Stone Age diet may hold key to optimum nutrition

Unilever research is looking at what man’s distant ancestors ate to see how it could enhance modern-day nutrition.

Genetics and diet

Unilever R&D has – for the first time – brought together professionals from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, evolutionary genetics, food science and botany to recreate the diet of the caveman.

Using the latest techniques in biological sciences – such as human genomics, microbiomics, cell culturing and biochemical analysis – the work is exploring the complex relationship between our genetic make-up and the changes in our diet since the Stone Age.

The research will attempt to identify whether ancient diets contained nutritional benefits, different characteristics or forgotten ingredients which could be reintroduced back into modern diets. Ultimately, these findings could pave the way for Unilever to develop new foodstuffs inspired by the Palaeolithic period.


Scientists have theorised for years that the Palaeolithic diet is more compatible with human physiology than what we eat today. This is because evolution is an extremely slow process and changes in our diet have outpaced changes in our genetic make-up. The period in question is from about 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago, when man was a hunter-gatherer.

Five portions per day?

Current recommendations suggest a daily intake of five portions of fruit and vegetables. However, Palaeolithic man may have consumed up to 25 plant-based foods a day: a hugely rich variety including different types of plants, fish, birds and small mammals. The Palaeoliths really were omnivores.

Unilever’s research is studying how important or effective such a wide variety of plant-based foods might be for making us healthier.

Different risk factors

Palaeolithic people may have died younger than we do today, but that wouldn’t typically have been a result of bad nutrition. More common causes of death are likely to have been from infection, during child-birth, in battle, or simply due to lack of shelter.

Start of the journey

We think this is the first time biological sciences have been used to match an optimal diet against the human genome. So this research really is blue-sky thinking. We are only at the start of our journey, but the leads and insights generated could potentially help Unilever develop a range of foods and drinks that are specifically designed to be compatible with what evolution has prepared us for.

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