February 14, 2012
We have a tendency to sexualize food. The New York Times chicken, a particularly frothy Herb Alpert album cover and even fish sticks have been imbued with an air of eros to induce giggles in otherwise mature adults. But is there a connection between food and sex beyond an occasional indulgence in frat-grade humor? Biological anthropologist John S. Allen thinks so. His new book, The Omnivorous Mind, takes a look at the scientific and sociological reasons for how humans relate to food in the ways that we do. There’s lots of terrific information about why we like crispy foods and how food drove evolution. But for a first thumb-through, I skipped straight to the racy bits. Granted, a chapter called “Food and the Sensuous Brain” hardly sounds like the title for the latest bodice-ripper, but the author shares a fair bit of insight on how we sense food, how we become acclimated to unusual flavors and even how genetics influences our culinary experiences. Allen also explores how—and why—food plays a role in animal courtship.
Food and sex are two of the most basic drives for animal behavior. Creatures need food to sustain themselves and they need to continue the species—or blow off a little hormonal steam. But how are they related? Part of the answer comes from looking at our ape relatives, who have a highly developed sense of trade and exchange. In chimpanzee communities, meat is a hot commodity, so much so that if a male is willing to share a conquest from the hunting grounds with a female, he is much more likely to make a conquest in the nest. In human hunter-gatherer societies, this concept extends further; the ability to supply food establishes an economic partnership between a male and a female in which they demonstrate how well they are able to provide and take care of themselves and future offspring.
But what about physical pleasure? The neologism “foodgasm” was coined to express “the euphoric sensation upon eating amazingly delicious food.” This, however, is not the same thing as physically climaxing during sex. “But clearly some people feel something quite special, whatever that might be, when they eat something that really hits the spot,” Allen writes. Sadly, there are no brain imaging studies at this time that reveal the mechanisms of the foodgasm. But Allen turns his attention to the orbitofrontal cortex, which deactivates upon sexual release and is the same part of the brain that registers satiation and pleasantness of taste. ”The orbitofrontal cortex, where orgasm and taste perception overlap, is likely the critical region for the foodgasm. It isn’t the same as an orgasm, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either.”
All that said, discussions of brain regions might not be the best way to chat up a romantic partner unless you both really enjoy neuroscience. Take a cue from the apes this Valentine’s Day and invest some time and energy into sharing a A-plus meal together. And for a more substantial tour of human history by way of the dinner plate, The Omnivorous Mind will hit bookstores this May.
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