Lently insights: How did we.. food?

Mustafa Boutzamar   •   Jul 12, 2017

When my father arrived in the Netherlands at the age of 17 he entered a whole new world. Being a migrant worker in from Morocco in the 60’s, he remembers not being able to get his hands on the most basic of fruits and vegetables, he was used to. “All you had was potatoes, every dish was made with potatoes. And rice, a little. If you had any Indonesian friends.” He once told me. My mom had to discover all kinds of new fruits and vegetables when  once tradesmen were able to bring in Mediterranean grown deliciousness from their homeland and introduce them to the countries which they inhabited now.

Overall (brief) history of food and eating

It’s one of the most basic, essential things you need to do daily. Most of the times we’re not really aware of the food we’re eating. Unless something is off. Smell, taste, texture or feeling. I think it’s safe to assume that human beings have been eating since the dawn of our species ( :D ). Even though a lot of our developments, technologies and discoveries have changed and evolved over time, the preparation or consumption of food has seen little change since recorded history.

This article is aimed at giving you a slight insight into food and might make you a bit more aware of how food works. I’ve done my best to name all the sources but these insights have been gathered over the course of several years of reading, watching and getting meal schedules and what not. Enjoy the read and if you have any input, please, do get in touch.

Early humans and food

Some people close to me told me to read ‘Sapiens’, by Yuval Noah Harari (if you’re interested in general human history, this book is a great read on the topic). I heard good things about it. After getting three recommendations in a single day, I decided to get it, that same day. Overall the book is captivating, a very interesting look into the history of us, as a species. Among a few other themes, food is one of the topics that is being looked at by Harari.

According to the evolution theory, our predecessors emerged about 14 million years ago. Evidence suggests our ancestors were gatherers and scavengers foremost; they’d eat fungi, roots, berries, fruits and leaves. Basically, anything that was plant based or just lay there, for the taking. We also know humans were nomads and travelers; Not staying in the same place for very long. They’d go where food was abundant. This means, Harari says, that the diet of our ancestors was very varied because each region would have different vegetation and in some areas, different climates. Which would make the nutrients we ingested very varied. We’re talking about ~2.6 million years ago.

Later on, human tribes changed their habits to the hunter/gatherer nomads. The development of tools, weapons and sticks to reach and thud fruits and the like from trees, made it possible to skip the waiting game and actually go after that which provided us with the nutrients and energy we needed. And lot’s of it. More than our previous more herbivore diet, meat is packed with calories and proteins and requires less chewing to swallow. Thus making life a bit easier. It has even been suggested by anthropological biologists that the consumption of meat has played a key role in the development of our brains.

Looking at humans today we can safely say that we’re a creative bunch. And so were our ancestors. Aimed at looking for solutions, both consciously and unconsciously. Skip forward about 500.000 years and the processing of foods is a fact. Homo Sapiens had found a way to tame and master one of nature’s most destructive manifestations; Fire.

Cooking, boiling and heating

Scholars have reached consensus about the use of fire by our early cousins, Homo Erectus, about 600.000 years ago. Evidence of our ancestors using fire dates back to about 125.000 years. So we can conclude that the use of fire by modern human beings has been done for a very, very long time. It is close to impossible to figure out how our great-great-[…]-great grandparents figured out what they needed and used to create and control fire, but they did.

The use of fire was aimed at creating warmth and coziness, safety (wild animals don’t like fire) and was most likely one of many reasons why we started living in caves and sleeping on the ground instead of in living in trees. But one of the most fundamental and probably most important consequences was the fact that gran’paw could cook, boil and/or heat the day’s catch!

Preparing meats, fruits, vegetables and other edibles over a fire made it easier to consume them. They could also store meats longer by drying it over a fire. Preserving foods for harsh times when hunting was difficult due to seasons and the like. Scholars believe that as time progressed and early humans started to understand fire better, they were utilizing it more and more. Forming better tools, cutting meat into thinner and smaller slices for better preservation and easier consumption, clearing forests to make hunting easier and burning lands and plains so that when they returned food would be abundant.

Time to build an oven

According to documented history, about 29.000 years ago, one of our ancestors was roaming the plains of modern day Ukraine and came up with the bright idea to dig a hole. He then made a fire in that very same hole and just like that; The first oven was born. He or she wrapped meat in leaves, put it on a fire, covered it with dirt and earth. Evidence of ovens has been found in the Indus valley and pre-dynastic Egypt. Dating around the time that we went from nomads to settling in a place (our first villages). These groups used clay and mud to build their ovens and used tools to tenderize meat even more and more often. It was most likely around these times that the cultivation of wheat and other crops was started (this era is revered to as the Neolithic revolution).

