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Why do traditional cultures switch to eating modern foods?

by (56596)
Updated October 01, 2014 at 3:15 AM
Created September 01, 2011 at 5:40 PM

Someone brought this up in another question and I thought it deserved its own question. If traditional diets are so good, why do people crave modern foods and move away from their traditional diets? Is there something missing in traditional diets?

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1724 · September 05, 2011 at 8:32 AM

MHGL -- interesting, but I don't think that is or would be a universal experience. Some places I've lived in Africa (e.g. Cameroon), adults generally don't eat fruit or anything sweet. One of the reasons for a very high consumption of beer is because the alternative is sickly sweet soda (I used to do the same thing). Fruit, and now candy, is seen as "children's food" and people told me they "grew out of" liking. Their adult tastes seem to run more toward -- that taste that is all the rage now among foodies with the Japanese name (can't recall it).

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1724 · September 05, 2011 at 8:26 AM

Meh, there's always distillation. Alcohol-production is an ancient craft.

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11986 · September 02, 2011 at 7:41 PM

Okay, as long as we're wandering in left field with the apes, here's a weird observation: My dog, who is raw fed, will stop chewing on bones at a certain point and will bury them to, er, mature (I assume that's the purpose, anyway). He is a very lean dog, very healthy. Every August, though, he ends up eating the plums that fall from the trees in our yard, and he *cannot stop himself.* He even wakes me up at night begging to go out and eat more. He get plump and itchy from them, too. Then in October, after the last of the plums are gone, no more itch, no more whine. It's like canine addiction.

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56596 · September 02, 2011 at 1:19 PM

or the criticism section of Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_affluent_society#Criticisms

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56596 · September 02, 2011 at 1:18 PM

mth, you should read the post on my blog.

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56596 · September 02, 2011 at 1:17 PM

I do remember one story a missionary told me about how he gave a twinkie to a very isolated tribal Indian man and he started crying. The missionary asked why he was crying and the Indian said that it was the best thing he had ever tasted in his entire life. lol.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad
56596 · September 02, 2011 at 12:46 PM

hey left voluntarily

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094
78407 · September 02, 2011 at 12:20 PM

What happened to PersonMan?:)

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad
56596 · September 02, 2011 at 11:56 AM

the new PersonMan!

7d0c3ea9bf8be00b93e6433d8f125ac3
7540 · September 02, 2011 at 11:51 AM

what are you talking about?

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78407 · September 02, 2011 at 11:11 AM

hej CaveTomboy* i realy like your answer its source by a real hand experience. Its good to hear how the products flood the markets and conquer the world. Also for me sugar get more and more available. When i was as teen in the UK and i saw all this candy bars at the KIOSK. I get realy wanna have them in Germany. Now we also have more products like in the USA. Now i avoid them and look different at them. Still there was a disire for all this new flavours and experiences with all this new designed foods.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094
78407 · September 02, 2011 at 11:07 AM

i thikn still there is some thing preferable in modern food. What is if its true with the glucose thing. in fruits the easy sugar. this will be confusing and controversal anyway. What is if the simple sugars in fruit are realy the optimal diet!!!?? Cause we are comming from the apes. What is when we are usally designed to eat fruit. Then people will crave all and everything fruit linke with easy sugars. And thats in all the junk food!!!

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7592 · September 02, 2011 at 12:21 AM

I agree...I think it's purely big company driven--in roads by manufacturers in other countries. Too bad we cannot warn them.

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11111 · September 01, 2011 at 10:27 PM

Part 2: this is the same way biases are passed on to our kids for example. I knew a girl who was afraid of snakes, as I got to know her better we talked about it and it seems she had never seen a snake in her entire life, never had a traumatic experience with a snake, it was all because her mother hated snakes and passed this behavior on to her daughter. Now this same woman can hold a boa constrictor and has no fear once she understood her fear was learned.

