100 Million Years of Food – Stephen Le

One thought that kept recurring while reading 100 Million Years of Food was how thoroughly this all seems to put paid to the idea of “Intelligent Design”. Because my overall conclusion from all of this is, lord, these bodies are not well put together. We are, apparently, evolved to seek out food that is sweet, but because of this we not only develop our crops for sweetness at the expense of other, more healthful, attributes, but the sweetness really does go straight to our hips. And hearts. And teeth. The diet of Western civilization leads to the the “diseases of Western civilization”: “obesity, type 2 diabetes, gout, hypertension, breast cancer, food allergies, acne, and myopia”… Diet contributes to myopia? That’s still something I need to research. Must remember to ask my ophthalmologist. I saved this: “children who play outside more frequently were found to be less nearsighted” – because THAT explains a lot. (Vitamin D deficiency? The activities that take the place of playing outdoors? I was doomed from the start.)

What kept startling me throughout the book was the assertion that – kind of as Susan Cain revealed that introversion is inborn and can’t be easily ignored – there is just nothing you can do about some things, because one’s dna has a lot to do with how well one does (or doesn’t) thrive in a given environment. Stephen Le uses himself as the exemplar: the area of the globe his ancestors evolved to adapt to, Vietnam, supports a diet which is wildly different from what he grew up with in 20th century Ottawa, and perhaps there is a connection to the fact that his mother only survived her mother by a couple of years. Traditional cuisines adapt to the ecology native to a place, and the people of the area adapt to the traditional cuisine. The book slanted a different light on emigration for me: perhaps there is a bone-deep reason why some people don’t thrive when transplanted… which, given the human urge to explore and wander, leads me back to amazement at the human body’s fallibility. (Aha, there it is: “when Europeans started to populate sunny colonies in the Americas and Oceania beginning a few hundred years ago, and people from the tropics, like my parents, moved in the opposite direction, to frigid climes, the wonderfully adapted skin color suddenly became a liability.”)

Oh, and then there’s the little fact of multiple cases of “such-and-such is good for you, but if you succumb to the usual human thinking that ‘if some is good more is better!” you will suffer or perhaps die”… Like: “Animals that browse too much on isoflavone-rich plants, such as ewes feeding on clover, can become sterile”. And “Others worry about vitamin D deficiency and pop vitamin D pills, but the problem is that no one knows exactly how much vitamin D is a healthy dosage or how vitamin D supplements influence our immune system and increase our risk for diseases like cancer.” Or the fact that eating animal products make you grow taller and stronger and all sorts of other good things, but will kill you earlier in the end. Or “In 1966, researchers in Israel observed that the incidence of multiple sclerosis increased with better sanitation, such as cleaner drinking water, less crowding, and the availability of flush toilets.” Or “For middle-aged people, consumption of cholesterol and fat is likely to improve mood and sex drive, while there is not much evidence for long-term weight loss”.

Counterintuitive much? No wonder we’re all so messed up.

The writing is a lot of fun. (“She brought a bottle of her home-brewed fermented soybean sauce to our house. It smelled like old shoes and tasted like tofu would if it went to a bar, got drunk, was mugged on the way home, and woke up with a hangover.”) This is pop science at its best – mass quantities of excellent (if often depressing) information presented in a compulsively readable manner, and carried along by the author’s own background and experience. One place this, hilariously, shows up is in the brief quotes that head each chapter:

The supreme irony is that all over the world monies worth billions of rupees are spent every year to save crops . . . by killing a food source (insects) that may contain up to 75% of high quality animal protein. — M. Premalatha et al., “Energ y- Efficient Food Production to Reduce Global Warming and Ecodegradation: The Use of Edible Insects”

If you eat that ant, I’ll never kiss you again. — Ex- girlfriend during camping trip

I finished the book with a handful of nascent crusades roiling around in my heart – Save the red squirrels! Get everyone (except perhaps me) eating insects! Exercise (after one more chapter…)! Stamp out MSG (also known as autolyzed yeast, sodium caseinate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein)! Make sure all hospitals and nursing homes have only sunny and south-facing windows! Find whipworm eggs online – ! Wait. No. Not that one.

I received this book from Netgalley for review.

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