What have we craved throughout history and how can we now have it all?13th March 2023
It’s suppertime somewhere in Italy, and Roberto and Laura are preparing the main meal of the day called “cena.” It’s been like this since Roman times, and we know that the Romans turned cooking into fine art. They first serve pasta, followed by meat with some vegetables. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Amazon, Ana is stirring a porridge of plantains and sweet manioc over a fire in her hut. If her husband is successful at hunting, some meat will be a very welcome addition.
There is tremendous variation in what foods humans can thrive on, from the vegetarian regimen of India’s Jains to the meat-intensive fare of the Inuit, and everything in between. What we eat defines the way we live, and vice versa and depends on our needs, which constantly change throughout history.
From fast hunters to “comfortable” farmers
When we were hunters and gatherers, we craved meat. Some scientists believe meat was crucial to the evolution of our ancestors’ larger brains about two million years ago. Though, even back then it wasn’t all meat and marrow. It’s true that hunter-gatherers usually got around 30% of their annual calories from animals, but “man the hunter” was backed up by “woman the forager,” who provided more calories during difficult times. Researchers found starch granules from plants on fossil teeth and stone tools, which suggests humans may have been eating grains and tubers for at least 100,000 years.
Agriculture was born some 11,000 years ago, when we began to grow wild wheat and barley in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, and to tend the first rice paddies in the swamps of China. As the earliest farmers became dependent on crops, their diets became less nutritionally diverse. Eating the same grain every day gave early farmers cavities and periodontal disease rarely found in hunter-gatherers. When farmers began domesticating animals, those cattle, sheep, and goats became sources of milk and meat but also of parasites and new infectious diseases. Despite allowing permanent settlement and boosting population numbers, the lifestyle and diet of farmers were not as healthy as the lifestyle and diet of hunter-gatherers.
Fast-forward to the Middle Ages
In the 12th century, rich people in Europe ate beef, mutton, pork, duck, and pigeons, while poor people ate simple and monotonous food where meat was a luxury. In Central America, maize was the staple food of the Aztecs, who added tomatoes, avocados, beans, peppers, pumpkins, peanuts, and amaranth seeds to their diets. Aztec diets also included rabbits, turkeys – and dogs, but meat, again, was rare. When we mention the Aztecs, we cannot leave out that the upper-class drank chocolate made from cocoa beans flavored with vanilla and honey. Guess your taste buds are awakened by now.
The discovery of the New World touched off the greatest and most rapid spread of new crops the world had seen. The Americas contributed corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers to Europe, while the Europeans brought wheat and other staple crops – and sugarcane – which was very successful in Brazil and later in the Caribbean region.
However, the diet of ordinary people greatly improved only in the late 19th century. Railways and steamships made it possible to import cheap grain, so bread became cheaper. Preserving food for later consumption was made possible by heating it and pasteurization killed spoilage organisms. (The great chemist Louis Pasteur developed the process that bears his name to save the French wine industry). Together with refrigeration, these inventions made a wider variety of foods available to urban populations. The use of high-yield wheat and rice, along with large doses of fertilizer, has transformed the food picture in many countries. By the end of the 19th century, most people were eating a much more diverse diet.
Fast food doesn’t need to be junk food.
The necessity of quick tasty and calorie-rich meals in the second half of the 20th century gave rise to the first generation of convenience foods. The primary tension was that hunger was mostly related to physical work. The rise of this first generation of convenience foods went hand in hand with rapid industrialization, resulting in such food being extremely processed, artificial, and unhealthy – hence becoming known as “junk food.”
Modern (urban) 21st century humans are even more busy, however, they mostly don’t engage in harder physical work. They have also developed a new sensibility for healthier and lighter diets that enable them to work more effectively to achieve their life’s fulfillment. While being tasty, the first generation of convenience foods fail to address these new needs, resulting in physical and emotional tension.
People are also more and more aware of the fact that our diets and the food system underpinning them are major drivers of environmental pollution and resource demand, which may cause the crossing of key planetary boundaries. The foods currently demanded generate more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions and use substantial and rising amounts of environmental resources, such as cropland, fresh water, and nitrogen – and phosphorus-containing fertilizers. Preserving the integrity of our environment and the health of populations will therefore require substantial changes, not only in the food production but also in our food consumption.
At LoginEKO, we understand how difficult these challenges are. It’s not always simple to eat the right thing – right for you and the planet. An empty stomach and a lack of time, a determination or alternatives that often lead us to make compromises we feel bad about – both physically and emotionally. With this in mind, LoginEKO is already in full swing developing novel plant-based foods that taste better, are affordable, are convenient, and represent a much healthier nutritional choice. Working on our very own ‘meal in a bottle,’ we’re proving that a meal can be healthy, convenient, and reasonably priced, and we’re setting an example for the future of convenient foods.
A meal is much more than just a necessity to keep you going. And it should definitely give you energy, not take it away by forcing you into compromises on health, taste, convenience, price, or your love of nature. We can’t wait to share our ‘meal in a bottle’ with you to see how well we have managed to replace the unhealthy meal you are sometimes forced to eat now. It doesn’t contain cocoa beans, but we are pretty sure the Aztecs would love it.