100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today

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A fascinating tour through the evolution of the human diet, and how we can improve our health by understanding our complicated history with food.

Traveling around the world to places as far-flung as Vietnam, Kenya, India, and the US, Stephen Le introduces us to people who are growing, cooking, and eating food using both traditional and modern methods, striving for a sustainable, healthy diet. In clear, compelling arguments based on scientific research, Le contends that our ancestral diets provide the best first line of defense in protecting our health and providing a balanced diet. Fast-food diets, as well as strict regimens like paleo or vegan, in effect, high-jack our biology and ignore the complex nature of our bodies. In 100 Million Years of Food Le takes us on a guided tour of evolution, demonstrating how our diets are the result of millions of years of history, and how we can return to a sustainable, healthier way of eating.

Man, oh, man…the number of highlights I have on this book about “eating like your ancestors” and “how to do it” are vast. Here are just a few of my more interesting notes:

People around the Mediterranean learned to tame these compounds through curing and fermentation. An extraordinarily hardy tree, olives were originally cultivated for oil that was valued as a means of lighting and as a skin lubricant, especially for ceremonial purposes (whence comes the term “Messiah,” or the anointed one). Nowadays, the olive fruit is stripped of its bitter phenols and processed into various grades of edible oils with a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids, particularly oleic acid. (Phenols have excited interest for their potential role as antioxidants, but so far their health benefits remain unproven.) The richness of olive oil complements foods like cereals, vegetables, fruits, and fish, by making dull but reputedly healthy fare more palatable. Hence the explosion in popularity of the Mediterranean diet: At last, Westerners can sit down to exquisite meals again without having to feel guilty and stressing out about calories and fat. As with the phenols, there’s little evidence that olive oil itself is a healthy food. What makes olive oil valuable is that it helps to bind together an entire regional cuisine, making it possible for people to subsist on fare that is relatively low in animal products like meat and dairy yet still feel reasonably satisfied, especially when fresh, high-quality olive oil is available and when people are too poor to buy meat. Humans are hardwired to crave meat because it increases our reproductive prospects; hence, when Greece began to increase her wealth after World War II, her citizens tended to give up the olive oil blessed by nutritionists in favor of the carnal pleasures of meat and animal fat.

When Paul Sherman, a biologist at Cornell University, and his then-student Jennifer Billing looked at spice usage from recipes around the world, they found that hotter countries used more spices. This makes sense, since increased temperature boosts bacterial growth and encourages food spoilage, thus making the need for spices more urgent. One consequence of his theory is that it explains why tropical cuisines tend to be spicy: The lack of meat in them, especially fat, makes it necessary for cooks to drop in dollops of spices, to increase the feeling of pleasure that fat and meat would otherwise induce.

To put everything into perspective, fruits, like insects, were once an integral part of our evolutionary history and remained a valuable part of traditional diets. Even though meat provides virtually all of the nutrition necessary for survival, at certain times fruit could be crucial to human health, especially when fresh meat and its accompanying Vitamin C were unavailable. For example, the Inuit living in Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland made use of a broad variety of animal foods—seal, whale, walrus, caribou, polar bear, fox, wolf, Arctic hare, waterfowl, fish, mussel, sea urchin, and so on—but the Inuit also harvested a staggering variety of berries. These berries were critical; Inuit who lacked fresh seal meat could develop pustules when the berry crops ominously failed, as occurred in 1904–5 among the Greenland Inuit. From being a seasonal snack in traditional settings, fruits in industrialized countries have become sweet, cheap, and holy: Fruits offer urbanites, weary of the associations of meat with disease and cruelty, the opportunity to detox with spiritually unblemished food, a karmic train that inches forward with every four or five bucks forked out for a mega-sized fruit smoothie. Sadly, our ancestors jumped off the tracks leading to Fruit Heaven 16 million years ago, rendering our genes and livers unsuitable for daily jug-loads of fructose.

Professor Mintz argues that poor people around the world have historically been relegated to eating flavorless starchy foods, which were made palatable only through the addition of fringe dishes: Think of a thick swirl of spaghetti in a lake of tomato sauce; chillies kicking up corn and beans; or rice with soy sauce, fish sauce, or pickled vegetables. The elites of society, meanwhile, dispensed with the whole business of bland cores and flavorful fringes and helped themselves to meats that were furnished by the laboring masses.

