Rethinking Food Innovation: Neuroscience in the driving seat

February 24, 2023
Sustainability, Borderless Leadership - article

In this episode of Borderless Executive Live, our partner and Food & Beverage specialist, Brian Hughes, is joined by Mario Ubiali, CEO and co-founder of Thimus, a revolutionary company that uses the tools of cultural neuroscience to understand the behavior and motivations of human beings, particularly when it comes to food.

Tune in or read on to learn more about the relationship between our brain and our food choices, and how these insights could shape the future of the global food landscape in a sustainable, innovative and ethical manner.

Tapping into the unexplored potential of neuroscience

As a business, Thimus takes the potential of neuroscience beyond the laboratory and applies it to real life to explore the complex relationship between brain, culture and the behaviors that drive our food choices.

“For the longest time, neuroscience has mostly been connected with medical applications and trying to improve the lives of those affected by specific illnesses,” Mario explains.

However, in recent years, the technology used to interpret brain activity has been made available outside of medical circles. For Thimus, this opened up the possibility to make use of neuroscientific tools such as electroencephalograms (EEG), which records brain activity through the use of electrodes.

The How and What of Thimus…leads to the Why

So, with these neuroscientific tools at their fingertips, how does Thimus apply them?

“We tap into the complexity of the human experience, seeking to understand what’s going on in real time, inside our brains when we interact with food. We explain and characterize the reaction and the emotions and cognitive processes during that experience” Mario explains.

Once Thimus extracts that specific set of data, they correlate it with other sets of data related to groups of people, communities, cultural profiles, etc. By doing so, the company can access a deeper understanding of the dynamics coming into play when consuming food.

Uncovering the relationship between gut and brain

So how does that relationship between brain and food work? Well, the interaction certainly isn’t one way where our brain simply responds to the stimuli. While that happens too, the relationship between brain and our gut is bi-directional.”

Our brain is also known to regulate our hunger mechanisms and satiety. “Recently, we did a study on indulgence as perceived in the consumption of classic sweet snacks. It’s interesting to observe how the brain perceives certain foods and as a consequence, biochemically regulates your sense of satiety or your sense of hunger,” Mario says.

Diving into the emotional connection with food

When it comes to the ‘why’ of food, emotion is a key driver. “We have gone through a historical societal process that censored emotion as being an intangible, semi-romantic notion. I feel that emotion needs to be reassessed in a completely different light.”

And that’s exactly what cultural neuroscience allows Thimus to do: enable a scientific debate on emotion by collecting and digitizing data on the implicit elements that drive human behavior. What’s more, Mario believes the inextricable relationship between food and emotion needs to be understood if we want to shape the future of the global food landscape.

Leveraging cultural neuroscience to address client needs

So, putting theory into practice, how does Thimus leverage cultural neuroscience to address the needs of their clients?

“On average, the real underlying question is always why humans are embracing a certain food practice, and consuming certain foods in certain contexts. Companies want to understand how to propose changes, new habits, new products, or new use cases,” Mario elaborates.

“Companies come to Thimus to help design better food solutions for the present and future of humanity,” Mario states. “They know we have access in a documented, scientifically rigorous way to the ‘why’ which determines whether humans would decide to buy a product again.” Our findings correlate directly with explicit declarations of intent to purchase and consume.

For clients, findings like these are essential, especially as we continue to move towards an age of ‘new food’, such as cultured meat and plant-based alternatives. Does the human brain recognize ‘new food’? How can a company come up with food solutions for diverse consumer groups? That’s where Thimus comes in.

Shaping a sustainable future for food

When it comes to fostering a sustainable future, the food industry plays a large role. In fact, as Mario puts it: “Food is the nexus between the cultural aspect, the footprint on soil usage, on transportation and CO2 emissions, on logistics, on equity and fair trade and on the fair treatment of workers. Everything converges in food. It’s really the sum of all fears but also maybe the sum of all solutions.”

“Neuroscience will help the sustainable evolution of food systems by making sure that what we collectively design as the food of the future will be designed with the right criteria in mind, Mario states. “We will provide the tools to measure, understand and verify a food solution designed in a way that humans can embrace and adopt.”

Disrupting food systems

So, how does Thimus then hope to inspire the disruption of the existing food system with its pioneering work?

“There is no such thing as changing a system if we do not work on how we change the way people think,” Mario says. “But when it comes to changing how they think, thinking and behaving are connected, and what connects them is emotion.”

For Thimus, there are two key steps to promoting change: education, and not polarizing the debate. While Thimus supports educational initiatives with academic partners, the company is a also partner to large corporations with global impact. By emphasising the challenges of our current food system and exploiting the potential value of cultural neuroscience, Thimus helps companies transform food culture to the benefit society and their own roles as innovators.

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