Most people are aware that drinking alcohol can have a profound effect on the body and mind. Drink a little and we become more sociable and relaxed. Drink too much and our ability to walk in a straight line can be severely tested. Now scientists are in the process of identifying more and more chemicals in food that have mind- and body-altering effects.
Such ingredients -- known as psychotropic additives -- could soon be included in everyday food products in concentrations that could make us more relaxed and sleep better, or more alert for exams, or to improve our everyday concentration, memory or general physical performance.
The science behind food has always fascinated Fat Duck restaurateur Heston Blumenthal and, in June, he teamed up with food pharmacologist Dr Paul Clayton and cognitive drug researcher professor Keith Wesnes, to demonstrate to a live audience at the Cheltenham Festival of Science, the effects of such psychotropic additives.
With the aid of ingredient suppliers Ajinomoto, Forum Bioscience and Taste-tech, Blumenthal provided a seven course meal for five guests -- tv presenter Sue Lawley, food critics Matthew Fort and Francis Wheen, flavour technologist Tony Blake and nutritionist Helen Conn.
The extraordinary menu that Blumenthal cooked up comprised chicken liver parfait; green tea and lime mousse; oyster & passion fruit jelly with lavender; cauliflower risotto; rabbit with carrot lollies; carrot toffee; and chocolates & green tea to finish.
While the diners knew they were part of an experiment, they did not know that the different courses were laced with one or more of the psychotropic additives ginseng, caffeine, betaine, trytophan and theanine.
After each course the diners were subjected to tests to chart their memory, alertness and moods. Their responses were analysed back stage by professor Wesnes and the results presented to the audience.
While by no means a controlled experiment, the data did show the memory skills of some diners improved after eating the ginseng; some became more alert after the caffeine; and reaction times improved on consuming trytophan and theanine.
The experiment illustrated that food can do more than simply banish hunger and keep our energy levels high, it can affect our mood and mental and physical abilities.
Back in the lab, scientists have, for example, discovered that tryptophan, found in fish and some vegetables, is a precursor of the neuro-transmitter serotonin and regulates several processes in the body such as sleep, emotional stability and the ability to cope with anxiety or stress.
Theanine, a form of amino acid found in green tea, produces mental and physical relaxation and decreases stress and anxiety, while ginseng is believed to improve energy and vitality levels, memory and concentration.
As the real potential of more of these additives is unravelled by science, we are likely to see them used more widely in food.
Claims about the mental or physical effects of such food additives is currently restricted by European Union legislation. But they are being increasingly investigated by the pharmaceutical community.
As a result, the dividing line between medicine and food is blurring. Last month Oxford researchers reported they had produced a drink that could counter mental illness such as schizophrenia, and a prominent nutritionist has called for government action over the lack of omega-3 in our diet, claiming it could seriously affect the mental health of the UK population.
As governments focus on nutrition as a means of cutting their health services bills, mind- and body-enhancing food additives could become powerful tools in maintaining their populations' future health. FM