We all know the feeling. You look at some unhealthy food knowing it tastes good, amazing even. You start to feel guilty for craving it. Maybe you give in and have just a little. Or maybe you completely let go and devour it all. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe later you feel proud for saying “no,” so that you can feel good about the goals you’ve made. Regardless of the outcome, we all know that feeling of guilt. Guilty pleasures. We all feel it. Then why is it that bad food tastes good?! It’s not fair, right?
Well, it also isn’t your fault. The reason why bad food tastes good is because there’s a mismatch between human biological evolution and the industrial revolution of our society.
The History of Our Biology
Slow biological evolution is part of the reason why bad food tastes good. When it comes to nutrition, our biology and how we process food has not changed greatly over the past 10,000 years (4, 5, 8). Our bodies are still a lot like the bodies of hunter-gatherers, which is a stark contrast to the time scale of the Industrial Revolution. In just a few hundred years, the way we grew, preserved, and accessed food changed entirely while our biology remained the same. This is important for understanding why bad foods tastes good.
Thousands of years ago, we ran around hunting and gathering food. At times, food was hard to come by and our bodies evolved methods for survival because of it. A simple example of this is that we store fat from all meals and from times of abundance so that we have energy to burn later on (8). When winters are harsh or food supplies run low, this gives us a better chance of survival (5, 8).
Taste as a Survival Mechanism
However, one simple evolutionary trait for survival that we often forget about is taste! When we taste something that is high in calories, it tastes good because evolutionary biology designed us this way (4, 8). It’s like our body’s way to say, “Hey, eat as much of this as you can because we don’t know when our next meal will be!” We love high-calorie foods not just because they taste good but because we need to store and use all the energy in them to survive. This is the real reason why bad food tastes good!
Unfortunately, the food industry and their marketers know this. Therefore, processed food companies pack food with extra calories in the form of fat and sugar to improve the taste of what would normally be tasteless food (6). They’ve been able to capitalize on the fact that because of our biology, bad food tastes good to us.
For more on the healthy types of fat and how we metabolize them, click here!
When it comes to understanding why bad food tastes good, the Industrial Revolution is another key piece of the puzzle. The Industrial Revolution began in 1760 and changed not only the way we live but also the way we eat (1). Invented in 1810, canned food allowed foods to last longer and be shipped further. More importantly, however, it allowed farmers to harvest and store large quantities of food without having to worry about it going to waste. This improved the quality of human health (1, 2, 3). Additionally, in the early 1900s, the invention of refrigeration was another milestone in food preservation at home and during transport (1, 2).
However, the impact of these changes has not been entirely positive because we are now seeing even more ways of preserving foods using chemistry. It is now common for foods to be preserved using chemicals, such as benzoates, nitrates, and sulphites, which have all been linked to unhealthy diets (7). These chemicals have extended the shelf life of food and made it easier to access.
Understanding the history of our food industry is vital to understanding why bad food tastes good. Before 1760, there were only very basic ways to preserve food, such as by adding salt and other spices to it (3). For this reason, a lot of food would go to waste and low crop yields and long winters could lead to starvation. Clearly, the Industrial Revolution led to the invention of useful technologies that improved human health. But, it is important to understand that our biological evolution has not developed as rapidly (4, 5, 8).
The Key to Why Bad Food Tastes Good
This mismatch between our biology and changes in the food industry is the key to understanding why bad food tastes good. The Industrial Revolution has exponentially improved the growth, preservation, and access to food. In contrast, our biological instincts still lead us to crave foods high in calories, whether they’re carbohydrates, fats, or proteins, so we can store energy and survive when access to food is limited. Hence, our biology has not radically changed like our food industry has and still functions as if we don’t know when our next meal will be. Therefore, bad food tastes good because you’re biologically designed to love it. You know, just in case the next “hunt” to your fridge isn’t for a long time.
Kinesiologist & M.Teach
- Ashton, T. S. (1997). The industrial revolution 1760-1830. OUP Catalogue.
- Crafts, N. F. (1985). British economic growth during the industrial revolution (p. 131). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Freudenberger, H., & Cummins, G. (1976). Health, work, and leisure before the industrial revolution. Explorations in Economic History, 13(1), 1-12.
- Garcia-Bailo, B., Toguri, C., Eny, K. M., & El-Sohemy, A. (2009). Genetic variation in taste and its influence on food selection. OMICS A Journal of Integrative Biology, 13(1), 69-80.
- Milton, K. (2017). Hunter-gatherer diets—a different perspective. nutrition.org. Retrieved 20 January 2017, from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/71/3/665.full%3E
- Nestle, M. (2013). Food politics: How the food industry influences nutrition and health(Vol. 3). Univ of California Press.
- Soubra, L., Sarkis, D., Hilan, C., & Verger, P. (2007). Dietary exposure of children and teenagers to benzoates, sulphites, butylhydroxyanisol (BHA) and butylhydroxytoluen (BHT) in Beirut (Lebanon). Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 47(1), 68-77.
- Wells, J. C. (2010). The evolutionary biology of human body fatness: thrift and control(Vol. 58). Cambridge University Press.