Prehistoric Piffle

No time for advocates of prehistoric diets

Food
Ancient fast food: Art in the Chauvet Cave, France, c. 30,000 BC

The American takeout service Grubhub announced last month that the fastest-growing food trend, by far, is the “Paleo” diet, with online and mobile orders increasing by 370 per cent in 2016 — outpacing juice cleanses, raw food, veganism and so on. As a fad, it’s really not the worst, but its rationale is maddening. Paleo eaters focus on lean meats, vegetables, nuts and seeds, preferably free-range, not because they taste nicer and are obviously quite good for you, but because this is apparently how prehistoric man ate. The core idea — a fantasy — is that if we could all just eat what humanity ate 100,000 years ago we’d be healthy and happy. Adherents point out that humans have been around for something like 150,000 years, but agriculture for only 20,000, and claim digestive systems haven’t actually caught up with milk, barley, rice, and so on. Anything “neolithic” is, apparently, something our bodies can’t really process. The earth is 4.5 billion years old — clearly it would be more natural and therefore better for all of us to go back before the time lightning tricked some rocks into thinking.

It’s actually not possible to say that paleolithic man ate any one particular diet. From modern hunter-gatherers, from fossil records, and from the fact that humans eat an enormous variety of foods and have spread all over the planet, the only thing you can say for sure is we eat what is available to us. Some hunter-gatherer societies do far more gathering than hunting — the !Kung of Namibia get more than 80 per cent of their nourishment from roots, seeds, and other gathered sources. For native peoples of the Arctic, where almost no plants grow, something like 90 per cent was meat and fat. Because they traditionally ate a lot of it raw, paradoxically, meat may have been a source of carbohydrate for them, in the form of glycogen (the carb molecule made in the liver which supplies energy around the body). Proponents of high-meat and high-fat diets — the forerunners of Paleo — have often pointed to the Inuit and the Masai as examples of people who eat natural, high-fat diets and are nevertheless extremely healthy. But the data for this was always incomplete. We now know that the Inuit had a markedly higher rate of stroke, which is now in decline, and although the group of Masai studied in the 1960s did show low rates of heart disease, they were continually active, walking something like 20km a day, and also didn’t, in fact, eat that much meat by European standards.

I’m also not sure Paleo is particularly interested in such historically important food sources as edible grubs and insects. Or the pith of trees — and we know premodern people ate tough and fibrous food because their teeth are worn, not with cavities from sugar, but literally abraded. (And if paleolithic man was meant to live past 30, surely evolution would have provided a third set of teeth.) “Eating like a caveman”, as some enthusiasts describe it, is surely meaningless if you are not also living like a caveman, i.e., continually active, and spending about three days a week with a bag and a stick digging up roots. Our hunting ancestors were also probably not as dramatic and violent as you are picturing: one of the advantages the soft-skinned, clawless human has over animals is endurance, and hunter-gathers still practise “persistence hunting”, particularly in the desert — jogging after an animal until it keels over from exhaustion. 

Meanwhile, a plethora of meal-replacement start-ups seem to look forward to the end of food. They’re made (I’m generalising: there are obviously some differences between brands) of oat flour, pea protein, flaxseed, whey powder, and vegetable oil. Soylent, the most high-profile one, takes its name from the film Soylent Green (in which, famously, Charlton Heston discovers the food-substitute “is people”), and has been going in the US since 2013. It’s available both as unflavoured powder to mix with water, and a pre-mixed bottled version which, nightmarishly, lasts up to a year unrefrigerated. In this country we can get various imitators, such as Huel, and the laddishly-named “Jake” — you will find such unlikely sentences, on their website, as “Jake is made of real food”, “Every version of Jake is different”, “We’re often asked how Jake should be used,” “Curious about Jake?” “What is Jake?” 

I’m reminded of a spoof of the first internet bubble, the website Zombo.com, a blank page which played voidish slogans: “You can do anything at Zombo.com . . . The infinite is possible at Zombo.com  . . . The only limit is yourself.” 

There are an awful lot of these things and they all have bonkers names: Queal, Futricio, Ambronite, Schmoylent. It clearly doesn’t take a genius to put powdered oats and sunflower oil into 400-calorie sachets, but it probably does take a genius to market it: the imitator Jimmy Joy has gone with upbeat branding and bright illustrations on its pouches, but leaders Huel and Soylent use cool, austere, sans-serif fonts and monochrome packaging, making a virtue of the science-fictionish idea of the end of food. And it’s paying off: last month Soylent got $50 million in funding from GV (formerly known as Google Ventures). 

These things are reminiscent of Slimfast: a slurm for breakfast, a slurm for lunch, and so on. But they brand themselves not as temporary, but as a permanent solution to the problems of food: cost, skill, availability. The Soylent website asserts global responsibility: “We strive to provide an affordable means to achieve a healthy lifestyle . . . We see a world where nearly one billion people do not have sufficient access to affordable food while more than two billion people are overweight or obese.” With Soylent, in theory, you’re free to cook as little or as much as you want, leaving more time for other things. 

But when I check out online discussions, plenty of the Soylent-drinkers are just as obsessed with what goes into the meal-replacement as any disordered eater. What’s the benefit of the flaxseed? Should they worry about the soy content? They also seem quite concerned with (I’ll try to put this delicately) the effect on the bowels. Faddishness will out.