On the bristling cold morning of January 23rd, exactly one month prior to the opening reception for BMoCA’s 2012 spring exhibition, I parked my truck in front of the studio and home of Viviane Le Courtois.
About a week or so earlier I had received an email from the Museum highlighting the new exhibition Edible? and as a scientist who studies taste and health, I was more than stoked to find out more from the artist herself.
“What does it mean for something to be edible?” Le Courtois asks, gesturing towards the diverse objects that surround us in her studio space. She carries with her a French accent from growing up along the Brittany seaside, and in her hand grasps an iron mold of an artichoke. Beside her are boxes of handmade clay pots to be used during the exhibition for drinking herbal tea. Her petite form backs to a life-sized sculpture of an obese child, made from colorful mini marshmallows. Beneath her desk and on each windowsill are seedlings of herbs and sprouts.
I know the question is rhetorical, and yet I grasp for an answer, recalling what I have chosen to eat and what I have decided along the way was inedible. And I realize that the true answer is more personal than I’d imagined because it depends on your own unique perspective. This particular perspective is shaped by two things in your life: genetics and environment/experience.
Genetics. If you’ll humor me in my favorite analogy (which I hope you’ll find exceptionally appropriate to this post), your DNA is like a cookbook for your body. And like any good cookbook, your DNA contains recipes, about 25,000 recipes in fact. These recipes are called genes. Genes, like recipes, are specific instructions to tell your body how to make one important thing it needs to survive. These “things” are called proteins, and they are the mini machines in your cells that are responsible for how your body functions.
So back to Edible? … there are approximately 60 genes* that are linked directly to your ability to perceive various taste qualities (sweet, sour, bitter, umami (think meat) and salt). These genes give the instructions for how to make proteins that act like gate keepers in the taste buds on your tongue. Depending on which of the 5 tastes we are talking about, these proteins either bind small food molecules or will let molecules into the taste cell (see oversimplified taste cell below). Once a taste cell is activated in either of these ways, it sends a signal to the brain about what the taste is and how strong it it-this is how genetics can affect your perception of what is edible and what is not. The brain then takes that message and acts on it. “Should I spit this out or should I eat more?”
Environment/Experience. Thousands and thousands of years of evolution on both the genetics of taste and the way the brain responds to taste/consumption has put modern day populations in a sticky situation. We have been trained to crave umami, salt and especially sweet, with the goal of survival. The protein we eat is broken down in our digestive system into building blocks that will be used, based on the instructions from our genes, to make our own proteins. Salt is required for homeostasis (a balance in your body with the environment) and also provides the ions needed for the chemical reactions in your cells. And finally glucose- the simple carbohydrate that when combined with oxygen in the reaction of respiration makes the energy our body needs (and has the side products of water and carbon dioxide). During nomadic times of hunting and gathering, it was essential to find and consume foods that contained these necessary molecules. Because of this, we evolved to feel good not only when we eat these foods, literally, chemicals are released in the body akin to the experience of pleasure, but also in anticipation of eating these foods. Both can excite the reward center of the brain. This evolution of how our brains and bodies respond ensures survival, because it ensures we will repeat the activity that made us feel so good.
But what about now? As we have been wired based on survival in inhospitable environments, meats/ salt/sugar still excite the reward center of the brain. Yet our world is very different from that which we evolved. Industrialized nations have taken away much of the inconvenience and difficult work of finding food sources. There are convenience stores with prepackaged and highly processed food snacks and nearly a fast food chain on every other given intersection. And interestingly, a very cool research study published in 2008 shows that it is even worse than we thought. The reward center for obese teens is excited MORE in anticipation of food compared to lean teens. In contrast, the reward center for obese teens is excited LESS during actual consumption of the food compared to lean teens. So basically, obese children crave food more, but don’t get the same pleasure hit when they eat compared to lean children. This means they have to eat more to get the same level of reward, making it very difficult to change unhealthy behaviors.
Read more about this study here.
On the flip side of the equation, foods that are bitter often elicit a response akin to repulsion. Yet there are entire families of vegetables that taste bitter. Depending on what was made available to you as child plays a large role in conditioning us to like healthier food choices, including bitter vegetables. It begs the question, “What are we making available to our kids?” Most neighborhoods don’t have local grocery stores. Farm products don’t have nearly the shelf live as processed products and require preparation, so aren’t as enticing to buy. There is significant concern over urban and rural food deserts. And while urban gardening is on the rise in Denver, the idea of a backyard garden is not one that is considered broadly. Modern day environments, therefore, plays such a large role in perception, because where you grow up and how food was presented to you has long term effects on how you perceive foods and the habits you pass on to your children.
This dichotomy of taste perception and behavior is thoughtfully constructed in Le Courtois’ studio. Figurines of obese children, made from candy and each with a unique colorful glaze, line up like militia on a side table. Drawn to the rainbow of colors, I ask what was used to give the sculptures such hues. She explains the process of melting down candy pieces and pouring the liquid into a hand-crafted mold. That’s it. The simplicity strikes me, as does the implications. Many of the sculptures were made years ago, and yet look as if they were crafted only yesterday. The medium she chose, it turns out, is just as important as the content. I contemplate this as she shows me sketches of the exhibition install and describes the emphasis on experiencing both ends of the polarized food world. As the light moves in the studio, I know I must say my goodbyes and head back to the Museum. The seedlings pale green leaves glow with the sun’s changing position and I notice the shadow is now moving across the army of candy children. I find myself thinking that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts when art and science intersect in the realm of the human experience.
For more information about what you read about here, check out any of these links:
Genetics of Taste Project at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science www.dmns.org/genetics
Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA), Spring Exhibition Edible?February 23rd- June 17th http://www.bmoca.org/2012/02/viviane-le-courtois-edible/
Viviane Le Courtois’ website http://vivianelecourtois.com/
Colorado Health Foundation: Healthy Food for All Report http://www.coloradohealth.org/studies.aspx
Denver Urban Garndens http://dug.org/
The Grow Haus http://www.facebook.com/thegrowhaus