Pioneering research has shed new light on what drives people’s basic food preferences, indicating that our choices may be smarter than previously thought and influenced by the specific nutrients we need, rather than just the ones we eat. calories.
The international study, led by the University of Bristol, UK, set out to re-examine and test the widely held view that humans evolved to favor energy-dense foods and our diets are balanced simply by eating a variety of different foods. Contrary to this belief, their findings revealed that people appear to be “nutritionally wise,” whereby foods are selected in part to meet our need for vitamins and minerals and avoid nutritional deficiencies.
Lead author Jeff Brunstrom, Professor of Experimental Psychology, said: “The results of our studies are hugely significant and quite surprising. For the first time in nearly a century, we have shown that humans are more sophisticated in their food choices and appear to select based on specific micronutrients rather than just eating everything and getting what they need by default.”
The article, published in the magazine Appetite, gives new weight to audacious research conducted in the 1930s by an American pediatrician, Dr. Clara Davis, who put a group of 15 babies on a diet that allowed them to “self-select,” that is, eat what they wanted. they wanted, from 33 different foods. While no child ate the same combination of foods, they all achieved and maintained good health, which was taken as evidence of “nutritional wisdom.”
His findings were later examined and criticized, but it was not possible to replicate Davis’s research because this form of experimentation on infants today would be considered unethical. As a result, nearly a century has passed since any scientist attempted to find evidence of nutritional wisdom in humans, a faculty that has also been found in other animals, such as sheep and rodents.
To overcome these barriers, Professor Brunstrom’s team developed a novel technique of measuring preference by showing people images of different combinations of fruit and vegetables so that their choices could be analyzed without risking their health or well-being.
In total, 128 adults participated in two experiments. The first study showed that people prefer certain food combinations more than others. For example, apple and banana may be chosen a little more often than apple and blackberry. Surprisingly, these preferences appear to be predicted by the amounts of micronutrients in a pair and whether their combination provides a balance of different micronutrients. To confirm this, they ran a second experiment with different foods and ruled out other explanations.
To complement and collate these findings, real-world meal combinations as reported in the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey were studied. Similarly, these data demonstrated that people combine meals in a way that increases exposure to micronutrients in their diet. Specifically, components of popular UK meals, for example ‘fish and chips’ or ‘curry and rice’, appear to offer a wider range of micronutrients than randomly generated meal combinations such as ‘chips and curry’.
The study is also notable as it features an unusual collaboration. by Professor Brunstrom The co-author is Mark Schatzker, a journalist and author, who is also a writer-in-residence at the Yale University-affiliated Modern Diet and Physiology Research Center. In 2018, the two met in Florida at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior, where Schatzker gave a talk about his book, The Doritos effectthat examines how the taste of whole foods and processed foods has changed, and the implications for health and wellness.
Interestingly, the research of Professor Brunstrom and Mark Schatzker originated from a disagreement.
Professor Brunstrom explained: “I watched Mark give a fascinating talk that challenged the received view among behavioral nutrition scientists that humans only seek calories in food. He pointed out, for example, that fine wine, rare spices and wild mushrooms are highly sought after but are poor sources of calories.
“This was all very intriguing, so I went to see him at the end and basically said, ‘Great talk, but I think you’re probably wrong. Do you want to try it? That marked the beginning of this wonderful journey, which finally suggests that he was wrong. Far from being a somewhat naive generalist, as previously believed, humans seem to possess keen intelligence when it comes to selecting a nutritious diet.”
Mark Schatzker added: “The research raises important questions, especially in the modern food environment. For example, does our cultural fixation on fad diets, which limit or prohibit the consumption of certain types of food, disrupt or disturb this dietary “intelligence” in ways we don’t understand?
“Studies have shown that animals use taste as a guide to the vitamins and minerals they need. If flavor fills a similar role for humans, then we may be imbuing junk foods like potato chips and sodas with a false “gloss” of nutrition by adding flavorings to them. In other words, the food industry may be turning our nutritional wisdom against us, making us eat foods we would normally avoid and thus contributing to the obesity epidemic.”