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Eating Behaviours

6) The Evolutionary Explanations of Food Preferences

This explanation says that our food preferences are determined by how our ancestors evolved to ensure they survived.

Sweet food – Harris found that newborn babies have a preference for sweet things and a dislike for bitter things. He also found these preferences are the same all over the world, which suggests this preference is caused by evolutionary means. One explanation of this is the early mammals mainly ate fruit, so sweet food such as fruit now triggers the release dopamine which induces pleasure. Conversely, most poisons have a bitter taste, so this could explain why we dislike bitter foods.

Why we prefer food that’s bad for us – Burnham and Phelan (2000) suggests that a preference for fatty food meant our ancestors would eat food that was high in calories so they would survive when food is scarce. This preference for high calorie food has stayed with us now as we have much more fatty food available to us, hence why we prefer food that is bad for us.

Why we like spicy meat – Sherman and Hash looked at 7000 recipes from 36 and found that meat dishes had far more spices than vegetable dishes. They also found that the hotter the climate of the country of origin of a recipe, the spicier the food. They concluded that this was because spices have antimicrobial properties and meaty food in hot climates will go off quicker than vegetables in colder climates.

Why we won’t eat mould – We’ve learnt that good food means life and bad food (in extreme cases) means death. Psychologists say we’ve learnt this through our own experiences and what other people have told us.

Evaluation of the evolutionary explanations of food preferences

Gibson and Wardle (2001) – found that children are more likely to prefer food that is high in calories than they are sweet food, food that high in protein or food that is familiar to them. This suggests we have an innate preference to calorific food, supporting the evolutionary explanation proposed by Harris

Are all food preferences a product of evolution? – Some of our modern food preferences, such as food that is low in cholesterol contradict the evolutionary explanation as our ancestors would have eaten food that is high in cholesterol. This questions whether the evolutionary explanation can explain all of our food preferences of whether other factors such as scientific discoveries also play a role.


About Sam Cook

A blog set up to help A Level students revise Sociology


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