Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 214, Issue 3, pp 351–356 | Cite as

Food’s visually perceived fat content affects discrimination speed in an orthogonal spatial task

  • Vanessa Harrar
  • Ulrike Toepel
  • Micah M. Murray
  • Charles Spence
Research Article


Choosing what to eat is a complex activity for humans. Determining a food’s pleasantness requires us to combine information about what is available at a given time with knowledge of the food’s palatability, texture, fat content, and other nutritional information. It has been suggested that humans may have an implicit knowledge of a food’s fat content based on its appearance; Toepel et al. (Neuroimage 44:967–974, 2009) reported visual-evoked potential modulations after participants viewed images of high-energy, high-fat food (HF), as compared to viewing low-fat food (LF). In the present study, we investigated whether there are any immediate behavioural consequences of these modulations for human performance. HF, LF, or non-food (NF) images were used to exogenously direct participants’ attention to either the left or the right. Next, participants made speeded elevation discrimination responses (up vs. down) to visual targets presented either above or below the midline (and at one of three stimulus onset asynchronies: 150, 300, or 450 ms). Participants responded significantly more rapidly following the presentation of a HF image than following the presentation of either LF or NF images, despite the fact that the identity of the images was entirely task-irrelevant. Similar results were found when comparing response speeds following images of high-carbohydrate (HC) food items to low-carbohydrate (LC) food items. These results support the view that people rapidly process (i.e. within a few hundred milliseconds) the fat/carbohydrate/energy value or, perhaps more generally, the pleasantness of food. Potentially as a result of HF/HC food items being more pleasant and thus having a higher incentive value, it seems as though seeing these foods results in a response readiness, or an overall alerting effect, in the human brain.


Food Fat content Caloric content Response time Visual selective attention Exogenous cuing Pleasantness Spatial discrimination Carbohydrate 



Vanessa Harrar holds a Mary Somerville Junior Research Fellowship. Ulrike Toepel and Micah Murray receive support from an interdisciplinary project awarded by the Faculty of Biology and Medicine at the University of Lausanne. Micah Murray receives support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant 310030B-133136). Thanks to Jean-Francois Knebel for providing help with the image selection and preparation.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Vanessa Harrar
    • 1
  • Ulrike Toepel
    • 2
    • 3
  • Micah M. Murray
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
  • Charles Spence
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Experimental PsychologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUnited Kingdom
  2. 2.Radiology DepartmentCentre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois and University of LausanneLausanneSwitzerland
  3. 3.Neuropsychology and Neurorehabilitation Service, Department of Clinical NeurosciencesCentre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois and University of LausanneLausanneSwitzerland
  4. 4.EEG Brain Mapping CoreCenter for Biomedical Imaging of Lausanne and GenevaLausanneSwitzerland

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