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11111 · September 01, 2011 at 10:24 PM

+1 Yes this happens a lot in the animal world. It is how young animals learn what plants are safe to eat and what are not. If a member of the group eats a new food and gets violently ill other members will eventually shy away from it. Many herbivores will not eat certain weeds that grow in amongst the grasses they normally eat, they will eat around them. Monkey see, monkey do anyone?

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745 · September 01, 2011 at 9:24 PM

The selection for mirror neurons in the human brain could support this. When we watch someone do something, mirror neurons in our brain fire up in the exact same way as if we were going to do the movement ourselves. Its thought that this adaption helped to learn complicated skills and hunting strategies more efficiently. Pair this with pattern recognition and you may get something akin to "when Grok picks and eat the plant that look like (insert image here) he gets big and strong." Perhaps this developed into "when the people with the big steel guns eat white flour, they get to dominate."

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11986 · September 01, 2011 at 9:21 PM

Especially agree with #2. Still chewing on the hyperpalatibility (jeebus, that's hard to type) thesis, but maybe the book will help.

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12847 · September 01, 2011 at 6:44 PM

@mth- but they didn't account for food processing or other necessities like building shelter

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5796 · September 01, 2011 at 6:41 PM

"Studies show that hunter-gatherers need only work about twenty hours a week in order to survive and may devote the rest of their time to leisure" - Sahlins, M. (2005). The Original Affluent Society in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics

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56596 · September 01, 2011 at 5:42 PM

My own view is that people switch away from traditional foods because

  • hyperpalatibility of modern foods subverts our adaptive hunger and cravings. See Stephan Guyenet's series on food reward and The End of Overeating.
  • Modernization requires people to get jobs/go to school/etc., thus reducing the time they can spend on gathering and hunting food and driving them towards time-saving convenience foods
  • Marginalization of many tribal cultures, such as removal from their land or pollution of their land reduces their ability to eat traditional foods.

3aea514b680d01bfd7573d74517946a7
11986 · September 02, 2011 at 7:41 PM

Okay, as long as we're wandering in left field with the apes, here's a weird observation: My dog, who is raw fed, will stop chewing on bones at a certain point and will bury them to, er, mature (I assume that's the purpose, anyway). He is a very lean dog, very healthy. Every August, though, he ends up eating the plums that fall from the trees in our yard, and he *cannot stop himself.* He even wakes me up at night begging to go out and eat more. He get plump and itchy from them, too. Then in October, after the last of the plums are gone, no more itch, no more whine. It's like canine addiction.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094
78407 · September 02, 2011 at 11:07 AM

i thikn still there is some thing preferable in modern food. What is if its true with the glucose thing. in fruits the easy sugar. this will be confusing and controversal anyway. What is if the simple sugars in fruit are realy the optimal diet!!!?? Cause we are comming from the apes. What is when we are usally designed to eat fruit. Then people will crave all and everything fruit linke with easy sugars. And thats in all the junk food!!!

3aea514b680d01bfd7573d74517946a7
11986 · September 01, 2011 at 9:21 PM

Especially agree with #2. Still chewing on the hyperpalatibility (jeebus, that's hard to type) thesis, but maybe the book will help.

3aea514b680d01bfd7573d74517946a7
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11986 · September 01, 2011 at 9:12 PM

Pure gassy speculation here: Once we account for the initial transition (be it palatability, convenience, fermentability, or what have you), the reasons for the continuation of the new way of eating, despite losses in individual health, ought to be considered.

I've thought for some time now that there may be a powerful instinct in humans (and possibly other omnivorous animals) to carefully watch what other members of the species eat, and to copy that behavior pretty rigidly. My reasoning is this: Because we are generalist plant eaters (as opposed to specific plant eaters, like koala bears/eucalyptus leaves), we must exercise caution in trying new vegetation. Meat is usually pretty safe, once caught, and fruits nearly as safe, but other plant parts--especially from non-cultivated plants--come packed with an arsenal of chemical weapons to discourage predation. So if you're going to feast from the green buffet, you've got to make sure you don't eat the wrong carroty-looking thing (like the one with the purple spots). From evolution's "perspective," an efficient way to do that is to wire in an instinct to eat what other living and apparently healthy members of the species are eating, and not venture much beyond that.

