There’s something incongruous about the hi-tech modern food industry sniffing around the Palaeolithic era for the next big consumer trend. But hold the side order of cynicism. There might just be some logic to good old-fashioned instinctive eating.
Unilever has unveiled a new research programme that aims to re-create the diet of the caveman and apply modern biological science to it in the hope of unlocking some long-forgotten dietary knowledge that was instinctive to our ancestors.
The idea of eating like a caveman is nothing new. Gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin first published The Stone Age Diet book in 1975, and other researchers have picked up the trail. US-based independent research group Paleobiotics Lab, has also been flagging up the heavy load of prebiotic fibre inulin in our ancestors’ diets, and the benefits it can bring.
Like many off-beat new trends, it has been a way of life for a handful of health fanatics for decades.
But are we ready for it to enter the mainstream? Your average caveman couldn’t have had a more different diet to the way we eat today. Tonight’s dinner may be a ready meal with an ingredients list as long as your arm – when once it would have been an armful of berries picked from a shrub.
Unilever’s new inspiration is not completely out of left-field.
First, the natural trend has been gathering pace. We have started to snub those complex ingredients list, preferring them to feature foods we actually recognise as foods. How more natural can you get than to eat like your ancestors, who would have had no idea what an E-number is, let alone how to skin it.
Nostalgic eating, too, has been a big hit. Especially in the recession, we have sought simplicity and savings by digging out our grandmothers’ old-fangled recipes. And once we have had our fill of braised offal and apple pie, what about Granny’s Granny’s recipes… and all the Great-Grannies going back 1200 generations?
Unilever is looking at a time when filling your stomach was a full time occupation. If you got the nutritional balance wrong or plumped for the wrong berry, the consequences were – a horrible death.
Instinct, then, was a pretty crucial life skill.
The Palaeolithic era was also the time when the human genome was set. And by gum, evolution just hasn’t been able to keep up with fast moving consumer trends since then. We’re pretty much the same human beings as our ancient ancestor – just with worse spear skills but considerably better at manoeuvring a supermarket trolley.
The ability to eat instinctively for our genes has been largely crowded out by a sensual confusion of branding, tastes and textures. The outcome? Well, heart disease and cancer aren’t pleasant ways to end your days.
What we have instead of instinct is an armoury of technologies that can be turned back to basics. Archaeologists, anthropologists, evolutionary geneticists, food scientists, botanists… that’s the team of intrepid investigators Unilever has put together for its foray into diets past.
We can’t turn back eating habits 12000 years and we probably wouldn’t want to. Most would rather my local supermarket ran a special on mammoth chops any day than have to go out and hunt them myself.
But we can certainly use today’s techniques to mine knowledge from the past, and use it to make better food in the future. Working together these scientists might, just might, unearth the long-lost secret of optimal nutritional need.