Food sensory characteristics: their unconsidered roles in the feeding behaviour of domestic ruminants

Animal. 2013 May;7(5):806-13. doi: 10.1017/S1751731112002145. Epub 2012 Dec 6.


When domestic ruminants are faced with food diversity, they can use pre-ingestive information (i.e. food sensory characteristics perceived by the animal before swallowing the food) and post-ingestive information (i.e. digestive and metabolic consequences, experienced by the animal after swallowing the food) to evaluate the food and make decisions to select a suitable diet. The concept of palatability is essential to understand how pre- and post-ingestive information are interrelated. It refers to the hedonic value of the food without any immediate effect of post-ingestive consequences and environmental factors, but with the influence of individual characteristics, such as animal's genetic background, internal state and previous experiences. In the literature, the post-ingestive consequences are commonly considered as the main force that influences feeding behaviour whereas food sensory characteristics are only used as discriminatory agents. This discriminatory role is indeed important for animals to be aware of their feeding environment, and ruminants are able to use their different senses either singly or in combination to discriminate between different foods. However, numerous studies on ruminants' feeding behaviour demonstrate that the role of food sensory characteristics has been underestimated or simplified; they could play at least two other roles. First, some sensory characteristics also possess a hedonic value which influences ruminants' intake, preferences and food learning independently of any immediate post-ingestive consequences. Further, diversity of food sensory characteristics has a hedonic value, as animals prefer an absence of monotony in food sensory characteristics at similar post-ingestive consequences. Second, some of these food sensory characteristics become an indicator of post-ingestive consequences after their initial hedonic value has acquired a positive or a negative value via previous individual food learning or evolutionary processes. These food sensory characteristics thus represent cues that could help ruminants to anticipate the post-ingestive consequences of a food and to improve their learning efficiency, especially in complex environments. This review then suggests that food sensory characteristics could be of importance to provide pleasure to animals, to increase palatability of a food and to help them learn in complex feeding situations which could improve animal welfare and productivity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Domestic*
  • Eating / physiology*
  • Food Analysis*
  • Food Preferences / physiology*
  • Ruminants / physiology*