Fred Provenza – What should we learn from domesticated animals when it comes to food as medicine

A conversation with Fred Provenza, professor emeritus of Behavioural Ecology in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University, about domesticated animals, their ability to self-select medicine and food and figure out what they need in terms of energy, vitamins and phytonutrients. We also discuss what they can teach us about rediscovering our nutritional wisdom.


This episode is part of the Nutrient Density in Food series!
This series is supported by the A Team Foundation, who support food and land projects that are ecologically, economically and socially conscious. They contribute to the wider movement that envisions a future where real food is produced by enlightened agriculture and access to it is equal. The A Team are looking to make more investments and grants in the space of bionutrients. You can find out more on

Research shows that animals are perfectly able to feed themselves when they have the cultural background and intergenerational education plus the diversity in plants and feed they need. So, what does that teach us about human nutrition and its connection to healthy soils?


Learning begins in the womb, the fetal taste system is fully functional during the last trimester of gestation. The availability of nutritious alternatives and the role of learning early in life are crucial aspects that question the idea that after 10,000 years of domestication, cattle, sheep, goats or any of the domesticated species had lost the nutritional wisdom of the body.

‘We did many, many studies over the years to show that animals have the ability to self-select for energy, for protein, for minerals, even for vitamins, when they’re lacking those and they have the opportunity, they’ll select the nutrients they need. So that led to this whole exploration of nutritional wisdom in domestic animals and showing that animals didn’t in fact, lose the ability to select nutritious diets.’ – Fred Provenza


People nowadays talk a lot about the microbiome in the soil, or in the gut of the animal, organisms need nitrogen for their populations to flourish for their nutritional needs. Woodrats are little creatures that build big houses on the bases of juniper trees. Fred found that goats started to eat woodrat houses. The urine- soaked vegetation was a source of nitrogen that enabled the goats in the pasture that ate woodrat houses to perform much better during the three months browsing period.

‘The outside of the houses is covered with bark from the trees that grow in the area. As you look inside the houses it’s very densely packed vegetation with what one might call different rooms in the house. One of the rooms is the bathroom and that was the area that was soaked in urine. Now you might say, wow, that sounds horrible. But vegetation soaked in urine is actually a source of nonprotein nitrogen’- Fred Provenza

‘Over the next three winters with different groups of goats, 18 different groups of goats in total, that group was the only group that ever ended up eating woodrat houses. And so one might think, well, how does innovation occur and begin in animal populations. That got me very much thinking about innovation, how innovation occurs, and then how those innovations are transferred from generation to generation.’ – Fred Provenza


Even if it may seem a little strange to speak about culture and animals, Fred argues that talking about it is very important. When the young animal begins to forage, it remembers the flavour cues learned through its mother’s milk. The mother serves as a model for the offspring. They learn what not to eat, where not to go, what’s dangerous, what’s not dangerous, mother plays huge roles in all those sorts of linkages over time with the landscapes that animals inhabit. To be locally adapted to the environments is fundamental to survival over time.

‘We often think about genetics, what are the genetics of this or that or the other breed of animal, we seldom stop to think about the role of culture and how very important culture and extended families are, in terms of of knowledge and transfer of knowledge from generation to generation.’ – Fred Provenza

‘If mother eats something, the likelihood of her offspring eating it goes up compared to if mother is avoiding it. And if the young animal samples, which they often will something that mothers avoiding, and they get sick a little bit, they strongly avoided in the future. So mother becomes very important in terms of food selection. Beyond that, she becomes very important in terms of habitat selection […], mother also becomes very important in terms of knowing what’s a predator and what’s not a predator.’ – Fred Provenza

‘Domestic and wild animals, both, when they’re taken from familiar environments, and placed in environments where they have no experience whatsoever, they suffer much more from malnutrition, from predation, from over ingestion of toxic plants.’ – Fred Provenza


Fred tells us, about the non-cognitive feedbacks that are coming from cells and an organ system, including the microbiome, that are actually altering our liking for the flavour of food. There is also the fact that wholesome foods and vegetables are not as tasty and as nutrient-dense as they used to be. Some people have been hooked from birth on ultra-processed food and it’s a big challenge to try to retrain a palate to like wholesome foods.

‘It’s not something we need to think about any more than we need to think about which enzymes to release to digest food we’ve eaten in a meal. This is happening automatically.’ – Fred Provenza

‘Well, it’s the availability of alternatives. That’s really the issue here. And our food preferences have been hijacked in two ways. One is that the nutritional quality and flavour which is intimately linked, as I’m trying to say, the flavour of foods is intimately linked with their nutritional quality, which has declined during the last 50 to 70 years in meat, fruits, vegetables.’ – Fred Provenza

‘That desirability of so-called junk food, ultra-processed foods have increased markedly, so over the last 50 to 70 years, we’ve disincentivized real foods because they don’t taste good because they’re lacking nutritional quality. At the same time that junk food has become all the more desirable […] And so there’s no way for nutritional wisdom to be manifest in human beings.’ – Fred Provenza


Phytochemical richness includes not only energy, protein, minerals and vitamins but a tremendous array of different compounds that plants produce and come under broad headings such as phenolic, terpenes, and alkaloids. According to Fred, the body knows when it’s eating something that’s vital, chemically rich and tasty. It’s not quantity what we need, but it’s quality, phytochemical and biochemical richness.

‘Plants produce 10s of 1000s of these compounds and they serve multiple roles in ecological systems actually, probably far more than we have time to get into […], it’s very important to realize the roles that these compounds play in terms of antioxidants, anti- inflammatory, immunomodulatory, anti-parasitic, the list goes on and on from a nutrition and health standpoint, and so we can select for varieties that are phytochemically rich.’ – Fred Provenza


Koen and Fred also talked about:

  • The value of growing your own food
  • How much is behaviour and how much is genetics when it comes to choosing our food
  • What can we learn from plants
  • Why growing a garden is fundamental and the power of community
  • What would Fred to with 1b dollar to invest




Feedback, comments, suggestions? Reach me via Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.

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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.

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