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Cambridge Science Festival: food, glorious food!

Could we really be eating insects in the future? How do we make the right food choices when it’s all so confusing? Do all these fad diets ever really work?

At this year’s Cambridge Science Festival (11-24 March), food is set to be a hot topic with several events focussing on everything to do with food, glorious food – from edible insects and whether diets really work, to making healthier, more sustainable food choices in a world with an ever-increasing population, and the latest research into the gut-brain link.

Food is essential to all of us and is key to our health. It’s never far from our thoughts, screens, TVs, and newspaper headlines. However, with an ever-increasing abundance it seems that too much food is causing problems with obesity and associated health problems are on the rise. Furthermore, exactly how are we going to feed an ever-increasing population in the future?

One of the events tipped to get the most interest takes place during the second and final week of the Festival. On 21st March, those brave enough can enjoy An evening of insects and wine tasting during which they get to sample insects and wines, each of which have a unique story behind them – and a relatively low environmental footprint. Charlotte Payne from the Department of Zoology, Cambridge and social anthropologist Chris Kaplonski introduce the different insect dishes and wines on offer and explain why they have been chosen.  

Chris Kaplonski said: “Apart from a love of delicious insects and good wine, both Charlotte and I have a keen interest in issues of sustainability in the realm of food and drink. We hope not only to get people to try and hopefully enjoy a new food, but to think about issues of sustainability in terms of wine. This can often include exposing people to types of wines that they may not have tried before and that may well taste unlike the wines they are used to. Sustainable wines can taste ‘funky’ (and yes, that’s the word used) and insects can have a ‘yuck’ factor for many people. So, how do we address and overcome these stumbling points on the way to eating and drinking more sustainably?”

Their approach is to guide people through the stories behind the food and drink. “Many sustainable wines are produced using traditional, artisanal methods, and the production of new wine is a celebrated event. Similarly, many insects are collected and prepared by people who look forward to the harvest season and are proud of the deliciousness of their traditional cuisine. Understanding these stories can help to challenge and break down prejudices, and in doing so, appreciate the flavours of both insects and wine.”

If insects aren’t your thing, which food choices should you make? In I’m a confused consumer, get me out of here! on 12th March, a panel of experts discuss consumer behaviour, what food manufacturers and retailers are doing to catch our attention and how we can help each other to make the right food choices.

Speakers for this event include: Imran Afzal, Senior R&D Manager, External Innovation at PepsiCo and Professor Dame Theresa Marteau DBE, Director of Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge. Professor Dame Marteau’s research focuses on the development and evaluation of interventions to change behaviour to improve population health and reduce health inequalities, with a focus on targeting non-conscious processes. She explores how supermarkets could be re-designed, for instance by removing cues to unhealthier purchases and rethinking product size, place and labelling, leading to effortless healthier shopping.

Other speakers include Dr David Good, Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Cambridge and Dr Jag Srai, Head of the Centre of International Manufacturing, Cambridge. Speaking ahead of the event, Dr Srai commented: “Around 30% of consumer shopping is now delivered direct to our doorsteps, but do the benefits of convenience and speed represent unchecked consumerism without regard for the environment? Or do these digital platforms in fact provide new opportunities to connect consumers with their local retailers and farmers for personalisation, a more informed shopping basket and less waste?”

This is part of a new project called #AnnualFoodAgenda, which consists of 32 public events across the UK, Poland and Spain in 2019. The aim of all the #AnnualFoodAgenda events is to encourage people to think about the food they eat, raise awareness about the food system, and empower people to make healthier and more sustainable nutritional choices. The events are funded by EIT Food, a European Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC), which was set up to transform our food ecosystem.

One area of food and diet that has received a lot of attention in recent years is the relationship between mood, food and the new science of gut-brain connections. Researchers are only now starting to understand the connection between our gut and our brain – which is stronger than we think. In A gut feeling about the brain: microbiome as a key regulator of neurodevelopment and behaviour on 14th March, Professor John F Cryan, University College Cork, Ireland, presents some surprising facts and insights about how our thoughts and emotions are connected to our guts. He shares intriguing data showing the importance of the microbiome in maintaining brain function at the extremes of life in neurodevelopment and in ageing. Professor Cryan also discusses how we can potentially modify our brain and behaviour by dietary means and introduces the concept of a psychobiotic revolution, which he feels is slowly happening. “Unlike our genome, which we can’t do much about except blame our parents and grandparents, our microbiome is potentially modifiable. This gives us great agency over our own destiny,” he commented.

Each New Year brings new diets and health fads. But what actually works? Festival favourite, Dr Giles Yeo returns on 15th March to bring clarity in Gene eating: the truth about diets. Dr Yeo, well-known from the Trust Me, I'm a Doctor TV show, explores how to break the cycle of pseudoscience and misinformation surrounding the world of dieting as he discusses his new ‘anti-diet’ diet book. “Obese people are not bad or lazy, they are fighting their biology. If anyone tries to sell you an ‘effortless’ way to lose weight and keep it off, they are lying. Most diets work for some people, no diets work for everyone. You have to do you!” Dr Yeo said.

The gut comes under scrutiny again in the film and talk Gut reaction on 18th March. Two Cambridge researchers discuss something that we all do, but no one talks about: emptying our bowels. Dr Ewan St John Smith and Dr James Hockley from the Department of Pharmacology at Cambridge teamed up with DragonLight Films to produce a film that explores how gut function goes wrong and how scientists and clinicians are working to treat those affected. The film covers their recent research on sensory nerve function in the gut.

