Fruit is often considered the very definition of primeval food, and also as the very definition of healthy food. Many fruits are undeniably very attractive, with sweet taste, intense colors and beautiful shapes, and one might therefore make the assumption that eating fruit is an instinct in humans.
But humans are very affected by cultural influences as well, and it is difficult to tell what really is instinct. The fact that we find fruit visually appealing and well-tasting, does not prove that it is healthy, and neither does it say that it is primeval. If it was that simple, we could just as well claim that brightly colored candies is “natural food” – because our instinctive attraction to color and sweetness is also satisfied by such.
And as it turns out, there is more to the analogy; in many ways, the cultivated contemporary fruits have more in common with candy than with the wild fruits which where available to us during most part of our evolution!
I do believe that in some sense we have an instinct to look for colorful food, and that is probably a heritage of an evolution as fruit eating animals – our well developed color vision is probably not coincidental; predators rarely have color vision at all.
But still – the hypothesis of fruit being healthy because it is natural and primeval just does not hold. Think of a fruit, almost any fruit; I guarantee that your ancestors never ate anything like it. No Homo Habilis ever laid eyes on a water melon.
The natural appearance of wild, uncultivated fruits is more often than not rather ugly. Consider for example the water melon, the banana, the peach and the tomato; the water melon is a highly refined variety of the wild Tsamma melon, whose pulp is like the husk of the water melon. All cultivated bananas are seedless, the small seeds are sterile remnants. The wild counterparts look like this – small, inedible fruits stuffed with big, hard seeds. The wild peach is much smaller and much more bitter than the cultivated peach. The original tomatoes does not look much like the tomatoes at the supermarket, either. And naturally, the difference is one of content, not only of shape and taste. All of the above have a massively different nutritional value than their wild counterparts.
The cultivated fruits are not necessarily unhealthy – but seeing these images, we no longer have any reason to think of them as natural, primeval food; we have to analyse them one by one.
And we will find that all fruits are not equally wholesome. Quince (which can barely be eaten raw), the bitter grapefruit and the cumbersome pomegranate are three fruits which I rank higher than most of the other; they look and act more like their versions in the wild, they are not as sweet as many other fruits – and their beneficial effect have also been supported by scientific studies. Somewhere in the other end of the spectrum, green grapes and melons are to be found. (The web comic XKCD presented a funny graph the other day, ranking fruit by taste and difficulty; if we add the dimension of healthiness, we are probably most interested in the lower left quadrant… The exception is berries; uncultivated, always beneficial!)
Many vegans and vegetarians are extreme in their praise of fruit, and recommend eating loads of it, every day. But doing so, they reject animal products which have been part of our diet for millions of years, but arbitrarily postulate that our most natural food would consist of foodstuff which have been available for maybe a few hundred years. They also neglect the seasonal availability of fruit in the wild.
I don’t like the phrase natural food, because it might lead to the misinterpretation that anything coming from nature is wholesome – like toxic plants. It is better to look for a diet which has developed as an adaption to context. Primeval food is a better approach than natural food – but still, modern foodstuff does not have to be detrimental, but should be subject for study. Nevertheless, the more processed a food is, the more suspicious should we be.
Perhaps the myth of natural food has to do with a misunderstanding on where we come from. Many believe that our closest relatives are herbivores, but they are really omnivores. The chimpanzee, our closest relative, is mostly herbivore, but 5-10% of its diet in its natural environment consist of animals – primarily insects, but the chimpanzee also hunts down and eat smaller monkeys.
If we look to our physionomy, adaptions are everywhere to be found. Our jaws are typical for omnivores, for instance, and our intestines are more like the intestines of pigs (omnivores) than typical predator- and herbivore intestines.
So, I do not consider fruit in general to be primeval – in contrast to natural animal fat, for instance – because most fruit are so cultivated. But are they healthy still? I will return to this issue in upcoming posts, and issues like crop-spraying and fructose will be part of that discussion.