In the final episode of The Secrets of Your Food, airing on Friday 10 March 2017 at 9.00pm on BBC-2, Michael and James explore the effect of ‘food on the brain’. The brain is one of the greediest organs in the body in terms of the energy it needs to run. The way it influences our diet is, in the main, by generating the cravings we all experience.
One such craving is for fat – the most energy rich food of them all. James heads off to Peru to discover the source of the food that has a most powerful hold over the brain: chocolate. Its primary ingredient is cocoa butter, which has a unique quality that’s just right for a delicious melt-in-the-mouth feeling. And this has a very characteristic effect on a set of receptors on the tongue.
To understand these recently understood receptors, Michael is in Turkey where a unique cream is made that has a very similar effect on the tongue. It’s called Kaymak and is traditionally produced from the rich milk of water buffalo.
We also visit a remarkable lab in Newcastle University, where a team is studying the effect of caffeine on bees. Their work suggests that coffee has a profound effect on the behaviour of bees: it seems to boost their memories for the scent of flowers by increasing their enjoyment of sweet nectar. Scientists speculate that what’s true in bees may be true in us too, which may help explain the world’s love of caffeinated drinks.
The reward system in our brains sheds light on our cravings, but the brain also decides what delights us and what disgusts us. Back in Turkey Michael confronts his own sense of revulsion by trying a local delicacy: sheep’s brain salad. As he picks over his lunch, he points out that sheep have a small cortex. Our large brains have given us the ability to acquire new tastes, and we’ve even learned to love foods that appear to do us harm, like chillies.
Together with ten other brave souls, Michael and James enter a chilli-eating competition. They take on some of the hottest chillies on the planet to show what the burn does to our bodies and our brains. They discover what the active ingredient, capsaicin does to the body – how it induces a fight or flight response and may even create a natural high.
Finally, Michael looks at a food that affects our brains directly by passing through the blood-brain barrier and disrupting the normal functioning of our minds. That food is, or course, alcohol.
Using the latest imaging techniques and incredibly detailed specialist photography Michael and James offers a whole new way of thinking about our relationship to the modern diet and the wonderful affect it has on our minds.
The Secrets Of Your Food Episode 3 (of 3) airs on Friday 10 March 2017 from 9.00pm-10.00pm on BBC Two.