Tag Archives: food

Where is the Spicy Food in Paris?

On every street in Paris, there are three things you are certain to find: a boulangerie (or two or three), some sort of bistro/brasserie/café, and a Franprix (my personal favorite, a small-scale grocery store). Clearly, cuisine is central to Parisian life. And often, the options boil down to baguettes, wine, and cheese.

a typical boulangerie (“Savouries Counter – La Renaissance Patisserie” by avlxyz is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

As a lover of spicy foods, I was at a bit of a loss. After about a week into my stay in Paris, I was ready to reintroduce some of the essential components of my normal diet—mainly, I’m referring to chili paste and other spices. Perusing the Franprix directly below my apartment, I was shocked to see that there was only one option for hot sauce. Not only this, but every café and restaurant I had been to showed no promise of the tongue-scorching, eye-watering foods I love. So I had some questions: why do I enjoy spicy foods so much? How are they registered in my brain? Is there a certain part of my brain—specifically for processing spicy taste sensations–that is more active for me than for a French person?

my chili paste from Franprix (Personal Image)

Before attempting to tackle any of these questions, let’s first explore how our brains perceive sensory information from the world around us.
The five basic senses–sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch–all have particular areas of the brain (in the bumpy outer layer called the cortex) devoted to receiving signals from our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin, respectively. The area of the brain that registers taste is called the gustatory cortex.

Basic taste perception  (Image from Frontiers for Young Minds)

Nestled in taste buds scattered about the surface of the tongue, special receptor cells interpret chemical stimuli as sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. From there, signals are sent to sensory neurons and into the brain through cranial nerves (Breslin and Spector, 2008). Spicy foods are detected a bit differently than other tastes, since these signals involve pain receptors (Immke and Gavva, 2006). But, recent neuroscience research has been determined that these signals still activate the gustatory cortex, so they count as a legitimate tastes (Rudenga et al., 2010)! Therefore, it seems that French cuisine is indeed missing an entire taste sensation, and it happens to be the one that is my favorite.

Taste bud (Image from LumenLearning.com)

Now that we’ve legitimized these piquant flavor sensations, let’s dive deeper into the neuroscience behind them.

While scientists still don’t understand exactly how taste perception works, it is clear that capsaicin (the chemical responsible for the spicy qualities of many of my favorite foods) actually results in unique brain responses. Unlike the other tastes, spicy sensations are often accompanied by the release of endorphins (explaining how they can be perceived as pleasurable) and activation of the autonomic nervous system. This unconscious system of bodily regulation is responsible for the perspiration, higher body temperature, and a faster heart rate associated with “hot” foods (McCorry, 2007).

In a 2015 study entitled “The Brain Mechanisms Underlying the Perception of the Pungent Taste of Capsaicin and the Subsequent Autonomic Responses,” Kawakami et al. (2015) investigated how these bodily responses happen after someone eats spicy food. The authors knew that the gustatory cortex (consisting of the middle and posterior short gyri, or M/PSG, of the insular cortex) must somehow be in communication with the brain area controlling autonomic system responses (the anterior gyrus of the insular cortex, or ASG). But, it wasn’t clear how this communication was happening.

In order to test this, the researchers administered three different taste solutions (spicy, salty, and neutral) to twenty human study participants. As the subjects tasted the solutions, the researchers took a look at their brain activity.
The method they used to analyze brain activity is called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This produces high-resolution images of the brain while it is in action. Blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) signals show where oxygenated blood is being used, indicating which regions are using up the most resources (Logothetis, 2003).

The ASG and M/PSG (Image from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal, Kawakami et al., 2015)

After performing this test, the researchers compared the brain images from the subjects. Their main findings were that there was coordination between the activity of the M/PSG and the ASG when people eat spicy foods. This could mean that these two brain areas are syncing up in order to produce symptoms like sweating and a quickened heartbeat after spicy food is consumed. Moreover, these results support the findings of another study done with mice, which concluded that cells in the ASG and M/PSG synchronize their activity patterns when capsaicin is tasted (Saito et al., 2012).
Kawakami et al. (2015) also found that the ASG was even more active than the M/PSG in response to capsaicin. Not only that, but both brain regions were significantly more active in response to capsaicin compared to the other solutions!

