The Misplaced Skill of Food Differentiation

Quick pattern recognition helps us survive. In particular, we are fast at finding an item that is different, which we may call weird.


Which girl looks weird?

In less than a second, you picked the girl without a foot. This immediate classification is helpful to survival: a girl without a foot may not be able to work, or take care of a baby. But you didn’t have to calculate all that; your brain created an immediate bias and rejection based on a quick, easy pattern—a missing foot. A missing foot, a different skin color, or bleeding from the eyes causes immediate prejudice that can only be overcome with effort, and effort is costly, usually reserved for increasing one’s supply of money and sex.

Template matching was once useful to avoid food poisoning. Choosing against a bad food item kept you safe.


Which potato is unsafe?

If you’re normal, you don’t want the potato with the extra black spot. This is logical because the black spot is probably rot, and rot can make you sick. Choosing food that is regular and standard can save your life.

But today, our skills of food differentiation are hurting us. What looks the most regular and standard is actually artificial and less safe.

fries versus potato

Which is the least safe?

Surely, you felt the potato was the least safe. You can stop along any highway and get a box of fries that looks standard and safe. But if you want a potato, you have to find a local supplier, and potatoes look different from place to place, and are usually covered with dirt. Thus our brains are tricked into thinking that fries are standard and safe, and potatoes are dirty, irregular, and unsafe.

Behind the scenes, processed food plants import potatoes, strip their nutrients, add artificial chemicals, and ship them as french fries to places along highways. The resulting boxed fries are colorful, clean, and regular.

Once we trust the processed form of food, it is difficult to return to the natural form. To our senses, the natural form is never as standard or clean as the packaged form. Today, we learn to trust a box of fries as young children, planting the trust deep in our brains. This has long term effects that make natural foods feel permanently unfamiliar.

potato versus fries

Which of these is safe to eat?

The natural choice is the french fries. They are a known, safe, familiar food. Even if we are surrounded by potatoes, such that potatoes are the normal thing, it only makes the french fries feel safer and better.

To be fair, eating a raw dirty potato probably isn’t safe. Here, instant gratification plays a dirty trick on our pattern recognition. Since it would take extra work to prepare a raw potato, our mentally-fast-but-lazy pattern recognizer takes the easy way and classifies the fries as much safer, instead of safer and faster.

Even worse, what form would the cooked potato take, and what if it is over or under done? What kind of packaging would there be? On the average, the cognitive complexity of choosing natural food is probably as difficult as overcoming racism. Everyone is against racism and for healthy food.

In the old days, our food differentiation skills helped us rule out rotten potatoes. Now, they cause us to pick artificial food over natural food. The result is a high edible chemical load (ECL) and chronic disease. What looks sumptuous in our plastic and chemical world may be attractive and “feel right”, but tricks our pattern recognition into accepting ECL.

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