Over the past decade, neuroscience has steadily entered the food industry. Large food and beverage companies have started integrating neuroscience into their key marketing activities via product development pipelines and communication strategies.
Thimus began growing its relationship with neuroscience and food in 2016 and has since seen a significant change in the unity of the two leading innovations, which started to disrupt the European food ingredients market. Neuroscience sits at the intersection of science, cultural studies, personalisation, and the future of food systems.
Today, neuroscience can actively support product development, product launches, reformulation, quality assurance and control. “Some of the most forward-thinking companies are already implementing neuroscience in food production and the wider supply chain, while others are getting very close,” says Prof. Mario Ubiali, Founder and CEO of Thimus.
“Novel food is a leading specific trend in the neuroscience and food industry.”
Influences spurring neuroscience forward
When creating food experiences based on technology or ingredients new to the public, the food and beverage industry needs to give special attention to human familiarity with products and the communication messages used to convey them, along with their ingredients and claims. Organoleptic properties such as texture and aftertaste are also vital to individuals seeking rewarding food experiences.
“Neuroscience is also amazingly useful in calibrating reformulation as cost containment or dietary improvements can be measured against human appreciation,” adds Ubiali. This is particularly useful to support healthier products, as it is imperative they taste good so that they can continue to be successful in the market and have a positive impact on human health.
“Manufacturers can extensively perfect all of these features by testing food using neuroscience,” he says. Thanks to unprecedented access to the implicit processes underlying food experiences, food companies can now adjust their product creations to cater to what humans expect from their food.
“Neuroscience helps food companies better respond to these trends and needs by giving producers a deeper understanding of the relationship between the brain and how this impacts human preferences and behaviours,” continues Ubiali.
Thanks to neuroscience exploration and discoveries in the food field, companies can know what happens in the human brain and connect it to what humans say and who they are. Obtaining cultural information in this way can help to determine food production choices in two ways.
For starters, it allows producers to test human responses to prototypes and variations in a quick, iterative, and data-driven manner. Secondly, it accumulates scientifically validated data on preferences and behaviour that can be an effective source of predictive insights.
Time resolution: A key factor driving neuroscience
Neuroscientific applications in product development are very real in today’s food and drink industry. They are already in use in some of the world’s leading food and drink companies on a global scale, especially thanks to the recent introduction of T-Box, a highly scalable platform launched by Thimus in summer 2023. The Software-As-A-Service (SAAS) platform is cloud-based and easy to use, allowing companies to collect neuroscientific data without needing any technical data-gathering experience or specific skill set.
Measuring brain response to food and beverages, amongst other things, holds a significant advantage compared to classic sensory evaluation or consumer panels. When operators in food companies apply an electroencephalogram (EEG) to humans having food experiences, they can see the evolution of their cognitive and emotional states second by second.
Such high time resolution in brain activity measurement is a considerable benefit propelling the food industry via neuroscience, giving product development a unique boost that was not available before. “Time resolution means we can now know what exactly worked or didn’t work in the product’s experience journey, which usually is impossible to infer from people’s responses to direct questions,” says Ubiali.
Producers can, for example, track likeability, engagement during smell phases, or consumers’ visual engagement with the product at first approach. They can see if the first bite was a pleasant surprise or notice what happens with bolus formation, which is created when food is chewed and lubricated with saliva before mixing with enzymes, resulting in a soft cohesive mass. Researchers can also witness consumers forming their final judgement on a product in the aftertaste stage of the sensory experience.
Building sustainable habits
Neuroscience can help develop and enhance sustainable habits by providing an accurate, scientific methodology to measure how habits are formed and changed. “Humans need to intend to build such sustainable habits, and it is not for neuroscience to define sustainability or decide what the goal should be,” says Ubiali.
However, neuroscience can observe, for example, the influence of information and education on humans regarding what they put in their mouths. “That is important if the industry wants to design effective social and educational actions to nudge people in the right direction,” he says.
Consumers’ perceptions of neuroscience in food
“Much to my own surprise, people are a lot less concerned about the presence of neuroscience in food manufacturing than we expect them to be,” says Ubiali.
“Save for a handful of individuals who sometimes fear that neuroscience can ‘read their minds’, which is a very inaccurate and dangerous statement, most people are interested in better understanding their emotions and what influences their attitude towards what is on the plates.”
With food preferences, our experiences and attitudes towards it such a fundamental part of our daily lives, neurosciences provide greater opportunities to tap into personalising these for people’s specific wants and needs.
“Paying attention to humans is a very positive force, we constantly find that they appreciate using neuroscience as a sign of wanting to better cater to their expectations and desires.”
Research and development goals in manufacturing
Today, there is an extensive list of opportunities for neuroscience in food research and development (R&D) and manufacturing.
Leading examples of these innovative efforts in the sector include R&D on cultural response in different communities to food experiences involving novel food, R&D on product development in cultivated meat and fish, and R&D on human perception of sustainability issues relating to food consumption.
There is also the creation of effective, rapid testing as part of quality assurance and quality control on the production floor in actual food plants and extensive data collection on agricultural ingredients and their flavour or processing profiles in relation to human preferences.
Core challenges do exist, however. “For neuroscience in food R&D and manufacturing to grow, the sector needs to be patient and work hard to slowly convert large and medium-sized food and beverage companies to a new way of looking at product development,” says Ubiali.
Operators in corporations are naturally inclined to be suspicious of highly innovative approaches, as they fear that disruption is high risk. “Neuroscience needs to become portable, scalable, user-friendly and actionable to alleviate these concerns,” he says. Now, neuroscience is finally becoming dependable and scalable, enabling food companies to look at a wider range of applications while accumulating big data.
Neuroscience perceptions and applications are expected to evolve with further improvements over the next 12 months. “I expect 12 months of growth and a strong interest in using neuroscience as a design tool,” says Ubiali.
“While Thimus has been an evangelist for a long time, and we have learnt it is a slow process, we believe neuroscience responds to real, tangible needs on a corporate and societal level. I recommend R&D professionals and manufacturers focus on their questions and needs as they explore neuroscience in food.”
“Avoid getting distracted by preconceived ideas on the “complexity” of neuroscience, but instead, enjoy the incredible advantage of better understanding food emotions. It’s possible, very real, and it’s happening, so enjoy the ride.”
About the Speaker
Prof. Mario Ubiali, Founder and CEO of Thimus, is an entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience in innovative companies, globally scaling from startup to small-to-medium enterprises (SME).
He created Thimus in 2016 and has brought his passion for innovation, the desire to impact the future of food systems and a love for the intersection between cultural studies and hard science to this venture. Today, Thimus is increasingly becoming a recognised force in food tech through its work in creating neuroscience-based gastronomic experiences to convert people to sustainable habits.
At the Future of Nutrition Summit, Mario will discuss the potential of neuroscience to impact product development, consumer understanding, and building new and more sustainable habits. Two guests will join him in fireside chats that are designed to look at different aspects of the industry and how the application of neuroscience might change the course of the food industry’s future.