Prepared Foods Exclusive: The Food – Mood Enigma
John J. Smith, Ph.D.

Remember mom’s old adage, “You are what you eat”? Well, recent research suggests that maternal wisdom may bear some truth, at least as to how food affects people’s mood or their “conscious state of mind,” as Daniel Webster defines the term.  Can food really make you feel happy, sad, relaxed or otherwise out-of sorts?  This article takes a look at some of the foods and ingredients purported to affect mood.

“Mood Influencers”

Various foods and ingredients affect three “states of mind.”
* Mental Alertness.  Discovered in 1819, caffeine and its cousins – theophylline (present in tea) and theobromine (present in chocolate) – are methyl xanthane alkaloids.  Caffeine is a bitter, white crystalline powder.  A natural constituent of coffee, caffeine stimulates mental alertness and so helps one focus on mentally tasking projects.  Caffeine is present in colas and in guarana and yerba mate, which are used in teas and some energy drinks.   The caffeine content in coffee varies, depending upon the brewing method used and the bean-roasting process.  A cup of drip-made coffee contains from 100-175mg caffeine.  Because high temperature destroys caffeine, dark roast coffee has less caffeine than lighter roasts.  Carbonated cola soft drinks typically contain from 10-50mg caffeine per 12oz.  Energy drinks such as Red Bull have about 80mg per serving.  So for that next job interview, to sharpen mental alertness, reach for a cup of coffee!

* Calmness.   Feeling anxious?  Well, that might just be a good-enough excuse to indulge in chocolate!   Chocolate is produced from beans of the cacao tree, which are native to tropical South America.  This sublime treat modulates mood on several fronts.  First, its constituent tryptophan, an essential amino acid, plays a role in the production of the mood-calming and anxiety-reducing neurotransmitter, serotonin.  Second, chocolate triggers the release of endorphins, natural opiates which make the body feel “balanced” and de-sensitized to pain.

Consumption of complex carbohydrates may also contribute to the production of serotonin.  The precursor of serotonin, tryptophan, competes with other amino acids for transport into the brain where conversion of tryptophan to serotonin takes place.  Such competition impedes the transport of tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier.  Studies, however, indicate that when complex carbohydrates are consumed, insulin reduces the level in the blood of six or more of the competing amino acids, making the passage of tryptophan into the brain easier.  Although other factors are at play, consumption of complex carbohydrates may provide a means for controlling stress.  

Also promoting a relaxed but alert mental state is theanine – an amino acid found in green and black teas.  When consumed at levels ranging from 50-200 mg, theanine shifts the frequency of brain waves, measurable on the surface of the head, from their “normal” beta state of more than 14 Hz (i.e., cycles per second) to a more relaxed alpha state of 8-13 Hz.  Clinical research links the alpha state to improved learning performance, improved mental acuity, and improved concentration.  Listening to certain musical passages can induce the alpha state, and research studies suggest that this state facilitates learning of, e.g., foreign languages.  

* Tiredness and Moodiness.  The ingestion of a large amount of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates can unleash mercurial mood swings of the caliber of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, culminating in a rock-bottom mental state of tiredness with hints of depression.  Today’s American consumes about 150 lbs of refined sugars and about 400 lbs  of refined carbohydrates.  The rapid digestion of both sets of these compounds sharply elevates blood sugar levels.  Released in response to the blood sugar, insulin may cause a precipitous drop in blood sugar, causing some people to express more primitive and aggressive behaviors.  So the lesson here is that reduced consumption of simple sugars may help keep our primal cave-man-like behaviors in check.

So mom was right after all.  We are what eat – at least as to how food makes us feel inwardly and how we behave in public.  Thanks, mom!

John J. Smith, Ph.D. is founder of Cantaleir International, Inc., a company specializing in innovation, technology development, project management, product development, and business development directed, in particular, to the health and wellness markets for food, beverage, and ingredient companies.  He was formerly with a Fortune100 food and beverage company where his work focused on innovation and wellness products.  Dr. Smith can be reached at and phone 847-651-1474.

From the July 6, 2009, Prepared Foods E-dition