Food, Science, and the Human Body

In partnership with
Professor Alyssa Crittenden, Ph.D.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
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Course No. 1940
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover what our earliest human ancestors ate - and how they evolved to eat it.
  • Explore the watershed moments in human history that transformed the way we eat.
  • Consider the role your food has played in the development of the human body over millions of years.
  • Examine the nutritional science behind foods like bread, chocolate, tea, soda, beer, and more.
  • Learn about how scientific advancements like artificial meat and vertical farms can help solve world hunger.

Course Overview

It may be a well-worn saying, but scientific data backs it up: You are what you eat. Not only that: You are what your earliest ancestors ate. In short, the story of humanity is inextricably linked to the story of food.

Throughout history, our evolution as a species has been inextricably linked to the foods we eat. It’s a relationship that goes back nearly 2.8 million years to our roots as hunters and gatherers. And it continues to the present day in the form of debates over good nutrition and the future of food on an overpopulated planet.

Food has led to the rise of epic civilizations. It’s shaped—and been shaped by—watershed moments in human history, from the dawn of animal husbandry to the industrial age of mass production to the 21st-century farm-to-table movement. Most importantly: It’s led to the amazing behavioral and nutritional flexibility of the bodies we have.

Understanding our current—and future—relationship with food warrants a look back in time to the roots of food and food culture, and its intersection with science.

  • What foods did the human body evolve to eat, and why?
  • Which foods changed the course of history, and how?
  • How does the food we eat affect our genes and our minds?
  • What foods are (and aren’t) optimal for our everyday health?
  • Can we use cutting-edge science to end world hunger?

In Food, Science, and the Human Body, award-winning Professor Alyssa Crittenden of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas offers eye-opening answers to these and other perplexing questions about the evolution of the human diet and its relationship to our bodies. Bringing together insights from a range of fields including anthropology, biology, history, nutrition, health science, economics, and sociology, this exciting partnership between The Great Courses and National Geographic lays bare what science can teach us about food. Cutting through politics and separating myth from reality, these 36 lectures contain everything you need to know about everything you eat – and why you eat it.

A Multidisciplinary Approach

“We all spend countless hours thinking about, buying, preparing, consuming, and digesting food,” says Dr. Crittenden. “Our long evolutionary relationship with food is often hailed by anthropologists as one of the key milestones in human history.”

With its rich multidisciplinary approach, Food, Science, and the Human Body is designed to offer an even-handed, scientifically-based approach to the history and science of the human diet. Taking you far beyond the supermarket and the laboratory, these lectures offer a wider view of food. As you cross cultures, span time, and hop around the world from the most underfed to the most overfed human societies, here are some of the topics to consider along the way:

  • The Paleolithic Dinner Plate: A lot of news coverage has been given to the Paleo Diet movement, but the idea is based on the misconception that it mimics the actual diet of the Paleolithic era. Data from bones, stones, and teeth reveal that our ancestors had no single diet and evolved to consume a generalized diet including plant and animal matter.
  • Diets and Diseases: There is a deep connection between the evolution of the human diet and the rise of infectious and nutritional disease. For example, the second epidemiological transition in history, coinciding with the rise of industrialization, is characterized by a rise in chronic degenerative diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
  • Time to Start Cooking: Roasting, boiling, and baking are invariably “human.” Archaeological evidence of cooking implements reveals much about how our ancestors cooked their food, and stress the idea of cooking as important to the way we eat. Cooking meat, in fact, made it easier to digest and eradicated harmful bacteria.
  • More than Just Nutrition: From wine and beer to chocolate and spices, food has numerous social, cultural, and spiritual roots. Bread, for example, helped defined social status. The lightest bread was reserved for elites, while dark and heavy bread was for everyone else. Also, white bread was thought to be distinctly “American” in the early 20th century.
  • Bizarre Foods: Not everything human beings eat is universally considered food. Entomophagy, the practice of eating bugs, has been around for most of human history. Placentophagy, the eating of the placenta by a mother, is still practiced. And eating psilocybin mushrooms for their hallucinogenic qualities dates back to the Aztecs.
  • A World in Your Gut: Of all the body’s microbiomes, the gut has the greatest number of bacterial species that play a vital role in our health (from metabolizing our food to defending us from pathogens). Scientific data supports the idea that these gut microbes are “fellow travelers” in human evolution.

