Consumption of Food

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CONSUMPTION OF FOOD. Did humans once have some instinctive knowledge about which foods to eat for good health? No one knows, but whatever inherent wisdom about nutrition humans might once have had has been wiped out in most parts of the world by a persistent background "noise": from infancy, people are bombarded by the selective, but constant, advertising of certain foods and drinks. Advancing globalization has sent products such as cola drinks to remote parts of the world, and advertisements for them have been so pervasive that some people believe that water cannot satisfy their thirst. Social aspects of eating have also changed in some countries, from regularly scheduled family meals to a pattern of random snacking. Is this the way humans were programmed to eat, or is it the result of marketing? Scientific aspects of nutrition also influence food consumption in many countries as consumers decide whether to eat nutritional foods or those that have no nutritional value.

Why Humans Eat What They Eat

What, when, how, and why people eat and drink is linked not only with biological needs and the availability of various foods, but also with the customs, aspirations, and expectations of their societies. The quantity and quality of food consumed, whether people "graze" or eat discrete meals, the emphasis given to different foods (or to desirable body shapes related to diet), and the customs surrounding eating have varied throughout history and within cultures. Nevertheless, the major influence on the daily diet has been the availability of food. Humans can survive only a few days without water and, while the average healthy person can stay alive for weeks or even months without food, this will have adverse effects and sometimes cause permanent health problems.

As well as being a biological necessity, eating and drinking are enjoyable activities, and the more varied the foods available, the more most people will eat. Nutritionists generally recommend eating a large variety of foods as this increases the chances of achieving nutritional adequacy and lowers the risk of a high toxin load. Against this, however, the problem of overconsumption now affects the wealthiest countries in the world, coexisting with malnutrition in many areas. Cultural factorstaboos about eating certain items, appropriate times for meals and snacks, and the way food is distributed among members of a social grouphave also played a role historically.

When debate involves morality, scientific considerations may be beside the point. Some people think that food choices have a moral dimension, for example, regarding it as wrong to kill animals for food. Scientists, however, who study the ideal proportion of fatty acids in cell membranes maintain that, once our ancestors diverged from the apes, they adopted a diet that consisted primarily of marine creatures and plant-based foods. In The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism, Colin Spencer, himself a vegetarian, traces the history of our ancestors' diets to show that human survival depended on being omnivorous, and notes that our close relatives, the chimpanzees, ate meat, although not in great quantities. Gastroenterologists support this, arguing that the human intestine is designed to digest both animal and plant foods. About 500,000 years ago, the discovery of fire almost certainly encouraged meat consumption because the heat softened connective tissue and produced enticing aromas and flavors. Having the physiological ability to eat any kind of food, however, does not mean that humans must be omnivores. Many people adopt a vegetarian lifestyle because of their religious or philosophical convictions without sacrificing a nutritionally balanced diet.

Until the twentieth century, the environmental consequences of the foods people consumed were largely ignored. With an increasing world population, however, the sustainability of the world's food supply has forced itself onto the agenda. Equity issues also arose because some countries were using up scarce energy and water resources to produce an ever-expanding range of foods for an overfed population while others starved because they did not have access to basic resources. The United States, for example, had approximately 5 percent of the world's population but consumed 26 percent of the world's energy resources as the twenty-first century began.

Growing grains or legumes to feed animals, rather than letting animals graze on lands not used for human crops, is particularly wasteful as lot-feeding requires approximately 100 times more water to provide about 1 kg of animal protein than is needed to produce the same amount of plant protein (Pimmental, Houser, and Preiss, 1997). There are also nutritional implications. Researchers found that the meat from grain-fed animals had fewer essential fatty acids than meat from grass-grazing animals, and there are also concerns about the effects on humans of the use of growth hormones to increase the size of cattle or their milk yield.

Myths, Customs, and Manners

Myths and superstitions associated with food exist in all cultures. Few people believe that cucumbers must be scored "to let the poisons out," tomatoes are no longer believed to be "toxic," and the belief that eating the brains of heroes will lead to bravery has almost disappeared, but myths abound, even when science has proven them wrong. As the twenty-first century began, for example, many people still believed that eating meat, especially beef, causes aggression. Others maintained that the body is unable to digest protein and carbohydrate at the same meal, which would make it impossible to digest foods containing both, such as human milk, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes. Forty percent of the population in the United States is taking vitamin and herbal supplements because they believe advertising claims that vegetables and fruits no longer contains vitamins.

