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Health, Sports & Psychology

The Secrets of Your Food

'The Secrets of Your Food' is the delicious science story of the food on your plate. 

  • Updated Friday 10th March 2017
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James and Michael with chillies in Bristol, UK. Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Martha Swales - BBC Michael Mosley and James Wong present a celebration of the physics, chemistry and biology that lies hidden inside every bite. Together they travel the world and take over the UK’s leading food lab as they deconstruct our favourite meals, taking us inside the food, right down to the molecular level.

In the first episode, “We Are What We Eat,” Michael and James explore how the chemicals in our food feed and build our bodies. The world is full of different cuisines and thousands of different meals. Yet when they’re reduced to their essence, there are actually just a handful of ingredients that our bodies absolutely need from our food to survive. 

In the second episode, “A Matter of Taste,” Michael and James explore how the marriage between chemistry and biology is the root of all the sensations, tastes and flavours that we enjoy in our food. Michael begins by deconstructing a Thai meal. Its effect on the tongue can be reduced down to just five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and the less well-known umami.

In the final episode, 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. 

The Secrets of Your Food is first broadcast on Friday 24th February on BBC Two at 9pm, and is available on iPlayer. Full broadcast details and links to watch again can be found on bbc.co.uk.

Episode guide

Food on the Brain

James Wong inspecting potatoes in Peru Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Fleur Bone - BBC In the final episode, 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. Chocolate’s 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. Michael joins in the production of a Kaymak and has a batch sent to the lab where a machine called a rheometer analyses its viscosity. When compared to butter, kaymak melts faster at body temperature, and it feels smoother. But this feeling in the mouth does something rather peculiar – it doesn’t just light up the part of the brain associated with touch as you’d expect, but also the area responding to taste. We perceive the feel of fat as a taste. This insight begins to explain why we find kaymak and chocolate so irresistible; our brains go wild for their mouth-feel.

So the food we put in our mouths has a very direct effect on all the grey matter lurking just a few centimetres above. And the brain does something rather ingenious with all this sensory input. We all have a series of interconnections in our brains called the reward pathway. This allows us to make pleasant associations between the food we eat, who we eat it with, and where we eat it – and these feelings keep us coming back for more. Michael tickles his own reward pathway whilst enjoying a cream tea whilst James goes one further by actually boosting his by using another drink with a powerful hold on our brains: coffee.

We visit a remarkable lab in Newcastle University where a team are 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 like coffee and tea.

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 smaller cortex. It’s this that could have led us to become far more experimental in our choice of food.  Our large brains have given us the ability to acquire new tastes.  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. Every culture has learned to make its own tipple but, back in Peru, Michael joins in with the production of a drink known as masato. It’s made from the juice of the yucca plant, with a little water and a good dose of human spit. This may sound rather off-putting, but it actually aids the fermentation of the brew and as Michael discovers, the result is a lively drink. As he tucks in, he explains exactly what goes on in our brains when we drink.  He attempts to follow the disruptive affects of the alcohol on his brain as it interferes with one region after another.

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.

Episodes in this series

Episode Description
We Are What We Eat Michael Mosley and James Wong travel the world to reveal how the hidden chemistry in every mouthful of food keeps our... Read more
A Matter of Taste Michael Mosley and James Wong travel the world to reveal the science that makes our food taste delicious and the... Read more
Food on the Brain Michael Mosley and James Wong reveal the power food has to create cravings in our brains. Read more