Pressing Questions and Concerns

Bringing a broad range of disciplines to these lectures, Dr. Crittenden makes Food, Science, and the Human Body an intriguing and illuminating catalog of some of the most pressing questions and concerns we have about what we eat, how we eat it, why we eat it, and how we’ll continue to eat it in the coming decades. Throughout the lectures, you will:

  • Compare and contrast food-related crises in different parts of the world, from mass starvation to the obesity epidemic.
  • Explore food trends and ideas, from the Mediterranean and MIND diets to the farm-to-table movement and the controversy surrounding GMOs.
  • Examine how watershed moments in history, like agriculture and mass production, were both advantageous and disadvantageous to human diet and health.
  • Bust common myths about how food acts on the body and mind, and come away with insights you can apply to your own everyday dinner plate.

Insights for When You’re Hungry

Dr. Crittenden has spent her entire career absorbed by the questions and issues examined throughout Food, Science, and the Human Body. “My fascination with the relationship between people and their food is one of the reasons that I’m teaching this course,” she says.

An anthropologist whose focus is on behavioral ecology and nutritional anthropology, Dr. Crittenden brings insights from her own research (among the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania) to these lectures. Her research has won multiple awards and has been published in top-tier journals and highlighted in magazines, including National Geographic and Smithsonian.

Plus, our partnership with National Geographic gives you access to a treasure trove of vibrant field photography, illustrations, timelines, maps, charts, portion diagrams, and other visual elements that add a wealth of understanding to a topic that stretches back millions of years.

