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From Stone Age to New Age - The evolution of food in Britain

Wednesday, 24 July 2019
Colleagues have a fast lunch in the office The evolution of food in Britain Food photo created by yanalya - www.freepik.com

The history of British food. Have we come full circle? Find out how British food has evolved from the Stone Age through to the 21st Century. Dip into our intermediate level reading comprehension with questions and answers.

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Graded Reading - Intermediate

Back in Stone Age Britain, the hunter-gatherer diet of nuts, seeds, vegetables and hunted meat used to be perfect for our genetic make-up. However, in today's more complex world of technological revolution we are seeking to adapt our diet to suit our busy lifestyles. Many of us would agree that we are constantly looking for quick and easy ways to optimise our nutrition. More than ever, we are conscious of our body image and are therefore working to improve both our physical and mental health.

Let us examine the timeline of the changes in the UK:

250,000 BC
It was around this time that humans discovered cooking. As a result, food became more digestible and we could eat more. This gave us more energy for hunting.

10,000 BC
The introduction of farming in the UK meant that humans were no longer so dependent on hunting and soon there were more farmers than food gatherers or hunters. This happened because farming families usually had a good source of food so they tended to have more children!

43 AD
The Romans arrived in Britain, bringing with them new food such as cherries, cabbages, peas and our first wine, as well as improving the cultivation of crops such as corn. Furthermore, Roman road-building skills soon facilitated the easy transportation of produce throughout the country.

From 410 AD
Vikings and Danes brought the UK their techniques for smoking and drying fish, making it available for longer periods of time.

1485 - 1603
In Tudor times, under the influence of the Tudor royal family (from the reign of King Henry VII to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I), explorers went out in search of new lands where they could settle and trade. As a result, previously unknown types of food began to arrive in Britain: spices from the Far East, sugar from the Caribbean, coffee and cocoa from South America and tea from India. In addition, Britons began to cultivate potatoes which had recently arrived from America.

In Europe in 1864 Louis Pasteur developed the preservation process of beer, wine and milk. These and other processed products could then be safely stored until needed, making an important contribution to human health. (However, in current times, the high consumption of processed food is becoming a problem. In the 21st century, we see humans consuming more calories than they burn in a day, leading to weight gain and obesity.)

The word 'vitamine' was first used by Polish scientist Casimir Funk, however it was Max Tishler of the USA who invented the method to extract and process vitamins. Since that time, we have gained the ability to improve our diets with manufactured vitamins and supplements.

In Britain in the 1940s the idea of fortifying or strengthening food with the addition of vitamins was born. Vitamin A and D were added to margarine and milk and B vitamins were added to flour. This helped to cure some nutritional deficiencies and increased the overall health of the population. Rates of disease and premature death began to fall.

The fortification of bread and flour in the UK was extended to include iron and calcium.

Research began to demonstrate a relationship between increased consumption of ultra-processed food and a lower intake of essentials like fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.

2019 - What are the problems of our 21st century diet in the UK?

In the last 10 years there has been a huge increase in the availability of snack food. In managing their increasingly busy lifestyles, many people have become dependent on these foodstuffs. A large number of such snacks are highly processed. However, more recently we have seen a move towards avoiding unhealthy snacks and the inclusion of vitamin and mineral enriched snacks. These can help to supply our bodies with the nutrients they are missing.

Nevertheless, current research in the UK shows us that in many cases we are still not achieving the recommended daily intakes of some nutrients and that we may need to take supplements in order to stay healthy. In addition, many of us are not consuming the recommended 5 daily portions of fruit and vegetables. In fact, only 25% of British people are reaching this level. What is more, some experts think that intensive farming and artificial fertilisers mean that fruit and vegetables are now less nutritious than they were 60 years ago. One report concluded that levels of iron, copper and calcium had decreased by up to 76% since 1940.

Against this background, many people in Britain are now beginning to consider the effect of their diet not only on their own health but also on the environment in general. Suddenly, many are starting to compare the environmental consequences of eating meat every day or moving towards a more plant-based diet.

It seems that after the advances and trends established over the last million years, we have now come 'full circle'. In other words, we are returning to our earlier ways and habits. Ironically, we are now seeking to relive our hunter-gatherer lifestyle by eating raw or 'clean' food. Health conscious Brits are choosing diets such as 'paleo' which promote unprocessed food. We are also becoming more focused on how nutrition can lead to optimum health.

The future of food

Future developments include naturally fortified food and so-called 'smart food'. Naturally fortified fresh food is being created and grown through genetic engineering. Soon we could have multivitamin apples, beef burgers rich in vitamin C or vegetables high in vitamin B12! Smart food consists of highly nutritious crops which are designed to be simultaneously good for you, the planet and the farmer. These environmentally-friendly foodstuffs are currently under development for world feeding programmes.



Dowden, Angela. (2013) The Pocket Guide to Vitamins. London: Pan Macmillan
Healthspan. (2018) The Story of Food. St. Peter Port, Guernsey: Healthspan Group Publications


Wikipedia: Timeline of Food. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_food [Accessed 30/6/19]
Wikipedia: Casimir Funk. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casimir_Funk [Accessed 1/07/2019]
Historic UK: History of British Food. Available from: https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/History-of-British-Food/ [Accessed 1/07/2019]
Smart Food: Why Smart Food? Available from: http://www.smartfood.org/why-smartfood-2/ [Accessed 1/07/2019]

The Evolution of Food: comprehension questions

1. Why was the discovery of cooking important for the human race?
2. What was the effect of adding vitamins to flour and other basic products?
3. What does it mean 'to come full circle'?
4. What proportion of British people are still not eating the recommended 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day?

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published in Graded Reading 2019
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Last modified on Wednesday, 24 July 2019 11:02

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