Such an instinct could exhibit some variability in individuals, with most being somewhat shy around new foods, and some being bold renegades (not too many of those, though -- as the saying goes among mushroom hunters, "There are old mushroom pickers, and there are bold mushroom pickers, but there are no old, bold mushroom pickers."). And there could be a concomitant instinct to tell others how to eat, too -- this would help limit (presumably) the number of deaths from, say, hemlock poisoning.

As I said, pure gassy speculation, but would explain a number of observations about human culture and foodways, and the near-religious fervor people seem to feel about the way they eat (and I don't exempt myself from those observations).

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11111 · September 01, 2011 at 10:27 PM

Part 2: this is the same way biases are passed on to our kids for example. I knew a girl who was afraid of snakes, as I got to know her better we talked about it and it seems she had never seen a snake in her entire life, never had a traumatic experience with a snake, it was all because her mother hated snakes and passed this behavior on to her daughter. Now this same woman can hold a boa constrictor and has no fear once she understood her fear was learned.

66974b2cb291799dcd661b7dec99a9e2
11111 · September 01, 2011 at 10:24 PM

+1 Yes this happens a lot in the animal world. It is how young animals learn what plants are safe to eat and what are not. If a member of the group eats a new food and gets violently ill other members will eventually shy away from it. Many herbivores will not eat certain weeds that grow in amongst the grasses they normally eat, they will eat around them. Monkey see, monkey do anyone?

F46d472ee4e097afd7e0081ed6f6ab21
745 · September 01, 2011 at 9:24 PM

The selection for mirror neurons in the human brain could support this. When we watch someone do something, mirror neurons in our brain fire up in the exact same way as if we were going to do the movement ourselves. Its thought that this adaption helped to learn complicated skills and hunting strategies more efficiently. Pair this with pattern recognition and you may get something akin to "when Grok picks and eat the plant that look like (insert image here) he gets big and strong." Perhaps this developed into "when the people with the big steel guns eat white flour, they get to dominate."

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892 · September 01, 2011 at 6:12 PM

Add to that "Status symbol." Those in developing countries who can afford to eat processed foods are typically wealthier.

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60 · September 02, 2011 at 12:01 AM

"The leading branded ultra-processed foods and drinks are manufactured by transnational companies most able to purchase substrates for their products at rock-bottom or even subsidised prices. They penetrate new markets in lower-income countries, with massive marketing and advertising budgets, and may undercut local industries, drive them out of business, or take them over.

In the last decades, ultra-processed products have usually become relatively or even absolutely cheaper to manufacture, and sometimes ??? not always ??? relatively cheaper to buy. They are often manufactured in increasingly supersized packages and portions at discounted prices with no loss to the manufacturer. The packaging may cost more than the contents."

from The Big Issue is Ultra-Processing

This is a rather detailed and fascinating essay I found via Marion Nestle's blog, a while back. If you haven't read Nestle's book "Food Politics," well, what are you waiting for?

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7592 · September 02, 2011 at 12:21 AM

I agree...I think it's purely big company driven--in roads by manufacturers in other countries. Too bad we cannot warn them.

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3014 · September 01, 2011 at 6:53 PM

All of the above.

You can just imagine the scene. People who have more advanced technology descend on your isolated corner of the world. They introduce their food to you.

You can't help being a little impressed by them. Their food is the food of the future. You spend an hour making breakfast and they show you something that takes 5 minutes to prepare. And it's sweet!

Would you say no?

