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It appears that, from time to time, everybody has a strong desire for some specific food.

I want to know whether this is the feedback of the body needing certain nutrients or whether it's purely related other influences such as emotions.

  • Q: To what extent are such cravings influenced by current nutrient levels1 in the body?

1: When you're dying of thirst you'll definitely want some water. I'm rather talking about "Damn, I really want an orange." (lack of citric acid and vitamin C).

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I think this question may be better asked at biology.SE. I have to cite popular science press here, but nevertheless, clearly the answer seems to be: no.

Scientific American:

Peter Pressman of the Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills, Calif. and Roger Clemens of the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy explain. Food craving, defined as an intense desire to eat a specific foodstuff, is a common occurrence across all cultures and societies. These yearnings (...) are not linked to any obvious nutrient insufficiency.

From a more comprehensive take on this from the WSJ:

For decades, researchers surmised that food cravings were the body's subconscious effort to correct nutritional deficiencies. Longing for steak could indicate a need for protein or iron, according to this theory. Chocoholics might be low on magnesium or other mood-altering chemicals that chocolate contains, including phenylethylamine, a compound humans produce when they're in love. But a growing body of research casts doubt on the nutritional-deficiency notion. After all, few people crave vitamin-rich green leafy vegetables and many other foods contain more phenylalanine than chocolate—including salami and cheddar cheese.

So the more cogsci.SE related questions might be about the complex cultural, affective, cognitive and neuropsychological factors (such as stress and social norms) that foster cravings for certain foods.

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Short answer is YES, at least for rats, who do have chemosensors in their brain and alter their liking of salty foods and foods containing certain amino acids. See this question and question on Biology.SE:

Do humans have chemosensors for nutrients or chemicals?

Do omnivore mammals vary food preferences based on dietary needs?

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Adding to the current answers, there can be many reasons for food cravings and avoidance.

Orloff & Hormes (2014) points out that the main hypotheses discussed in research receive little support, with the notable exception of a postulated role of cultural and psychosocial factors.

They also point out interesting links with eating disorders. For example, they point to research on food cravings that have been identified not only as reliable predictors of subsequent consumption of the desired food, but also as potential triggers for episodes of binge eating, especially in bulimic and overweight individuals.

Cravings during pregnancy seem to be different. While Miller (2011) points out that

It’s a common misbelief that food cravings are a signal from the body that it’s missing some nutrient

Caitlyn Placek (2017) states that

The onset of cravings for items not typically desired is often considered a hallmark of pregnancy. Given the ubiquity of cravings, this phenomenon remains surprisingly understudied.

Fetal nutritional needs maybe are small early in pregnancy compared to later (Tierson, et al. 1985), but nevertheless, there are specific fetal nutritional needs which are hopefully fulfilled. Anecdotally, my wife craved for lots of liver, and after birth it was found the baby had next to no thyroid gland. Severe iodine deficiency causes hypothyroidism that results in impaired somatic growth and motor development in children (Chung, 2014) and according to WebMD

There are few foods that are as nutritionally dense as beef liver. A three-ounce serving of liver can provide 14 mcg of iodine along with the many other vitamins and nutrients it contains.

Quoting from Orloff & Hormes (previously mentioned);

Women experience an increase in food cravings at two specific times during their life — when perimenstrual and when prenatal Orloff & Hormes, 2014]1). The prevalence of excess gestational weight gain (GWG) is a growing concern due to its association with adverse health outcomes in both mothers and children. To the extent that prenatal food cravings may be a determinant of energy intake in pregnancy, a better understanding of craving etiology could be crucial in addressing the issue of excessive GWG. This paper reviews the available literature to corroborate and/or dispute some of the most commonly accepted hypotheses regarding the causes of food cravings during pregnancy, including a role of (1) hormonal changes, (2) nutritional deficits, (3) pharmacologically active ingredients in the desired foods, and (4) cultural and psychosocial factors.

[...]

Various psychosocial factors appear to correlate with excess GWG, including the presence of restrained eating. Findings strongly suggest that more research be conducted in this area.

They also pointed out with references that the most common trajectory of food cravings across gestation shows a peak in frequency and intensity during the second trimester, followed by a subsequent decline as the pregnancy progresses to term.

Research has also consistently documented a significant drop in cravings following delivery (Worthington-Roberts et al., 1989; Belzer et al., 2010).

References

Belzer, L. M., Smulian, J. C., Lu, S. E., and Tepper, B. J. (2010). Food cravings and intake of sweet foods in healthy pregnancy and mild gestational diabetes mellitus. A prospective study. Appetite 55, 609–615. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2010.09.014

Chung, H. R. (2014). Iodine and thyroid function. Annals of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism 19(1), 8-12. https://doi.org/10.6065/apem.2014.19.1.8

Miller, R. S. (2011). Nutritional needs during pregnancy. Nursing made Incredibly Easy, 9(5), 21-24. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.NME.0000403193.68168.d0

Orloff, N. C., & Hormes, J. M. (2014). Pickles and ice cream! Food cravings in pregnancy: hypotheses, preliminary evidence, and directions for future research. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1076. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01076

Placek, C. (2017). A test of four evolutionary hypotheses of pregnancy food cravings: Evidence for the social bargaining model. Royal Society open science, 4(10), 170243. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.170243

Tierson, F. D., Olsen, C. L., & Hook, E. B. (1985). Influence of cravings and aversions on diet in pregnancy. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 17(2), 117-129. https://doi.org/10.1080/03670244.1985.9990886

Worthington-Roberts, B., Little, R. E., Lambert, M. D., and Wu, R. (1989). Dietary cravings and aversions in the postpartum period. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 89(5), 647-651. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-8223(21)02220-3

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The answer to that question is Yes, but...

There is whole new science of psychofisics which is trying (and succeding) in makeing food more palatable... So you have combination of sugar, salt and fat which can be choosen over missing nutritiens.

Look for key words satiation, palatable, salt crawing, bliss point and psychophisics of taste in your search.

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    $\begingroup$ What ICanFeelIt wants to say, I think, is that if you had been eating pure, unprocessed food all your life, there would be a relation between your craving for a certain food and the nutrients that your body needs, but since we usually eat food the taste of which has been covered by salt, sugar, spices and flavour enhancers, your body can no longer correlate a specific taste to a specific physiological effect and your "feeling" for food is all confused and messed up. Today, unfortunately, you have to "eat with your head" – or stop eating processed food. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Nov 29, 2014 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ yes, exactly that! ;) $\endgroup$
    – ICanFeelIt
    Dec 1, 2014 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ Plausible, but evidence to support these assertions would be useful - eg, do isolated cultures in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea (not exposed to processed foods) have food cravings that relate better to their nutritional needs? $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Mar 29, 2015 at 22:01
  • $\begingroup$ Arnon that is nice idea, but. You will have to organise their children in 2 groups by chance and feed one group with processed food and another with their traditional food and after that measure cravings. Unfortunatelly It could be very unethical. $\endgroup$
    – ICanFeelIt
    Mar 30, 2015 at 7:24

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