Do you remember your first bite? Probably not. But the echo of that flavour stayed with you until today. Bee Wilson, in her book First Bite. How we learn to eat takes the reader on a journey through the human relationship with food: from how our preferences for certain foods are related to our mother’s diet when she was pregnant, through a history of nursery food, to the modern eating and how it’s become almost impossible for many of us to feed ourselves healthily in the world of the seemingly endless food supply.
“My premise in First Bite is that the question of how we learn to eat – both individually and collectively – is the key to how food, for so many people, has gone so badly wrong. The greatest public health problem of modern times is how to persuade people to make better food choices.”Bee Wilson, First Bite. How we learn to eat.
Many of us might think that one’s eating habits are virtually non-changeable once established. We’re forgetting, however, that eating is a skill, and hence it is something that can be learned and re-learned, regardless of our age. First Bite is a story of pleasures of eating, about reconnecting with our senses and bodily needs to be able to make better food choices; because, as Wilson puts it: ‘when our preferences are in order, nutrition should take care of itself.’
How did eating become so complicated for modern humans? is a question that keeps coming back throughout the 400 pages of the book. As an attempt to answer this quest, Wilson tells two stories of the modern food system: a fairytale one and a horror one. The first is a story of abundance: never have humans been fed as well as they are now. The author points to the Haber-Bosch process (a method for synthesising ammonia that enabled mass-producing of the cheap nitrogen fertilisers for agriculture) as one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century, that profoundly changed not only the food system but also the course of the history of humanity. Have you heard about it before? I haven’t either.
‘Now it’s the only time in history that we have lived taking abundance for granted, taking food for granted. More food is produced each year than ever’, says Wilson in her 15-minute speech for 5X15 Stories. She also challenges the claim by Johan Norberg, the author of the ‘Progress. Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future’, that the food problem is finally being solved. According to Wilson, abundance is not as much the solution of the problem, as it is the core of the food system’s horror story: food, although abundant, is not necessarily nourishing, nor (in extreme cases) deserving to be called food at all.
‘Diet causes more health problems in the world than any other single factor, including tobacco and alcohol’, says Wilson in her talk. The definition of malnutrition has been changed in recent years, too, and it now includes – next to absolute hunger and nutrient deficiency – obesity, caused by over-, not underfeeding. According to WHO, ‘In 2014, approximately 462 million adults worldwide were underweight, while 1.9 billion were either overweight or obese’ – for the first time in history of humanity, obesity among adults is a more common problem than hunger.
The fairytale and horror stories of our modern food system coexist simultaneously: food is abundant but not all of it is, strictly speaking, food. Navigating the jungle of the industrialised food system brings us back to the omnivore’s dilemma, a term coined thirty years ago by Paul Rozin, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania: omnivores must seek out and explore new potential foods while remaining cautious of them until they are proven safe. How do we distinguish what’s safe amongst the harrowing variety of foods in the modern supermarket?
Processed foods, the greatest success of the industrial food system, rely heavily on the holy trio of sugar, fat and salt – the evil clique responsible for most diet-related diseases. In First Bite, Wilson notes that since flavours and food preferences are all learned, we can, with a bit of work, train our brains to desire broccoli and spinach more than a greasy cheeseburger with fries. We learn what we like through repeated exposure: we are sometimes appalled by the taste of something new, but then learn to love it later in life.
‘We did not come into the world disliking bitter greens; we were taught to dislike them by our environment. The taste may be identity but it is not destiny.’Bee Wilson, First Bite. How we learn to eat.
First Bite reminds us that, as omnivores, we possess an incredible ability to eat almost everything. So, even if our eating has gone wrong, we can re-establish our food habits to serve us better. It’s not an easy undertaking since our ‘our tastes are learned in the context of immense social influences, whether from our family, our friends, or the cheery font on a bottle of soda’, but it’s certainly a feasible one.
Teaching the children how to eat better, how to use their senses to decide what’s edible, what’s rotten, and what’s delicious – is the most important task humans face as parents. But to teach our kids how to nourish themselves, we have to become proficient in eating (as well as feeding) ourselves.
‘If you can improve the eating, the rest of life gets a little better too’, says Wilson in her book, but to improve the way we eat we have to see food as something valuable, just as our ancestors did. ‘When food was scarce, we had no choice but to value it, to be alert what it did to our bodies and what we needed from it. The great mistake of our abundant modern times has been to think that food was something that we could take for granted’, Wilson says in her talk, and it’s difficult not to agree. If, as a society, we recognise that food matters, we can start paying more attention to how we eat and how tremendously important diet is for one’s health and well-being. The question is: what would it take for each of us to even want to relearn how to eat?
PS: Head over to aho’s Goodreads profile for more quotes from the book!