Can food get you high? We try a meal of psychoactive substances
A few widely used mind-altering substances, such as alcohol, caffeine and nicotine, are exempt – as is, usefully, food. So what was the logic to the exemptions? Are they deemed less harmful?
Only if you don’t know your chemistry. As the legal ingredients in the evening’s delicious menu would try to show, food can use the same brain pathways as drugs, with similar consequences.
The evening begins with champagne and after two glasses I’m already feeling a buzz. Drinking alcohol is deeply entrenched in Western culture, although we are constantly reminded to drink responsibly and count our units to avoid health problems.
And rising obesity worldwide has also raised concerns about unhealthy eating, pointing a finger at foods high in fat and processed sugar. “Sugar is a drug and an unhealthy one,” says Michel. Right now UK legislators are drafting asugar tax that will apply to sugary drinks. But the new law seems to disregard its addictive nature.
Although food provides us with energy and nutrients, what we eat also affects our mood. But some active ingredients in food are now sold as pills in concentrations high enough to enhance mood – and they are perfectly legal.
Take an amino-acid called tryptophan. It is present in high amounts in such foods as cheese, red meat and turkey, and it makes you feel calm and relaxed. “There is a natural balance in food, but I’m not sure about synthesising it, especially because we don’t know about the effect of different doses,” says Michel.
It’s time for our first course: a cocoa drink inspired by the ceremonial beverage consumed by ancient Maya and Aztec civilisations. It contains 50 grams of raw cocoa, a dose high enough to create a warm, fuzzy feeling: that’s thanks to compounds such as anandamide, theobromine, caffeine and tryptophan. “Stimulants in cocoa have an effect on social behaviour,” says Michel. “In rituals, the drink is thought to help people connect.”
Food and drugs can also affect our moral behaviour. “Small amounts of substances can alter what we think of as a stable sense of morality,” says psychologist Molly Crockett from the University of Oxford.
She ran an experiment in which participants imbibed a foul-tasting protein drink containing different amounts of tryptophan. The compound is a precursor of serotonin – a neurotransmitter that contributes to well-being and happiness, so those who didn’t receive any of the amino acid had lower serotonin levels 5 hours later.
This produced a dramatic reaction to being treated unfairly when they played a series of games: people who had received lower doses of tryptophan were more likely to feel vengeful than act calmly. “It suggests that our sense of fairness is affected by a substance we can only get in our diet,” says Crockett. Luckily for our fellow diners, the bread and oil with our meal was topped up with a generous sprinkling of tryptophan extract.
And positive mood was definitely on the menu with our main course, Levodopa soup. This was made from broad beans, which contain large amounts of L-DOPA, a chemical used to treat Parkinson’s disease. “Focussing on the pleasurable sensation could tempt people to eat healthy vegetarian food,” says an optimistic Michel.
Much of the debate about legal highs centres on the fear that psychoactive substances will make people lose touch with reality and behave crazily. Ophelia Deroy, a philosopher from the University of London, sets this in context.
Psychoactive substances, she says, need to be considered in terms of their effect on our ability to predict what will happen, based on information our senses received in the past. “If your senses give you what you expect, you get a sense of reality and your own agency in the world,” she says.
So for her, legal highs should be characterised by how much they mess up the brain’s predictive system. And she stresses that individual differences in coping with an altered sense of reality are key: some people may be seriously disturbed, while others are hardly affected.
Playing with perception
Our next course sets out to show this in action. We were given cotton tips dipped in a Sichuan pepper solution and asked to rub them over our lips. Within a few minutes, I feel an intense tingling that our hosts say is equivalent to a 50 hertz vibration.
Michel tells us that the sensation can be enhanced by looking at a trippy pattern on a screen. Although I am enjoying the throbbing sensation, the visual (a still of a Bridget Riley painting) doesn’t do anything for me.
Maybe the secret to getting a high from foods is mixing different ingredients. Some substances cross the blood-brain barrier to alter your perception directly, while others may need to combine with carbohydrates or proteins to have an effect.
There is not much research in this area, but Michel has been looking into psychoactive combos over the past few months. “Tonight is a bit of an experiment,” he says. “The ingredients in different courses could together produce a more pleasurable experience.”
When the meal is over, there is still ample wine to get through. While our menu was delightful and may well have contributed to my sanguine mood, this feels to be by far the most intoxicating substance I’ve had tonight.
The whole affair can only leave you wondering whether policymakers had a few too many bottles of their favourite tipple while drafting the sorry bill that is about to become law. Either way, they might have to eat their words.