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Nutritional intelligence could explain the complexity of humans’ food choices. runner of art/Getty Images
  • Research shows that some animals are able to select food based on the type of micronutrients the food contains.
  • In a new study, researchers found that humans might also be able to do the same and be more sophisticated in their food choices than previously thought.
  • If further studies are able to confirm, this would mean that humans possess a type of innate “nutritional wisdom”, giving intuitive eating a whole new perspective.

In a new study, researchers have found that humans may be able to intuitively choose foods based on the types of micronutrients the foods possess.

The research, published in the journal Appetite, also raises questions about the possible manipulation of this ability by the food industry.

Researchers have found that some animals are able to select which foods to eat based on the types of micronutrients in the foods.

For example, a study in the American Journal of Primatology found that back howler monkeys selected specific types of food high in certain minerals after their usual diet was disturbed by a hurricane.

However, researchers have not been sure whether the same holds true for humans.

In 1939, the researcher Dr. Clara Davis published a study that suggested human infants — some of whom were malnourished — were able to select foods that would maintain their health. However, Davis’ conclusions have been criticized and the research would be unethical to reproduce.

In the present study, the researchers were particularly interested in whether humans tend to select multiple food items that together would provide a range of different micronutrients.

If research shows humans can do this, it would suggest a degree of in-built “nutritional wisdom.” Selecting foods that have the same micronutrients would be redundant as the person would likely consume more of the micronutrient than they need, at the expense of others.

Medical News Today spoke with Mark Schatzker, one of the two authors of the study, who said it was critical that people are able to better understand how and why they select certain foods.

“Eating is one of the most important behaviors, from an instinctual and evolutionary point of view, and eating — specifically, eating too much — now comes with dire health consequences.”
— Mark Schatzker

“If we are to have any hope of addressing our increasingly dysfunctional relationship with food, it is vital that we understand how we form food preferences and make dietary decisions,” said Schatzker.

To do this, Schatzker and his co-author Prof. Jeff Brunstrom conducted two experiments with 128 adults. In each experiment, the participants were shown images of different pairings of vegetables and fruit. The participants were asked which pairings they preferred.

In both experiments, the participants selected pairings that had a greater variety of micronutrients.

Schatzker and Prof. Brunstrom then analyzed data from the United Kingdom National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

They found that the meal combinations people make tend to increase the range of micronutrients they consume.

Schatzker said that the findings indicated a general tendency among people to choose food pairings that were more diverse in their micronutrients.

However, this did not necessarily mean individuals deficient in a certain micronutrient would be more attracted to some foods.

“What we found was a generalized tendency [toward] consuming ‘micronutrients complementarity.’ Our subjects seemed to be attracted to food pairings that met the full complement of the vitamins and minerals we need. This is an efficient foraging strategy as it reduces the likelihood an individual will experience a deficiency.”
— Mark Schatzker

“This research doesn’t tell us how an individual would respond to a need for a specific nutrient,” stressed Schatzker.

“But it is interesting to note that among British sailors suffering from scurvy, one of the very first symptoms was a craving for fruits and vegetables. These cravings would grow more powerful and become all-consuming as the deficiency worsened,” he added.

Schatzker said the findings may have implications for the way people can be manipulated by the food industry’s use of synthetic flavors, something he explored in his bookThe Dorito Effect.

“Past experiments have shown that animals use flavors as a guide that brings them important nutrients. For example, if you make a mouse or a sheep deficient in an essential vitamin or mineral, they will seek out flavors that their brain associates with the needed nutrient,” he explained.

“The food industry adds synthetic flavorings to foods such as soft drinks and potato chips. These appear on an ingredient label as artificial or natural flavors. If our brains similarly associate flavors with nutrients, then by adding fake flavors to junk food, we could be imbuing these foods with a false ‘sheen’ of nutrition, thus coaxing us into eating food we would otherwise ignore.”
— Mark Schatzker

“In other words, the food industry could be turning our nutritional wisdom against us,” Schatzker told MNT.