Plant foods are today heralded as healthy fare, but people in traditional societies generally did not favor them, and for good reason. Consider the fate of the infamous Burke and Wills expedition, a scientific caravan that departed Melbourne in 1860 with the intent of exploring and crossing the Australian interior. The retinue boasted food sufficient for two years and sixty gallons of rum (to revive the camels)—all told, about twenty tons of supplies. However, after several months of mishaps and errors of judgment, three men—Robert O’Hara Burke, an Irish soldier and police officer; his second-in-command, William John Wills, a young English surveyor; and John King, an Irish soldier—found themselves stranded at Cooper Creek, hundreds of miles from Melbourne, with no pack animals (some of the camels had been eaten) and dwindling food supplies. Suffering from malnourishment and exhausted, the three men traded their sugar with native Aborigines for fish, beans, and the spore-like fruit of the nardoo fern. The Aborigines ground nardoo to make a paste and bread that were valuable during drought conditions, but the explorers may have neglected to roast, sluice, or winnow the spores as the Aborigines did. Doing so would have purged the nardoo of thiaminase, an enzyme that destroys Vitamin B1. A person lacking Vitamin B1 is debilitated by beriberi, a condition characterized by paralysis, weight loss, and loss of feeling in the extremities. Even though the men were able to consume four pounds of nardoo a day, they steadily lost strength. After weeks of wasting away, Burke and Wills died at Cooper Creek; a rescue party eventually recovered a seriously weakened King. The Burke and Wills debacle is usually portrayed as an example of cultural incompetence, since the explorers relied heavily on goods and technological might, while the Yandruwandha Aborigines were able to survive in the same area using the accumulated wisdom of their forebears. However, even the Aborigines used nardoo only as an emergency food. Consider the situation from the nardoo plants’ point of view. Like a squatter squaring off with a bulldozer, if you put down roots in a patch of soil, intending to live there for the rest of your life, you’d put up a rocking good fight the moment anyone tried to browse on your limbs, prune your flowers, pull out your roots, or nibble on your immature seeds. Making the best of their immobility, plants discourage predation with an impressive battery of defensive compounds. A raised middle finger or a portrait of Che Guevara may be the conventional symbols of defiance to many, but a plant would be just as true to the spirit of resistance. Apart from their fruits, plant parts are designed to be unpalatable through physical barriers or chemical warfare. We can group plants into six categories based on their effects when consumed:

• Enemies: plants that should never be eaten. These include assassins, plants whose toxins we deliberately employ as means of carrying out murder, torture, or punishment.

• Doppelgangers: plants that poison us because we mistake them for palatable plants.

• Sorcerers: plants that we regularly use as medicines but that harm us when we accidentally overdose on them.

• Werewolves: plants that are safe to eat at certain stages in their life cycles and dangerous at other life stages.

• Fallbacks: plants that may be eaten as a temporary resort but are not suitable for long-term consumption.

• Comrades: plants that are suitable for long-term consumption when properly prepared.

People in East Asia long disdained cow’s milk as a barbarian concoction, and only with active government and industry intervention is the drink now making inroads there. If dog milk were demonstrated to be thoroughly nutritious, how many Western shoppers would toss a carton of it into their grocery basket? People develop an innate aversion to bodily fluids from another animal, because such fluids could bear a nasty infectious disease. Thanks to their prominence in Western culture and society as sources of milk, the image of cows and their milk has been sanitized, but other potentially nutritious fluids, such as horse milk and pig’s blood, strike us as unpalatable, unless we are acclimated to them from childhood.

Similar to the Yoruba, the Inuit also had a dairy-free, low-calcium diet. Inuit children consumed perhaps 20 mg of calcium per day from traditional foods. Since the Inuit are genetically adapted to low-calcium diets, Inuit children who eat a high-calcium Canadian-style diet often exhibit dangerous levels of calcium in the blood, a condition that can damage the kidneys. Conversely, in the case of pastoralists who consumed a lot of meat and especially milk, people developed genetic adaptations to deal with high loads of cholesterol from those foods. East African Maasai pastoralists became genetically adapted to a mega-cholesterol diet of cattle milk, blood, and meat, with two-thirds of their calories coming from fat alone. Their daily cholesterol intake was four to six times the average Western cholesterol consumption, but the level of cholesterol in the Maasai blood was far lower than Western levels. The genes of Maasai show evidence of modifications in regions related to cholesterol metabolism and synthesis, atherosclerosis (the thickening of arteries that is related to cholesterol deposits), and lactase persistence. All of these genetic adaptations seem to make the Maasai better suited to a milk-rich, cholesterol-heavy diet.

Apart from the question of the ideal body type for long life or good health, there’s another important consideration that influences many people: What’s the ideal body type in the eyes of those we wish to attract? A surprising and perhaps disturbing conclusion from this research is that we tend to overshoot on our estimates of what it takes to look beautiful. According to studies of American college students, men want to be more muscular and bigger than women actually prefer; conversely, women want to be smaller, shorter, and more toned and have longer hair and bigger breasts than men actually prefer. What’s going on? Why do we go through all this madness of trying to adjust our appearance if our partners are really not happy with the results? There are two possible explanations. The first possibility is that the important thing might not be the end objective; it might be more important for us to just have a strongly motivating goal in mind. If you are looking to attract a particular type of person, then having an exaggerated notion of the ideal body may be the simplest option available for achieving that goal. A second, more likely explanation was offered by three of my colleagues at UCLA, David A. Frederick, Daniel M. T. Fessler, and Martie G. Haselton. They reasoned that a runaway competition for prestige takes place whenever we think about bodily characteristics and compare ourselves to others. We try to outdo others—that’s human nature. Never mind what someone else wants; that’s a pretty tough one to figure out, as any couple can attest. Just go one better than your peers, or imitate the most popular and richest public figure you admire, and you’ll have an easy guide. Some Hollywood starlet wears fur boots and oversized shades and dyes her hair blond? Some Hollywood actor pulls off his shirt to reveal razor-cut abs? Got it. Such efforts might not be exactly what our partners want, but our minds are designed to make us compete against our peers in a silly but intrinsically human game of envy and status-seeking.

Anyways, read this book. It’s well worth it.