In sum, this study and previous work has helped to explain how the brain registers the taste of “hot” foods in the gustatory cortex and coordinates it with autonomic nervous system activation. However, the researchers only tested three taste sensations, and clearly, there is still much to be discovered about how the neuroscience behind gustation. Future work will likely take a closer look at the connection between the ASG and the M/PSG, possibly providing more insight into why some people (like me) find these mildly painful sensations more enjoyable than others.

   Baguettes are a staple in the                   Parisian diet (“Bag It” by Very Quiet is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the meantime, perhaps knowing that eating spicy foods more fully engages the brain will inspire the French to literally “spice up” their diets and rethink that bland baguette, or at least offer more options in their grocery stores. That would make this hot sauce-lover very happy, and it would add a whole new dimension to French cuisine!



Breslin, P.A., Spector, A.C. (2008). Mammalian taste perception. Current Biology. 18:R148-155. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.12.017.

Immke, D.C., Gavva, N.R. (2006). The TRPV1 receptor and nociception. Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology. 17:852-591. doi: 10.1016/j.semcdb.2006.09.004.

Kawakami, S., Sato, H., Sasaki, A.T., Tanabe, H.C., Yoshida, Y., Saito, M., Toyoda, H., Sadato, N., Kang, Y. (2015). The brain mechanisms underlying the perception of pungent taste of capsaicin and the subsequent autonomic response. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 9:720. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00720.

Logothetis, N.K. (2003). The underpinnings of the BOLD functional magnetic resonance imaging signal. Journal of Neuroscience. 23:3963-3971. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.23-10-03963.2003.

McCorry, L.K. (2007). Physiology of the Autonomic Nervous System. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 71:78.

Rudenga K., Green B., Nachtigal D., Small D.M. (2010). Evidence for an integrated oral sensory module in the human anterior ventral insula. Chemical Senses. 35:693–703. doi: 10.1093/chemse/bjq068.

Saito, M., Toyoda, H., Kawakami, S., Sato, H., Bae, Y.C., Kang, Y. (2012) Capsaicin induces theta-band synchronization between gustatory and autonomic insular cortices. Journal of Neuroscience. 32:13470-13487. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5906-11.2012.

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Puis-je prendre votre commande?

Puis-je prendre votre commande? – Can I take your order?

In the nearly two weeks that I have been in Paris, I have eaten many local cuisines. Baguettes. Croissants. Cheese. Baguettes. Macarons. Pasta. Pizza. And yes, more Baguettes. Conveniently for me, I live right above Le Fils de Boulanger which means most mornings I get a croissant and apple juice on my way to class. For lunch, I usually stop in the first boulangerie that catches my attention and order a baguette sandwich. Dinner is usually a toss-up, meaning it could be anything from another sandwich from a nearby café, pizza from the nearest Italian restaurant, or a quick grab dinner from Franprix. While I do love the food that Paris has to offer, every now and then I have a craving for food from home, whether it’s a burger and fries, a tex-mex burrito, or a steak dinner on occasion. It wasn’t necessarily because I was sick of the pasta, cheese, or bread (especially since it would take a lot for me to get sick of bread), it felt more like I just wanted something that was familiar to me. Don’t get me wrong, France is a beautiful and amazing country with great food, it just sometimes feels exhausting being submerged in a culture that is not your own. From the language barrier to the different social norms to the different food experience, I realized that the reason that I was craving food from home wasn’t that I desperately wanted a McDonald’s cheeseburger, it was just that I wanted a moment of familiarity in an environment that is highly unfamiliar.

My go-to breakfast place, Le Fils de Boulanger, in the 15th Arrondissement

The few times that I have eaten American food since being abroad, I noticed that I became more relaxed than I was previously. This may be due to the fact while I am in a new environment abroad, I have a slight amount of natural stress that comes with being abroad, not to mention also taking classes for my major at the same time. This stress can cause changes within a person’s prefrontal cortex, specifically, stress can cause dendritic expansion into one’s orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is involved in saliency of a reward or punishment (B. McEwen, 2012). Since a person’s saliency of reward is affected when the individual is stressed out, it is possible to see how a rewarding experience, such as eating familiar foods, may cause an increased pleasurable effect on emotion. Stress can also cause activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. When a person feels stressed, neurons in the hypothalamus release corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which leads to the stimulation of the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol (M. Stephens and G. Wand, 2012). Additionally, another recent study determined that comfort food can dampen the activity of the HPA axis (A. Tomiyama et al., 2011). The HPA axis usually increases activity in stressful environments, meaning that by eating foods that are of a familiar comfort can decrease the activity of the HPA, leading to decrease in any feelings of stress. This finding makes my observation that after eating American food that is familiar to me, I feel more relaxed, makes biological sense as I am impacting the activity of my HPA axis.