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5929 · September 01, 2011 at 6:38 PM

I think savings of time is the major reason. As you pointed out recently (if memory serves), food acquisition and preparation ran ~40 hours per week for most hunter-gatherers. You can get similar calories in a few hours from a supermarket.

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56596 · September 02, 2011 at 1:19 PM

or the criticism section of Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_affluent_society#Criticisms

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56596 · September 02, 2011 at 1:18 PM

mth, you should read the post on my blog.

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12847 · September 01, 2011 at 6:44 PM

@mth- but they didn't account for food processing or other necessities like building shelter

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5796 · September 01, 2011 at 6:41 PM

"Studies show that hunter-gatherers need only work about twenty hours a week in order to survive and may devote the rest of their time to leisure" - Sahlins, M. (2005). The Original Affluent Society in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics

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13635 · September 01, 2011 at 5:46 PM

Convenience, price, availability, storability. Manufactured food can be fine-tuned to greatly appeal to our senses.

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1724 · September 02, 2011 at 10:16 AM

I don't really buy the hyperpalatibility argument because most of the developing countries I've lived in (predominantly in Africa) have very different taste than Western tastes. Sugar as not made the tremendous in-roads here that it has elsewhere, except in the form of soda.

Convenience is huge. Most staple foods in Africa take a LONG time to hand-process and cook. Rice takes 15 minutes, tops. And the Chinese are flooding African markets with Chinese rice as low as half the price of locally grown rice. More and more women are working outside the home and find it easier and quicker to use convenience foods.

Another reason is the same thing that happened in America. When I was a kid, things like ice cream or soda were "treats" for "special occasions", now they are everyday. Same thing is happening in Africa. More availability, heavy-duty marketing, higher incomes all give people the opportunity to eat special foods all the time.

The other thing is -- they are no different than us and just as Americans did not understand what their diet was doing to their health, neither do most people in "traditional" cultures or however you want to put it. Add to that a growing portion of the population who are desk-jockeys and have the chance to drive cars or take taxis, a culture that considers being "fat" a sign of health and wealth, and a very "here and now" perspective on life that doesn't easily make connections between something I am doing now and having diabetes in 10 years and voila!

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1724 · September 05, 2011 at 8:32 AM

MHGL -- interesting, but I don't think that is or would be a universal experience. Some places I've lived in Africa (e.g. Cameroon), adults generally don't eat fruit or anything sweet. One of the reasons for a very high consumption of beer is because the alternative is sickly sweet soda (I used to do the same thing). Fruit, and now candy, is seen as "children's food" and people told me they "grew out of" liking. Their adult tastes seem to run more toward -- that taste that is all the rage now among foodies with the Japanese name (can't recall it).

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad
56596 · September 02, 2011 at 1:17 PM

I do remember one story a missionary told me about how he gave a twinkie to a very isolated tribal Indian man and he started crying. The missionary asked why he was crying and the Indian said that it was the best thing he had ever tasted in his entire life. lol.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094
78407 · September 02, 2011 at 11:11 AM

hej CaveTomboy* i realy like your answer its source by a real hand experience. Its good to hear how the products flood the markets and conquer the world. Also for me sugar get more and more available. When i was as teen in the UK and i saw all this candy bars at the KIOSK. I get realy wanna have them in Germany. Now we also have more products like in the USA. Now i avoid them and look different at them. Still there was a disire for all this new flavours and experiences with all this new designed foods.

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5242 · September 01, 2011 at 11:37 PM

Hyperpalatibility, sugar and it's damn easy, no effort required.

We are wired to like all three.

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10161 · August 26, 2014 at 10:03 PM

Because it's easier.

Salish women adapted to lugging 100 lb baskets of clams had no problems with 100 lb flour sacks. The Paleo period - food macros and storage containers - ended immediately.

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26 · August 26, 2014 at 4:58 AM

governments like agriculture which supports large populations that can then be made into armies.

this then lead to a land grab, more land > more farms > more armies.

any healthy people who were still hunter gatherers were wiped out by legions of malnourished mildly crazy so-called civilized people.