The Greeks are credited to be the first to make different doughs and bake bread. Being creative with the dough, they were likely to be the first to turn baking into a profession and they started training bakers.

Because our ancestors settled in one place, development and innovation in these areas started to take off. The oven took on all sizes and shapes and over the course of time was used across the Eur-Asian continents. 

A room for cooking

With settling and building houses, a room was dedicated to preparing food. The ancient Greeks often had their kitchen next to their bathroom (so both rooms benefitted from the warmth). In the late republic of ancient Rome, common folk shared large, public kitchens to prepare meals. The richer Romans had their kitchen integrated into their homes and their slaves would do the cooking.

The diets in these times consisted mainly out of regional resources. Whatever would grow, was eaten and prepared and whatever was skipping around the forests would be hunted. Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Persians would have never seen a potato, since these were only cultivated on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. Trade was done by Greeks, Punics, and later the Romans, but this consisted mainly of products with longer, natural shelve-lives, dates for examples.

Smaller developments in the kitchen have taken place over the course of the ages but the major changes took place in early 18th and 19th century. At Least in Europe, and changed into the kitchen that we have in our homes today.

Food and art

At the end of the Renaissance, chefs started to turn to creating culinary art. The castles and royals slowly but surely turned to modality and chefs took their crafts to inns and hotels. A new field of study was born, lead by mostly French and Italian kitchen heroes. Experimentation with flavors, visual presentation and sugary goodness exploded during this time. One of the first celebrity chefs hailed from France and was favored by Parisian royalty and newly rich.

Food became more than a simple means to feed. It became a moment to enjoy, a moment to relish in all the goods the world had to offer, prepared by a few men and their teams. Attention went more to taste and visual pleasing plates. Regards for the effects of ingredients were not really taken note of. It had to be pleasing to all senses.

Food and science

Over all these ages there was little evidence of what food did to us. We knew that we needed it and we knew that our food had effects on our health. Even Hippocrates propagated good food and exercise. Through trial and error humans discovered what they could and could not eat (As in; “He ate this and got ill, she ate that and she seems ok”). And since the dawn of mankind ‘science’ was used to discover what could be done and how. Discoveries like drying, salting, smoking and canning food were of tremendous impact to the preservation of food, and consequently human life and culture.

Since the defining of the calorie, food science has become a topic with all kinds of expertises. Ranging from biologists to engineers and physicists to chemists. In this age of information we’re becoming wiser about food and how to look at nutrition. We’re discovering the consequences of our eating habits. What’s making us ill and what’s making us fit. This has also changed our perspective on food.

Where in the past French chefs would make pastry sweet and loaded with sugars, nowadays people shy away from even the slightest mention of sugar in their food. And with access to the internet, information is even more confusing because of all the different views, opinions and approaches. Especially with a ton of self-proclaimed food experts on the web.

Smart Food

An American programmer by the name of Rob Rhinehart thought he’d take it upon himself and develop something clear, easy and sufficient for every day. He developed Soylent, a powder consisting of all the essential nutrients that you would need. He used medical journals, reports, books and scientific articles to research his own product, being his own guinea pig. After some trial and error he arrived at a formula which he enjoyed and had the consequences he wanted. The formula was to be mixed with oil and water, chugged down and you could proceed with regular life. Taking zero effort, time and saving money.

This approach is rather new. Food previously was the use of what nature gave us and making it into something tasty and visually pleasing. Rhinehart went a step further and extracted what was needed. And made it easily accessible for the masses.

After developing the shake and setting up a million dollar company, Rhinehart opened access to a calculator which allowed people to compose their own Soylent type formula. And within a span of a few years several competitors appeared, all around the globe, with different approaches to the idea of “Lents” and how to make them.

The future of Food

Each day new insights are gathered through scientific research in different fields. Combining this information through a much more interconnected world even more insights are gathered. Food and the ways our bodies process food are much less mysterious than they were a few years ago. And these insights lead to new developments, these in turn lead to new products. Looking to combine data, technology and nutrients the future seems be to very, very bright.

Not only can we use the gathered information to make food more efficient. We can also bring down the costs of production, look at alternative ways of producing (cultivated meat, anyone?), bringing back the waste that comes from producing food and fewer resources to produce food.

There’s a lot of research being done by different parties and we want to come to the table as well to discover the possibilities. For now, we have but a humble and simple formula with which we look to aid you in fulfilling your daily challenges in a good, natural and affordable way.

And whilst we’re doing that we’re working on our plans for the future.

If you have any question regarding this topic or read things that are incorrect, falsities or misinformation, please leave a comment! Or if you wish to elaborate or contribute, you’re more than welcome to!

Sources used:

Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens



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