Heribert Watzke, the scientist credited with establishing the field of food material research, wants to remind people that our guts are more than just plumbing. In twenty minutes at MAD, Watzke analyzed the constant, dynamic dialogue that takes place between our two brains: the big brain, in our head, which uses up 25 per cent of our energy and accounts for only 2 per cent of our body mass, and the one below, in our gut. 

That gut brain, made up of half a billion neurons, marshals a dizzying stream of hormonal releases, muscle movements, and various other forms of communication that ensure the big brain gets the energy it needs, and that you survive. It tells you when you’re hungry, when you’re full, and, yes, when you should be nervous (those “butterflies” are real, generated by the connection between our gut brain and the limbic system). It houses beneficial bacteria that fight toxins and other interlopers, and sends out negative signals when you’ve consumed something that might harm you.

That’s all illuminating, but why should a cook care?

According to Watzke, the answer lies in the fact that humans are coctivores, not omnivores. “I have always thought ‘I cook, therefore I am,’” he said during his presentation. He argues that the big brain deals with delight — the worlds of aroma, color, taste, texture, indulgence — and that the gut brain is the center of health, sending signals only in unpleasant circumstances. When harmony is achieved between these two realms, often through the practice of cooking, it creates a reward system and a reinforcing loop. It’s what explains people’s passion for preparing their food — and, at least to Watzke, the birth of the gastronomic arts and maybe even language. 

Watze believes that chefs and producers don’t think enough about the gut brain’s role in this dialogue between culinary indulgence and health, even though the new vogue status of fermentation suggests chefs are starting to care more about the beneficial life forms that inhabit our guts. Still, as Watzke wrote in Lucky Peach's MAD mini-magazine, “We do not yet know enough about how to cook and produce foods that ‘communicate’ more directly with the gut and its brain.”

Watzke concluded his talk with a provocative question which, more than anything else, was a challenge to those in the room to explore the next frontier. You can watch him reveal it above.