Evolutionary explanations of food preferences


Consumption of food plays a pivotal role in ensuring the survival and functionality of all organisms- be it a single-celled amoeba, a plant, or a human being. All living organisms are programmed to obtain food from their environments in some way or the other.

Besides being programmed to obtain food, humans have also evolved certain food preferences. Moreover, food also plays the role of an important social glue in any human society.

Foods that we like, and don’t like

Anne and her little brother had just woken up, thanks to the screaming and pestering of their mother. They washed and prepared themselves for breakfast.  

When the two kids sat at the table, they were required to pick an apple from a bowl that was placed in front of them. Anne examined a few apples and finally chose one to eat. She picked one for her brother too. 

“Here, take it.”
“No, I want another one. It has spots. I’ll pick myself.”

Carefully examining all the apples, he chose one that was free from any spots and looked bright-red.

We use our senses, especially sight, taste, and smell to gain information about the foods we choose to eat or to not eat. This helps us choose the most nutritious and healthy foods.

In general, foods that are free from any spots are less likely to be spoiled or infested by worms. So we’re wired to not pick food (mostly fruits) that has the slightest hint that a foreign body has entered it.

This is precisely the reason why people make quick sight-based judgments about foods they’ve never eaten before. “I’m not eating that. It looks disgusting.”

Sight is usually the first defence that we use to avoid ingesting contaminated food that could pose a risk to our health and survival.

The other defences are taste and smell.

If food tastes good, it is probably rich in calories, healthy and nutritious. I’m talking about naturally occurring foods here and not modern-day fast foods and confectioneries that taste good but are generally unhealthy. So, we can go with the general rule that if it tastes good, it’s not harmful.

Conversely, bad-tasting foods are more likely to be poisonous or infested with germs. When we eat something that tastes bitter, our visceral reaction is to instantly spit it out.

These behavioural responses are clearly evolved to ensure our health and survival.

In some cases, unhealthy foods may bypass the defence of our taste buds and manage to enter our body. Our body’s second line of defence in ejecting that food out of its system is to vomit. Vomiting is nothing more than our body throwing out unwanted stuff.

During the first three months of pregnancy, some women develop pregnancy sickness. It involves a nauseous reaction to particular foods such as meat, alcohol, and coffee that are potentially harmful to the developing baby.

If such women do consume these foods they’re likely to vomit to protect the developing baby from any harm.

Similarly, our sense of smell helps us distinguish good food from bad food. If food smells bad, it’s probably rotten and bad for our health. Rotten food not only smells bad but triggers the emotion of disgust in us that prevents us from going anywhere near that food, let alone bring it near our mouth.

If you’re offered a dish you’ve never eaten before, you’re likely to smell it to check its quality. It may look good but if it doesn’t smell good you may decide not to eat it.

Our inner preference for familiar foods is a safeguard left from our prehistoric times when unfamiliar foods could turn out to be poisonous. This is why so many people find the dishes that their mothers fed them as children comforting. What’s familiar is comfortable and likely to be safe.

food preferences
The disgusted facial expression we make while smelling bad food is similar to the expression we make while puking.

Taste and novelty

We’re designed to get tired of one taste, and if that’s all we have, we eventually stop eating. But should another thing come along, we’re tempted to keep chowing down. This means that the greater the variety of flavors available, the more we’ll eat as we’re less likely to get tired of a single taste.

In ancient times, this mechanism made sure our bodies obtained a variety of nutrients. Today it makes you go out of control while eating junk food.  

This why you see so many flavors of foods available in the market. When consumers eat only one type of food they tend to get tired of it. So to stay in business, companies roll out new versions or flavors of the same product.

Food-sharing as a social glue

You can fairly predict the closeness and intimacy of two living organisms by the extent with which they share food with each other, and humans are no different.

We’re hard-wired to share the highest amounts of our food with our family members because they’re our genetic relatives. Parents share maximum food with their children. Children share maximum food with their siblings and parents.

But food-sharing is not restricted to family. Food-sharing also occurs between friends, social groups and communities. 

Since survival is the most important need of any living being, by sharing food with others we give them an unconscious signal that we care about them, love them, and want them to survive and thrive.

Any social event or gathering where members of a community gather to celebrate their belongingness to each other is incomplete without food. Be it a marriage ceremony, a religious festival, or even a party, if there’s no food there’s no sense of belongingness.

Food-sharing was a recurrent feature in our evolutionary history. It is a major reason why humans lived, and still live, in groups, tribes, and communities.