Human nutritional intelligence underestimated? Exposing sensitivities to food composition in everyday dietary decisions

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2 Citations (Scopus)


The social and cultural significance of food is woven into every aspect of our dietary behaviour, and it contributes to our complex interaction with food. To find order within this complexity scientists often look for dietary 'universals' - phenomena or basic principles that guide our food choice and meal size, irrespective of wider context. One such idea is that taste characteristics provide a signal for dietary composition (e.g., sweet taste signals carbohydrate). Others have suggested that behaviour is guided by learning and is based on associations that form between the flavour of a food and its post-ingestive effects. Despite a large body of research, evidence supporting both processes is equivocal, leading some to conclude that humans are largely indifferent to food composition. Here, we argue that human abilities to gauge the nutritional composition or value of food have been underestimated, and that they can be exposed by embracing alternative methods, including cross-cultural comparisons, large nutrition surveys, and the use of virtual portion-selection tools. Our group has focused on assessments of food choice and expected satiety, and how comparisons across everyday foods can reveal non-linear relationships with food energy density, and even the potential for sensitivity to micronutrient composition. We suggest that these abilities might reflect a complex form of social learning, in which flavour-nutrient associations are not only formed but communicated and amplified across individuals in the form of a cuisine. Thus, rather than disregarding sociocultural influences as extraneous, we might reimagine their role as central to a process that creates and imbues a 'collective dietary wisdom.' In turn, this raises questions about whether rapid dietary, technological, and cultural change disrupts a fundamental process, such that it no longer guarantees a 'nutritional intelligence' that confers benefits for health.

Original languageEnglish
Article number114127
Number of pages9
JournalPhysiology and Behavior
Early online date12 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - 21 Feb 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This manuscript is based on a Mars Lecture given by Professor Jeff Brunstrom at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive behaviour from July 12th-16th in Porto, Portugal & online (“Human Abilities Underestimated? Exposing sensitivities to food composition in everyday dietary decisions”), 15th July 2022. Chair: Professor Suzanne Higgs, University of Birmingham, UK.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023

Structured keywords

  • Nutrition and Behaviour


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