Scientists have upgraded their opinion of Neanderthal cuisine after spotting traces of cooked food on the fossilised teeth of our long-extinct cousins. The researchers found remnants of date palms, seeds and legumes – which include peas and beans – on the teeth of three Neanderthals uncovered in caves in Iraq and Belgium. Among the scraps of food embedded in the plaque on the Neanderthals' teeth were particles of starch from barley and water lilies that showed tell-tale signs of having been cooked. The Ice Age leftovers are believed to be the first direct evidence that the Neanderthal diet included cooked plants as well as meat obtained by hunting wild animals.
Dolores Piperno, who led the study at the archaeobiology laboratory at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, said the work showed Neanderthals were more sophisticated diners than many academics gave them credit for. Piperno said the discoveries even raised the possibility that male and female Neanderthals had different roles in acquiring and preparing food. “The plants we found are all foods associated with early modern human diets, but we now know Neanderthals were exploiting those plants and cooking them, too. When you cook grains it increases their digestibility and nutritional value,” she added.
The findings bring fresh evidence to the long debate over why Neanderthals and not our direct ancestors, the early modern humans, went extinct. The last of the Neanderthals are thought to have died out around 28,000 years ago, but it is unclear what role – if any – modern humans played in their demise. “The whole question of why Neanderthals went extinct has been controversial for a long time and dietary issues play a significant part in that,” Piperno said. “Some scholars claim the Neanderthals were specialised carnivores hunting large game and weren't able to exploit a diversity of plant foods. “As far as we know, there has been until now no direct evidence that Neanderthals cooked their foods and very little evidence they were consuming plants routinely.”
Piperno's team was given permission to study the remains of three Neanderthal skeletons. One was unearthed at the Shanidar cave in Iraq and lived 46,000 years ago. The other two were recovered from the Cave of Spy in Belgium, and date to around 36,000 years ago. The scientists examined three teeth from the Iraqi Neanderthal and two from each of the Belgium specimens. To look for traces of food on them, they scraped fossilised plaque from each tooth and looked at it under a microscope. Grains from plants are tiny, but have distinct shapes that the scientists identified by comparing them with a collection at the Smithsonian's herbarium. The researchers also cooked a range of plants to see how their appearance changed.
They collected 73 starch grains from the Iraqi Neanderthal's teeth. Some of these belonged to barley or a close relative, and appeared to have been boiled in water. “The evidence for cooking is strong. The starch grains are gelatinised, and that can only come from heat associated with cooking,” Piperno said. Similar tests on the Belgian Neanderthals' teeth revealed traces of cooked starch that probably came from parts of water lilies that store carbohydrates. Other cooked starch grains were traced back to sorghum, a kind of grass.
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
In Piperno's opinion, the research undermines one theory that suggests early modern humans drove the Neanderthals to extinction by having a more sophisticated and robust diet. The work also raises questions about whether Neanderthals organised themselves in a similar way to early hunter-gatherer groups, she said. “When you start routinely to exploit plants in your diet, you can arrange your settlements according to the season. In two months' time you want to be where the cereals are maturing, and later where the date palms are ready to pick. It sounds simplistic, but this is important in terms of your overall cognitive abilities. “In early human groups, women typically collected plants and turned them into food while men hunted. To us, and it is just a suggestion, this brings up the possibility that there was some sexual division of labour in the Neanderthals and that is something most people did not think existed.”
Applying spices to beef not just enhances its taste but can also cut down your risk of cancer, suggests a new study. J. Scott Smith, a Kansas State University food chemistry professor, has pursued different projects in recent years seeking ways to reduce heterocyclic amines (HCAs).
HCAs are the carcinogenic compounds that are produced when muscle foods, such as ground beef patties, are barbecued, grilled, boiled or fried. Consuming HCAs through meat increases risk factors for colorectal, stomach, lung, pancreatic, mammary and prostate cancers.
In a research, Smith found that certain spices containing natural antioxidants would reduce HCA levels by 40 percent when applied to beef patties during cooking.
“Cooked beef tends to develop more HCAs than other kinds of cooked meats such as pork and chicken. Cooked beef patties appear to be the cooked meat with the highest mutagenic activity and may be the most important source of HCAs in the human diet,” Smith said.
Previous studies have shown that meat products cooked below 352 degrees Fahrenheit for less than four minutes had low or undetectable levels of HCAs, with HCAs increasing with higher temperatures and added cooking time. It's not a good idea to lower cooking temperatures too much, so antioxidant spices with phenolic compounds can block HCAs before they form during heating and still allow high temperatures to be maintained.
Smith's research team investigated six spices – cumin, coriander seeds, galangal, fingerroot, rosemary and tumeric – and found that the latter three had the highest levels of antioxidant activity toward inhibiting the formation of HCAs, with rosemary as the most effective.