Dr St John Smith said: “Some people live with conditions that mean they experience on-going bowel pain and disrupted bowel function, eg people with Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Our film, Gut Reaction, explores how different gut conditions impact peoples’ lives, how clinicians work to ameliorate the problems faced and how research exploring how nerves work in the gut may lead to better targeted pain relief.”

On 23rd March, Dr Havovi Chichger, Anglia Ruskin University, delves into the weird and wonderful locations in the body that can taste, and considers how and why tissues and organs, such as our kidneys and lungs, can sense sweet and bitter substances in Sugar and spice and all things nice: a journey into taste sensors in the body. She discusses what this means in relation to our diet and health. Based on recent studies on taste receptors in blood vessels, Dr Chichger describes how the ability to taste regulates a range of different physiological functions and how we can high-jack these pathways in different diseases such as infection and diabetes.

On the same day, Dr Clett Erridge, also from Anglia Ruskin University, explores some of the latest scientific discoveries that are making unexpected connections between the bacteria that grow on our foods and our risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes during his talk Burgers, bacteria and heart disease: making sense of the processed food debate. Dr Erridge examines the background of why so many claims are made about the effects of different foods on health in the popular press, and how much confidence we should have in these claims and why, before moving on to discuss what the real ‘bad guys’ are likely to be. He also explains how processed foods have the capacity to trigger inflammation and presents results from his studies examining this process.  

Food security and sustainability is another area that is explored at the Festival during two key discussions. The first event, Solving the nitrogen problem in agriculture for sustainable food production is on 12th March.  Dr Giles Oldroyd from the Sainsbury Laboratory explores how plants in the natural environment enter symbiotic associations with microorganisms to capture nutrients like nitrogen, and how we can use these associations to enhance sustainable food security.

Speaking ahead of his event, Dr Oldroyd said: “Nitrogenous fertilisers account for most of the pollution from agriculture, negatively impacting the biodiversity of rivers, lakes and seas and being a significant contributor to global nitrous oxide gas emissions. My research is attempting to develop natural alternatives to nitrogenous fertilisers, primarily focusing on the nitrogen-fixing symbiosis between legumes and certain bacteria, but also working on improving utilisation of phosphate-scavenging fungi.

“The first green revolution in agriculture led to very significant yield gains, but this has come at considerable environmental costs and are restricted to those farmers that have the financial resources available to acquire nitrogenous fertilisers.  I believe that beneficial symbiotic associations can create a second green revolution, one that is far more sustainable and equitable.”

The second event Objects: carriers of knowledge on 19th March sees a multidisciplinary panel discuss objects relating to food security to better understand all aspects of this complex challenge.  Discussions about specific objects – including the humble potato, an ear of wheat, and a fridge help people from very different viewpoints to better understand each other and gain different perspectives on issues relating to food security. This event aims to engage a growing number of people with the importance of the food security challenge and provide a window onto Cambridge’s cutting-edge research in this area.

This is talk is part of a new project for 2019, co-led by Cambridge Global Food Security in collaboration with Dr Inanna Hamati-Ataya, called ‘Objects’. Dr Hamati-Ataya, who is a Principal Research Associate at CRASSH and Founding Director of the Centre for Global Knowledge Studies (gloknos) commented: “The humble objects of our daily lives have a fascinating history at the intersection of science, politics, and culture. We invite you to join us and discover more about these objects and how crucial they are to our food security.”

Other food-related events:

  • GM crops: getting to the root of the issues (15 March). Hostility towards genetically modified crops is an unfolding global drama. Dr Inanna Hamati-Ataya and Dr Matthew Holmes examine the roots of this drama in the history of plant genetics, asking how we came to see the plant genome as a series of distinct parts, to be removed, added or altered at will.
  • How does mood affect taste? (16 March). An interactive research study during which researchers from the Psychology Department measure participants mood and ask them to taste a range of biscuits.
  • Mission: millets for the millions – introducing tasty treats from an ancient grain (16 March). Millets are quick to grow, full of important nutrients and a key crop of the semi-arid tropics in Asia and Africa due to their resistance to heat and drought. In the UK, this small, golden seed is best known as bird food. It could be a very tasty food source for us as well.
  • Can smartphone apps help people change their behaviour? (24 March). Despite frequent adverse publicity, mobile phones can be a force for good. Professor Stephen Sutton describes research on novel ways of using smartphone apps to help people make positive lifestyle changes such as eating a healthier diet.

Download the full Cambridge Science Festival programme here.  Bookings can be made here or by calling the Festival on 01223 766 766 between 11am and 3pm.

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media via Facebook and Twitter #CamSciFest.


Cambridge Science Festival brings science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine to an audience of all ages through demonstrations, talks, performances and debates. Run by the University of Cambridge, the Festival draws together independent organisations in addition to many University Colleges, Departments, Centres and Museums.

This year’s Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, AstraZeneca, MedImmune, Illumina, TTP Group, Science AAAS, Anglia Ruskin University, Astex Pharmaceuticals, Cambridge Science Centre, Cambridge Junction, IET, Hills Road 6th Form College, British Science Week, Cambridge University Health Partners, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, and Walters Kundert Charitable Trust. Media Partners: BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.