This topic will continue to be of importance as long as human beings exist. And the information in Food, Science, and the Human Body will continue to resonate in your mind, every time you get hungry.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Paleo Diets and the Ancestral Appetite
    Do we have an ancestral appetite? First, uncover how similar the current Paleo diet fad is to what our actual ancestors ate. Then, learn how digestive anatomy and neural expansion played a role in the evolution of nutrition. Finally, determine whether or not humans are adapted to one specific diet. x
  • 2
    Our Hunter-Gatherer Past
    For the bulk of human history, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. Using fascinating research from a study of one of Africa's last foraging populations, Professor Crittenden reveals insights into how hunter-gatherer societies function, and how they may have shaped the diversity of human nutrition. x
  • 3
    Stones, Bones, and Teeth
    For clues to the history of human nutrition, scientists look to fossils in the form of stones, bones, and teeth. In this lecture, learn what scientists discovered about the ancestral dinner plate through stone artifacts used for butchery, the bones of the human cranium, and the dentition of early humans. x
  • 4
    Did Meat Eating Make Us Human?
    Learn how meat changed the playing field for our earliest ancestors. First, trace the history of meat eating through human evolution. Then, use data from cut marks on bones to decipher when, exactly, we began to eat meat. Also, consider the nutritive benefits (and dangers) linked with meat consumption. x
  • 5
    Insects: The Other White Meat
    There are more than 1,900 edible insect species on Earth, and 2 billion people regularly consume insects as part of their diet. In this lecture, Professor Crittenden takes you inside the fascinating world of entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) and the ways we turn to insects for nutrition. x
  • 6
    Was the Stone Age Menu Mostly Vegetarian?
    Explore the critical role that plant foods have played in our diet. You'll study plant microfossils that radically change what we thought we knew about the Stone Age menu. You'll learn the essential role played by underground storage organs (or "tubers"). And you'll revisit Professor Crittenden's research on plant-processing techniques among Tanzanian foragers. x
  • 7
    Cooking and the Control of Fire
    Roasting. Boiling. Baking. Grilling. When did our ancestors start cooking with fire, and how? Find out in this lecture that takes you back nearly 1 million years on a journey to find out how we evolved to eat our food cooked, whether using boiling stones or a butane torch. x
  • 8
    The Neolithic Revolution
    Discover what prompted large populations of people to drastically change their subsistence strategy by domesticating plants and animals, Also, learn how this Neolithic revolution permanently altered the human diet, as well as paved the way for massive population growth, the development of nation states, and new vectors for disease. x
  • 9
    The Changing Disease-Scape
    Turn now to a darker product of the Neolithic revolution: the growth of zoonotic diseases, or diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasites that spread between animals and humans. Among the ones you'll encounter here are Lyme disease, West Nile virus, malaria, salmonella, and E. coli. x
  • 10
    How Foods Spread around the World
    Once domestication was in full swing, foods began to be exchanged among different groups, leading to the subject of this lecture: delocalization. In order to better understand the development of this process, in which food consumed in one area is produced far away, you'll consider examples and case studies including bananas, apples, tomatoes, and corn. x
  • 11
    The History of the Spice Trade
    They're a common enough item in our pantries today, but in the past, spices were highly valued and tightly guarded, and were the catalyst for creating and destroying empires. Examine the spices that were critically important during the opening decades of the spice routes, including pepper, cloves, ginger, and garlic. x
  • 12
    How Sugar and Salt Shaped World History
    Salt and sugar have also played large roles in food production and global health. Topics in this lecture include how sugar is extracted from sugar cane, the rise of alternative sweeteners and sugar substitutes, early non-dietary uses of salt, and the dangers of a high-sodium diet. x
  • 13
    A Brief History of Bread
    Bread, in all its forms, is one of the most widely consumed foods in the world. It was also the foundation for many civilizations. Here, consider aspects about this dietary staple, including the art of leavening, the religious and social roles of light and dark bread, and the artisanal bread movement. x
  • 14
    The Science and Secrets of Chocolate
    Today, chocolate is a multi-billion-dollar global industry. In this lecture, Professor Crittenden takes you back in time so you can follow chocolate's trek around the world, considering not only its history and chemical properties, but its role in the current global market in the form of powerful chocolate empires. x
  • 15
    Water: The Liquid of Life
    Of all the water on Earth, only a fraction of it is drinkable. How much water is used by humans throughout the world? How did bottled water become so popular? Why is water fluoridation so controversial? How can we work to conserve water, both as a nation and in our everyday lives? x
  • 16
    Beer, Mead, and the Fun of Fermentation
    From ancient Egyptian experiments to the 21st-century microbrewery down the street from your house, explore the intricate links between the fermentation of wheat and honey and human civilization. As you follow our love affair with beer and mead, you'll be surprised to learn just how accidental their discovery was. x
  • 17
    Humanity's Love of Wine
    Continue looking at our relationship with fermented beverages, this time with a look into the story of fermenting grapes into wine. Topics include the science behind viticulture and the production of different types of wine, the reasons winemakers are turning away from cork, and “retsina,” one of the oldest types of white wine. x
  • 18
    Coffee: Love or Addiction?
    Each year, over 500 billion cups of coffee are served. Reconsider this popular drink and its relationship with world history. Along the way, you'll explore the ways coffee is harvested, how caffeine works on your body and mind, popular ways to drink coffee, and the origins of the free-trade movement. x
