Over the course of time – how our diet is changing

A piece of meat from an animal we hunted ourselves? A quick ready meal? Or a high-protein insect shake? Food is one of our fundamental needs. However, we still eat extremely differently depending on the era or the region in which we live. We spoke to two nutrition experts about how our eating behaviour has changed over the course of time and what it might be like in the future.

Food as a status symbol

The experts:

  • Christoph Klotter, Professor of Nutritional Psychology at the University of Fulda
  • Fabio Ziemßen, Managing Director of NX Food GmbH - a subsidiary of METRO
  • A Neanderthal cooks

    What´s it all about?

    • The modern age is a land of milk and honey
    • Food as identity
    • Soya schnitzel instead of meat on the plate
    Fresh food

    Around 2 million years ago, in the Stone Age, we primarily ate plants, berries, nuts, roots, mushrooms or honey, as well as meat and fish. As hunter-gatherers, people based their diet on what they found in their surroundings. They lived from hand to mouth in the true sense. With the sedentary way of life came livestock farming and the cultivation of grain; bread and dairy products supplemented the foodstuffs which were on offer and could now be cooked and stored in pots and clay containers. Nevertheless: the menu was overall limited by external circumstances and diet was primarily shaped intuitively.

    200 years in the land of plenty

    In ancient times and in particular from the 15th century onwards, in the age of discoveries, the variety increased enormously due to trade and campaigns of conquest. The Romans brought a rich variety of fruit and vegetables, such as cucumber, kohlrabi, spinach, garlic, asparagus, apricots, peaches and plums to the Germanic people. Potatoes, tomatoes or sweetcorn only reached Europe following the discovery of unknown continents. Nevertheless, almost every generation suffered from food scarcity and famine, notes Christoph Klotter, Professor of Nutrition Psychology at the University of Fulda: ‘The history of humanity is a battle against hunger – it was ever-present. We have been living in the land of plenty for 200 years, which is not a matter of course... it is very unusual and a one-off phenomenon.’ Beginning with industrialisation, improvements continued to come about in agriculture, the transportation of food products and the preservation of food, which made our excess of food, for example in Europe, nowadays possible.

    The history of humanity is a battle against hunger.

    Christoph Klotter, Professor of Nutrition Psychology at the University of Fulda

    Food as identity: you are what you (don’t) eat

    Nowadays, we can choose from a huge selection of food products; even if this by no means applies all over the world but at least in many countries. In this regard, we have high standards, particularly in western countries: food should be tasty and saturating, be healthy and high quality, as well as cheap. This is because nutrition is no longer just about meeting a basic need for us. Nutrition ensures our health and well-being. And it creates our identity: ‘Food has become an identity platform nowadays. Nutrition trends such as vegetarianism, veganism, lactose-free nutrition or diets are much more pronounced and have become more numerous. 100 years ago, social identity was defined by your membership of a party and now people are defined by their status as vegans,’ explains Klotter. Lunch which is shared on social networks becomes a status symbol.

    It is surprising that at the same time the importance of food as a social event is in decline. ‘People are cooking and eating together less. Our more flexible work is no longer designed around food but food is designed around work,’ says Klotter. The consequence of this is snackification, lots of food to eat on the go and processed ready meals. As a result, we are dealing with a number of diet-related problems such as obesity or vitamin deficiencies nowadays, even though we do actually all have an opportunity to be aware of our diet and eat a healthy diet.

    Is fat really fattening? Think again.

    Low-fat, low-carb, paleo: anyone looking for a new diet to try must wade through a veritable swamp of options – and weed out a whole lot of fads. The German-Dutch author Bas Kast took the plunge for us. His ‘Diet Compass’ has been a best-seller in Germany ever since its publication. We have followed the compass and thought of ways to incorporate Kast’s ideas into the restaurant industry.

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    Soya schnitzel instead of meat

    In recent decades, our meat consumption has risen significantly on the one hand. ‘Meat is a sign of prosperity in almost all cultures,’ explains Klotter. ‘Now, however, a quality-conscious generation is development which does not want to be part of societal power as a result of meat consumption. There is therefore a great deal of future potential in vegetarianism.’ Fabio Ziemßen, Managing Director at NX Food GmbH – a subsidiary of METRO – sees the development towards plant-based replacement products as being a major trend: ‘All food products which are of animal origin are being mirrored in products that are purely plant-based or even cultivated but have the same product properties. This is because plant-based alternatives provide an opportunity to supply a growing global population and eat more healthily in many respects.’ This is about sustainable solutions which protect resources for the current nutrition system.

    Are unconventional solutions the key?

    Even demand for regional, fresh and high-quality products is increasing, which is particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, reusing food, so recycling food which has been thrown away, is on trend, as is the use of unconventional sources of nutrition, as described by Ziemßen: ‘Insects, algae, various fungal cultures and jellyfish are interesting alternative nutrition options.’ Accordingly, he makes some predictions about our future diets: ‘The key is diversity. We need to learn not to eat sausage every morning, schnitzel every lunchtime and toast with egg every evening. We need to rethink that.’ The future of our diets therefore depends on a good mixture of resources, on the variety of what we have and, above all: what we make with it.

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