'Toast brings out the child in us' say Cardiff experts

Customers at this cafe in south Wales were asked for their thoughts

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An astonishing 82% of people surveyed said toast was their breakfast of choice, with around half admitting that they find the smell comforting.

Yet the findings of the research by Cardiff University's school of biosciences would seem to suggest that Britain's love-affair with toast is all to do with the way we are "bread", rather than how we prepare it.

The research, commissioned by the Flour Advisory Bureau, set out to discover what it was about toast which made it such an integral part of our morning routine, and whether there was anything bakers could do to make it even more attractive.

But whilst Prof Tim Jacobs found there was indeed some chemistry which made toast appealing, it was by no means unique.

"When bread is toasted, the complex, starchy carbohydrates, are broken down into sugars through the Maillard Reaction," he said.

Start Quote

While visual and sound sensations are processed by the conscious mind... smells are transmitted directly to the subconscious”

End Quote Prof Tim Jacobs

"The sugars begin to caramelise with the dry heat, creating the brown colour and distinctive smell, which people seem to find so appetising.

"This seemed to play into what we already knew about the way we've evolved to crave the nutrients held within sugary, salty and protein-rich foods.

"However, the same Maillard Reaction occurs in lots of other doughy foods, in particular when bread is baked, and the outside browns to form the crust, but our research seemed to indicate that these other foods didn't hold the same appeal."

So if it is not toast's chemistry which we find irresistible, what could it be?

Prof Jacobs, who specialises in the way in which humans perceive taste and smell, set out to discover how our brains react when the toaster pops.

Significant role

"By imaging people's brains while they're exposed to certain smells, in this case toast cooking, you can learn about what part of the brain is used to register, store and process the sensation," he said.

"While visual and sound sensations are processed by the conscious mind, and are continually being re-evaluated, smells are transmitted directly to the subconscious, where long-term memory is stored."

Prof Jacobs' research suggested the preference for toast and its smell was much stronger in people who had it for breakfast as a child.

In an almost Pavlovian reaction, the nature of the smell seems to be largely irrelevant, with the associations it holds to events from our past playing a much more significant role.

He said: "We can form these associations with smells at any age. All that's required is a consistent smell, combined with an event powerful enough to pin a given emotion to that particular set of chemicals.

"Children's minds are much more plastic, in that the neural pathways are constantly developing. Therefore it's not really surprising to find that people exposed to toast as children have a much stronger affinity for the smell in later life.

Opposite associations

"Although that's presuming of course, that they had a positive experience in their childhoods.

"Our research has shown that the opposite associations are common in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

"It seems that their subconscious makes a link between the nausea they feel from the drugs, and the last meal they ate.

"As a result, oncologists are now recommending that the night before chemo, they eat something they don't like, or at least something which they could live without after the treatment is finished."

And it seems as though there is no end to the lengths to which us Brits will go in order to toast our favourite breakfast.

Paul Young and Sting sung about it, while Morecambe and Wise danced in celebration of it.

Now, artist Nathan Wyburn has made it the focus of an entire exhibition.

And where else would you launch an exhibition of toast-related art? Why Towcester of course!

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