Friday, 8 August 2008

The Professor Diet Part Two: Healthy Junk Food

The Series:
The Professor Diet - Eat as much Junk as you like
The Professor Diet Part Two: Healthy Junk Food
The Professor Diet Part Three: No Shortcuts any Time Soon!

Imagine this: you eat a piece of chocolate cake. It looks like chocolate cake, tastes like chocolate cake and has the texture of chocolate cake. Yet when you have finished eating it, you are not left with that wired, sugar-loaded feeling, and more to the point, do not experience the sugar low 30 minutes later.

The reason these expected feelings did not transpire is that it was not chocolate cake – at least not as we currently understand it. For reasons I will come onto, what you have just eaten was nutritionally equivalent to a steak of grass-fed beef, servings of carrot, broccoli and zucchini, and a handful of wild-growing berries and nuts.

What led me to consider this scenario was this article about research being conducted into the mechanisms governing our sense of taste. Whilst I have no specific knowledge in the area, it seems likely that there are billions of research dollars being pumped into this sort of thing, given the potential for commercial applications.

In The Professor Diet Part 1, I decry the fact that we are taught by the news flowing out of research labs to look to science for answers to problems that a healthy diet would solve. Yet when I follow this research to its logical conclusion – the scenario I describe above – I find myself wondering whether things are as clear-cut.

What I mean is this: if at some point, scientists are genuinely able to create the cake described above, and if it genuinely has precisely the same impact on our bodies as the steak, vegetables, berries and nuts, would any of us still want to eat healthy food? Would the doctrine of self-discipline that is so important to me and many others lose all its meaning? If we could choose what we thought we were eating but ensure that what our bodies were getting was, let’s say, a hunter gatherer diet, then getting the right nutrition would be too easy.

“Can I get a slice of chocolate cake?”

“Sure - Paleo, Zone, Atkins or regular, sir?”

How might the scientists achieve this? What follows is educated speculation. I stress again that I have no specific knowledge in the area – if any of you have such expertise, please comment. Also, for the purposes simplifying the discussion I talk about food as if it were made up of a homogenous mass of the same molecule.

One possibility, and the one we are most familiar with today, is trying to find molecules that taste like one thing but are in fact another – just as we have done with artificial sweeteners. Yet the problems with this approach became evident soon after well-intentioned but deeply misguided regulatory bodies allowed them to be included in our foods.

Until now we have been less interested in what a molecule does once it has passed the taste test. Imposter molecules like Aspartame have successfully made things taste sweet, but then had other, undesirable effects. Finding a molecule that tastes like one thing but digests like another strikes me as an approach doomed to failure. After all, our bodies are used to dealing with molecules that occur naturally in food – so unless the molecule that is digesting really is the naturally occurring one, we are back in the Aspartame situation where there are potential side effects.

Yet maybe there is a way in which the molecule of real food could be cloaked by another molecule, only to be released by the digestion process. The cloaking molecule has one taste, but when digestion begins it releases the molecule of genuine food. Of course for this to work, the cloaking molecule would have to be a harmless by-product. Not only that, but by changing the digestion process it’s highly likely that however harmless the by-product of de-cloaking, something will be different. You can’t fool millions of years of evolution that easily.

If there is a way this can be achieved, I think it is by going straight to the brain. We are already close to commercially available game controllers that use brain signals (Brain control headset for gamers); and Sony clearly thinks there might be a future in sending signals the other way so that our senses can be controlled externally (Sony patent takes first step towards real-life Matrix.) This is another area into which billions of research dollars must be being poured. Might the two areas of well-funded research meet?

If we can fool the brain into thinking the food has the right taste and texture then all we have to do now is make it look like the food we like – much easier. In 10 years, when the Wii comes with a standard headset for controlling games with your mind and receiving feedback from the game, could there be a ‘Wii Taste’ game which has an accompanying range of Nintendo foods?

So back to my original question – if this happens in our lifetime, what does it mean for us? Should we be glad that we can now eat junk but still have a healthy diet? Personally I get a lot of pleasure out of exercising the kind of self-control that is necessary to eat a completely healthy diet – would there be a hole in my life? Perhaps I would find other outlets for this need.

And what about our palettes? These would still face ruination with the constant barrage of junk taste, regardless of the nutritional value behind it. Yet would this matter if we are free to eat junk all the time anyway? We might no longer need a sensitive palette.

I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

The Series:
The Professor Diet - Eat as much Junk as you like
The Professor Diet Part Two: Healthy Junk Food
The Professor Diet Part Three: No Shortcuts any Time Soon!


Anonymous said...

Another problem - how can this food stop the body from making insulin in response to the perceived taste of sweetness. The body anticipates calories. This type of food would cause unintended consequences just like the diet sodas, sugar alcohol, and other low-carb junk foods. (Calling man-made chemicals "food" is, of course, dishonest. Indigestible, non-nutritive, potentially toxic rubbish is not really deserving of the name food.) Thanks but I'll stay as far from this as possible.

Methuselah said...

Bruce - good point and one I have become acutely aware of since embarking on my analysis of the sugars and sweeteners for some recent posts. I think we may have to accept that we weren't designed to have an inexhaustable supply of sweet-tasting food at our disposal and all our efforts to get round that could deals with the devil. I do mention a study in Part 3 which looks at this calorie anticipation idea.

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