Do Prehistoric Taste Drives Still Rule our Lives?
I have often spoken about our instinctive taste drives but recently, while looking for a reference on this topic, I realized that I had not written about it.
It appears that we have at least 4 biological taste drives that regulated how we survived in ancient times without food pyramids or dietitians. These drives are determined by our subconscious minds and I discovered an interesting statistic that our conscious mind engages around 2000 synapses while our subconscious mind utilizes over 4 million synaptic pathways. Clearly we are way more subconscious than logical.
So what are these taste drives and how do they affect our nutrition today?
1. We clearly have an instinctive taste drive for sweetness even if the taste is hidden in sauces, piquant dressings and other savoury things.
2. Then there’s a carbohydrate craving for more starchy foods or complex carbs which impart a sense of fullness and satiety.
3. We can’t deny that we are driven to fat in foods and the combination of fat and sweet is almost culturally ubiquitous.
4. And lastly is our fourth drive which is for those essential micro-nutrients that we absolutely need for on-going good health – minerals, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, cellular repair compounds, enzyme co-factors and so on.
We might also have a predilection for Maillard products leading us to using fire in cooking our food and consequently improving the bioavailability of some nutrients so I’ll just note it here as more of a cultural drive rather than a biological one. We had to learn to make fire before this drive became relevant but it did allow our brains to grow larger and more neurologically complex than was possible on a raw food diet alone.
I’ll use my experience of living off the land with the many Aboriginal families and individuals with whom I have spent time in the Outback and around the coastline because relying on Australian wild foods exclusively as in the traditional Aboriginal diet really highlights the significance of these taste drives.
Meeting the need for sweetness from fruits, wild honey, honey ants, tree saps, lerp and other sources of sugars would generally mean lots of work and with fruits particularly, there would be fibre and those micro-nutrients I listed above.
This leads me to a discussion of the nature of the sugars providing this sweetness: The sugar we use in cooking and as table sugar comes from three plants – sugar cane, sugarbeet and palm sugar. It goes under the scientific name of sucrose and is a disaccharide (two-sugar components) made up of a molecule of glucose and one of fructose. I have addressed the impact on our health of the rising sucrose intake in modern times here but the deleterious effects of a high sucrose intake is yet to be fully understood. We know it promotes ageing at a cellular level, obesity, diabetes, pancreatitis, macular degeneration, depressed sperm count and even accelerates loss of bone weight and mass and negatively affects mineral absorption. The full story may take decades yet to fully comprehend.
However, our foragers’ sweetness drive would also provide trehalose (a unique di-glucose molecule similar to maltose but with more intricate and functional bonding), fructose and glucose as the predominant sugars along with a host of micro-sugars which aid absorption of nutrients into our cells. Micro-sugars also appear to assist in the expulsion of toxins from our cells by fueling an active cellular pump recently described.
Other nutrients that sweetness-driven foragers would be getting include plenty of fibre (both soluble and insoluble) from the sweet fruits; a nutritional cocktail from wild honey (pollen is an extremely rich food of simple amino acids, waxes and micro-sugars) and a range of both water and fat soluble antioxidants. This last point is interesting because modern fruits typically lack the fat-soluble vitamins found in wild foods in the same way as offal from domesticated animals is devoid of vitamin C unlike game animal offal which can be a rich source of this antioxidant. Aboriginal Elders often had a reduced dietary range with their increasing years but were given the liver and other offal from the hunts as acknowledgment of their social status. This may have been their dominant source of vitamin C as foraging for fruits declined with age.
This craving is more for complex carbs as in starches today but with wild foods, fructans (cross-linked chains of fructose) were more common than simple glucose starches. This would lead hunter-gatherers to underground storage organs of many kinds; yams, tubers, fleshy roots and other carbohydrate stores as well as the carbohydrate reserves at the base of some plant leaves and in a range of edible seeds (grasses and shrubs). In other parts of the world, this drive has led human populations to become reliant on wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, barley, millet, cassava, yams and/or sweet potato as dietary staples. However, even where these carbohydrates were consumed traditionally, hunter-gatherers would have eaten them as seasonal, occasional foods, rich in fibre and particularly soluble fibre, They also lacked the simple starches of modern varieties or the sucrose loads in other modern foods eg sweet corn, sweet peas, sweet potato. Unfortunately, reducing dietary variety and adopting a small range of foods as staples, living sedentary lifestyles and replacing antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables with these ‘rubbish’ carbohydrate foods had and continues to have far-reaching health ramifications.
Again, the wild food sources of the more satiating complex carbohydrates were more appropriate for our on-going good health than the agricultured substitutes on which we depend for a large part of our energy intake today. Ancient carbohydrate sources actually reduced carb cravings and importantly, sugar cravings in an effective bio-feedback loop. Today we almost begin to salivate just at the thought of a pasta, rice or potato dish and we even plan our meals around the carbohydrate component.
Meeting our drive for fat would provide proteins whether from hunted animals and seafood or from tree nuts. Again, plenty of antioxidants (game animal offal even contains vitamin C) and lots of good fats as saturated fats are rare in the wild. Satisfying the drive for fat (and the above drives too) would entail very short bursts of very strenuous exercise or some endurance energy expenditure digging for burrowing animals and yield other resources for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle (skins, bones for spear tips and knives, sinews for tools) and a deepening relationship with Country as the land was managed with fire and water channeling for maximum food supply.
The Drive for Micro-nutrients
These include antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, minerals, micro-sugars, enzyme modulator and co-factors, cellular repair stimulants and more. in other words, all the biochemical tools in our cellular maintenance toolbox.
Micro-nutrients are only just beginning to be understood more fully and as yet, we have few recommended daily allowances for the bulk of them. Some are even the basis of whole new strands of medicine and health research for example, metaflammation, glycobiology, epigenetics, nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics. Lifestyle medicine attempts to reflect good health strategies encompassing these areas collectively and much of the research in this area reflects the traditional Aboriginal diet as being closer to the ideal for humans. Perhaps 60,000 years of human trials and practical adaptations to the environment are useful tools for the study of modern nutrition.
If we don’t get our taste drives met then current thought is that we unconsciously keep eating until we do. The drives for sweet and fat are easily met with today’s foods. Sucrose is in nearly every processed food and continues to be bred into fresh produce. We know it makes food more addictive and is mostly combined with fat for added appeal. However, the need for antioxidants subconsciously motivates us to eat more food. What results is that we over-indulge in sugars and fat (bad energy perhaps) as we hunt those antioxidants which are either at low concentrations in modern foods or completely absent. Obesity and all its complications are the end game.