphasised the relevance of evolutionary approaches to food in understanding mismatches between the diets we have evolved for – ‘Palaeolithic’ diets – and post-agricultural ‘Neolithic’ diets. While warning of the dangers of fad diets, he said: “by looking into the distant past, we may discover how to lead healthier lives.”
G is for gut bacteria
One square centimetre of your lower colon contains more microbes than humans have ever been born, said Simon Carding, from the University of East Anglia – and we are only beginning to understand them. “But this is hampered by the fact that we cannot grow many microbial species outside the body,” he pointed out, explaining how our gut microbiome helps us digest food, provides us with nutrients and safeguards our health.
H is for history
Focusing on nutritional epigenetics – which seeks to explain the effects of nutrition on gene expression – Hannah Landecker, a historian from the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, reflected on the writings of Huxley, Haldane, Marx and more to consider how our understanding of food has changed over time. “In the present era food is still seen as fuel, but much more than that – it is being reconceptualised as a source of information,” she said. Landecker put forward the idea that a contemporary view of food is not just about our bodies as factories for food processing, but also an intricate network of signals and biochemical pathways.
I is for insects
Whether it is boiled ant larvae, deep fried scorpions, or roasted water bugs – many in western societies will turn away in disgust at the mere thought of an insect supper. How to change these squeamish attitudes? Step forward Charles Spence. “We need to begin by emphasising the sensory qualities – for instance the flowery notes or great tastes of a bee brew,” said Spence, who is an expert in sensory marketing.
J is for journey
In July 2010, a team of Italian researchers departed Trieste and set off on the Silk Road collecting DNA samples and sensory testing information from more than 1000 people along the way. Led by Paolo Gasperini, professor of medical genetics at the University of Trieste, their goal was to understand more about how our genes, environment and lifestyle contribute to taste, food preferences and diet. “Our results are a first step towards understanding the genes that underlie the liking of common foods,” he said.
K is for kudos
90% of cells in our body are bacteria: genomically/organically, our bodies are only 10% human – one of the many astonishing microbe-related facts discussed by Simon Carding.
L is for leaves
Despite all our complexity and differences, Michael Müller, professor of molecular nutrition at the University of East Anglia, ended his talk with some simple dietary advice, quoting American journalist Michael Pollan: “Eat food, not too much and mostly plants.”
M is for milk revolution
A drink of milk was off the menu for most Europeans until just a few thousand years ago. Mark Thomas, professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London, explored how fields such as genetics, archaeology, anthropology, and physiology are combining to tackle multiple questions about the rapid spread of our ability to stomach the white stuff. “Natural selection has probably worked harder on lactose persistence than any other biological characteristics of Europeans in the last 10,000 years,” he said.
N is for nutrigenomics
“How do you go about getting the type of evidence-based data where we can inform the public on what to eat?” asked Jim Kaput, head of the Systems Nutrition and Health Unit at the Nestle Institute of Health Sciences. He said getting to this “next-level” of food science requires a better understanding of the relationship between human genomes, nutrition and health – a key goal of the emerging field of nutrigenomics.
O is for ‘omics
The integration of ‘omic technologies will be crucial in enhancing our knowledge of how diet influences health and disease, but only if the right people are engaged in the process, explained José Ordovás, a professor of nutrition science at Tufts University. “Health professionals need to engage with the new technologies: if people learn to better understand and appreciate scientific information focused on them, they will pay more attention to health recommendations.”
P is for participants
“Food is a rich field of study and areas such as security and nutrition are particularly relevant in Asia, where I am from,” said Hongwei Liu, a master’s student from the Czech University of the Life Science in Prague who was a participant at the conference. “I learned a lot of useful information about nutrition in the context of genes and the environment, and hope to connect my expertise with this field in the future,” added Jocelyn Dunstan, a PhD student from the University of Cambridge.
Q is for quality
Nutritional research could be dramatically enhanced through researchers paying more attention to extreme cases in statistical studies, argued Hannelore Daniel, professor of physiology of nutrition at Munich Technical University. “Too often the outliers are ignored,” she said. “If you look at them, you learn more.”
R is for restaurant
Enthusiasm for food and restaurants some two centuries ago in France and the ‘food talk’ this enthusiasm inspired in people, places and institutions, led to what Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson described as “the triumph of French cuisine”. “To appreciate what we do with food, to realise how the benefits, customs, and traditions anchor food practice is to understand not only how food worlds are composed but also, and more importantly, how they function,” she said.
S is for stigma
Powerful, persuasive and destructive: the stigma around obesity, both inside and outside the medical community, is greater than that from drug addiction, argued Jason Halford.
T is for (take your) time
Surprisingly, countries whose people spend the highest average time a day eating have the lowest national rates of obesity, explained Claude Fischler, a director of research at CNRS. “This raises the question: could social pressure be appied to regulate eating behaviour?” he said.
U is for US vs France
In 1937, French author Paul Morand described New Yorkers quickly gulping down their lunch, standing in a row “like in a stable”. In 1956 American sociologist Daniel Lerner countered, writing that he found French eating habits to be “rigid”, as if they were in a “zoo”. Fischler used this historic clash of cultures as a launch pad to explore varying views of food, body and health across western societies today, which he said could have important implications for health and nutrition.
V is for voltage
Next time you go on a date, up on stage, or take part in a race, spare a thought for why you are feeling ‘butterflies’ in your stomach. Simon Carding nicknames our gut our “second brain”: and a deeper understanding of the often overlooked mass of neural tissue, packed with 500 million neurons and abundant neural transmitters, could shed light on connections between the lesions in the gut’s nervous system and health and disease, he explained.
W is for wine
“Even before we put food into our mouths our brains make judgments about it,” explained Charles Spence. “People buy a wine that tasted great while on holiday in the sun, open it on a cold winter’s night and it tastes distinctly different – everyone is familiar with this experience.”
X is for ‘X marks the spot’
The importance of initiatives to draw up comprehensive maps of human metabolism was emphasised by Michael Mueller. “This would build on substantial insights made in recent years into how genes are regulated by nutrients and food and how this in turn affects our health,” he said.
Y is for yuck!
Simon Carding assessed the use of faecal transplants in treating some diseases, with trials now investigating their use in inflammatory bowel disease, type-2 diabetes and initial studies show promise even for treating diseases such as autism. “They work,” he said “but the challenge is finding out how.”
Z is for ZzZzZzZ…
Jet lag, late night shifts or simply partying too hard may disorientate the microbes that inhabit your intestinal tract, according to José Ordovás. “Do not upset your rhythms,” he warned, or in other words: get a good night’s sleep.
It’s almost a year since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, affecting all our lives. While the virus continues its grip on the world, scientists are understanding it better and better, increasing our knowledge about it and opening up new ways to fight it.