Have you ever had those moments when you find yourself in the kitchen roving the pantry and refrigerator looking for the perfect crunch?
It doesn't seem to matter what else you might find to eat you are just not satisfied until you feel and hear that perfect crunching crunch...you know the one. When that happens to me it seems like nothing will satisfy but a corn tortilla chip... and not because I love corn or corn chips, but just because they typically have the perfect combination of crunch and chew.
One sense that is rarely included in the discussion of taste and flavor is the trigeminal sense, yet it has a huge impact on food choice and the perception of palatibility. It is also referred to as the ‘chemical sense’. Not because it senses for chemicals but because it responds to any potential “irritants” that you ingest. It’s responsible for stimulating salivation when you eat something sour and for causing you to sweat when you eat something hot. Trigeminal stimulation by spicy, crunchy, or sour foods is actually a pain response, and triggers a multitude of actions to quell the potential pain. Interestingly, it is typically the end response that we find stimulating and enjoyable, rather than the actual food we are eating, most often because it tends to include a rush of endorphins or an increase in serotonin production. Who knew every time you dropped a wasabi bomb on your tongue you were actually taking a happy pill?!?!? (wasabi bombs are not for the faint of heart...I’ll explain more later).
Back to the phenomenon of the CRUNCH... the reason you crave the perfect crunch sometimes, especially when you are stressed, is because your body knows that by stimulating the trigeminal nerve, you can in turn stimulate a parasympathetic response. The reason it has to be the “perfect” crunch and not just any old chomping (which is why a carrot stick will never be able to replace a corn chip) is because it also needs the added sensation of inner ear stimulation. When your jaw crunches it delivers the sound to your ear, which in turn enhances the perception of texture and palatability.
The trigeminal nerve is a very large nerve responsible for sensation and motor function in your face. It is called trigeminal because it branches off into three main section; the ophthalmic (your eyes), the maxillary (your nasal sensation, sinus, palate) and mandibular (mouth, jaw and aids in the action of chewing). The trigeminal nerve through a series of intricate pathways plugs into the Vagus Nerve, which when activated can lead to a reduction in stress signals (and a bazillion other things far too extensive for this brief article). Quick lesson on stress management, it is the parasympathetic side of your nervous system that is responsible for things like resting and digesting.
Research suggests that it is the Vagus/trigeminal interface that gives some people hypersensitivity to mouthfeel, which in turn can contribute to the use of food as a source of stress management. Ultimately, in these situations, it’s not really the food that is desired, it’s the stimulated physical response to crunching and chewing. Crunching food is a good thing; it’s what we are designed to do. Crunching good, quality food is even better. I’ve learned to keep some crunchy good options around for those times when nothing else will do but the crunch!
Try this recipe for Spicy Roasted Chickpeas if you want to pack a healthy trigeminal double whammy. Spice, crunch, and insulin management all rolled up into one.
Spicy Roasted Chickpeas
4 c. of chickpeas (I either soak dried ones overnight or now that I’ve discovered fresh green, I use those, you can also use canned, just go for bpa free lining)
2 tbs Olive Oil
Spice of your choice – to taste
Drain the chickpeas, coat them in olive oil, toss them in the spices and bake them at 400 for about 30-40 minutes. When their crisp, remove, cool, and enjoy! They will keep in a sealed jar (after they are cooled) for actually quite some time.
p.s. now about those wasabi bombs – they are a slice of pickled ginger wrapped around a small ball of wasabi. I could not in all good faith recommend trying them, however, I do admit that I love them occasionally.