  • 19
    The Roots of Tea
    What is the source of the nearly 1,500 different types of tea in the world? How did tea spread from Japan to Europe? What are the differences between green, black, and white teas? How was the tea bag accidentally invented? Is drinking tea good for your health? Get the answers in this lecture. x
  • 20
    The Fizz on Soda
    Soda was once an embodiment of the American dream. Now, it's one of the worst contributors to obesity-related diseases. Make sense of this fizzy drink by exploring its origins as patented medicine, the soda wars between Coke and Pepsi, and the health risks associated with its high sugar content. x
  • 21
    Food as Ritual
    Humans don't just eat for nutrition. It's a deeply symbolic activity as well. In this lecture, consider some of the many different categories of food rituals around the world, including fasting for Ramadan, making sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead, bobbing for apples during Halloween, and America's favorite fall feast: Thanksgiving. x
  • 22
    When People Eat Things That Aren't Food
    Sometimes, people consume things that are not considered food, from dirt to hair to human flesh. Professor Crittenden introduces you to some of the more outlandish dietary practices around the world, including placentophagy (in which a mother eats the placenta after giving birth) and anthropophagy (also known as cannibalism). x
  • 23
    Food as Recreational Drugs
    Throughout history, we've consumed food not just for nourishment, but also for psychological effects. In this lecture, go inside the world of recreational drugs, including psilocybin mushrooms, edible marijuana treats, and addictions to foods like chocolate or french fries. x
  • 24
    Food as Medicine
    Is there a substantial link between diet and disease prevention? Professor Crittenden explains the medicinal histories behind several foods. Among them are ginger (thought to help with digestive issues) and cinnamon (used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat various ailments), as well as goji berries, chocolate, and pomegranate. x
  • 25
    The Coevolution of Genes and Diet
    Biological and cultural evolution are not separate phenomena, and this is nowhere better exemplified than with diet. In this lecture, Professor Crittenden discusses the ways in which our genes and diet have co-evolved. You'll witness this fascinating process through examples of how our body evolved to metabolize (or not) enzymes like lactase and amylase, as well as omega 3 fatty acids. x
  • 26
    The Scoop on Poop
    There's a lot we can learn about the end point of nutrition. Here, trace the science and history of excrement, including its oldest fossilized forms (known as coprolites), the study of latrine systems in ancient Rome, and the important role played by gut bacteria in excrement production. x
  • 27
    The Gut Microbiome
    Your body can play host to anywhere from 30 to 50 trillion bacterial cells, the most species of which are in your gut. Learn how gut microbiota help us metabolize food and drugs, and defend us against pathogens. Put simply: these microbes are fellow travelers in human evolution. x
  • 28
    Brain Food
    There's data out there to suggest that it's possible to feed your brain. In this lecture on the links between diet and the brain, explore the role of hormones like insulin and leptin; unpack the tangled links between food cravings and addiction; and consider how the MIND diet can help delay neurodegeneration. x
  • 29
    You Are What Your Mother Ate
    Your diet as a fetus has a powerful influence on your life as an adult. What micronutrients are most important to your first nine months of life? What did a historic Dutch famine reveal about the consequences of sub-standard nutrition during pregnancy? What can we learn from studying heritable changes in gene expression? x
  • 30
    Civilization: Diets and Diseases
    Professor Crittenden explains the second and third epidemiological transitions in human evolution and the changing face of the world's disease-scape. First is the decline over the last two centuries of infectious disease and the rise of chronic degenerative diseases (like diabetes). Then there's the re-emergence of drug-resistant infectious diseases (like Zika). x
  • 31
    What the World Is Eating
    Take a fascinating tour of different meals from around the world to better appreciate the global tradition of eating. Cultural cuisines you explore are those listed by the United Nations as part of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage,” and include Japanese cuisine, Mexican cuisine, and French cuisine. x
  • 32
    The Overnutrition Epidemic
    According to the World Health Organization, most of the world's population now lives in countries where obesity kills more people than malnutrition. In this insightful lecture, explore the two-pronged pathway to global obesity: decreased physical activity and radical changes in diet (including the massive consumption of sugar). x
  • 33
    World Poverty and Undernutrition
    Every night, one in eight people goes to bed hungry. Get an eye-opening look at undernourishment in the developing and post-industrialized worlds. You’ll consider the two types of malnourishment, the concept of “plump poverty,” the roles played by urban slums and overpopulation, and ways we can work to eradicate world hunger. x
  • 34
    Should the World Eat Meat?
    In the first of two lectures on the politics of food, explore whether or not sustainable meat production is a myth or reality. What are the environmental costs of meat production? How can we rethink the way we house, feed, and raise livestock? Is too much meat bad for our health? x
  • 35
    Should We Be Powered by Plants?
    Turn now to the politics of eating a plant-based diet. What are the health benefits of vegetarianism and veganism? Why do people decide to follow this diet? What role does beauty play in food waste? What exactly is the controversy surrounding the organic foods movement and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? x
  • 36
    The Future of Food
    Artificial meat. Bio-fortified crops. Vertical farms in the middle of cities. Bread grown from spent grains used in breweries. Crops grown with agroforestry methods. Conclude the course with a broad look at developing a food system that is better equipped to deal with population growth and diminishing resources. x

