Physiological psychologist Marcia Pelchat works at one of Philadelphia’s unique scientific institutions: the Monell Chemical Senses Center, the world’s only independent research nonprofit dedicated to the study of taste and smell. PW asked Professor Pelchat—who’ll be speaking at two Philadelphia Science Festival events this month—“Perceptions of Flavor” on April 23 and “Beer Chemistry” on April 26—to explain her key areas of geekery.
You study food cravings and reactions. How did you come to be a scholar in such a specific field of study?
As you know, Ph.D.s everywhere become experts on tiny aspects of their fields. It turns out, though, that food cravings are an almost everyday experience for a large proportion of the population. Close to 100 percent of women of childbearing age report that they have food cravings. Even old men who don’t do much of anything report the occasional craving. It turns out that food cravings lead to non- homeostatic eating—eating when we are not hungry—and they have helped us to understand the obesity epidemic.
What’s the single most remarkable thing you’ve learned in the course of your work?
People can crave foods that they don’t even like very much, such as oatmeal or movie theater popcorn. And cravings do not represent a nutritional deficit—they are more a matter of habit. So if you crave salt, it doesn’t mean that you are going to get a cramp in your leg. We did a study in which people went on a boring but nutritionally adequate diet. They got cravings like crazy.
How does your work—dealing with a common, fundamental, daily aspect of human life—inform your own personal experience as an eater?
I’ve learned to put the nuts in the cabinet. If I see them, I crave them and eat them—but out of sight, out of mind.
At every single science-fiction convention I’ve ever gone to, at least one fan party’s refreshment offerings have included a large bowl of cheese doodles. I have never been to any other social event, post-college, where cheese doodles were deemed desirable enough to lay out for guests. Why do science-fiction fans crave cheese doodles?
Before I answer, let me say that I am a huge science-fiction fan, so I say this with the greatest possible degree of respect. Sci-fi fans are stereotypically nerdy male slobs who don’t cook. Men tend to crave salt-fat-protein more than women do. These little things are delicious and require no prep. They are relatively cheap, so even a post-doc can afford them. Cheese doodles are messy; if you are dressed up or care about your surroundings, you wouldn’t want that orange stuff all over your fingers. If you are fashionable and wear black: no cheese doodles. On the bright side, one can imagine them as alien spawn—e.g., baby sandworms [from Dune] or as fried gokh [which Klingons eat]. Finally, once a food becomes a tradition, no other explanation is needed.
Three citywide brainy festivals. One skyscraper-sized game of Pong. Infinite future possibilities. And a 70-year flashback to sci-fi history.
PW's Fall Guide 2013