Consumers can take advantage of the spices by integrating them into their cooking regimen. Previous research in his laboratory has demonstrated that some commercial rosemary extracts, available for purchase on the Internet, can inhibit HCA formation by 61 to 79 percent. Smith's earlier work also showed that Thai spices can inhibit HCA formation by 40 to 43 percent.
Smith said future research in this area will investigate what some marinades or powders can do to inhibit HCAs when applied to a cooked patties. His earlier project showed that marinating steaks with certain herbs, rosemary and other antioxidant spices also reduces HCAs.
How Much Should I Eat?
How much you should eat depends on how active you are. If you eat more calories than your body uses, you gain weight.
What are calories? Calories are a way to count how much energy is in food. You use the energy you get from food to do the things you need to do each day.
Just counting calories is not enough for making healthy choices. For example, a medium banana, 1 cup of flaked cereal, 2-1/2 cups of cooked spinach, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, or 1 cup of 1% milk–all have roughly the same number of calories. But, the foods are different in many ways. Some have more of the nutrients you might need than others do. Milk gives you more calcium than a banana, and peanut butter gives you more protein than cereal. And a banana is likely to make you feel fuller than a tablespoon of peanut butter.
How many calories do people over age 50 need each day?
- who is not physically active needs about 1,600 calories
- who is somewhat active needs about 1,800 calories
- who has an active lifestyle needs about 2,000-2,200 calories
- who is not physically active needs about 2,000 calories
- who is somewhat active needs about 2,200-2,400 calories
- who has an active lifestyle needs about 2,400-2,800 calories
Here's a tip: Get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most, if not all days of the week.
How Much Is on My Plate?
How does the food on your plate compare to how much you should be eating? For example, one very large chicken breast could be more from the meat/beans group than you are supposed to eat in a whole day. Here are some general ways you can check:
3 ounces of meat, poultry, or fish = deck of cards
½ cup of fruit, rice, pasta, or ice cream = ½ baseball
1 cup of salad greens = baseball
1-1/2 ounces of cheese = 4 stacked dice
1 teaspoon of butter or margarine = 1 dice (or die)
2 tablespoons of peanut butter = ping pong ball
1 cup of flaked cereal or a baked potato = fist
Read the Label
At first, reading labels on many packaged foods may take some time. The facts there can help you make better food choices. Labels have a Nutrition Facts panel. It tells how much protein, carbohydrates, fats, sodium, key vitamins and minerals, and calories are in a serving. The panel also shows how many servings are in the package—be careful because sometimes what you think is one serving is really more.
Each can, bottle, or package label also has an ingredients list. Items are listed from largest amount to smallest.
Having Problems with Food?
Does your favorite chicken dish taste different? As you grow older, your sense of taste and sense of smell may change. Foods may seem to have lost flavor. Also, medicines can change how food tastes. They can also make you feel less hungry. Talk to your doctor about whether there is a different medicine you could use. Try extra spices or herbs on your foods to add flavor.
As you get older, you might not be able to eat all the foods you used to eat. For example, some people become lactose intolerant. They have symptoms like stomach pain, gas, or diarrhea after eating or drinking something with milk in it, like ice cream. Most can eat small amounts of such food or can try yogurt, buttermilk, or hard cheese. Lactose-free foods are available now also. Your doctor can test to see if you are lactose intolerant.
Is it harder to chew? Maybe your dentures need to fit better, or your gums are sore. If so, a dentist can help you. Until then, you might want to eat softer foods that are easier to chew.
Do I Need to Drink Water?
With age, you may lose some of your sense of thirst. Drink plenty of liquids like water, juice, milk, and soup. Don't wait until you feel thirsty. Try to drink several large glasses of water each day. Your urine should be pale yellow. If it is a bright or dark yellow, you need to drink more liquids.
Be sure to talk with your doctor if you have trouble controlling your urine. Don't stop drinking liquids. There are better ways to help bladder control problems.
What about Fibre?
Fibre is found in foods from plants—fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Eating more fibre might prevent stomach or intestine problems, like constipation. It might also help lower cholesterol, as well as blood sugar.
It is better to get fibre from food than dietary supplements. Start adding more fibre slowly. That will help avoid unwanted gas. Here are some tips for adding fibre:
- Eat cooked dry beans, peas, and lentils often.
- Leave skins on your fruit and vegetables if possible.
- Choose whole fruit over fruit juice.
- Eat whole-grain breads and cereals.
- Drink plenty of liquids to help fibre move through your intestines.
Should I Cut Back on Salt?
The usual way people get sodium is by eating salt. The body needs sodium, but too much can make blood pressure go up in some people. Most fresh food contains some sodium. Salt is added to many canned and prepared foods.
People tend to eat more salt than they need. If you are over age 50, about 2/3 of a teaspoon of table salt–1500 milligrams (mg) of sodium–is all you need each day. That includes all the sodium in your food and drink, not just the salt you add when cooking or eating. If your doctor tells you to use less salt, ask about a salt substitute. Some contain sodium. Also, don't add salt during cooking or at the table, and avoid salty snacks and processed foods. Look for the word sodium, not salt, on the Nutrition Facts panel. Choose foods labeled “low-sodium.” Often, the amount of sodium in the same kind of food can vary greatly between brands.