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Your professor

Alyssa Crittenden

About Your Professor

Alyssa Crittenden, Ph.D.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Dr. Alyssa Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Crittenden’s focus in anthropology is on behavioral ecology and nutritional anthropology. She does field research among the Hadza...
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Food, Science, and the Human Body is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 20.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Fascinating Exploration Into Food & Our Bodies We all have to eat but how much do we know about the history of this essential activity and the science behind our foods and our bodies. Dr. Crittenden starts us out with our Hunter Gather ancestors and brings us up to the most modern innovations in food production and animal husbandry that have promise to feed and sustain a world of 10 billion. I enjoyed every lecture including the discussions on human digestion and how a cow processes its food. I learned a lot from this course and would recommend it to anyone. I had heard of bio-meat and shipping container farms but Dr. Crittenden provided a much more detailed description of these techniques.
Date published: 2018-01-26
Rated 1 out of 5 by from not what I expected I wanted a history of food but she spends most of her time talking about trade. After the first few lectures the course becomes a advertisement for fair trade and the professor's social ,economic and enviromental platform. The science is mostly trade and economics and very little how food effects the body
Date published: 2017-12-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Teaching Co's best courses This is one of the Teaching Co's best courses--remarkably objective and informed about early human diets and what would be healthy for modern humans. It's also fascinating in its coverage of everything from the history of chocolate to the effect of mothers' diets on their children. Alas, when I mentioned a criticism of some diet fads the review robots gave me a Profanity X and wouldn't allow this--there was no swearing, just a scientific assessment, so I didn't know what to change and had to settle for this.
Date published: 2017-11-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Finger wagging lectures I generally enjoy the Great Courses very much. I bought this one expecting a scientific analysis of our food needs and habits. While there was much of that, the professor also included stern, schoolmarmish diatribes on such things as the evil practices of chocolate farming. I could do without the attitude.
Date published: 2017-11-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Holy Cow! Really enjoyed this course, so I think other foodies will also like it. Time went by really fast. If you ask me, it’s a welcome complement to Ken Albala’s course, Food: A Cultural Culinary History and Nutrition Made Clear (Roberta Anding). This new course is inter-disciplinary, covering culture, anthropology, food, history, the human body, politics, etc. It’s got everything from soup to nuts, so I found it engrossing. Unfortunately, it’s short of 5 stars because there were a few lectures in the middle that were informative but a little soft for typical TGC viewers. Off the top of my head, a handful of lectures from 10-20 could’ve been beefed up. The course is chock-full of interesting factoids (e.g. how many seeds in a pomegranate, history of Halloween, pica, etc.). The ending lectures on the politics of food production were definitely food for thought. Regarding land use data in Lecture 34, a colorful chart/graphic would’ve made a bigger impact than %. But the cow graphic explaining the enteric fermentation process is classic. Whoever made that one—take a bow and ask for a raise. The Guidebook is meaty, weighing in at 368 pages. The bibliography has a lot of entries worth following up on. However, there were probably a half dozen typos that I spotted. TGC, may I introduce my good friend, Spellchecker? Apologies for the eye roll—recent Guidebook typos are my pet peeve. Your editor isn’t a bad apple, but mistakes were made. Professor Crittenden did a good job presenting. She’s a competent speaker who’s comfortable in front of a camera. In a nutshell, it was worthwhile. I’ve been following up on some of these topics online. Unrelated: In the future I’d relish a course on food science.
Date published: 2017-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Interesting Subject I have a long history of wanting to learn more about this subject. I have consumed books on food history and human eating habits. This material from The Great Courses covers all the aspects of the human experience with food and what it has done for us and to us. Very worthwhile course.
Date published: 2017-08-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Appropriate title. This course covers food science with an emphasis on the evolutionary biology and the history of food. As a nutrition scientist myself, I found the lectures both informative and innovative. The lecturer was enthusiastic about the material and kept me pleasantly focused. Whatever your main field of interest, I believe you will find this course will change your understanding and appreciation of your most intimate contact with your environment, namely when you eat it.
Date published: 2017-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Subject I love this course. It is from an anthropological viewpoint. That is what made me realize that I made the right decision in purchasing it. This course is easy to understand. The professor knows her subject and conducted some of the studies herself!
Date published: 2017-08-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Some good facts but sometimes disappoints I would have preferred and I was expecting some the topic focused more on the benefits and less on history such as chocolate, tea ect.
Date published: 2017-08-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Lecture distractions First few chapters are boring... common sense. Later chapters better, informative information. But overall, lecturer's continual hand gesture is distracting and monotonous.
Date published: 2017-08-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unique Approach to food This is an unusual presentation for the topic; but, it is very good because the approach is both practical and useful to the student of food products, as well as to the customer. Also, certain elements such as spices, are presented in easily understood formats.and necessary details.
Date published: 2017-08-07
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