A taste for it

Flavour remains central to our food culture. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Flavour remains central to our food culture. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
A love of complex smells and flavours gave our ancestors an edge, writes Donna Ferguson.

Human evolution and exploration of the world were shaped by a hunger for tasty food — "a quest for deliciousness" — according to a new book.

Ancient humans who had the ability to smell and desire more complex aromas gained evolutionary advantages over their less-discerning rivals, argue the authors of the book Delicious: The Evolution of Flavour and How it Made Us Human.

Some of the most significant inventions early humans made, such as stone tools and the controlled use of fire, were also partly driven by their pursuit of flavour and a preference for food they considered delicious, according to this hypothesis.

"This key moment when we decide whether or not to use fire has, at its core, just the tastiness of food and the pleasure it provides. That is the moment in which our ancestors confront a choice between cooking things and not cooking things," said Rob Dunn, a professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University. "And they chose flavour."

Cooked food tasted more delicious than uncooked food — and that’s why we opted to continue cooking it, he says: not just because, as some have argued, cooked roots and meat were easier and safer to digest.

Some scientists think the controlled use of fire, which was probably adopted a million years ago, was central to human evolution and helped us to evolve bigger brains.

"Having a big brain becomes less costly when you free up more calories from your food by cooking it," said Dunn, who co-wrote Delicious with Monica Sanchez, a medical anthropologist.

However, accessing more calories was not the primary reason our ancestors decided to cook food. "Scientists often focus on what the eventual benefit is, rather than the immediate mechanism that allowed our ancestors to make the choice. We made the choice because of deliciousness. And then the eventual benefit was more calories and fewer pathogens."

Human ancestors who preferred the taste of cooked meat over raw meat began to enjoy an evolutionary advantage over others.

In particular, people who evolved a preference for complex aromas are likely to have developed an evolutionary advantage, because the smell of cooked meat, for example, is much more complex than that of raw meat. "Meat goes from having tens of aromas to having hundreds of different aroma compounds," said Dunn.

Similarly, our proclivity for sour-tasting food and fermented beverages like beer and wine may stem from the evolutionary advantage that eating sour food and drink gave our ancestors.

Humans are among the few species that like sour, Dunn says.

At some point, he thinks, humans’ sour taste receptors evolved to reward them if they found and ate decomposing food that tasted sour, especially if it also tasted a little sweet — because that is how acidic bacteria tastes. And that, in turn, is a sign that the food is fermenting, not putrefying.

"The acid produced by the bacteria kills off the pathogens in the rotten food. So we think that the sour taste on our tongue, and the way we appreciate it, actually may have served our ancestors as a kind of pH strip to know which of these fermented foods was safe," Dunn said.

Flavour also drove humanity to innovate and explore, Dunn says. He thinks one reason our ancestors were inspired to begin using tools was to get hold of otherwise inaccessible food that tasted delicious.

 — Guardian News & Media

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