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Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Published: Tuesday, 6/26/2007

Food history influences today's table

As the world struggles with food safety and legislating the table, looking back at how far the world's food supply has evolved can give us perspective.

Thanks to food historians and authors such as Kenneth F. Kiple we can do that. Mr. Kiple condensed a two-volume history for his latest book, A Moveable Feast - Ten Millenia of Food Globalization (Cambridge University Press, $27). The larger work by the Bowling Green State University Distinguished Professor emeritus of history was co-edited with his wife, Kriemhild C. Ornelas, and published in 2000.

The book has fascinating facts on food culture and history. Among those things that may surprise readers:

1. The notion that we are always getting better in terms of human health was actually a step backward. "The first farmers got malnutrition," he said. "In the Bronze Age - 3000 to 4000 B.C., farmers were to 2 to 6 inches shorter than hunters and gatherers predecessors. The last 2000 years of hunters/gatherers was a golden age of nutrition because people ate such a variety of foods." When they became farmers, they relied on the crop that grew best. In the Middle East, it was barley and wheat. In the Americas it was maize. In China, it was rice, and in Northern China millet and rice. They had little variety in their diets.

2. Following the domestication of crops, animals were first domesticated for religious reasons. "It was crop insurance - sacrificing animals to various gods," he said in a phone interview. Later they learned about the other products from animals such as eggs, meat, milk, hides, and wool.

3. Hawaiians (Pacific Islanders) and Eskimos have developed health problems with high rates of diabetes and hypertension after the adoption of a Western diet. "They didn't have the problems when on traditional diet where there was 80 percent meat in the diet for the Inuits roughly," he said. "It brings up the idea of the Food Pyramid - for who [is it designed]? It is slanted for Europeans, but many of the world's people have lactose intolerance."

4. Technological progress sometimes means a step back in human health. "When ships sailed for long distances, sailors often got vitamin C deficiency or scurvy," says the author. "James Lind suggested citrus or fruit juice as a cure. They weren't sure why."

5. Vitamins weren't discovered until the early 20th century. Vitamin A deficiency and the blindness it causes was probably the first nutrient deficiency to be identified, he writes.

6. While globalization of food began post World War II, "it was not until the 1960s we get into high gear," he says. "People began to travel and discover new tastes. We got inspiration from Julia Child and James Beard. Restaurants were a big factor to get us away from [a diet of] meat and potatoes."

7. Not only has the history of sugar been a dismal one of slavery, the impact of sugar on children's moods and the increase in childhood obesity is still being studied. The East Indian sugar plant winds up in the hands of Muslims who pass it on to Europeans in the Iberian peninsula and then the Canary Islands and Madeira Islands, he says. Portugal and Spain used slaves to make sugar. Sugar was expensive. When the crop shifted to the West Indies and Brazil, it got cheaper. Then the popularity of coffee, tea, cacao or chocolate, and alcoholic beverages increased the demand for sugar.

8. The book describes carbonation. "Water was the original soft drink," says Mr. Kiple, noting Joseph Priestly's work in 1772 and the fermentation processes for wine and beer.

The Spanish and Portuguese notions of cuisine found their way into native American diets. The use of grains for polenta had variations throughout America, such as gruels and porridges. "The use of meat was more Hispanization of the diet," he says.

As Americans pioneered food globalization, its impact brings unintended consequences, such as food intolerances.

There's plenty of food for thought in these pages.



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