The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food, by John S Allen, Harvard University Press, RRP£19.95/RRP$25.95, 266 pages
Taste Matters: Why We Like The Foods We Do, by John Prescott, Reaktion Books, RRP£20/RRP$30, 224 pages
Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good, by Barb Stuckey, Free Press, RRP$26, 416 pages
When my two-year-old daughter is invited to a children’s birthday party, I see the gustatory plight of the western world unfold in miniature.
At most such parties there is a conspicuous abundance of food: pies and buns, crisps and sweets, chocolate and cheese. My daughter usually begins with something easily grabbed and rich in reward – a cocktail sausage, for example. But after a few bites her eyes alight on the many other treats and her spare hand finds the cookies. This is when she encounters the two-hands-but-only-one-mouth problem, the solution to which is energetic shoving and snake-like jaw stretching.
Then the cake arrives, slathered with icing. She pockets the sausage so as to give full attention to a hefty slab of sweet sponge. Halfway through, she slows and begins to fidget. Feeling full, she gets down from her chair – but there is still cake! – so she gets back on to it and eats a few more mouthfuls. Then she remembers the sausage and takes a bite. But she feels sick! But there’s jelly too! What to do? Her shoulders slump, she starts to cry.
From the moment they are born, children are primed to like sweet stuffs because this predisposes them to suckle – breast milk is high in the sugar lactose. We never lose this predilection but, over time, we add a fondness for things fatty and a soft spot for salt. Throughout our long evolutionary history, these impulses drove us to consume what our bodies needed for survival.
But now we are surrounded by an abundance of all that we crave. The affluent west is larded with fats, glacéed over with sugars and salted to the point of desiccation. Our primal urges, shaped by aeons of ancestral hunger, are given free rein. We eat and we eat until we are more than full, yet still the world is full of treats tempting us to eat ever more. In other words, we are all like toddlers at a birthday party.
Thus the old problem of food – how to get enough – has been replaced by a set of new problems with which we are ill-equipped to deal. One is that we eat too much of it: a report issued last month said two-thirds of adults in the US were overweight or obese, costing the healthcare system an annual $190bn; while in the UK, a comparable 61 per cent of adults had excessive waistlines. Another problem is that we do not even appreciate this abundance but, instead, spend our time guiltily obsessing about our choices or shoving functional processed food into our mouths while checking our smartphones on the way to the next appointment.
Three new books from different disciplines can help us to understand both how we got into this predicament and how we can get out of it. None of them are guides to what to eat – that is a genre whose girth needs no further expanding. Instead, they draw on the latest scientific research to give insightful accounts of why we choose to consume what we do. They hold out the promise that by better understanding the nature of our food choices, we can develop a relationship to eating that is both healthier and more pleasurable.
In The Omnivorous Mind, neuroscientist John Allen takes the long view of our eating habits, tracing their development through the evolution of our species. He expands on the increasingly widespread view that “the obesity epidemic that is occurring in developed countries throughout the world is ultimately a result of placing bodies and minds evolved for one environment in one that is wholly different”. The emphasis here is on “minds”, as Allen convincingly argues that our capacious brains have been profoundly shaped by the need to ensure a steady food supply. The reward pathways in our grey matter therefore compel us towards the sugariness that denotes ripe fruit or the fattiness of high-energy meat. But this system honed to extract the most calories from an unforgiving environment leads us badly astray when it is placed in a land of plenty.
There is, however, hope. Our eating habits are rooted in our physiology but they are, nonetheless, also mediated by the culture in which we grow up. This is evident, for example, in the case of taboos, in which different cultures frown upon the consumption of some perfectly good foodstuffs, such as pork (as in Judaism or Islam), beef (in India) or insects (most of the western world). Allen astutely compares this to learning a mother tongue: we are all born hard-wired to acquire language, but which language we learn depends on our culture. Similarly, we are all born ready to acquire ideas of what counts as food and how to get it, but which food ideas we acquire depends on our upbringing.
Applying this to the obesity problem, Allen argues we can shift our food culture towards a lower-calorie model, emphasising more sophisticated pleasures than the salt/sugar/fat hit provided by a culture of pizza and ice-cream. This is like switching to a second language: it is not a simple decision but involves a great deal of effort and mental readjustment. Indeed, he claims, many diets fail because they underestimate just what a radical step it is for us to change these imprinted eating patterns.
