French show an appetite for matters of taste

November 11, 1994

Scientists carrying out research into what goes on behind our taste buds will soon have their very own "European Centre for Taste and Ingestion", in France's gastronomic heartland of Burgundy.

The University of Burgundy, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and the food giant, Danone, have joined forces to seek out objective phenomena in the subjective likes and dislikes aroused by food.

"We want to know why the British like salty food for breakfast, while the French only eat sweet food then. Originally, it is cultural, of course, but what turns a childhood influence into an ingrained response?" asked the head of the project, neuro-biologist Stylianos Nicolaidis.

Initially, some 20 scientists including biochemists, physiologists and nutritionists, will work at the Institute for Taste and Ingestion on basic research. Within three years, that number should rise to about 60, with a technology transfer unit and a foundation funded by Danone to encourage research into taste and publicise findings.

The Burgundy regional council is also backing the project, which it expects to enhance its gourmet image. The science of taste is not limited however to researchers from prestigious culinary backgrounds. "I really hope to hire some young British post-docs," said Professor Nicolaidis, who was born in Macedonia.

While research into sexual appetites abounds, there is relatively little research into food appetite outside the United States. "The taste buds have little to do with it," continued Professor Nicolaidis. "The olfactory nerve plays a major role and there are the neural mechanisms which control behaviour and which determine whether we accept or reject a particular flavour."

Tastes are notoriously hard to pin down, even in subjective, descriptive terms, but the project organisers are confident they can be dissected scientifically.

The centre opens its doors in Dijon in the autumn of 1995.

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