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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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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 '14 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ yes, exactly that! ;) $\endgroup$ – ICanFeelIt Dec 1 '14 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 '15 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 '15 at 7:24

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