Some of our most serious and intractable health problems—obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease—are linked to what we eat and drink. At the Monell Center, pioneering research on taste and smell provides novel insight and approaches to combat these pressing problems by elucidating why and how people make specific nutritional and food choices. Researchers also explore how taste and smell affect the subsequent digestion and metabolism of food.
We are most aware of our senses of taste and smell in relation to food. Indeed, what we eat and drink guided largely by food and beverage flavor – the combination of taste and smell. Monell’s scientists study all aspects of how the taste and smell of food determines our choices and intake of food. Research is currently being done to examine the genetic, physiological, metabolic and experiential factors that shape flavor preferences and food intake. Other work explores the taste and smell of food affect digestion and metabolism, and how these effects, in turn, alter food choices and intake.
The Center’s research program with human infants examines the role of early experience on development of flavor preferences later in life. The late-term fetus has functional chemosensory systems that can detect tastes and odors, and research at Monell has shown that flavors associated with the mother’s diet are passed into the amniotic fluid. Such transmission of flavor may provide the fetus with an early introduction to elements of the mother’s cuisine. Following birth, flavors from foods and beverages, including alcohol, ingested by the mother pass into breast milk, and can influence feeding and other behaviors of the breast-fed infant.
Other studies at Monell are examining how flavor activates hormonal and neural responses that affect how we digest and utilize nutrients. In related experiments, scientists are learning how changes in the body’s metabolism can influence how we respond to the flavor of food.
Many ongoing studies at Monell are related to nutrition and appetite, including research intended to advance the understanding of:
- how taste receptors in the gut control physiology, metabolism and eating behavior
- the use of simple measures of blood lipids to predict susceptibility to obesity induced by eating a high-fat diet
- metabolic and hormonal effects of dietary components such as fructose and fat
- how early experiences before and after birth shape flavor preferences and food choice across the lifespan
- mechanisms involved in tasting calcium and how this sensory capability influences intake of this important mineral
- how dietary fats and carbohydrates interact to induce overeating
- brain mechanisms involved in the formation of food cravings and the effect such cravings have on eating behavior
- genetic mechanisms underlying preferences for salt,sweeteners, and alcohol
- factors that influence acceptance of novel foods
- the neural response to food flavors and ingestion that contribute to nutrient digestion and metabolism