Mary Roach on Studying How Humans Chew and Eat – NYTimes.com
The Marvels in Your Mouth
By MARY ROACH
Published: March 25, 2013 17 Comments
WAGENINGEN, THE NETHERLANDS — When I told people I was traveling to Food Valley, I described it as the Silicon Valley of eating. At this cluster of universities and research facilities, nearly 15,000 scientists are dedicated to improving — or, depending on your sentiments about processed food, compromising — the quality of our meals.
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Gulp! The Quiz
Chew, swallow, digest, repeat. Take this quiz to learn some of the amazing things that go on in your gut.
Science Times Podcast
Henry Fountain on how science is tracking the meteor that exploded over Russia back to its source; Mary Roach on our fascinating guts; Denise Grady on a novel treatment for some cancers of the blood.
8:00A Meteor’s Data Trail
11:22Journey on the Alimentary Canal
9:07Using the Body to Fight Cancer
The Mouth’s Guard (March 26, 2013)
Do you have a question for Mary Roach about the wonders of chewing, swallowing and other aspects of human eating? Post a question for her here and she will answer a selection in an upcoming video interview on nytimes.com.
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At the time I made the Silicon Valley comparison, I did not expect to be served actual silicone.
But here I am, in the Restaurant of the Future, a cafeteria at Wageningen University where hidden cameras record diners as they make decisions about what to eat. And here it is, a bowl of rubbery white cubes the size of salad croutons. Andries van der Bilt has brought them from his lab in the brusquely named Department of Head and Neck, at the nearby University Medical Center Utrecht.
“You chew them,” he said.
The cubes are made of a trademarked product called Comfort Putty, more typically used in its unhardened form for taking dental impressions. Dr. Van der Bilt isn’t a dentist, however. He is an oral physiologist, and he likely knows more about chewing than anyone else in the world. He uses the cubes to quantify “masticatory performance” — how effectively a person chews.
I take a cube from the bowl. If you ever, as a child, chewed on a whimsical pencil eraser in the shape of, say, an animal or a piece of fruit, then you have tasted this dish.
“I’m sorry.” Dr. Van der Bilt winces. “It’s quite old.” As though fresh silicone might be better.
Dr. Van der Bilt and his colleagues have laid claim to a strange, occasionally repugnant patch of scientific ground. They study the mouth — more specifically, its role as the human food processor. Their findings have opened up new insights into quite a few things that most of us do every day but would rather not think about.
The way you chew, for example, is as unique and consistent as the way you walk or fold your shirts. There are fast chewers and slow chewers, long chewers and short chewers, right-chewing people and left-chewing people. Some of us chew straight up and down, and others chew side-to-side, like cows. Your oral processing habits are a physiological fingerprint.