Ferment in the family tree: does a frugivorous dietary heritage influence contemporary patterns of human ethanol use?

Integrative and comparative biology

PubMedID: 21676714

Milton K. Ferment in the family tree: does a frugivorous dietary heritage influence contemporary patterns of human ethanol use?. Integr Comp Biol. 2004;44(4):304-14.
Humans and apes are placed together in the superfamily Hominoidea. The evolutionary trajectory of hominoids is intimately bound up with the exploitation of ripe, fleshy fruits. Fermentation of fruit sugars by yeasts produces a number of alcohols, particularly ethanol. Because of their pre-human frugivorous dietary heritage, it has been hypothesized that humans may show pre-existing sensory biases associating ethanol with nutritional rewards. This factor, in turn, could influence contemporary patterns of human ethanol use. At present, there seems little evidence to support a view of selection specifically for ethanol detection or its utilization over the course of hominoid evolution. Ethanol concentration in wild fruits consumed by monkeys and apes is predicted to be low. Wild monkeys and apes avoid consumption of over-ripe fruits, the class showing notable ethanol concentrations, and for this reason, ethanol plumes may act as deterrents rather than attractants. Any energetic benefits to wild primates from ingested ethanol appear negligible, at best. Mice and rats show patterns of ethanol self-administration similar to humans, indicating that a frugivorous dietary heritage is not necessary for such behaviors. In the natural environment, ethanol is predicted to be just one of many alcohols, esters and related compounds routinely encountered by frugivorous primates and of no particular significance. The strong attraction ethanol holds for some individuals could be due to a broad range of genetic and environmental factors. In some humans, the appetite for ethanol appears related to the appetite for sugar. The predisposition some individuals display toward excessive ethanol consumption could involve features of their genetics and biochemical similarities of ethanol and carbohydrate. Regular low ethanol intake is hypothesized to lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease in humans, perhaps through its effects on body fat distribution. Such a benefit, if confirmed, would appear to relate to features of the contemporary human rather than pre-human diet.