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The Romance of Food

Biological anthropology postulates that food and love share an inseparable bond.

By Sarah Liu

We got you at “food", didn’t we?

Not surprising, since good nosh in Singapore is a topic that’s never far from the lips of the residents of this tropical gourmet paradise, where conversations are generously peppered with words such as “hearty”, “delectable", “nourishing”, “satisfying” and that all-purpose local term, “shiok”.

While these adjectives have a direct link to our stomachs, the etymology of some of these words shows the influence of food on the affairs of the heart. For example, one might describe a particularly satisfying, stomach-filling meal as “hearty”, a derivative of “heart”, the international symbol for love and passion. Food can also be “delectable”, a word morphed from the Latin delectare, meaning “to charm”.

This may be news to some of you, but biological anthropology says that the link between love and food isn’t all that weird.

Social Networking

Since humanity evolved from the great ape branch of primates four to eight million years ago, we have been sharing food with the ones we are closest to. “This begins with mothers feeding children and extends to other family members, more distant kin, then unrelated people we know well. Food – sharing, preparing and eating it – becomes a part of our relationships with significant others,” explains Professor John Allen, a neuroanthropologist from the University of Southern California and author of the book, The Omnivorous Mind.

The idea of sharing food is steeped in cooperation or social bonds, a universal feature of human and other primate societies. For example, the chimpanzee, which shares 98 per cent of human DNA, also demonstrates this act of sharing food. When a dominant male hunter has had enough to eat, he will share the remainder of his spoils not with everyone, but with other hunters, females and children in his group that are long-term allies. Some males have even been known to share precious tools with female companions they favour. Chimps do it the “business lunch” way to strengthen social bonds and ensure the continuity of the alliance into the future.

Similarly, we share food with people, from close relatives to not-so-close friends, to catch up, celebrate an occasion and, in essence, strengthen our social networks. This social dimension to food, according to Prof Allen, developed around one to two million years ago, when humans started hunting really big animals, such as the woolly mammoth. Back then, animals were so large that it wasn’t feasible for small groups of people to hunt them. In effect, this “big feast” condition laid the foundation for the social exchange of food, which in turn reinforces and amplifies human bonds, signifying love.

Reliving ‘food memories’

Have you noticed how people, when dining out, will comment that a particular dish reminded them of someone else’s cooking? Well, it’s no coincidence.

Somewhere along the evolutionary path, the human brain started to recall food events with the people associated with them. Prof Allen reveals that one reason “food memory” exists is because hormones of the digestive system, such as insulin, have direct influence on the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory. Prof Allen posits that the gut-brain connection exists because our ancestors were likelier to survive if they remembered where they got their last good meal.

To ensure that this memory lasts, the brain activates the mesolimbic pathway, the complex reward system that regulates our feelings of pleasure, comfort and relief. The brain secretes dopamine into this circuit when you’re eating something you really enjoy; it is also released when you gaze at loved ones tenderly or when you fall in love. Comfort food is thus usually high in fat and sugar, because these items are frequently consumed during pleasurable social activities, such as a beach party.

Acts of love

Food behaviour in some primates, such as the marmoset and tamarin monkey, shows how else we can use food to demonstrate love. Older monkeys have a special call when they find a tasty treat for their young. They also adopt a kind of food offering posture to present the young monkeys with the treat, not unlike the way a human mother would prepare something special when her son scores an A+ at school, or a father dressing up as a clown and sculpting balloons at his daughter’s birthday party.

But demonstrating romantic love is different.

Prof Allen says that using food to demonstrate romantic love may, in fact, be a way of taking a short cut to a stronger emotional relationship. “If we grow up associating food with loving relationships, then sharing food in the early stages of the relationship, such as a dinner date, is one way to prime those emotional circuits that already exist genetically,” he reveals.

The emotional circuits inherent within us are best seen in non-romantic relationships, such as in business situations. For example, breaking bread with someone you don’t know well is perceived to accelerate a connection, or to delay or manage conflict. “Food in a romantic context,” advises Prof Allen, “signifies a willingness to share, provide and love.”

This article was first published in DUET magazine.