What did you last eat? Whatever it was, it probably says more about you and your place in the world than you might think. Because our diets are not just governed by personal taste, they are influenced by a variety of forces. From the biological to the anthropological.
Our recent Food for Thought collection sought to give us a deeper insight into these forces, bringing some of food academia’s most influential voices into The Garden to examine our relationship with food.
Here’s a rundown of our favourite moments from the collection, along with what we learned and related things to watch, read and listen to.
As a self-described bio-cultural anthropologist (“I like to connect the biology with the culture”) Dr. John S Allen works at the intersection of food and evolutionary science. If that all sounds quite theoretical then John was quick to bring his research alive with an assortment of props.
The first thing he showed us was a cast of a human skull, explaining that human teeth are getting smaller with evolution. Why? Because we now rely on implements (cutlery, for example) to process food rather than our hands and teeth. Conversely, our brains, John explained, have actually increased thanks to the diversification of our diets over time. A development that John believes has come to define our distinct relationship to food.
“We don’t eat what’s in the environment, we don’t eat what opportunity provides. We eat with this whole sort of background of cultural practice… culture is a determiner of our relationships at a cultural level and individual level with food. And ultimately that culture is a product of those big old brains that have been evolving over the last two million years.”
His key prop was a humble bag of potato chips – or crisps, for those of us in the UK. These were used by John to highlight his theories around crispy foods and why we can’t seem to get enough of them – from tempura to fried chicken. And if the mere mention of those foods triggers your tastebuds or indeed a memory then that’s the point. Because food has a value way beyond the calories it provides. Food provides a way for us to bond with one another, to create and sustain culture. It’s part of what makes us human.
“That complex relationship – that’s biology, that’s culture, it’s personal and individual experience – adds up to an animal that really does go at food in a different way.”
Nutrigenomics and Nutrigenetics are emerging fields of nutritional science that seek to understand the ‘nature’ element of our behaviours and responses to food. Dr. Vimal Karani from the University of Reading is at the forefront of these interrelated disciplines, and spent the early part of his Garden Talk explaining what led him to them.
“My Mum is obese and my Dad is very lean. But my Mum eats very little food whereas my Dad eats a lot. So if eating too much is the reason for obesity, then why is my Mum obese and my Dad not obese?”
The answer, as Vimal outlined in dazzling detail, is DNA. We all look, speak and act differently and the same is true when it comes to matters of diet and digestion. Hence, Vimal's Mum having a slower metabolic rate than his Dad. And the fact that certain people are more predisposed to diseases such as diabetes.
That said, Vimal was keen to point out that genes are only one part of the answer, explaining that most of our ‘genetic defects’ around food can be overridden through a healthy and active lifestyle. The value of his work, then, is to help people work with their genes rather than against them – to counter the one-size-fits-all nature of diet culture and instead allow people to build a diet attuned to their precise, individual needs (Precision Nutrition). And that’s a game changer.
“By modifying your lifestyle, by consuming a healthy diet and doing more levels of physical activity, you can overcome the genetic risk.”
Professor Charles Spence quite literally wrote the book on gastrophysics, a relatively new area of study focussed on the environmental and psychological factors that influence our understanding and enjoyment of food. From the moment that he told us to forget what we thought we knew about why we like and crave certain foods, we knew this was going to be a fun ride.
And so it proved. Charles peppered his talk with real-world examples of gastrophysics in practice. He introduced us to the Provencal rosé paradox, a phenomenon whereby the same food and drink we consume on holiday invariably fails to taste as good back home, due to the less favourable conditions (the sun on our faces, smell of the sea etc.). Charles also revealed why we drink tomato juice on airplanes (the noise of the engines enhances our appreciation of umami flavours) and that listening to French music makes us more likely to buy French wine. Our curious minds were blown.
But gastrophysics is not just about quirky studies and psychological trickery. Charles believes that his research can bring about real-world benefits.