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1773 · September 02, 2011 at 12:07 AM

Superstimuli, convenience, etc.

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3499 · September 01, 2011 at 8:14 PM

Wild guess here, but I think food security is a big part of it. Harvest grains can be dried and stored for long periods without spoilage.

My other guess is fermentability. People in general love beer.

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1724 · September 05, 2011 at 8:26 AM

Meh, there's always distillation. Alcohol-production is an ancient craft.

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9812 · September 01, 2011 at 7:59 PM

I came across this article a couple hrs ago and was actually wondering if you'd seen it Melissa- http://www.montrealgazette.com/business/Diet+crisis+develops+among+Inuit+people/5336804/story.html

Probably not really anything new there, but I thought it was lame they didn't go into detail as to what is in the traditional Inuit diet, but made sure to point out the modern Inuit are lacking in "fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy."

I second the above points about convenience, storability, etc.

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78407 · September 02, 2011 at 11:39 AM

I try to understand that there is a desire in humans to eat fruits and vegetables. And especially fruits have a special attraction. Probably on all. All this junk foods are somehow fruit like. Its far away from fruits. On the other side its also sugars and simple energy. And a lot of good fruits taste like creamcakes (durian) or candy(jackfruit) or sodadrinks(coconutwater). All this junk food has something what is like in the fruit world. Pizza, is a bit like realy good ripe fresh tomatos. If you look all the BlueZones are close to the tropical climate, where fruit grows.

And the blueZone means there is a area where naturally lot of healthy people live. A lot people get very old, over hundret.

So probably there is a desire...for certain foods we ate in the pasts. This is mainly counting for people who live up north.

I remember all this advertise for the food in the 90s for this all differents foods. or how it was to explore all this different icreamvariations and tastes and flavours. This was and science for its own. And a adventure. Or what happens if i drink some ornagelemonad or cola. You get on a drug like mind changing experience. This is simple it boost the system. Its more like a sugar high. Its also a new experience. And somehow it connects. Remebering the itme eating at mcD(the golden M leeter fastfood chain internationally occuring) and the last time i just go with people who eat at mcD its a experience how people spend time together.

Some candies cost some cent. its probably the cheapest soruce of energy. ANd it create pop songs and a whole new culture. The hot dog is a art object. Its more than just food. The same for the Hamburg or even the BIGMAC which is a indicator for econimical growth. So the new food is a ticket to a new world. And its more than just a way of victimize myself. Its also to be a prt of this slefdestructing new world. A lot people come along with it if they keep the unhelathy things small. Still they suffer and one day they have to go to doctor or to surgery.

On Isuma.tv there is a documentary www.isuma.tv . Where people in the arcti inuit people have a visit from a canadian circus. Which bring a lot of joy back in the inuit comunity. Its more than just food. That i hear a lot people saying too. The artist make a circus program with the inuit young people together. some traditonal chanting and drumming together with circus arts like acrobatics and juggling. This brings joy back to the people.

On another documentary on www.isuma.tv there are inuit people who were resettled by the goverment to a area further up north. Where it was very heart to surive and to hunt and to keep on a traditional diet. What did the inuit families do. They tried to come out. still the goverment trick them. And so they steal the food out of the trash from the military camp.


some other answers to this topic. Investigation of Comparative Judgement Regarding Job and Living Preferences http://sacs.sa.funpic.de/?p=200

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad
56596 · September 02, 2011 at 12:46 PM

hey left voluntarily

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094
78407 · September 02, 2011 at 12:20 PM

What happened to PersonMan?:)

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad
56596 · September 02, 2011 at 11:56 AM

the new PersonMan!

7d0c3ea9bf8be00b93e6433d8f125ac3
7540 · September 02, 2011 at 11:51 AM

what are you talking about?

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