Why do people like one type of food and really dislike another? How much are our responses to food, including putting on weight, influenced by genetics? And could the taste of food be chemically re-engineered to appeal to particular groups, such as the elderly? A unique summit of some of the world’s leading chefs and top scientists put our complicated relationship with food under the microscope. This “Brainy Tongue” experiment, a collision of science and cooking, took place in San Sebastian in the Basque region of northern Spain, a seaside resort famous among food lovers for its Michelin-starred restaurants. It was staged at the Basque Culinary Centre, a university entirely dedicated to researching food. ‘Unpeeling the layers’: Heston Blumenthal might have been a pioneer of scientific precision in the kitchen, but his latest passion is investigating how food can be so strongly linked to memory. Whether it’s the scents of a seaside holiday, ice cream bought as a childhood treat, or a box of cereal, he says a meal can be a way of “unpeeling the layers” of emotions. He says: “We bury things, and then when you start talking, ‘Do you remember that cereal? Oh yeah, variety packs. I loved it when I got the toy or there was the bag that wouldn’t open properly.’ “You have this discussion at the table, you start revealing, you start opening up your own memories, you start opening up with positive nostalgia, the floodgates open.” Mr Blumenthal says he wants to experiment with how a restaurant can use “storytelling” to coax out those memories. Science of taste He says chefs need to recognise the brain is the “gatekeeper” for enjoying food and before a mouthful goes near the lips, the brain has made millions of computations. And his “restless perfectionism” continues to test the “difference between perception and reality”. The same glass of wine can taste different depending on the background music, he says. And restaurants can manipulate such responses. Playing loud music makes people eat more quickly, while classical music means people will spend more money on wine, he says. But why are we so different in what we like to eat? The event in San Sebastian (or Donostia as it’s called in Basque) examined the science of taste. Dr Charles Zuker, a neuroscientist from Columbia University in New York, says all animals are “pre-wired” to prefer sweet tastes to bitter. “There are no lions out in the wild drinking tonic water,” he says. But Dr Zuker says there are also “acquired tastes”, where the social reward outweighs an initial dislike – such as drinking beer and coffee. ‘Turn up volume’ on tastes: And what makes this mix even more individual is that we all have our own genetic, inherited preferences. “We have differences because of variations in our genes,” he says. “And that is likely to greatly impact how much sugar I want to have in my coffee. “It might be that I need six spoons of sugar to get the same level of satisfaction and reward that you get with only two. The next frontier, says Dr Zuker, will be to redesign food to respond to such differences. For example, it could mean food being specially adapted for older people. The sense of taste declines with age, and Dr Zuker says there could be a way to “turn up the volume” on flavours. He says: “How do we tweak the taste receptors in an ageing tongue, in a way that we maximise the signals? This is like a hearing aid for your tongue, like glasses for your eyes. “We’re going to call it either personalised food and health or you can call it precision food, because it’s been custom-tailored to your genetic make-up as well as your history of preferences.