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Review
, 90 (3), 707S-711S

The Gourmet Ape: Evolution and Human Food Preferences

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Review

The Gourmet Ape: Evolution and Human Food Preferences

John R Krebs. Am J Clin Nutr.

Abstract

This review explores the relation between evolution, ecology, and culture in determining human food preferences. The basic physiology and morphology of Homo sapiens sets boundaries to our eating habits, but within these boundaries human food preferences are remarkably varied, both within and between populations. This does not mean that variation is entirely cultural or learned, because genes and culture may coevolve to determine variation in dietary habits. This coevolution has been well elucidated in some cases, such as lactose tolerance (lactase persistence) in adults, but is less well understood in others, such as in favism in the Mediterranean and other regions. Genetic variation in bitter taste sensitivity has been well documented, and it affects food preferences (eg, avoidance of cruciferous vegetables). The selective advantage of this variation is not clear. In African populations, there is an association between insensitivity to bitter taste and the prevalence of malaria, which suggests that insensitivity may have been selected for in regions in which eating bitter plants would confer some protection against malaria. Another, more general, hypothesis is that variation in bitter taste sensitivity has coevolved with the use of spices in cooking, which, in turn, is thought to be a cultural tradition that reduces the dangers of microbial contamination of food. Our evolutionary heritage of food preferences and eating habits leaves us mismatched with the food environments we have created, which leads to problems such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

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