Outline of the HPA axis and how it acts in regards to stress.

Back home in Alabama, I am rarely inclined to stop at a McDonald’s for lunch and only during exam weeks do I ever crave a 10-piece McNugget. So why would I choose to eat at one of the most popular fast food chains in the U.S. while spending only six weeks in Paris, France, surrounded by local restaurants that may only be experienced here? While eating this fast food isn’t necessarily an overly pleasurable memory back home, it certainly evokes familiar emotions that remind me of late night runs with friends to get food on the way back from studying in the library or to take back dinner for a movie night in my apartment. According to a study by B. Ford and M. Tamir, if there is any quality to a familiar emotion that makes it desirable, then the familiarity of those emotions would be positively associated with wanting to experience those emotions (2014). So looking back at me and my craving for familiar food, it now seems that one of the reasons I indulged in American food abroad is to elicit familiar emotions that would ease the stress of being in a new environment. Moral of the story: enjoy the food that Paris has to offer, but don’t feel guilty for eating foods that are still found at home, it’s just one way to have familiarity in an unfamiliar environment.

The multiple McDonald’s locations in Paris, France.

Works Cited:

Ford, B. Q., & Tamir, M. (2014). Preferring familiar emotions: as you want (and like) it?. Cognition & emotion28(2), 311–324. doi:10.1080/02699931.2013.823381

McEwen, B. S. (2012). Brain on stress: how the social environment gets under the skin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(Supplement 2), 17180-17185.

Stephens, M. A., & Wand, G. (2012). Stress and the HPA axis: role of glucocorticoids in alcohol dependence. Alcohol research : current reviews34(4), 468–483.

Tomiyama, A. J., Dallman, M. F., & Epel, E. S. (2011). Comfort food is comforting to those most stressed: evidence of the chronic stress response network in high stress women. Psychoneuroendocrinology36(10), 1513-1519.

Image 1 – Le Fils de Boulanger, taken from tripadvisor.com

Image 2 – HPA axis (2017), taken from https://everfit.co.nz/articles/hpa-axis-dysfunction

Image 3 – screenshot of google maps

Don’t be fooled by those tasty looking cakes.

Dear friends,

With this week marking the end of my time studying abroad, I look back on all that I’ve experienced and know that I will truly miss being in Paris. Maybe it’s the people I’ve meet, or the sights I’ve seen, or just all the amazing food I’ve had, but I really can’t put my finger on why I’ll miss this place.

Amazing falafel from L'as du Fallafel

Amazing falafel from L’as du Fallafel (definitely beats Falafel King)

Speaking of food, I’ve gotten into the habit of trying a different pastry at lunch each day! While definitely not a healthy practice that I should keep up when back at home, I’ve gotten to taste some really good sweets!

Because of my minimal French speaking skills, I choose my pastries simply by pointing to one at random. This technique works fairly well for the most part because I usually end up with a delicious pastry in my stomach! However, the other week at Blé Sucré, I chose one that tasted awful. I think I got a rum cake, but I honestly can’t be too sure since I didn’t bother to read the description (I probably wouldn’t have understood it anyways). Interestingly, while I thought it was absolutely atrocious and extremely bitter, others thought it didn’t taste that bad. At the time, I couldn’t understand why they thought it tasted any good, so I decided to do some research.