“Maybe the latest findings from gastrophysics can help nudge all of us towards a more sustainable food future by shifting the focus not just from the food itself – which is clearly important – but to the total experience both on and off the plate."
“We all think we’re choosing what we like, that we know what we like. But when you study it carefully enough it turns out the environment has much more of an impact than any of us realise”
Watch back: Do we really eat with our ears?
Food allergies are on the rise. We know this from the data – “over the last generation, food allergies have doubled” – and we know this anecdotally from our own networks. But why?
That’s the question that has consumed Dr. Sharon Chinthrajah for the last decade. A director at Stanford University’s Sean N. Parker Centre for Allergy and Asthma Research, she spends her time looking at ways to diagnose, prevent and treat food allergies.
Sharon’s Garden Talk first took us through the scale of the problem. She gave us the sobering stats and spoke to the different food types that cause the most common allergies. Then came a fascinating insight into how food allergies are diagnosed.
“We can actually mimic what’s going on in your body on your skin. If we’re looking for a peanut allergy, we take a drop of peanut and we prick the skin.”
On the question of what’s driving the increase of allergies, Sharon hypothesised that modern society itself could be the problem. She explained that we’re not as exposed to dirt as we once were and that the detergents we use to wash ourselves and our clothes while protecting us from germs in the short term actually make us more prone to allergies in the long term.
The good news is that thanks to the work of Sharon and her peers progress is being made. We left Sharon’s talk hopeful that the troubling rise in allergies could yet be halted.
“Every three minutes somebody goes to the emergency room because they’re having an allergic reaction to food.”
Watch back: Why are allergies on the rise?
The central thesis of Professor Rebecca Earle’s Garden Talk was that through studying historical cookbooks we not only see how food culture has shifted over time – but culture itself.
She made the case with an infectious combination of passion and eloquence, first giving us side-by-side comparisons of beef stew recipes from the 17th century right through to today to indicate “the growing importance of numbers as a source of truth” before giving us a broader history of the cookbook. Rebecca explained that while cookbooks date back to ancient civilisations, the real boom came after the Industrial Revolution – when they could be printed and used to help us make sense of new equipment. “Today’s cookbooks reflect the history of technology, consumerism, commodification,” she said.
Rebecca’s talk was fascinating and we learned so much – from why we eat roast turkey at Christmas to how recipes are used to establish and reinforce nationalism. It also perfectly complemented the other talks in our Food for Thought collection. Because while John S Allen et al enlightened us on the role food plays in shaping culture, here we got an eye-opening insight into how food reflects culture, too.
We will never look at a cookbook the same way again.
“Prior to the 18th century, quantification was not, in general, considered a particularly powerful tool for understanding the world.”
We hope you enjoyed this collection of Garden Talks. To help you explore more on this theme, we’ve prepared a list of related things to watch, read and listen to. Tag us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook (@thegarden_talks) to share your own reflections and continue the conversation.
Read: Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating (Professor Charles Spence)
Read: Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato (Professor Rebecca Earle)
Read: The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food (Dr John S. Allen)
Read: Vittles Newsletter (Substack)
Read: Randomised Trial of Peanut Consumption in Infants at Risk for Peanut Allergy (The New England Journal of Medicine)
Watch: The Truffle Hunters (YouTube)
Watch: What is Precision Nutrition? (UNC Nutrition Research Institute)
Why is food so important to us? Beyond its nutritional benefits, food connects people. This series explores how our relationship with food has evolved over time and the meanings that different cultures ascribe to food.
Not even our closest primate relatives think about food in the way humans do. What does the food we eat tell us about our own evolutionary history?
Not only does DNA control physical characteristics like height, but it also shapes how our bodies react to food. Is it true that you are what you eat?
Old cookery books can tell us a lot more than just how to cook a meal. What do they reveal about topics as diverse as access to technology and the concept of truth?
1 in 15 people globally has a food allergy - a rate that's more than doubled since 1960. What's behind this soaring increase?