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Brain Food: How Our Minds Determine Our Meals

According to a pilot study, a suspicion about unfamiliar foods is hardwired. The sight of so-called “comfort” foods activates our brains differently than does looking at unfamiliar foods.

Dr. Kara Wolfe and Dr. David Olds are researching how the brain activates when viewing familiar and unfamiliar foods.

Photo by Duane Zehr.

“I want to see how neuromarketing research can help people make healthy choices,” said Dr. Kara Wolfe, principal investigator on the project. “If a dietitian is going to develop ways to help people make healthy choices, what does that marketing look like? If children are food neophobic (meaning they are afraid to try new foods), they might not be getting the right nutrition.”

Wolfe, the C.C. Wheeler endowed professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences and director of the Hospitality Leadership program, along with Dr. David Olds, assistant professor of family and consumer sciences, and researchers from North Dakota State University presented their work at the annual conference of the International Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education in San Diego.

The study, aided by Bradley’s Center for Collaborative Brain Research, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment and software to examine which areas of the brain activated when participants were shown pictures of familiar foods, unfamiliar foods and unfamiliar foods with explanatory labels. This neuromarketing research could lead to increased understanding of people’s food choices and aid community health educators and restaurant marketing executives in promoting healthy options.

Participants were shown multiple sets of five pictures each of familiar foods, such as hamburgers, ice cream and pancakes, and unfamiliar ethnic foods, such as dragon fruit, gnocchi and bulgogi (Korean barbecue) without labels. They also were shown labeled unfamiliar foods. Sets of scenic photos were shown to participants between sessions of food pictures to “‘cleanse the palate’ and make sure the brain was differentiating between the food and the landscape,” Olds explained. “We wanted to give them a little break between the series of photos, so it wasn’t just 50 [food] photos at once.”

How the Brain Sees Food

Researchers found brain activity differs between viewing pictures of foods and pictures of scenery. It also differed when viewing the three types of food photos. “We wanted to demonstrate that the photos of the foods had a determinant effect on the brain,” Olds said.

The areas of the brain activated when foods were observed included the occipital, temporal and frontal lobes. Olds noted the unfamiliar foods, both with and without labeling, elicited responses from more and different areas of the brain.

“The familiar foods get a basal response in the visual cortex of the brain in the occipital lobe — ‘I’ve seen this food before, I know what it is.’ Not a lot of brain activity is needed to interpret the pictures of the familiar food,” Wolfe explained. “With unfamiliar foods, participants are functioning in the occipital lobe, but they’re using the temporal lobe to associate the food with things they know, as well. It’s not straight recall; it’s association. They use the insular cortex areas of the brain to aid in interpreting what they are seeing. The words on a label add that extra executive function — reading and thinking. It’s not just a picture, it’s a picture and words and a decision. People use additional areas of the brain to make that decision.”

She also noted typical food preference surveys are open to validity concerns because of limited follow-up between participants’ responses and actions. “Food and marketing have been studied for a long time,” Wolfe said. “I believe the neuroscience validates the research.”

Study participants’ fMRI scans showed marked differences in brain activation when viewing pictures of foods they knew, foods they didn’t know and unfamiliar foods with labels. All food types activated the occipital lobe (Occipital Fusiform Gyrus and Lateral Occipital Cortex) of the brain, where visual processing takes place. Unfamiliar foods, both with and without labeling, elicited responses from different areas of the brain. Unfamiliar foods sparked activity in the insula (Insular Cortex) which is linked to perception, self-awareness and cognitive functioning. It also is where the degree of pain is judged and where pain is imagined when a person looks at images of painful events. Labeled unfamiliar foods involved the frontal lobe (Middle Frontal Gyrus and Precentral Gyrus). That part of the brain is able to recognize future consequences, override and suppress unacceptable responses and determine similarities and differences between items or events.

Photos courtesy Dr. Kara Wolfe and Dr. David Olds.

fMRI Aids Research

Wolfe previously researched food neophobia and pointed to her international travel with students as sparking her interest in the project: “I love to travel internationally, and I love to try new foods. Some students were adventurous eaters, and others were not. That’s how this research started.”

The study used nine male participants between the ages of 18 and 45, Wolfe explained, because past research showed males are more likely to seek new and unusual foods. They were screened for their suitability to undergo an fMRI and then had the same brain scans performed while viewing the food images.

Wolfe noted the pioneering nature of the study meant dealing with some knowledge gaps. The original 10 participants dropped to nine when one was found to have inhibited brain function because of insufficient rest the night before his testing. “We’re delighted there were actually significant differences [in brain activation] because it was such a small sample. I think we worked out a lot of bugs and kinks and could do it more easily the second time around,” Wolfe said. “It was a positive learning experience.”

Even with the limited number of participants, the sample size was within recommended guidelines, and the researchers collected 135,000 data points for analysis.

Wolfe and Olds intend to build on the pilot study, believing future projects can compare the brain activity of men and women, as well as investigate details of participants’ food choices and how they are made. Olds noted prior research indicated people chose unfamiliar foods based mainly on verbal information, such as a waiter’s description or viewing the product.

“We might be able to use brain scans to help us understand consumer behavior, such as why people choose or don’t choose a food product,” Wolfe said. “In other words, we can learn why people might or might not eat healthy or unfamiliar foods.”

By Bob Grimson