The brain responds differently to the sweet taste of sugary foods and to their nutritional value — and that finding offers insight into how we choose what foods to eat, according to new research published in Nature Neuroscience.

“The brain parses out sweetness from nutrition using two different pathways,” said lead researcher Ivan De Araujo of Yale University.

Here’s how that works: The brain has two separate sets of neurons, one that processes sweetness and one that processes the energy a food provides.

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In the lab, mice preferred sugar that tasted terrible but had good nutritional value to sugar that tasted sweet but didn’t have any calories. That suggests the brain is wired to prioritize energy over taste.

So why do we eat so many sugary snacks? The researchers are working on that next.

“The drive is to understand why we consume copious amounts of sugar that go well beyond our physical need,” De Araujo said.

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