Caveman diet could hold key to optimum nutrition

Shaun Weston20 Sep 2010

Unilever has for the first time gathered unlikely scientific bedfellows from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, evolutionary genetics, food science and botany to recreate the diet of a caveman.

The research seeks to improve understanding of the complex relationship between our genetic make-up and the changes to our diet since the pre-farming Stone Age period, and could unlock the potential to enhance our own health in the 21st century.

Using the latest techniques in biological sciences – such as human genomics, microbiomics, cell-culturing and biochemical analysis – Unilever's team of scientists are exploring what can be learned from the caveman diet (from 2.5m years ago to 12,000 years ago, when man was a hunter gatherer) and how it could enhance modern day nutrition.

One could argue that consumers have an increased awareness of the route travelled between food and health. Many people aim to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but a Palaeolithic person might consume up to 20-25 plant-based foods a day. Unilever's research is studying how important or effective such a wide variety of plant-based foods might be for making us healthier.

A particular focus of the research will be to investigate whether the human genome – the foundation of our genetic makeup – has managed to keep pace with the changes in diet since the Palaeolithic period, and how any gaps that are found might be bridged by an optimal diet based on learnings from our ancestors.

To this end, the research activity will attempt to identify whether ancient diets contained nutritional benefits, different characteristics, or forgotten ingredients which could be reintroduced back into modern diets. The line of investigation also addresses modern questions around what an optimal diet is, aiming to enhance our understanding of which plant-based foods are best for us to eat, and precisely why.

Ultimately, these findings could pave the way for Unilever to develop new foodstuffs inspired by the Palaeolithic period.

Dr Mark Berry, the Unilever scientist who is leading the research, says: "Some scientists have theorised for years that the Palaeolithic diet is more compatible with human physiology than our diet today. This is because evolution is an extremely slow process and changes in our diet have outpaced changes in our genetic make-up.

"We think this is the first time biological sciences have been used to match an optimal diet against the human genome so this research really is blue-sky thinking, and one of the most exciting projects being carried out by Unilever's 'Discover' R&D team.

"Using cutting-edge scientific techniques, the research employs a new way of looking at diet, examining our evolutionary biology to provide greater enlightenment than ever before. We hope to unlock the secrets of the past and, in doing so, potentially identify key nutrients in the diet of cavemen which might offer nutritional benefits to people today.

"We're only at the start of our journey, but the scientific leads and new insights generated from this could potentially deliver a range of foods and drinks that are specifically designed to be compatible with what evolution has prepared us for."

Inaugurated at a symposium hosted by Unilever's Research and Development centre at Colworth Science Park in Bedfordshire, the research engaged the expertise of a variety of world-leading scientists, including:

  • Prof Mark Thomas (professor of evolutionary genetics, University College London)
  • Prof Michael Richards (department of human evolution, Max Planck Institute, and the department of anthropology, University of British Columbia
  • Prof Monique Simmonds (deputy keeper & head of the sustainable uses of plants group, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)
  • Prof Martin Jones (George Pitt-Rivers professor of archaeological science, department of archeology, University of Cambridge).

Source: Unilever