Food for Thought

Why is food so important to us? Beyond its nutritional benefits, food connects people. This series explores how our relationship with food has evolved over time and the meanings that different cultures ascribe to food.

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Talks structure30 minute lecture20 minute Q&A

8 talks in this Garden Series



Human Biology & Medicine
Psychology & Behaviour
Why do humans have such a unique relationship with food?

46 mins

Not even our closest primate relatives think about food in the way humans do. What does the food we eat tell us about our own evolutionary history? Read more

Dr. John S Allen

Dr John Allen is an anthropologist and writer who focuses on the evolution of the human brain and behavior.

His research has been both lab- and field-based, with fieldwork conducted in Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Palau. He has published over 80 scientific research articles and papers. For many years, he worked for the Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California.

His books include The Lives of the Brain: Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind, in which he explores the normal structure and evolution of the human brain; The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food, in which he examines how we use that brain to “think” food and eating, and Home: How Habitat Made Us Human, a neuroanthropological exploration of the place where we do most of our thinking and eating and how it came to be central in nearly all of our lives.

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Human Biology & Medicine
How do our genes control our response to what we eat?

47 mins

Not only does DNA control physical characteristics like height, but it also shapes how our bodies react to food. Is it true that you are what you eat? Read more

Dr. Vimal Karani

University of Reading

Vimal Karani is a professor in Nutrigenetics and Nutrigenomics, as well as the deputy director of the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health at the University of Reading. He joined the University of Reading after his post-doctoral training at the MRC Epidemiology unit and the University College London. He has also received advanced training in Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Professor Karani has published extensively in areas related to nutrigenetics and non-communicable diseases, and presently has more than 80 peer reviewed publications and book chapters. He has received significant global media attention for his work on nutrition, lifestyle and cardiometabolic diseases. He has received investment from various funding bodies and, in the last seven years, the grants that he has been associated with are of the value ~£2.6 million. He won the 2020 UK Nutrition Society's Silver Medal award for his contribution to the world of global nutrition.

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Psychology & Behaviour
Human Biology & Medicine
Do we eat with our ears?

48 mins

Besides taste, there are other senses at work when we eat. How much of an influence does the environment have over our food behaviour? Read more

Prof. Charles Spence

University of Oxford

Professor Charles Spence is interested in how people perceive the world around them. In particular, how our brains manage to process the information from each of our different senses (such as smell, taste, sight, hearing, and touch) to form the extraordinarily rich multisensory experiences that fill our daily lives.

His research focuses on how a better understanding of the human mind will lead to the better design of multisensory foods, products, interfaces, and environments in the future. His research calls for a radical new way of examining and understanding the senses that has major implications for the way in which we design everything from household products to mobile phones, and from the food we eat to the places in which we work and live.

He is an award-winning author and has published several books including Sensehacking, Gastrophysics, and The Perfect Meal. When not writing, you will likely find him spending some time in nature doing some gardening.

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What can the recipes of the past tell us about the society they came from?

48 mins

Old cookery books can tell us a lot more than just how to cook a meal. What do they reveal about topics as diverse as access to technology and the concept of truth? Read more

Prof. Rebecca Earle

University of Warwick

Rebecca Earle is a historian of food, and of the cultural history of Spanish America and Early modern Europe. She is interested in how ordinary, everyday cultural practices such as eating or dressing, or even using postage stamps, shape how we think about the world. Her early work was rooted in a very particular part of the world (southern Colombia). These days she tends to study the movement of ideas and practices across larger geographies.

In her most recent book Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato she offers a global history of the potato. Potatoes originated in the South American Andes and Earle is interested in the potato's success as a global food, and in its spread in eighteenth-century Europe in particular. Thinking about potatoes is thus a way of understanding the dramatic changes in ideas about populations, political economy and the state ushered in by the Enlightenment.

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Human Biology & Medicine
Why are allergies on the rise?

55 mins

1 in 15 people globally has a food allergy - a rate that's more than doubled since 1960. What's behind this soaring increase? Read more

Dr. R. Sharon Chinthrajah

Stanford University

Dr. Sharon Chinthrajah is the Director of the Clinical Translational Research Unit at Stanford University's Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research.

Translation: not only is Sharon a front-line doctor treating patients with these life-threatening conditions, but she also runs all of the Center's clinical trials into food allergies and asthma, across both adults and children. The work of Sharon and her team saves lives, and is likely to revolutionise how these conditions are treated all over the world.

Sharon is The Garden's resident expert in all things immunology, bringing insight and expertise from the frontline of the understanding and treatment of allergies and asthma to our science-curious members.

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Human Biology & Medicine
Science & Nature
What can animals teach us about eating disorders?

51 mins

How we eat and the impact it has on our bodies, from weight loss and weight gain to eating disorders, is complex and a key facet of human health. But most of these behaviours and conditions aren't unique to our species. What can the animal world teach us? Read more

B. Natterson-Horowitz, MD

Harvard University

B. Natterson-Horowitz's fascinating work at Harvard University and UCLA uses insight from the natural world to find new ways of approaching human health and development.

Studying a diverse range of animals in natural settings, B has uncovered adaptations with relevance to heart failure, sudden cardiac death, seizures, dementia, movement disorders, infertility and psychiatric conditions including anxiety, compulsive and eating disorders.

B's most recent research focuses on species-wide patterns in development across critical transitional periods of life including the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

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Science & Nature
Society & Politics
Food Futures: Could new plants solve a food crisis?

44 mins

Agriculture has been at the centre of civilisation for thousands of years. However, when we shop for our food, have you wondered about what developments have led to the food getting on our plates. Read more

Dr Jordan Dowell

University of California, Davis

Dr Jordan Dowell works on describing the evolution and ecology of how plants deal with pests, pathogens, and more importantly each other.

A core focus of his work has been describing the genetics underlying plant chemical diversity, and how a subset of this diversity is used to convey information about pests and pathogens to neighbouring plants through volatile compounds, or compounds that can float through the air under normal conditions.

In furthering our understanding of plant interactions, Dr Dowell hopes to tap into this plant communication network to increase sustainable agriculture by getting plants the information they need quickly to protect themselves.

Jordan is originally from Las Vegas, Nevada where he worked in the nightlight industry before heading back to academia after his bachelors. Outside the office, you will likely find him camping and hiking around the USA. His friends would probably describe him as outgoing and passionate.

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Human Biology & Medicine
Society & Politics
Is obesity a choice?

45 mins

According to the World Obesity Federation it is estimated that over 1 billion will be affected by obesity by 2025. Does obesity lie within our control? What impact do genes have on our appetite and body weight? Read more

Prof. Giles Yeo

University of Cambridge

Giles Yeo is now a Professor of Molecular Metabolism and programme leader at the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit in Cambridge and his research currently focuses on the influence of genes on feeding behaviour & body-weight.

In addition, he is a graduate tutor and fellow of Wolfson College, and Honorary President of the British Dietetic Association. Giles is also a broadcaster and author, presenting science documentaries for the BBC, and hosts a podcast called ‘Dr Giles Yeo Chews The Fat’. His first book ‘Gene Eating’ was published in December 2018, and his second book ‘Why Calories Don’t Count’ came out in June 2021. Giles was appointed an MBE in the Queen’s 2020 birthday honours for services to ‘Research, Communication and Engagement.

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