How humanity has changed the food it eats

By: Nicola Temple

Processed food has, for better or for worse, changed our relationship with food. Long before that, it shaped us as a species.

Homo erectus (1.89 mya – 108,000 years ago) and Homo neanderthalensis (400,000-40,000 years ago) had much smaller teeth than one would predict based on their skull sizes. Evolution could only favour such a reduction in tooth size if food had become easier to chew, and this is likely to only have been accomplished through thermal processing – cooking.

Cooked food requires 22% less muscle to chew and it can release energy that might otherwise be inaccessible in the raw product. As well as arguably putting our ancient ancestors on a trend toward small faces and big bodies, processed food led to significant gain in leisure time. Less time spent chewing left mouth free to develop complex oral language. Energy could be directed to growing a bigger brain rather than a heavy-duty chewing mechanism, and cooked food fed that calorie-hungry brain.

Ultra-processed foods have certainly been linked to our ever-increasing body size and our cooked, soft diet is ultimately to blame for misaligned teeth. Small face, big body, crooked teeth – perhaps this is not a trend we wish to continue.