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Last Updated: Monday, 27 September, 2004, 00:07 GMT 01:07 UK
Cravings 'tied to fond memories'
By Thrasy Petropoulos

Salmon
Fancy this with a bit of liquorice?
There is a game that Heston Blumenthal plays with his guests at the Fat Duck.

The owner of the renowned three Michelin-starred restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, moves among the tables and asks diners to recall their favourite childhood food memories.

Except, to Heston, this is no game.

Over time he has built up a database of people's fondest memories from childhood, chief among them liquorice.

If you crave food it is yearning for a sensation, not a taste, that you remember from another time, usually childhood
Dr Peter Barham, Molecular gastronomist
And before long none other than Salmon Poached with Liquorice appears on the menu.

There is more than meets the eye to this approach. It has its roots in food psychology, and particularly the study of cravings.

Culinary tool

Dr Peter Barham, the molecular gastronomist and close friend of Heston Blumenthal, has experimented with isolating a flavour and then reintroducing it to another medium, such as bacon and egg ice cream, or in experimenting with jellies within jellies.

He, too, has played the childhood food memory trick with Heston and encouraged him to use it as a culinary tool.

It all started when Heston chanced upon what he remembered as his favourite cereal and excitedly took it home to his kids.

He promptly built it up over the breakfast table and served it with aplomb - only to find that neither he nor his children could stand it.

He checked with the manufacturers and found that the product had not changed in any way.

It was therefore not the taste that he remembered with such fondness but the memories associated with that taste.

"If you crave food it is yearning for a sensation, not a taste, that you remember from another time, usually childhood," Dr Barham explained.

"Sweets because they made you feel good when you were sad, or maybe it was the hot chocolate you had after a long winter's walk with your mum and dad.

"This goes to the heart of what craving a particular food is about.

"When you have a craving, what you really want is that sensation in your mouth and the experience that goes with it," he said.

"There is no such thing as being born with a sweet tooth. As a rule people who were given sweets regularly as a child - or in specific situations - will want to recreate that as adults."

Buttons pushed

Dr Barham said: "There are some indisputable physical cravings, for instance penguins eating seashells before laying eggs and I'm told pregnant women having been known to eat chalk, to boost their calcium levels.

"But almost all food cravings are emotional. Even when we need iron we think of spinach only because we have been told - most probably by our mother - that spinach contains iron."

And he said advertisers knew all the buttons to push to prompt memories that will make us go out and buy their products.

Much of what we think we want is, according to Dr Barham, a trick of the senses.

As he explained: "People say dogs have an amazing sense of smell, but ours is better.

"We can discriminate between something like 20,000 different molecules. It's only that we don't go around with our noses pressed up against trees.

"What happens is that our brain tells us to ignore most of those smells.

"It's why pregnant women get a heightened sense of smell. All the hormones rushing around their bodies disrupt the editing signals from the brain."

He added: "We all know that smells and flavours evoke memories but equally we have an amazing memory for smells and flavours - even sometimes when they are not there.

"Chewing gum loses its taste after two minutes. It doesn't stop us chewing for half an hour.

"It follows, therefore, that we can control our cravings for food if we want to.

"If you have a craving for chocolate at work you can learn to control that craving, or better still change the craving to something more healthy by rewarding yourself each time you eat a piece of fruit."


SEE ALSO:
Molecule suppresses 'sweet tooth'
18 Sep 00 |  Science/Nature


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