★ ★ ★ ★
100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today by Stephen Le | February 2016 | Picador | Hardcover $26
There are few areas of modern life that are burdened by as much information and advice, often contradictory, as our diet and health: eat a lot of meat, eat no meat; whole-grains are healthy, whole-grains are a disaster; eat everything in moderation; eat only certain foods–and on and on. In One Hundred Million Years of Food biological anthropologist Stephen Le explains how cuisines of different cultures are a result of centuries of evolution, finely tuned to our biology and surroundings.
This book is due out in February of 2016. This review is based on an e-ARC provided by the publisher through Edelweiss.
This is an ambitious summary of what we know about traditional cuisines and how various common (or not-so-common) foods can affect the human body, told in part by way of the author’s memories of travelling around the world in search of new food experiences.
The author’s main focus, other than the whirlwind tour through world cuisines and modern hypotheses concerning human evolution, is this:
The robustness of meat-eaters and the long lives of meat-abstainers are two sides of the same biological coin. It all depends on how you define ‘healthy’. Does healthy mean being in a great mood and being fertile and stronger at a younger age, or does healthy mean delaying cancer for a couple of years and hanging out with your great-grandchildren?
I did learn a few intriguing new-to-me factoids. For example:
As a result of losing the ability to manufacture uricase [the enzyme that helps dispose of uric acid, by-product of purine and fructose from food], humans have uric acid levels three to ten times higher than other mammals and unfortunately a greater predisposition to gout and possibly hypertension. The loss of uricase over millions of years of evolution is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the evolution of the human diet.
The author goes on to explain various hypotheses that have been proposed for this seemingly maladaptive quirk of human evolution. Everything from protection against brain damage to more effective fat storage on a fruit-heavy diet has been proposed, but each hypothesis has its problems. Le prefers the idea that this uric acid problem is merely an accidental side effect of the body’s need for protective antioxidants in the absence of dietary or self-synthesized vitamin C. This is because uric acid mimics some of the effects of vitamin C, and in fact higher levels of vitamin C in the body correlate with lower levels of uric acid.
Though I found this topic fascinating, I won’t try to summarize or quote the entire chapter for you — the little teaser above might be enough to get you to try this book, if you’re interested in this sort of thing.
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The book touches briefly on the history of human consumption of almost every type of food, from lard to milk to insects, as well as their associated health effects, both good and bad. It’s a bit of a whirlwind, but the upshot is this: whether any given food is “healthy” often depends entirely on how you consume it and how you want to interpret its typical results.
This is, I think, something most people with an ounce of common sense + basic knowledge of nutrition can intuitively understand, but it’s nice to see it spelled out with lots of examples. Le is careful not to promote one type of diet over another, except of course for his point that traditional diets are generally better suited to our bodies’ needs than the typical “industrialized” diet of the modern American.
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I’m sure Stephen Le’s adventures were quite exciting and I might be interested in reading his travel-focused memoirs, but I found myself getting a little impatient over his little side trips down memory lane at some points. These experiences were usually used as jumping off points for essays on particular foods or cultural traditions, though, so at least they weren’t entirely out of place.
There was also a pretty heavy focus on east/southeast Asian foods — which is entirely understandable given the author’s cultural background and his choice of countries to visit, but I did hope to see a little more info about other cultures, like maybe more details about Native American or Australian Aborigine cuisine history.
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Overall I think this book offers a good summary of what scientists + historians currently understand about traditional foodways and how modern dietary choices/habits impact the human body. Definitely recommend it for anyone interested in diet-based health improvement or historical cuisines.
Publication information: Le, Stephen. 100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate & Why It Matters Today. London: Picador, 2016. EPUB.
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.