Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective
– By Robin Fox
The Future of Food
Will anything stay the same in the whirligig of food faddism and ever-rapid changes in eating habits? Some things we can be certain of because evolution has built in certain prejudices to our digestive systems that will be hard to buck. Gluttony will remain with us. We are natural binge eaters, and, as the hopelessness of diets shows, only strict discipline can keep us from gorging. This probably stems from our uncertain past when food was not in steady supply, so we stocked up when it was there, never knowing when the next mammoth might happen along. Why then did we not all die of heart disease and become extinct? Because the meat had very little saturated fat on it, and we worked off the binges with a lot of exercise. But we still crave fat (which the body needs) and tend to stuff ourselves if the food is available and we are not stopped by outside pressures or the promptings of conscience.
We shall also continue, to the detriment of our systems and in particular our teeth, to crave sweet things. Again, our bodies need a certain amount of glucose for energy, and they get this by breaking down carbohydrates into sugar. But if we can get the sugar directly, this provides an immediate and less costly energy kick. It would make sense that we should be programmed to seek out these rare sources (honey was a major one) by implanting a craving. As long as they were indeed scarce, this was a fine motivator. The problem arises when human ingenuity makes them plentiful; we have no means of stopping the craving except by satisfying it. Add to this our need for salt, and it is safe to predict that we will snack eternally on pretzels and candy bars or their equivalents, and greedily consume that other producer of instant (if deceptive) energy based on sugar: alcohol. More sinister is the vulnerability of the brain to certain addictive substances. Addiction is probably an evolutionary offshoot of the brain’s own mechanism for absorbing its self-produced endorphins - the chemical substances that make us "feel good." But evolution never anticipated such substances as alcohol, opium, nicotine, morphine, cocaine, or caffeine. These lock into the receptors intended for beneficial substances because they do momentarily make us feel good and so fool the system. But once locked in they set up a craving that nature never intended. Thus can evolution backfire, and we can predict that despite all efforts to the contrary the power of feeling good will keep a fair number of us enslaved to dangerous but seductive opiates.
Apart from the physiological prediction, we can be sure that eating as display - as a code of messages about selves and status, role and religion, race and nation - will persist in an animal that lives by symbolic communication. And as the world grows smaller and communication more immediate, we can perhaps look toward a greater homogenization of food habits. We are perhaps at the moment very lucky to be at the stage where ethnic identity is not yet blurred and the world is in an exciting state of mixing and mingling and transferring of tastes. It may not last. And always the other side of the food-as-pleasure coin looms: the possibility of mass starvation as population outstrips resources. Soon, sheer physiological necessity may overtake the refined communicative value of food, and the only thing that will matter is whether we can get it or not. In Somalia they don’t stand on ceremony: they kill you for a handful of rice.