Some enduring customs relate to religious beliefs about food. These include feasts and fasts, kosher foods, foods regarded as "unclean," forbidden foods, "holy" foods, or the supernatural doctrine of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches asserting the eucharistic transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body of Christ.

Wealth or social status also determines which foods people can afford to eat, although this can change over time. When peasants ate coarse whole-grain breads, for example, white bread was preferred by the upper classes. Because scientists determined that whole-grain breads are more nutritious than breads made of bleached white flour, highly educated people began to eat the more expensive whole-grain breads.

Etiquette also varies around the world. Where food is consumed with the hands and toilet paper is not used, it is customary for only one hand to be used for eating. Touching food or shaking hands with the hand used to wipe oneself in such countries is regarded as bad manners because it is unhygienic. Many people once considered it bad manners to eat while walking along the street, although the ubiquitous habit of snacking has led to greater tolerance of this practice.

In the West, many books have been written on table manners, but context is everything when it comes to etiquette. Much depends on the culture and social class, the context of the meal (a formal dinner demands adherence to complex social rules whereas a casual snack requires few or none), and the social group involved. In some cultures resting one's elbows on the table or making loud slurping noises is considered bad manners, whereas other societies have no objection to such habits. The polite way to put down cutlery at the end of a meal varies around the world, and sometimes even within a country. Some cultures regard burping at the end of a meal as a sign of satisfaction, even as a compliment to the cook; others think it is rude. Passing gas also has varying acceptance. In Western societies, some believe passing wind (flatus), even in private, indicates some medical problem. In fact, the quantity of gas produced is related to what has been eaten. As helpful bacteria break down dietary fiber and some types of starch, they produce beneficial acids with gas as a by-product.


Over the past one hundred years or so, anything that reduced the need for domestic labor was popular, including kitchen appliances and convenience foods. Scholars such as Lebergott (1993) estimated that the average American housewife spent thirty-two fewer hours a week on meals and housecleaning in 1975 than she did in 1910. The noted nutritionist and ecologist Joan Gussow found that much of the time people once spent in the kitchen is spent watching television, and watching television is how they learn about the latest convenience foods, which saves them more time, which allows them to spend more time watching television so they can be persuaded to buy more convenience foods, and so it goes.

By the end of the twentieth century, marketing of fast foods had shown how easy it is to change eating habits. Starting from scratch almost fifty years earlier, by 1997 McDonalds had 23,132 outlets in more than one hundred countries, with annual sales of $34 billion. The standardized foods offered by fast-food chains had come to appeal to all socioeconomic groups and changed food culture for many people in the West, encouraging eating-on-the-run rather than sit-down family meals. Somewhat ironically, the only time some families eat together is at a fast-food restaurant. Research done in the 1990s (Stanton) found that children liked fast-food restaurants because they felt welcome, the family was relaxed and happy (because no one had to cook), and there were playgrounds and gifts. The food was relatively unimportant, but they liked the standard menu and the fact that there were no vegetables except for French fries. One McNair survey in Australia (1999) found that the "golden arches" had become, in just twenty years, more recognizable as a symbol than the crucifix. As one commentator put it, "Hamburgers are now outselling heaven."

When fast-food hamburgers appeared in Rome in 1989, Carlo Petrini was so horrified that he began the Slow Food Movement, intended to counter what he considered the degrading effects of industrialized food and fast foods. In 2002, the movement operated Convivia in forty-five countries and was spreading but had not yet reached sufficient critical mass to alter the average consumer's eating habits.

Nutritional Science

Nutritionally, fast foods are a disaster: they have high levels of added saturated fat, salt, and sugar. An average fast-food hamburger contains twice as much fat as one that was served by individual outlets in the 1970s. Few fast foods feature vegetables, apart from fat-soaked potatoes, and the replacement of regular meals with fast foods partly accounts for the fact that most people in Western countries eat fewer vegetables than nutritionists recommend for good health.

Despite the increase in convenience foods, however, nutrition was gradually becoming more important in influencing consumers' decisions about which foods to buy. This is nothing new. Hippocrates said 2,400 years ago, "Let food be thy medicine." But it was not until the twentieth century that vitamins, amino acids, fats, and fiber were isolated and identified, and researchers have since been trying to unravel the role of hundreds of protective phytochemicals in plant foods.

Nutritional science can encourage change if it gets enough airtime to compete with the time purchased for "informing" consumers about the latest unhealthy convenience foods. Olive oil, for example, was vital to Mediterranean cuisines for thousands of years, but was shunned as food in other countries, although it was used as a skin moisturizer. Once studies showed its healthfulness, olive oil became popular in cooking beyond its original homelands and was outselling all other oils in Australian supermarkets by the close of the 1990s.

