‘MoodFood’: Happiness through food?

Wednesday, 30 November, 2011

Foods and beverages have a major influence in our health and wellbeing.  Historically they have been considered as medicines and many cultures have diverse beliefs regarding the beneficial effects of foods and beverages. Moreover, there are also traditional and religious aspects to be considered before taking a food or drink. Nowadays consumers know that a correct diet has to be varied and to provide all nutrients in a sufficient amount but not too much, to stay healthy and to prevent illness.

Interestingly, today, an innovative viewpoint is that foods and beverages, on top of being safe and healthy, they can also help to improve our mood.

The concept of ‘MoodFood’ is not really new to consumers and they easily accept it, since the influence of food in our ‘mood’ has always been known and it is related to their health effects. There are many popular ideas regarding how food can improve our mood. For example, it is generally acknowledged that chocolate can ‘make us feel better’, and many people take it because of this effect, like a ‘prize’ or a ‘comfort’. Now the question is ‘Why?’ What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that provide such interesting benefits? Can some foods (natural or enriched) actually make us feel happier?


MoodFood Neurochemistry

Although the primary function of eating (and drinking) is getting the energy and nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats, amino acids, vitamins and water) we need to keep alive, foods and drinks naturally contain many more additional substances. Some of them provide us with sensorial pleasure through scent, flavour, texture and colour. Others, such as fibre, never really enter our body (i.e., our blood) and they are removed. Finally, there are a lot of natural substances that occur in food, they enter our body and have effects on it. Some of these effects are known, like alcohol or caffeine, but in many cases they are not well-known yet.

Tryptophan (an essential amino acid) must be part of the human diet because our body cannot produce it and it is key for protein biosynthesis. Tryptophan is a biochemical precursor for Serotonin (a neurotransmitter), which, in turn, can be converted to Melatonin (a neurohormone).

Tryptophan helps with sleep regulation and it is related to pleasure and good mood. When our body detects a high level of tryptophan in blood, it produces a high level of serotonin, also known as ‘the hormone of happiness’. Conversely, the lack of tryptophan absorption in the intestine results in low blood levels of this substance and depression. Both Tryptophan and its derivative 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) are used as antidepressants. Some foods naturally contain tryptophan in large amounts: chocolate, oats, dried dates, milk and dairy products, red meat, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, corn and peanuts.

Serotonin is a well-known contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. It is also related to memory, learning, appetite, and sleep, among many other biochemical functions. The regulation of serotonin levels in the brain is the basis of many drugs used to counteract depression, anxiety and social phobia.

Melatonin, known as the "hormone of darkness", is naturally produced in our brain in darkness and its blood levels determine the circadian (day/night) rhythms of some of our body functions. When taken in low doses at the appropriate time, melatonin can help advance or delay the sleep-wake cycle, so it is used to improve sleep for jet lag and shift work. But when taken in the morning, melatonin may cause fatigue and reduced vigilance and decreased vigour during the day. Melatonin is contained naturally in some foods like oats, sweet corn, rice, tomatoes and bananas.

Phenylalanine, another essential amino acid, is a precursor for Dopamine, popularly known as ‘the hormone of pleasure’ because it is associated with the reward system of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment and motivation. Phenylalanine is found naturally in milk. Dopamine, which is produced in several areas of the brain, is sold as a nutritional supplement for its reputed analgesic and antidepressant effects. The effects of drugs such as cocaine, nicotine or amphetamines are, directly or indirectly, related to an increase of dopamine levels in the brain.


MoodFood Culture

In 2005 the first ‘MoodFood’ was sold in Asia: a chocolate enriched with gamma-aminoacids that claimed to reduce anxiety. The concept of ‘MoodFood’ will perhaps derive to a new generation of foods and beverages that, on top (or instead) of being enriched with vitamins and minerals, they will contain natural ‘anti-stress’ and/or ‘pro-happiness’ substances.

While the biochemistry of foods can partially justify their effects in our mood, in many occasions the cultural aspects of foods can be much more powerful. For example, we tend to associate some foods and drinks to parties, celebrations, rituals linked to our cultural background, to our personal history or to our infancy.

The cultural elements help to improve our mood through the olfactory memory by the ‘Proust effect’: by eating or drinking a particular product, we unconsciously raise a vivid memory of past situations of happiness that help to improve our mood today (even after many years, since olfactory memory is very powerful).

The ‘MoodFood’ concept opens a huge new field of ideas for research innovation in the Food and Beverage industry. This field will need to be explored from the perspective of Neurochemistry and, above all, from the perspective of consumer’s Cultural Backgrounds.

At Open-Senses we are passionate about sensory innovation. If you share this passion, you can contact us at www.open-senses.com.


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