Location of Blé Sucré in relation to ACCENT Center

Location of Blé Sucré in relation to ACCENT Center

Surprisingly, a great amount of information exists on individual differences in food preferences. In a recent study conducted with 305 participants, the researchers concluded that genetics play a large role in bitter food taste preference (Negri et al., 2012). In this study, the researchers collected a sample of each participant’s saliva to determine their genetic code for the TAS2R38 gene, a DNA sequence responsible for creating a specific bitter receptor that recognizes a chemical called 6-propyl-2-tiouracil (PROP). The DNA sequence of this gene can vary to cause an individual to be considered as a non-taster, medium taster, or super taster. Basically, an individual could not taste the bitterness of PROP, could taste the bitterness, or could taste the bitterness and thought it was extremely disgusting.

Molecular structure of PROP

Molecular structure of PROP

After the DNA genotyping, the researchers gave the participants a small amount of PROP to taste and asked them to rank the amount of bitterness that they experienced on a scale of 1 (no taste) to 4 (very unpleasant). The participants then answered a questionnaire about the specific foods that they ate in the past three days. The researchers instructed them to focus on any bitter vegetables they consumed. With some statistical analysis tests, Negri et al. found that individuals with increased PROP sensitivity tend to avoid bitter foods and therefore have a lower consumption of these types of food in their daily routine. Applying this conclusion to my situation, I guess this means that I’m a supertaster! I’m not sure if this difference in preference has any other implications, but I think that would be a great next experiment to look into!

Are you a super taster?

Are you a super taster?

This study definitely helped clear my confusion about how my friends could possibly think that my rum cake tasted any good, however, I did find that it contained a couple weaknesses. Negri et al. recruited their participants through convenience sampling, where they asked people in their clinic or in a nearby university if they wanted to participate, instead of conducting a random sample. Using this type of sampling method may lead to an unrepresentative sample of the population and therefore yield results that may not be applicable to their population of interest. Additionally, I personally find it difficult to recall everything I ate in the last three days, so I believe that the participants may have found it difficult too. This problem may result in a response bias that could impact the integrity of the results as the participants could have just listed down some of the foods that the researchers included in the questionnaire instead of actually trying to remember what they ate. Despite these shortcomings, this study uses good experimental controls and provides an excellent explanation of their methods to the point where I could most likely replicate their experiments!

Array of delectable goods sold at Blé Sucré

Array of delectable goods sold at Blé Sucré

While I doubt I would spend the rest of my time in Paris trying to reproduce this study, I have learned a valuable lesson: when in Paris, don’t be fooled by those tasty looking cakes.




Negri R, Di Feola M, Di Domenico S, Scala MG, Artesi G, Valente S, Smarrazzo A, Turco F, Morini G, Greco L (2012) Taste perception and food choices. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition 54:624-629.

Bouba and Bagels

Paris! Land of crepes and croissants, escargot and éclairs, and absolutely exquisite baguettes. While sandwiches currently make up the vast majority of my diet, I’ve also delved into more exciting culinary exploits on occasion. A few days ago I tried escargot for the first time, and the week before, duck confit. I’ve also tasted mouth watering lemon tarts, mille feuille, and a host of other desserts whose names I do not know, courtesy of my terrible French (I may be a linguist, but I’ve never been particularly good at picking up languages).

A delicious lemon tart I ordered by enthusiastically pointing at it.

A delicious lemon tart I ordered by enthusiastically pointing at it.

I came to Paris two weeks ago with just enough knowledge of French to manage taking the train to my dorm room at Cite U–which, considering the number of people who speak English in France, boiled mostly down to “Bonjour”, “Pardon”, and “Parlez-vous anglais?” Since then, I’ve managed to pick up a handful of words, almost all of them about food (clearly, I have my priorities in order). Still, the majority of my ordering at cafes and restaurants involves pointing at what I want or butchering the words for and hoping it all ends well with my taste buds happy and my stomach full (it usually does).

However, my lack of French language skills occasionally makes for interesting culinary experiences. The first time I ordered a bagel from Morry’s Bagels, I picked out the word “saumon” and “oeuf” and assumed the bagel contained some combination of salmon and egg. To my pleasant surprise, the filling was salmon eggs, not salmon and egg. A few days ago I visited a patisserie nearby for a sandwich, but since they were all out of sandwiches with ingredients I understood, I used my classic point and pay method to get a sandwich that contained some sort of fish. I think. The connection between cuisine and language goes beyond potential difficulties with ordering food, however.

Morry's, a delicious shop that sells bagel close to the class.

