Science - October 13, 2011

Eating in the brain scanner generates knowledge

Astrid Smit

When we eat something, which senses are stimulated and how do our brains process that information? Human Nutrition wants to use an MRI scanner to find out how people really experience food.

Fake wooden scanner above the Restaurant of the Future, so that people taking part in experiments can get used to the equipment.
During the Food4You festival Researcher's Night, researcher Gerry de Jager showed how the first experiments had produced interesting results. For example, experimental subjects say there is no difference in sweetness between lemonade with sugar and lemonade with sweetener but their brains prefer the lemonade with real sugar: the reward centre in their brains is much more active after drinking this lemonade. Jager: ‘So the question is whether our brains are fooling themselves. Won't people eventually compensate to meet their need for sugar? However, we don't yet have any indication of that.'
Socially acceptable
Friesland Campina is interested in food research using the MRI scanner, says Carine Ponne, the second Researcher's Night speaker. ‘At present, we try to determine the demand for new products mainly through questionnaires and interviews but there is a gap between what people say and what they do. We hope to use MRI research as a way of getting closer to consumers' implicit motivations as the brain scanner doesn't give socially acceptable answers.'
She also points to the limitations of this method. ‘For instance, the test situation in a scanner - experimental subjects are lying and hardly able to move their heads - is not representative of a real life situation. Scanners are also expensive and so not suitable for large groups of people.' In the discussion that follows the talks, Jager acknowledges the MRI scanner's limitations. ‘The idea is not to send hundreds of people through the scanner whenever you want to see whether a new product is catching on. We should use the scanner to generate knowledge that has broad relevance in nutrition research.'