Representative image
Representative image

The big bite: How chewing shaped human evolution

The differences between our chewing habits and those of our closest relatives offer insights into human evolution.

By Kate Golembiewski

NEW YORK: Humans spend about 35 minutes every day chewing. That adds up to more than a full week out of every year.

But that’s nothing compared to the time spent masticating by our cousins: Chimps chew for 4.5 hours a day, and orangutans clock 6.6 hours.

The differences between our chewing habits and those of our closest relatives offer insights into human evolution.

A study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances explores how much energy people use while chewing, and how that may have guided — or been guided by — our gradual transformation into modern humans.

Chewing, in addition to keeping us from choking, makes the energy and nutrients in food accessible to the digestive system. But the very act of chewing requires us to expend energy.

Adaptations to teeth, jaws and muscles all play a part in how efficiently humans chew.

Adam van Casteren, an author of the new study and a research associate at the University of Manchester in England, says that scientists haven’t delved too deeply into the energetic costs of chewing partly because compared with other things we do, such as walking or running, it’s a thin slice of the energy-use pie.

But even comparatively small advantages can play a big role in evolution, and he wanted to find out if that might be the case with chewing.

To measure the energy that goes into chewing, Dr. Adam van Casteren and his colleagues outfitted study participants in the Netherlands with plastic hoods that look like “an astronaut’s helmet,” he said.

The hoods were connected to tubes to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide from breathing.

Because metabolic processes are fuelled by oxygen and produce carbon dioxide, gas exchange can be a useful measure for how much energy something takes. The researchers then gave the subjects gum.

The participants didn’t get the sugary kind, though; the gum bases they chewed were flavourless and odourless.

Digestive systems respond to flavours and scents, so the researchers wanted to make sure they were only measuring the energy associated with chewing and not the energy of a stomach gearing up for a tasty meal.

The test subjects chewed two pieces of gum, one hard and one soft, for 15 minutes each. The results surprised researchers.

The softer gum raised the participants’ metabolic rates about 10 percent higher than when they were resting; the harder gum caused a 15 percent increase. “I thought there wasn’t going to be as big a difference,” Dr. van Casteren said. “Very small changes in the material properties of the item you’re chewing can cause quite substantial increases in energy expenditure, and that opens up a whole universe of questions.”

Because chewing tougher food — or in this case, tougher gum — takes significantly more energy, these findings suggest that the metabolic costs of chewing may have played an important role in our evolution.

Making food easier to process through cooking, mashing food with tools and growing crops optimized for eating might have dialled down the evolutionary pressure for us to be super-chewers.

Our evolving chewing needs may have even shaped what our faces look like.

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