WAGENINGEN, the Netherlands — Food Valley, a cluster of universities and research facilities, is like the Silicon Valley of eating. Nearly 15,000 scientists here are dedicated to improving the quality of meals.
Sometimes that allusion, though, means being served actual silicone.
In the Restaurant of the Future, a cafeteria at Wageningen University where hidden cameras record diners, sits a bowl of rubbery white cubes about the size of salad croutons. Andries van der Bilt has served them up from his lab
“You chew them,” he says.
Van der Bilt is an oral physiologist, and he may know more about chewing than anyone.
He uses the cubes, made of a product called Comfort Putty, to quantify “masticatory performance,” or how effectively a person chews.
He and his colleagues lay claim to a strange, at times repugnant patch of scientific ground. They study the mouth, specifically its role as the human food processor. They find insights into things most of us do every day but prefer not to think about.
The way you chew, for example, is as unique as the way you walk or fold your shirts. There are fast chewers and slow chewers. Long chewers and short chewers. Right-chewing people and left-chewing people. Some of us chew straight up and down, and others chew side-to-side, like cows.
Van der Bilt studies the neuromuscular elements of chewing. You often hear about the power of jaw muscles — the strongest we have, in terms of pressure per single burst of activity. But it is not the jaw’s power to destroy that fascinates Van der Bilt. It is its nuance.
Think of a peanut between two molars, about to be crushed. At the precise millisecond the nut succumbs, the jaw muscles let up. Without that reflex, the molars would continue to hurtle recklessly toward one another.
To keep your he-man jaw muscles from smashing your precious teeth, the body evolved an automated braking system faster and more sophisticated than anything on a Lexus. The jaw knows its own strength. The faster and more recklessly you close your mouth, the less force the muscles are willing to apply. Without your giving it a thought.
But the study of oral processing is about more, about the entire “oral device” — teeth, tongue, lips, cheeks, saliva, all working together toward a singular revolting goal: bolus formation, the conversion of food into a mass that’s, as one researcher puts it, in “the swallowable state.”
In Van der Bilt’s line of work you often find yourself needing a bolus. You’ll need to stop your subject on the brink of swallowing and have him, like a Siamese with a hairball, relinquish the mass for analysis.
Bolus formation and swallowing depend on a highly coordinated sequence of events, researchers have found. Disable any one of these — via stroke, say, or neurological degeneration — and the moist ballet begins to fall apart. The researchers here study swallowing missteps, in forms both lethal and entertaining. Nasal regurgitation, for example. Here the soft palate — home turf of the uvula, that queer little oral stalactite — fails to seal the opening to the nasal cavity. This leaves milk, say, or chewed peas in peril of being horked out the nostrils. It’s more common with children, because they are often laughing while eating and because their swallowing mechanism isn’t fully developed.