What if we instinctively knew which foods to choose for our health? It wouldn’t be too strange, non-human animals are generally able to follow a proper diet by choosing the right foods for them. While we would seem inclined to choose the most substantial and caloric foods, a legacy of distant eras of food scarcity that becomes disastrous in a crowded world of supermarkets and fast food restaurants.
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Our choices are not random
But perhaps all is not lost: a recent study published in the journal Appetite shows that our choices take into account the vitamins and minerals found in food. This is an unusual line of research, born in this case from the playful challenge, as the manager explains Jeffrey M. Brunstrom (Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol) with Mark Schatzkerjournalist and author of the essay The dorito effectwhich examines the health effects of food industry choices: “In his speech Schatzker had questioned the hypothesis that humans only look for foods rich in calories, noting that spices, mushrooms or fine wines, which do not have a high in calories, they are still very popular, “recalls Brunstrom.
The only important study on this issue dates back to the 30s of the last century, when the American pediatrician Clara Davis gathered a group of mostly malnourished children, giving them the opportunity to freely choose, for a long period of time, from a buffet that offered thirty-three different foods: it emerged that the little ones seemed to be able to build a substantially balanced diet. A procedure that today would not be considered ethical, and also for this reason the research on the “nutritional wisdom” of humans has stood still for almost a century.
The reasons for food choices
“This new study is very interesting, also because it is not easy to assess the motivations behind food choices,” he explains Carol Coricelliresearcher at the University of Western Ontario and author, along with Sofia Erica Rossiof the essay Guide for Hungry Brains: Why as children we hate vegetables and other neurogastronomic mysteries that make us human (The Assayer 20219). Today, however, we have methods that allow us to test our response to images of food: “We also use them, for example in studies with magnetic resonance where it is not possible to use real food”, Coricelli emphasizes, “we know that the vision of images it activates the cerebral areas of taste and allows the reaction to food to be reproduced in a substantially faithful way “.
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The British researchers showed the study participants images of fruit and vegetables, asking them to propose the most palatable combinations, and observed that the combinations chosen were those that guaranteed a more balanced nutritional intake, even taking into account the tendency to prefer a variety. of food: “A mechanism that still plays an important role in our food choices – recalls Coricelli – we all know that eating the same food in abundance tires, while the appetite returns if they offer us something different, for example a dessert: a phenomenon defined specific sensory satiety “.
The other factors to consider
A test of this kind provides limited data, given that the proposed choice was among only eight plants, but to strengthen them, the researchers analyzed the food combinations that emerge from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, a survey that involved over a thousand subjects: also in this case, it was seen that the participants associated foods in a more balanced way than would have happened with random combinations, choosing a diet that guaranteed an adequate intake of micronutrients. Although being human, Coricelli observes, “there are, as the authors of the study also point out, other factors to take into consideration including culture, traditions, learning, imitation but also the contradictory messages we receive respect. whether or not to consume certain foods “.
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And the study highlights other problems: among the elements that guide the choice of what we eat, flavor plays a fundamental role, and the aromas contained in processed foods and especially in junk food, the researchers recall, could induce us to consume foods that otherwise we would avoid contributing to the obesity epidemic. “Without forgetting – observes Mark Schatzker – that the tendency to follow diets that prohibit or limit the consumption of certain foods could alter our ‘nutritional intelligence’ in ways we do not yet know”.