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Visual recognition of objects may rely on different features depending on the category to which they belong. Recognizing natural objects, such as fruits and plants, weighs more on their perceptual attributes, whereas recognizing man-made objects, such as tools or vehicles, weighs more upon the functions and actions they enable. Edible objects are perceptually rich but also prepared for specific functions, therefore it is unclear how perceptual and functional attributes affect their recognition. Two event-related potentials experiments investigated: (i) whether food categorization in the brain is differentially modulated by sensory and functional attributes, depending on whether the food is natural or transformed; (ii) whether these processes are modulated by participants’ body mass index. In experiment 1, healthy normal-weight participants were presented with a sentence (prime) and a photograph of a food. Primes described either a sensory feature (‘It tastes sweet’) or a functional feature (‘It is suitable for a wedding party’) of the food, while photographs depicted either a natural (e.g., cherry) or a transformed food (e.g., pizza). Prime-feature pairs were either congruent or incongruent. This design aimed at modulating N400-like components elicited by semantic processing. In experiment 1, N400-like amplitude was significantly larger for transformed food than for natural food with sensory primes, and vice versa with functional primes. In experiment 2, underweight and obese women performed the same semantic task. We found that, while the N400-like component in obese participants was modulated by sensory-functional primes only for transformed food, the same modulation was found in underweight participants only for natural food. These findings suggest that the level of food transformation interacts with participants’ body mass index in modulating food perception and the underlying brain processing.


School of Psychology

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Journal Article

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