Here's a tip: Spices, herbs, and lemon juice can add flavor to your food, so you won't miss the salt.
What about Fat?
Fat in your diet comes from two places–the fat already found in food and the fat added when you cook. Fat gives you energy and helps your body use certain vitamins, but it is high in calories. To lower the fat in your diet:
Choose cuts of meat, fish, or poultry (with the skin removed) with less fat. Trim off any extra fat before cooking. Use low-fat dairy products and salad dressings. Use non-stick pots and pans, and cook without added fat. Choose an unsaturated or monosaturated vegetable oil (check the label) or a nonfat cooking spray. Instead of frying, broil, roast, bake, stir-fry, steam, microwave, or boil foods.
Keeping Food Safe
Older people must take extra care to keep their food safe to eat. As you get older, you are less able to fight off infections, and some foods could make you very sick. Be sure to fully cook eggs, pork, fish, shellfish, poultry, and hot dogs. Talk to your doctor or Nastaran about foods to avoid. These might include raw sprouts, some deli meats, and foods that are not pasteurized (heated to destroy disease-causing organisms), like some milk products and juices in the refrigerated section of the grocery.
Before cooking, handle raw food with care. Keep it apart from foods that are already cooked or won't be cooked, like salad, fruit, or bread. Be careful with tools–your knife, plate, or cutting board, for example. Don't cut raw meat with the same knife you will use to make a salad. Rinse raw fruits and vegetables before eating. Use hot soapy water to wash your hands, tools, and work surfaces as you cook.
As you get older, you can't depend on sniffing or tasting food to tell if it has gone bad. Try putting dates on foods in your refrigerator. Check the “use by” date on foods. If in doubt, toss it out.
Here's a tip: Make sure food gets into the refrigerator no more than 2 hours after it is cooked—whether you made it yourself or brought it home from a restaurant.
Can I Afford to Eat Right?
If your budget is limited, it might take some thought and planning to be able to pay for the foods you should eat. Here are some suggestions. First, buy only the foods you need. A shopping list will help with that. Before shopping, plan your meals, and check your supply of staples like flour and cereal. Make sure you have some canned or frozen foods in case you do not feel like cooking or cannot go out. Powdered, canned, or ultra-pasteurized milk in a shelf carton can be stored easily.
Think about how much of a food you will use. A large size may be cheaper per unit, but it is only a bargain if you use all of it. Try to share large packages of food with a friend. Frozen vegetables in bags save money because you can use small amounts and keep the rest frozen. If a package of meat or fresh produce is too large, ask a store employee to repackage it in a smaller size.
Here are other ways to keep your food costs down:
- Plain (generic) labels or store brands often cost less than name brands.
- Plan your meals around food that is on sale.
- Prepare more of the foods you enjoy, and quickly refrigerate the leftovers to eat in a day or two.
- Divide leftovers into small servings, label and date, and freeze to use within a few months.
Eating alone can be difficult for people of any age. It may not seem worth the effort to cook just for you. But there are ways to put the fun back into eating. Start with keeping your cupboards well stocked with nutritious foods that you enjoy. Studies show that when you eat with others, you tend to have an improved nutrient intake. So, sit down with some friends, family members or neighbours and enjoy their company while you dine. Treat yourself well; you deserve it!
Make it a pleasure
- Create a pleasant place to eat. Set a table with flowers, place mat and napkin, even candles. Listen to music.
- Sometimes moving to a different location or doing something else while eating is helpful. Take your meal out on the porch, sit near a window, go to the park for a picnic, watch TV or read a book.
- Enjoy a dinner out in a restaurant occasionally. Ask for a “doggie bag” to take leftovers home.
- Want a break from cooking? Try a no-cook meal, ready-made meals or other convenience foods.
- Consider taking Meals on Wheels a few times a week or more.
- • Share a potluck dinner with a friend, or form a regular lunch group.
- Start an eating club. The host makes soup and others bring bread, salad or fruit.
- Join a collective kitchen or share cooking with friends. Find a place where a few of you can meet to plan, shop and prepare several meals together. Take those meals home, freeze them and pull them out when you don't feel like shopping or cooking.
- Ask other seniors who are alone for ideas and suggestions, and share yours.
- Exchange recipes.
- Teach your grandchildren how to cook or bake.
- Check your local senior or community centres; many serve weekly meals.
- Beyond the nutritional benefits of eating with others, starting a supper club or joining an eating group can also help you meet new people and forge new friendships.
If you have lost your appetite for more than a day or two, talk with your doctor. Nastaran can provide food and nutrition information you can trust.
©2009 Dietitians of Canada. Reproduced with permission.