For most of human history, life revolved around food. hunting, growing and preparing it left little time for anything else. Industrialization of the production process changed all that and made it easy—arguably too easy—to overlook the intimate connection that food has to the health of our body and the health of our planet. But today people are increasingly mindful of that connection, thanks in part to new insights and options from science.
Researchers, for example, have begun to untangle the complex web of factors that make some foods delicious. Experts who have devoted their careers to some of our most treasured foods can now explain the intricacies of coffee, champagne and truffles. Historians have pieced together the origins of our modern diet and traced the millennia-long evolution of processed food and the shifting attitudes toward alcohol.
Now much of the discussion about food involves angst and trade-offs. Many agricultural products—not to mention farmers' livelihoods—are threatened by climate change and disease. Two top scientists at Mars, Inc., the famed candy-bar maker, describe serious threats to the future of one of our favorites—chocolate, a sweet treat that some find addictive. The notion of addiction may be more than mere metaphor. As neuroscientist Paul J. Kenny points out in “The Food Addiction,” overconsumption of sugary, high-fat foods such as chocolate may actually alter brain chemistry in ways similar to the effects of addictive drugs. In “Eating Made Simple,” nutrition expert Marion Nestle notes that the rich world is awash in such foods, which are implicated in elevated rates of obesity. Changing that environment of temptation can be part of the solution, she argues. Behavioral strategies for weight loss also show promise.
The globalization of agriculture and food distribution has boosted yields and prevented famines—and filled our winter salads with produce grown all over the world. Yet the insatiable appetite of humanity is also harming the environment in myriad ways. “Can We Feed the World and Sustain the Planet?” asks Jonathan A. Foley. An authority on sustainability, Foley proposes a plan to end malnutrition worldwide while preserving rain forests and stabilizing the climate. For that to happen, we will need to lessen the steep environmental toll exacted by beef production, which is rising rapidly. Informed eaters must decide for themselves whether GMO foods are acceptable. How about lab-grown meat? Or, as chef Bun Lai advocates, meals made from invasive species? You may not agree with all the ideas in this issue. But they are indeed food for thought.