In Choosing Food

In Choosing Food, is Instinct Enough?

By Julius Grant, M.Sc., F.I.C.

            It is strange fact that our food, the one commodity which is really a necessity, is usually purchased with the least regard to the efficiency with which it will fulfill its purpose. Unlike most of the animals which we describe as “lower.” we lack that instinct which tells us that one food is good for us and another is not; the lowly rabbit eating its humble lettuce-leaf has a lesson to teach us on the advantages of fresh vegetables, but we ignore it in favor of something in an attractive package fresh from the factory rather than from the kitchen garden.

It is fashionable to attribute this to the form of civilization known as “domestication,” but this is hardly fair because the same civilization that has repressed our animal instincts (including the instinct for food selection) has provided us with means of finding out, not only which food is best for us, but why it is best. We are, in fact, passing through a transitional stage, from which we shall no doubt emerge with the housewife an expert on calories, vitamins and the other factors which really matter in the selection of the weekly menu. It is the purpose of this article to indicate the evolution of this change.

Necessity Determined Primitive Diets

In the earliest days of mankind diet was not so much a matter of choice as of necessity. The primitive hunter setting out to look for venison must frequently have been very thankful to be able to return with a rabbit; and when the latter failed he had to fall back on fish, or to become completely vegetarian and eat the berries his wife had gathered. Bitter experience doubtless taught this lady which type of berry was good for her spouse, and which was not, and this probably was the first step in the elimination of instinct as a guide to the choice of food.

The next step occurred when man had learned to voice his beliefs, hopes and fears through the medium of what we now call religion, and the priests of the tribe or race (who as a rule were also the intelligentsia) formulated dietary laws, specifying what should be eaten and what was taboo. As a rule these laws were based on sound common sense, and in many cases they have been fully justified by modern scientific research. Those who like to disparage the present in comparison with the past, however, should be reminded at this stage that what was sound common sense yesterday is not necessarily so to-day. The Bible provides some very interesting examples, of which the dietary laws of the Jews are the best known, although here again there is no real evidence that they have any significance in modern times and in climatic conditions other than in Egypt.

In this connection a recent interpretation of a portion of the book of Exodus may be mentioned. According to the Old Testament (Exodus xii. 15; xiii. 6, 7), just before the Jews left Egypt for the Promised Land they were exhorted by Moses as follows: -“There shall be no leavened bread be seen with thee, neither shall there be leaven seen with thee –“ At first sight this seems to be a repetition of the same command, but there is a strongest reason to believe that the first command refers to leaven which may be eaten (i.e., bread), and the second to drinkable leaven (or beer). This explanation may not tally with the usual interpretation, but it is more in accordance with what one would expect from the general who had to move an untrained army of men, women and children at a moment’s notice.

Harmful Foods Known in Biblical Times

Moses realized that unleavened bread could be eaten without harm, and that unfermented beer would lead nobody astray. This is supported by the fact that bread was frequently associated with beer in those times, and by the chain of connection between the Hebrew word “seorim” (barley), “seor” (fermented) and our modern word “sour”; on the other hand the Hebrew word for sweet is almost identical with that for unleavened bread. This is all in the nature of a digression, but it serves to illustrate the control over the selection of food exercised in former times by religious bodies, and that it was often based on sound reasoning.

By biblical times, however, crops were fully established as a source of food, and generally speaking little criticism can be leveled against such a diet because by a fortunate accident it was both simple and nutritious. The country folk, especially during the Middle Ages, and up to about 1780, lived mainly on the almost ideal diet of bread, vegetables, butter, cheese and eggs and other dairy produce.

Industrial Revolution Brought Food Changes

It was not until the industrial revolution that inevitable changes took place, and authorities on the subject consider that of these the substitution of white flour for wholewheat flour has proved the most serious alteration in a food habit that has ever occurred. This change arose principally owing to the difficulty in storing flour for long periods in the “whole” state, but its effect were far-reaching, and were accentuated by the bad conditions under which town dwellers lived at that time. In association with lack of sunlight it caused deficiency disorders; thus rickets became widespread.

More unfortunately still, owing to the gradual nature of these changes, it is only comparatively recently that the causes have been realized, so that they have already left their mark on two generations. The substitution of margarine for butter helped in the same direction, and an unbiased consideration of the facts suggests that the replacement of beer by tea (assuming, in both cases, that neither is consumed in excessive quantities) contributed its share. To sum up, in the poorer parts of the towns at any rate, the choice of food was dictated, not by instinct or by religion, but by the necessity of balancing the family budget. The question the housewife had to ask herself was not “What should I buy?” but “What can I afford?”

We see how modern conditions and the spread of knowledge are breeding a new and wise understanding of the properties and criteria of good food, so that the dictates of instinct, superstition and (we hope) economy, will take second place with the housewife of the future. One obvious question, however, remains to be answered, and that is “What is the ideal diet?” Fortunately there is no lack of reliable advice on this score. We may perhaps state in general terms that the desirable characters of the ideal diet are purity, food value, palatability and variety.

So far as food value is concerned it is calories that count, in spite of the fact that they are frequently the subject of cheap humor. They supply energy, and such energy is best obtained from a properly balanced mixture of carbohydrates (e.g., sugar or bread), protein (e.g., meat, eggs or fish) and fat. Some authorities maintain that some of the protein should be of animal origin, thereby providing an example of the value of instinct as a guiding factor in the choice of food, namely, cannibalism. In any case the average adult requires at least 3,000 calories per day to keep him “energized”; this is equivalent to 1 ½ lbs. of cane sugar or half that quantity of olive oil.

Insistence on the importance of vitamins is quite superfluous, and in this connection the addition of vitamins to foods (e.g., of vitamins A and D to bread, margarine and milk) cannot be considered as other than desirable, so long as it is carried out in a controlled manner, with due regard to the dangers of over-dosage; this incidentally is small, owing to the cost of vitamin concentrates.

Mineral Constituents of Foods

Finally, there are the mineral constituents of the food. We do not hear so much of these as of the vitamins, but some of them are no less important. Deficiency of iodides, for example, is well known as a cause of goitre, and this malady is curable by the inclusion of iodides in the diet. It is obviously putting a strain on the enthusiasm of the most well-meaning house wife to expect her to have an intimate knowledge of the peculiarities and deficiencies of the food she buys, but as already pointed out good advice on the matter is now easily obtainable. We may well believe, in fact, that one or two generations will see the completion of the transition from instinct to ordered planning in the selection of food, with a consequent rise in the standard of health of the people.

-New Health.