The orbitofrontal cortex spontaneously encodes food health and contains more distinct representations for foods highest in tastiness


The human orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) has long been associated with food reward processing and is thought to represent modality-independent signals of value. Food tastiness and health are core attributes of many models of food choice and dietary self-control. Here we used functional neuroimaging to examine the neural representation of tastiness and health for a set of 28 food categories selected to be orthogonal with respect to both dimensions. Using representational similarity analysis, in conjunction with linear mixed-effects modeling, we demonstrate that the OFC spontaneously encodes food health, whereas tastiness was associated with greater neural dissimilarity. Subsequent analyses using model dissimilarity matrices that encode overall tastiness magnitude demonstrated that the neural representation of foods grows more distinct with increasing tastiness but not with increasing health. In a separate study, we use lexical analysis of natural language descriptions of food to show that food tastiness is associated with more elaborate descriptions of food. Together these data show not only that the OFC spontaneously encodes the dimensions of health and tastiness when viewing appetitive food cues, but also that the neural and cognitive representations of food categories that are the highest in tastiness are more refined than those lower in tastiness.

Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience