The palate’s role in human diets

Columnist Doug Warnock writes about the latest research in grazing.

By Doug Warnock

For the Capital Press

Published on December 11, 2017 2:03PM

Doug Warnock

Doug Warnock

I recently wrote about how livestock can make decisions that fill their personal nutritional needs through a flavor-feedback response system that comes to them naturally. Their ability to do this depends on having access to feed that is diverse with many different types of plants. It becomes much more difficult to do this when plant or food diversity is limited. It is essentially impossible when grazing on mono-cultural pastures, or in confined feeding areas. Information on this comes from Fred Provenza, Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University, and his associates.

Provenza is known worldwide for his studies on animal behavior and his coaching of livestock managers in using their knowledge of animal behavior to guide their grazing management decisions. He and associates have learned much over the last four decades about how animals make food selections that meet their dietary needs and keep them healthy and productive. He shows how livestock palates link them to their familiar landscapes through these flavor-feedback associations.

Humans also develop likings for foods through flavor-feedback associations. The taste and texture of the food and positive consequences from food consumption lead to an acquired liking for the flavor of the food. These associations are influenced by the novelty of food, the amount of nutrients in the food and the individual’s need for a particular nutrient in the food.

“Given a choice, neither herbivores nor humans eat only one food in a meal. Rather, they often eat meals in courses. They eat foods that vary in kinds and concentrations of primary and secondary compounds. Humans also add herbs and spices,” Provenza says. “Over the centuries, humans have gone from being hunter-gatherers to industrial size farmers and food manufacturers.”

As this change occurred, agribusiness and food manufacturing corporations became essential to the survival of large populations. But, as that happened, we lost many of the economic, ecological and cultural links to the landscapes that sustain us. These revolutionary changes over time have greatly reduced diversity in the fruit and vegetables that are available to formulate human diets.

The technologies that promote large-scale production and processing of human foods have reduced its phytochemical richness by 5-40 percent, depending on the crop and the prevailing production practices. Consumer concerns about food quality and production methods have led to an increased demand for organic and for more “naturally produced” foods. It is important to note that farming practices that focus on improving soil health can increase phytochemical richness of fruit and vegetables and reduce risks from pesticides.

“Our ancestor’s palates were linked with the landscapes they inhabited through the hunting of animals and the gathering and growing of plants. An attuned palate enabled them to meet needs for nutrients and self-medicate. While most people no longer hunt or gather and few people are involved with agriculture, we can still eat nutritious varieties of wholesome foods grown on fertile soils. We can also grow gardens, a modest act that can profoundly affect health and well-being by linking people with soil and plants.”

So, both livestock and humans benefit from their flavor feedback systems to balance their diets and enhance their well-being and productivity when they have access to diverse and nutritious foods.

Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he writes about and teaches grazing management. He can be contacted at


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