Nutrition may not, however, always overcome social custom. For example, among preschool children in Australia, boys are given more meat than girls, although there is no difference in their need for meat's nutrients. The assumption that men should receive more meat than women ("feeding the man meat") then continues into adulthood, with Australian men consuming more than one and a half times as much meat as women, even though women have greater requirements for meat's most important nutrientiron.

There are also fashions in dietary recommendations and changes as new data becomes available. Consumer confusion is also fed by self-styled "experts" whose book sales depend on new diets that have little or no scientific support. Basic governmental advice to consume more vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain cereal products and less saturated fat, sugar, and salt has not changed, but governments are not immune to influence from powerful lobby groups that want more positive spin for their products.

Meals and Snacks

Studies with adults have shown that eating "small and often" can produce benefits for metabolism, reduce blood fats, and lower blood glucose levels. Babies who feed spontaneously on their mother's milk have fewer problems with health and weight than those who are given regulated formula feeds of known quantity.

Does this research mean that snacks are preferable to meals, and would a grazing pattern of eating fit our genetic background better than restricting food to three major meals a day? While nothing is true for everyone all of the time, in countries where snacking is common, so is obesity; where snacking is less common, as in France, obesity rates are lower. The grazing pattern suits makers of processed snack foods (who fund some of the positive snacking studies), but most studies favoring snacks have provided the snacks calculated to fit each individual's daily requirements. In practice, self-selected snack foods are less nutritious, and, for those who overeat every time they eat, snacking may not be ideal.

From the Past to the Future

Three prominent milestones in the changing human diet can be identified:

  • hunter-gatherer diets consisting mainly of meat, birds, insects, and fresh or saltwater creatures plus fruits, seeds (including wild grasses), nuts, various green vegetables, yams, and other edible plant materials;
  • the agricultural, farm-based period that began about 10,000 years ago when animals were domesticated to produce meat and milk, and crops of grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts were planted, first for individual families and then also for urban dwellers;
  • the technological age, which extended basic farm-produced foods using processing and additives to increase shelf life and provided a broader range of foods padded with extra sugars, fat, salt, flavorings, and colorings. This period decreased the role of home cooking in favor of mass-produced, ready-to-eat foods. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, 46 percent of the food dollar in the United States was spent on foods prepared outside the home.

Genetically modified (GM) foods began to extend the role of technology at the end of the twentieth century. Initially, such foods benefited only those who owned seed stocks, but this technology can also produce foods capable of filling particular nutritional or social needs. GM technology created unrest in Europe and many other parts of the world, especially because of concerns about the integrity of local foods and the plight of poorer nations forced to exchange subsistence family farming for GM crops whose seeds are owned by large agribusiness companies.

Each of the major dietary changes throughout human history has had social and environmental implications. Hunters (usually men) were given greater status in many communities than gatherers (usually women and children). Farming also divided society into owners and workers. That distinction was transformed in developed countries by mechanization and takeovers of small family farms by large commercial companies. Rural communities were impoverished and turned into ghost towns as people left, agribusiness took over what had been family farms, and farming the resulting large farms was done by machine. Whatever tasks remained that required manual labor were left to migrant workers.

The technological age of highly processed foods encouraged people of all ages and socioeconomic groups to purchase foods prepared outside the family kitchen. Increased use of such foods caused cooking skills to degenerate and even changed the physical layout of some dwellings, where there is no longer a dedicated kitchen.

The environmental effects of dietary changes were not taken into account until the end of the twentieth century. Hunting, for example, contributed to some animal species being wiped out. Farming based on technology and driven by the bottom line, with its inhumane methods of raising animals, lot-feeding, and monocultural crops, required increased use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, which caused environmental problems such as increased salinity, poor soil fertility, poisoned or polluted groundwater, loss of many plant cultivars, and climate change due to massive land clearing. As the twenty-first century began, the conflict regarding the full environmental costs of GM crops was just getting started.

See also Biotechnology; Fast Food; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Food Supply and the Global Food Market; Food Supply, Food Shortages; Genetic Engineering; Hunting and Gathering; Religion and Food; Slow Food; Sociology; Taboos .


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Crotty, Patricia. Good Nutrition? Fact & Fashion in Dietary Advice. Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1995.

Germov, John, and Lauren Williams, eds. A Sociology of Food and Nutrition: The Social Appetite. South Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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Rosemary Stanton