Half of our plates should be covered in fruits and vegetables, according to federal nutrition recommendations, Nestle reminded us. She then pulled up a slide showing the money that the government actually gave out from 2008 to 2012: Less than one half of one percent of all agricultural subsidies went to production of fruits and vegetables. Four times as much went to tobacco.
Despite the fact that fruits and vegetables are the only foods that experts encourage us to eat with abandon, all fruits, vegetables, and nuts are considered “specialty crops” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Less than five percent of land planted with food goes to growing fruits and vegetables. More than 50 percent goes to growing soybeans and corn, to feed animals and refine into sugar.
“If you go into a supermarket, you see that most of what’s lined up there is to sell sugar,” Shepherd noted. Some of that we pay for directly, and some of it we pay for in taxes that subsidize its production. Shepherd’s neurobiological research has been integral to understanding how the brain processes what we call flavor, which gets lost in the process. It’s a sensation that he says most people wrongly believe is driven by taste, only because taste happens in our mouths, and food goes in our mouths.
Rather, flavor is largely a matter of smell. Shepherd explained the critical role of something called retronasal olfaction, meaning that exhaling air pushes air over the food in a person’s mouth and up into their nasal cavity. From there, sensory signals spread throughout the neocortex, to areas associated with emotion, motivation, language, and more. All of this underlies future cravings. But none of this would happen if you held your breath or nose while eating. You taste almost nothing. You look childish.
The sensation of flavor is created when retronasal olfaction is augmented by taste and the other senses: The mechanical senses of texture and motion from the tongue, the appearance of food, and the sounds of crunching or sipping. Our brains evolved to what they are because of the flavors that drove us to consume certain foods, and the increasing capacity of our brains to appreciate flavors led us in agricultural directions that shaped politics, economics, and ecology. Still few of us, he believes, appreciate flavor.
“Very few of us ever taste real, flavorful food,” Shepherd said, disconcerted. He speaks with the empiricism of a neurobiologist rather than the elitism of a foodie, so it’s not off-putting. “Unless you go to a market in the summer and find produce that was grown locally and not flown in from Chile, you have never tasted things at their full flavor.” And he means it as a potentially consequential public-health issue. If people had easy access to that kind of flavor, how many people might choose to eat healthier foods and then, you know, become healthy.
One: THINK about what goes in your mouth. SEARCH out local and in season goodness.
Two: GROW fresh herbs to enhance flavor.
Three: ENJOY all the 5 different tastes and flavors Mother Nature has for us: sweet (apples), salty (seafood), bitter (herbs), sour (citrus), umami (tomatoes, mushrooms, fermented foods too).