When I told people I was travelling 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 improvingor,depending on your sentiments about processed food,compromisingthe quality of our meals.
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 Department of Head and Neck,at the nearby University Medical Center Utrecht.
The cubes are made of a trademarked product called Comfort Putty,more typically used in its unhardened form for taking dental impressions. Van der Bilt isnt 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 performancehow effectively a person chews.
Van der Bilt and his colleagues have laid claim to a strange,occasionally repugnant patch of scientific ground. They study the mouthmore 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. 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.
Van der Bilt studies the neuromuscular elements of chewing. In terms of pressure per single burst of activity,these are the strongest muscles we have. But it is not the jaws power to destroy that fascinates Van der Bilt; it is its nuanced ability to protect.
Think of a peanut between two molars,about to be crushed. At the precise millisecond the nut succumbs,the jaw muscles reflexively let up. Without that reflex,the molars would continue to hurtle recklessly toward one another,now with no intact nut between.
Teeth and jaws are impressive not for their strength but for their sensitivity,Van der Bilt has found. Chew on this: Human teeth can detect a grain of sand or grit 10 microns in diameter. A micron is 1/25,000 of an inch.
In Van der Bilts line of work,on any given day you may find yourself documenting intraoral bolus rolling or shooting magnified close-ups of retained custard with the Wageningen University tongue-camera. You will need to figure out the viscosity and surface tension of the moistening saliva as well as the average radius of the chewed food particles and the average distance between them.
At the Restaurant of the Future,a colleague of Van der Bilt,Ton van Vliet,stops by to instruct me in the basics of crispy-crunchy. Crispiness and crunchiness appeal to us because they signal freshness,Van Vliet said. Old,rotting,mushy produce can make you ill. To a certain extent,we eat with our ears.