Culinary Russian Roulette

Would you eat something that could kill you? You’d think that would be an easy question to answer. However, many people eat things that could kill them! For example, Fugu, or puffer fish, is a delicacy in Japan that when prepared incorrectly, could contain a deadly toxin. Tetrodotoxin (TTX) is a potent neurotoxin in the fugu’s blood that blocks voltage-gated sodium channels and prevents the passage of sodium ions, therefore inhibiting the firing of action potentials in nerve cells. TTX causes paralysis and can be lethal within minutes of consumption (Buerk, 2012). If you know this, then why would you ever want to take the chance of eating something that could kill you instantly?!

Evolutionarily, we have specifically developed strategies to avoid foods that can harm us. For example, we subconsciously create taste aversions to foods that make us sick. Remember that one time you accidentally ate undercooked chicken, and you couldn’t eat it for a few months after? Even though you loved chicken before, you felt sick just from the thought of eating chicken again. This is because you developed the association between chicken = throwing up, so your brain made you not want to eat it again. Specifically, the area in your brain called the lateral orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for creating taste aversions to foods that have previously been associated with harm or punishment (Chatterjee, 2014). Creating taste aversions to foods that could be potentially poisonous is an evolutionary benefit that helps us distinguish between foods that nourish or threaten us (Chatterjee, 2014).

So why would you eat something that you already know could be poisonous if prepared incorrectly? There is NO evolutionary benefit to eating it. However, the actual risk and reward associated with consuming fugu may be driving some people’s desire to try it. Our reward system could be involved in this anticipation of eating something that could be dangerous, and then living through it. For example, when we experience the risk and uncertainty of whether to eat fugu, our amygdala, anterior insula, and our lateral orbitofrontal cortex are activated. In addition, when weighing the costs and benefits of consuming fugu, many parts of our reward systems (orbitofrontal cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, anterior insula, and the anterior cingulate) may be working together to help us make the decision to eat fugu (Chatterjee, 2014). The neurotransmitter dopamine is also directly involved in the prediction of future rewards (Chatterjee, 2014). This means that when you are deciding whether to try fugu, your reward systems weigh the costs and benefits, and dopamine may also be flooding your system. This combination of active reward brain areas and dopamine release may all feed into the anticipation of experiencing pleasure through eating a tasteful meal but by also “living to tell the tale”.

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Brain areas involved in the Reward System

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A simple reason why people want to try fugu is just because it tastes good. People who have eaten fugu say that it tastes delicious and has an umami flavor (Buerk, 2012). Humans have an evolutionary predisposition to desire umami, or protein flavor, because these types of foods convert into energy, promote growth, and increase overall fitness (Chatterjee, 2014). Many of these benefits from consuming protein are because protein is a high-caloric type of food. Looking at foods that contain more calories are associated with reward processing areas (such as the medial orbitofrontal area) and even early visual areas (Frank et al., 2010). This means that when looking at even just pictures of fugu, reward processing areas may already be activated in your brain in anticipation of protein consumption.

Fugu presentation capitalizes on this early activation of reward processing and visual areas by aesthetically displaying the fish on fine plates to accentuate the fugu’s beauty. Fugu is arranged delicately and carefully in shapes of flowers or other aesthetically pleasing designs. Food that is presented neatly is associated with greater liking of the food and judged as being less contaminated compared to food arranged in messy presentations (Zellner et al., 2011). Therefore, the presentation of fugu is critical because it allows consumers to feel assured that their fugu was prepared with great care and without TTX.

Aesthetic plate presentation of Fugu

To all the daredevils who want to try fugu, rest assured because specialists in Japan are required to have an official license and serve a 10-year apprenticeship in order to legally serve fugu (Buerk, 2012). These specialists understand that they have to serve this fish with great care because the consumer’s life is in the preparer’s hands. Would you try your luck on this culinary Russian roulette?



Short video about the art of fugu preparation:



Buerk, R. (2012). Fugu: The fish more poisonous than cyanide. BBC News. Retrieved from

Chatterjee, A. (2014). The aesthetic brain: How we evolved to desire beauty and enjoy art. New York, NY:  Oxford University Press.

Frank, S., Laharnar, N., Kullmann, S. Veit, R., Canova, C. Hegner, Y., Fritsche, A., & Preissi, H. (2010). Processing of food pictures: Influence of hunger, gender and calorie content. Neural Mechanisms of Ingestive Behaviour and Obesity, 1350(2), 159-166. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2010.04.030

Zellner, D. A., Seimers, E. Teran, V., Conroy, R., Lankford, M., Agrafiotis, A., Ambrose, L., & Locher, P. (2011). Neatness counts. How plating affects liking for the taste of food. Appetite, 57(3), 642-648. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2011.08.004

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