• Summer 2014

    Volume 36, Number 4

    Virginia Tech Magazine, summer 2014

  • Do those donuts call to you? Virginia Tech students and professors are building the foundations of a new research field that measures how and why people react emotionally to food.

    Summer 2014

    From Robots to Romance, Firsts in Virginia Tech History

    First Class: Virginia Tech Carilion's first 40 doctors graduate

    Power Couple: Kirk and Noel Schulz shine at Kansas State

    How Tech Ticks: Feeling Food

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    Feeling Food

    by Mason Adams

    Alexandra Walsh (left) and Kristen Leitch '12

    Amid their pursuit of master's degrees in food science and technology, Alexandra Walsh (left) and Kristen Leitch '12 paused for some macaroni and cheese ... to mixed results. Both are conducting research in the area of food and emotions. [Click image to view larger version.]

    The appreciation of food is a universal trait.

    Food's role in social gatherings, bonding experiences, and survival guarantees that what we eat occupies a central place in the human experience. Understanding how we react, positively or negatively, to different kinds of food is key to fields from marketing to public safety.

    Virginia Tech researchers are using tools from a multitude of disciplines to better understand how and why people react emotionally to food. Susan Duncan, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, conducts studies that use both physiology and interviews to examine volunteers’ responses to food scenarios.

    Duncan has a variety of tools at her disposal that, though innovative, are still crude for interpreting the complex tangle of elements that factor into emotions and food. Past experiences, personal taste, and mood at the moment drastically affect the way we feel about food.

    Take, for example, two individuals who are physically similar and come from the same socio-economic background. They may still respond in dramatically different ways to sushi because one first tasted it at a childhood birthday celebration, while the other got food-poisoning at a sushi restaurant around the same age.

    "It's that black box of what's going on from a physiological standpoint, how the brain takes in all those signals—smell, how food looks, mixed with past experiences—all that gets jumbled together, and your body responds in a certain way," Duncan said.

    She acknowledges that her work marks the launch of what could be a career obsession. Duncan hopes her research will help build the foundation for a broader field of study mapping the link between emotions and food.

    Meet Duncan in her lab in the new Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building I

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