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Cheese lovers and haters


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Put a group of people around a cheese platter and you have an instant division into two distinct groups; there are those who will be diving inn to sample chunks of everything from the brie to the blue vein while there are others who might, only might, dare to carve a wafer-thin sliver of Jarlsberg to adorn a cracker. The world divides itself neatly into the cheese-lovers and the cheese-haters which is what prompted researchers to begin a new study looking at what happens in the brain when we approach cheese.

As a starting point the researchers decided to see if cheese is in fact any more of a divider of people than any other food. To do this they first of all surveyed hundreds of subjects to see what foods people reported feeling an aversion toward. The results showed that all foods stimulate some degree of aversion but it is at a pretty similar level for most foods. For instance, 2.4 per cent of people said they had an aversion to cured meats and 2.7 per cent of people had an aversion to fish. However, cheese stood out by scoring 6 per cent of people saying they have a definite aversion to it. So what is it about cheese?

To examine what happens in the brain in regards to cheese the researchers had their subjects (15 who were cheese lovers and 15 who were cheese haters) exposed to the image and smell of six different types and six different other foods while having brain scans using an MRI. The subjects were asked to state whether they liked the smell and sight of the foods as well as whether they wanted to eat them at that moment.

The results showed that the ventral pallidum (a structure in the brain activated when people are hungry) was totally inactive when people who hated cheese were exposed to the smell and image of cheese, yet it was active in the presence of all other foods.

Additionally, the globus pallidus and the substantia nigra (areas activated when we love something) were more active in people who hate cheese when exposed to cheese than in people who love cheese. These structures in the brain are typically involved on processing reward but are obviously involved in aversion as well. The researchers think this may be because there are two types of neurons in these brain regions, one related to the rewarding nature of food and the other to aversion to it.

Whatever the neuronal basis it suggests that there is an element of disgust in the aversion of people to cheese and that disliking cheese is not a “feeling” that stops at the palate, it penetrates the brain, which is why cheese is such a divisive food.

Source: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

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Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.