Going beyond taste (Part one) – Food

23 February 2016
INTRODUCTION: Historically, food and wine have enjoyed a solid and multifaceted alliance especially in the civilizations of the great rivers (Tigris, Euphrates, Nile), in the Mediterranean basin and beyond. This extraordinary and refined synergy has always been a very precious asset that continues to build success, value and necessary emotions. So it’s only for convenience that the topics of food and wine will be presented here in two separate articles.
I remember some years ago in Waltham Massachusetts to have repeatedly seen meals containing burgers, hot dogs or giant sandwiches accompanied by drinks in steaming vases.
All while continuing to drive a car or be occupied in a thousand other ways: to feed oneself was the last concern, an inconvenience necessary to have enough energy for the day. I remember, however, that I also visited wonderful grocery stores with beautiful products, many of them Italian, as well as “Il Capriccio”, an excellent restaurant both in terms of food and wine.
I’ve always been curious about the evolutionary models of procuring food: from ruminants to felines passing through a large number of species. The act of nutrition finds behavioural explanations that are connected with the viability and therefore the knowledge of useful food is a natural instinct for the animal. Even the wolf, the real one, instinctively possesses a sense of moderation or satiety, and even the wild boar, the real one, limits its offspring and its nutrition. Ruminants represent the need to quickly ingest herbs and shrubs to prepare them for digestion at a quieter time. I cannot recall, at this point, how much we disregard these evolutionary behaviours even in herbivore bovines that we breed as if they were monogastric with an absurd use of energy and with serious environmental consequences, and then we’re surprised by some of the consequences (mad cow or mad breeders?).

I was even more impressed by the elephant on a recent trip to the Kruger National Park as I observed its devastating and impressive passage in the forest in search of the very plentiful plant food, especially Mopane or the butterfly tree, a high-protein legume. I thought that men have occupied and continue to occupy too much land and there will always be less room for certain environmental balances.

Elephant feeding on Mopane at the Kruger National Park (South Africa)

With the sole intent to stimulate some reflection, I thought also of the evolution of man for whom the most basic needs of the body have not changed and whose evolutionary process does not foresee over-nutrition or insufficient physical exercise: keeping in good health also depends on operating our body in the way it was designed.
With a quick and concise attempt it may be argued that in the evolution from Homo Habilis, 3 million years ago, to Homo Sapiens, 200,000 years ago, digestion has not progressed much, while the brain has undergone an impressive development that has never been realized in other animals (from 500 to 1,500 cm3). Of course it hasn’t only changed in size but in numbers and the complexity of functions. Contending for food with other animals has led us to use our brain to implement the first actions of fabrication (stone tools… the construction of camps). Man had initially as his food source only vegetables, fruits and grains and then also fed on fish and meat, and thus become omnivorous without being fully prepared for it. It must be observed that human saliva contains amylase, which allows for the digestion of carbohydrates, while our digestive tract is of medium length to allow for the digestion of vegetable and limited animal proteins. As we well know, carnivores have a rather short and simple intestinal tract structure to digest animal proteins and fats quickly with a gastric pH of around 1 (in humans, the pH is between 4 and 5). So man is moderately carnivore while lacking a full digestive evolution, the second beating heart, and one that’s just as important as the first.

Michael Pollan in his The Omnivore’s Dilemma provides an interesting reflection on the origin of our food, the consequences of aggressive agriculture and the need for more natural food as a response to eating disorders, the cause of many other health disorders.
Eating smarter and healthier is a revolution in the economy of health and wellbeing. Different human societies have followed different diets and some attempts to verify their effects on our health have been scientifically documented, such as in the China Study, which is a serious trial to ponder diet and its consequences on possible human diseases.
And naturally a question arises: why in the western world has taste, in recent decades, acquired a connotation that often goes against our health? Why has an excess of processed foods without nutritional value become a fundamental part of our diet? We must open our minds to the diversity of foods, tastes, crops and overturn the paradigm… in the natural environment nothing is mono but rather infinitely complex.

Investments in agriculture are mainly aimed at the productive capacity of soils (soil productivity) rather than also being allocated to the health of soils (soil health), which determines the overall quality of production.

Bread and figs. Wall painting. Herculaneum, 79 AD in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples

The human body too feels the consequences… we are severely damaging the environment and our health by producing the wrong foods. Re-educate, expand the food culture, become used to once more the diversity of real and beneficial flavours: good and natural food (people still associate the terms wholemeal/natural with dietary and therefore punitive) are the greatest allies of medicine. It should be remembered that the Greeks and Pythagoras in particular used the phrase “let food be your medicine”.The rediscovery of these formidable truths finds us still unprepared and ‘ignorant’ of in-depth knowledge about these ancient words. We, especially in the West, guilty of surplus compared to need, and also especially consumers of animal protein, which can lead to, must draw more from the plant world for our healthy eating.


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