But the success stories show that it is possible. And a sophisticated understanding of our appetites is an essential ingredient – certainly something possessed by both the psychologist John Prescott (no, not the UK’s former deputy prime minister) and Barb Stuckey, a professional food developer.
In their new books, both Stuckey and Prescott explain the role of the five basic tastes that our mouths can detect: sweet, salt, bitter, sour and the less well known umami, or savoury. Both also explain how our experience of food is multi-sensory: our sense of smell, for example, which is sensitive to many thousands of different aromas, delivers all the subtler aspects of flavour that go beyond the five basic tastes; while touch, sight and sound also contribute significantly to our overall eating experience – just imagine a potato crisp that doesn’t crunch, or a chilli sauce that doesn’t tingle.
The strength of Prescott’s short book Taste Matters is in unpicking the complexities of our eating choices. Getting children to eat their greens, crucial to a healthy diet, is a good example: young children push away these foods because they are bitter and because they are inclined to reject innovations in their diet. For previous generations of toddlers, both these instincts would have been life-saving: many things that look like food actually are harmful, and bitterness is a particularly reliable indicator of this. To overcome these instincts, Prescott advises against rewarding children for swallowing their spinach, as this only reinforces the message that it must be intrinsically unpleasant. Instead, parents should act as role-models by regularly eating forkfuls of greens while grinning broadly. If that’s not enough, add a blob of reassuringly sweet and familiar ketchup too.
Equally important in waistline-management is knowing when to stop eating and Prescott shows that this, too, is trickier than it might seem. We might naively think that we can rely on something like an inbuilt fuel meter to tell us when we’re full but a few simple experiments have shown that our food gauge is hopelessly unreliable. For example, in one study two men with severe memory problems were provided with a full meal; yet shortly after they had finished, they were entirely willing to eat another full meal (having forgotten the first) – then another. In a different study, some students were given (unbeknown to them) bowls that refilled themselves through a hidden tube. When told to eat as much as they liked, they ate 73 per cent more soup than students with normal bowls. The conclusion is that we rely heavily on external cues to tell us when we’ve had enough – so if we leave dirty dishes and empty packets from the last meal lying around, we are less likely to seek the next snack.
Though full of fascinating detail, Prescott’s approach in Taste Matters is as dry as a weight-watcher’s wheat cracker. Stuckey’s Taste What You’re Missing is, in contrast, spiced throughout with anecdotes, examples and even try-at-home experiments. Comprehensive yet conversational, it is an excellent guide to appreciating something we must spend a large chunk of our life doing.
Stuckey, a flagrant food lover, believes that the more we learn to enjoy our food, the healthier our relationship to it will be and the healthier we will be. This relationship begins in the womb: foods eaten by pregnant mothers are more likely later to be selected by their offspring. When children join us at the table, they then learn from us our way of eating: whether food is cooked from fresh ingredients or comes out of a packet; whether it is savoured or shovelled down; whether it is an occasion for quality family time or an incidental accompaniment to watching TV. Like Allen and Prescott, Stuckey believes that we pass on to our children a whole culture of eating – and that this is where the battle with obesity begins.
She makes a convincing case for mindfulness as part of a healthier eating culture, which in this context means increasing our awareness of what we are eating as we are eating it. We are much more likely to over-consume if we are eating absent-mindedly or in a hurry, she argues. If, instead, we sit down and take our time to appreciate the many-sided delights of a well-prepared meal, then we will be satisfied with less. When it comes to fulfilling food, quality can be a substitute for quantity if only we know how to appreciate it – a skill that can be developed by reading this fine book.
All three of these authors are sceptical about the kind of puritanical diets that make a sin of eating what we enjoy. Our likes and dislikes are so deeply ingrained that self-denial is doomed to fail. Just as with my two-year-old daughter, telling us that we can’t have the cake is likely to make us want it all the more.
The approach they point to instead is a happier one. The foods we crave – fats, sugars and salt – are all essential for our bodies, so we ought not feel guilty for consuming them, nor condemn others who do so. But, of course, they must be eaten in moderation, which our evolutionary history does not make easy in this time of plenty. The answer, at least in part, is a food culture that values the subtle pleasures of dining, both social and sensual, and teaches us to take the time to savour them properly. This is a delicious solution to the problems of both over-consumption and under-appreciation that bedevil modern mealtimes.
Stephen Cave is author of ‘Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilisation’ (Biteback/Crown)