A Science News Post (brought to my attention earlier in the summer by @elizabethjrowe) presents research trends in food science: the pairing of retronasal olfaction and taste reception in studying flavour and the knowledge pairing of culinary experts and scientists within a relatively new journal Flavour. I am glad that food sensation (for lack of a better word to describe the complex process of perception, taste, smell, hedonic value, and preference) is getting increasing amounts of attention! From an anthropological perspective, however, the evolutionary and cultural underpinnings of these studies is still missing from the dialogue–something I hope to rectify in the coming years!
The article leans towards the idea that repetition is the driver of food preference–and it starts in the womb. Support for this idea is presented by referencing the study on babies whose mothers ate anise and garlic during pregnancy (and therefore were not averse to the odors post-natally). I assume the reference is to Schaal et al. 2000. That paper was great and is a start to exploring cross-cultural differences in the interaction between odor perception and food preference–but there also might be variation in olfactory receptors within the sample from the Alsace region (where anise is a common food additive but the population history of which is complex).
A taste and smell scientist is quoted as supporting the idea of repetition shaping diet: “What makes lasagna loved is that the odors have been paired to a source of calories.” Odors stimulate appetite but arguing for a causative relationship among odors, loving a food, and its caloric value is premature. We have so much yet to learn about the genetic architecture of individual and population odor profiles, which ligands bind to which receptors, odor processing, perception, and consciousness let along variation among all these things. All these known unknowns make olfaction a great place to work (and the unknown unknowns exciting things to be discovered)!
Between 6000-4000 years ago (according to study published in Nature Communications), indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers acquired pigs from Neolithic farmers immigrating to Europe. I have been interested in Pleistocene pigs for a while (and their continued association with humans into the Holocene). The reason for my interest is that pigs produce a lot of androstenone (a sex steroid), especially males, and humans vary in their genotypic/phenotypic perception of androstenone.
Human variation in androstenone perception depends on two non synonymous SNPs (Keller et al. 2007), R88W and T133M. These SNPs appear to play a role in meat preference: Lunde et al. (2012) found that wild type humans (RT/RT) rated the meat of non-castrated male pigs less favorably than those with variant alleles (RT/WM and WM/WM). HapMap and 1000 Genomes are great resources but do not capture the variation local human populations, let alone the anthropological underpinnings of variation. In my lab and using a wide mix of global human populations, I found significant variation in androstenone perception frequencies, with higher frequencies of mutations throughout Eurasia–an area heavily invested in pig meat throughout human prehistory; in Japanese and Northern Europeans, the frequency of homozygote recessive mutations is much higher and these areas have a rich history with pigs–especially Japan.
Currently, I am working through the archaeological data for human-pig interaction in Europe and Asia (with a special focus on Asia as the origin of all pigs–see here and here for starting places) to interpret the results of the genetic data. Both the archaeological data and genetic data are thin when taken across such a huge space but they are a starting point; a neat study would be to find a locale with a rich archaeological record, human population to test for the gene and perception, and a good ethnohistory on the relationship with pigs–something I am working on right now.
Combining data from the archaeological record and the genetic history of human populations adds depth to what could, on their own, be interesting but uncontextual datasets. Taken together, these datasets can paint a more detailed picture of the evolutionary inter-relationship between genes and diet.