Morry’s, a delicious shop that sells bagel close to the class.

A salmon egg bagel from Morry's.

A salmon egg bagel from Morry’s.

One of the key components of the definition of “language” that every linguistics student learns is arbitrariness. Languages, for the most part, are arbitrary; the sounds of a word do not denote the meaning (Monaghan et al., 2014). Nothing about the sounds in “poulet” makes a non-French speaker automatically think of chicken. However, while you may not be able to derive the meaning of a word from its sounds, you might be able to know some of its properties. In the famous “Kiki” and “Bouba” study by Dr. Ramachandran and Dr. Hubbard, participants looked at spiky or more rounded shapes and decided which nonsense word matched which shape. The angular shapes had a high correlation with “kiki”, while the more rounded shapes correlated with “bouba” in both English speakers and Tamil speakers (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001).

How does this relate to food?


My first taste of Duck Confit. I'm not sure if I would rate it more "bouba' or more "kiki", but I would definitely rate it "ridiculously delicious".

My first taste of Duck Confit. I’m not sure if I would rate it more “bouba’ or more “kiki”, but I would definitely rate it “ridiculously delicious”.

Well, in 2011, Gallace et al. published a study looking at word-food associations. Ten participants sat in a darkened testing room and tasted several different foods such as Brie, strawberry yogurt, lime jam, or salt and vinegar crisps (aka potato chips), all covering a wide range of flavors and textures. After tasting one sample of each food, the participants rated the food for 24 different nonword, food related, and non-food related opposing pairs. Nonword pairs included, for example, “kiki” at one extreme and “bouba” at the other, while an example of non-food related ratings could be “fast” vs. “slow”, or “salty” vs. sweet for food-related ratings. So, for example, after tasting some strawberry yogurt, the participant might have to decide if the yogurt tasted more “kiki” or more “bouba”, more salty or more sweet, more slow or fast, and so on. After finishing each of the 24 ratings the participant would taste the next food sample, and continue on until they sampled and rated all food items. Each participant tasted and rated each food a maximum of 10 times.

The experimenters found a significant association between certain foods with particular nonwords more than others. The participants rated plain chocolate as more “bouba”, in comparison to mint chocolate, and salt and vinegar-flavored crisps were rated as more “takete” than cheddar cheese or Brie. However, these correlations do not line up neatly so that all the “bouba” foods have a particular taste or texture. This complex association may be due to how many of the other senses, such as smell and vision, interact with taste. To explain these associations, Gallace et al. go on to speculate that the connections between the gustatory areas and the frontal and temporal lobes in the brain may explain this connection between taste and sound, similar to how Ramachandran and Hubbard hypothesized that the connections and coactivation of visual and auditory areas lead synesthetes to “see” sounds (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). Interestingly enough, a study from 2013 found that while a remote population from Noerthern Namibia matched the same shapes and sounds to Westerners, they did not match the same tastes to sounds (Bremner et al., 2013). Thus, the connection between taste and sound is complex and most likely affected by culture.

As a double major in linguistics and neuroscience, I’ve learned about the “Bouba” and “Kiki” study many times, but it wasn’t until I arrived in Paris that I heard about the connection between sounds and taste. I’m excited to have found a connection between three of my passions–– food, neuroscience, and linguistics––and I can’t wait to discover what other connections to neuroscience I can make as I eat my way through Paris!

One of the many, many sandwiches I have eaten in Paris. This one has some sort of fish filling. I think...

One of the many, many sandwiches I have eaten in Paris. This one has some sort of fish filling. I think…


Bremner AJ, Caparos S, Davidoff J, de Fockert J, Linnell KJ, Spence C (2013) “Bouba” and “Kiki” in Namibia? A remote culture make similar shape-sound matches, but different shape-taste matches to Westerners. Cognition 126:165-172.

Gallace A, Boschin E, Spence C (2011) On the taste of “Bouba” and “Kiki”: An exploration of word–food associations in neurologically normal participants. Cognitive Neuroscience 2:34-46.

Monaghan P, Shillcock R, Christiansen M, Kirby S (2014) How arbitrary is language?. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 369:20130299-20130299.

Ramachandran V, Hubbard E (2001) Synesthesia and Language. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8:3-34.