‘Consider the Fork’ Chronicles Evolution of Eating

Story at-a-glance -

  • The relatively new invention of the fork altered the way we eat and chew our food, such that it changed the structure of the human jaw.
  • Humans used to have an edge-to-edge bite, like apes and chimpanzees, but in the last 200 years or so, it changed into an overbite, likely as a result of cutting our food into smaller pieces and using a fork to eat.
  • It’s important to remember ancient culinary traditions, such as fermenting our foods, as often these traditions rely on healthy cooking methods and real, whole foods – not the processed convenience foods that are so common today.

By Dr. Mercola

First came the discovery of fire, which eventually lead to a shift to the cooked-food diet. This, so the theory goes, gave humans the extra calories they needed to allow their brains to get bigger.

In other words, human brains “smartened up” – allowing for the use of tools and the creation of art and religion – due to the extra calories that became available when cooked food became widespread.1

From there another culinary change took place that revolutionized not only the way in which we eat, but also may have altered the structure of the human jaw itself, taking us one step further from our ancient primate ancestors and one step closer to what we regard today as “modern man.”

How the Fork Changed Modern Man

In the NPR audio clip above, British food writer Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, explains that the relatively new invention of the fork altered the way we eat and chew our food, such that it changed the structure of the human jaw. Wilson explained:

“...the fork is, in historic times, extremely recent, and now, arguably, it's the most universal utensil ...And yet, it encountered huge resistance when it was first introduced. And for a long time in Europe, it was only the Italians who used forks.

The reason being pasta, as we all know, forks are the perfect implement for twizzling long strands of noodles or spaghetti.

But in the rest of Europe, particularly Britain, they thought that forks were just these weird, effeminate, unnecessary objects, which we could do fine without. And this whole question of cutlery,

It seems rather irrelevant compared to what we eat, and yet, if anthropologist called C. Loring Brace is correct, the adoption of the knife and fork at table, which happened roughly 250 years ago in society at large in Europe and then in the States -- if he is right, then the adoption of the knife and fork actually had these profound implications on the structure of the human jaw.”

According to Brace, humans used to have an edge-to-edge bite, like apes and chimpanzees. But in the last 200 years or so, it changed into an overbite, with the top layer of teeth fitting over the bottom layer. His research suggests that the only change that happened during this time period that might account for the new jaw structure was the switch to cutting our food into smaller pieces, and eating them with a fork.2

“...it was through the process of cutting food into small morsels from childhood onwards that we actually change the way that our jaws work. And the real clincher was that he found this change 900 years earlier in China, the reason being chopsticks,” Wilson said.

Our Cooking and Eating Habits Are Constantly Evolving

While the fork, the knife and the spoon have proven to have staying power in the kitchen, along with other essentials that have been around for thousands of years -- like the pot, the frying pan and the colander -- other everyday culinary items have only recently become mainstays.

Microwave ovens, for instance, were first introduced to consumers just 40 or so years ago, and although Wilson describes it as an “astonishing invention,” it’s an example of a culinary tool that might be exchanging convenience for health. Microwaves heat food by causing water molecules in it to resonate at very high frequencies and eventually turn to steam, which heats your food. While this can rapidly heat your food, what most people fail to realize is that it also causes a change in your food's chemical structure.

Other even more recent cooking trends include the use of non-stick cookware, which again puts convenience, in this case ease of cleanup, ahead of your health. The majority of non-stick cookware in the United States contains PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and other perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which have been linked to health problems like hypothyroidism, infertility and cancer. Still other inventions, like the food processor, reduce our need to chew our food as thoroughly, atrophying and/or changing the biomechanics of our jaw, in addition to having digestive and metabolic consequences.

Interestingly, one of the most common kitchen tools found in the vast majority of kitchens remains one of the oldest and, arguably, the safest: the wooden spoon. In Consider the Fork, Wilson writes:3

The wooden spoon does not look particularly sophisticated — traditionally, it was given as a booby prize to the loser of a competition — but it has science on its side. Wood is nonabrasive and therefore gentle on pans — you can scrape away without fear of scarring the metal surface. It is nonreactive: you need not worry that it will leave a metallic taste or that its surface will degrade on contact with acidic citrus or tomatoes. It is also a poor conductor of heat, which is why you can stir hot soup with a wooden spoon without burning your hand.

Above and beyond its functionality, however, we cook with wooden spoons because we always have. They are part of our civilization. Tools are first adopted because they meet a certain need or solve a particular problem, but over time the utensils we feel happy using are mainly determined by culture.”

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Tapping Into the Culinary Wisdom of Generations Past

You may have certain recipes and other culinary traditions that you learned from your mother and grandmother, which you plan to pass on to your children, too. This is important, as often these traditions rely on traditional cooking methods and real, whole foods – not the processed convenience foods that are so common today.

If you are seeking to use food to optimize your health it is helpful to pay attention not only to the food quality but also how you prepare it, being careful to use methods that do not seriously impair its quality. Seek to get back to the basics of cooking -- using the bones from a roast chicken to make stock for a pot of soup, extending a Sunday roast to use for weekday dinners, learning how to make hearty stews from inexpensive cuts of meat, using up leftovers and so on.

Learning how to ferment your own vegetables – a common practice since ancient times – is another age-old culinary skill worth learning, not only for the tasty vegetables but also because they’re phenomenal for your health. At the very least, the next time you walk into your kitchen and get out a fork to use with dinner, it’s interesting to think about how this simple tool may have changed the very face of humankind ... and how other culinary tools and techniques may be changing the face of the future. As Wilson said:

“Although many tools have disappeared from the modern kitchen, they have left us with traditions, tastes, and even physical characteristics that we would never have possessed otherwise.”