The Missing Ingredient?
What we eat has become a big deal. We pay ultra premiums farm-fresh ingredients, plan our travels around restaurants, idolize chefs, debate over diet, do blind taste tests, and call ourselves “foodies” without feeling foolish.
But what about how we eat?
Could we be holding back our hedonic rewards and harming our relationships with food (and with other people) by using utensils instead of eating with our hands?
Let’s open our minds, roll up our sleeves, and get our hands dirty to sink our teeth into the question: Can we get more out of our food by eating with our hands?
Eating With Your Hands Outline
A few tasty bits of background before we dig into the meat of the question of whether we can get more from our food by eating with our hands.
Your Great-Great–Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandmother Wouldn’t Mind
Unless you have East Asian heritage, your great6 grandmother wouldn’t mind if you dug into your extra-extended family meal with your hands. That’s because she was most certainly raised to do the same. Cutlery didn’t start to become widely adopted until about two hundred and fifty years ago.
Chopsticks go back longer. At least 900 years. So if you’ve got East Asian blood, that extra-extended family meal would need many more seats to accommodate your great28 grandmother on down.
A Significant Minority
As many as one-third of people eat the majority of meals with their hands today. Most are in and around India, but many are in the Middle East, Africa, McDonald’s and Chipotle, too.
Size of Jaw Dropping?
Cutlery may have caused us to have overbites.
Anthropologist C. Loring Brace studied thousands of skulls and discovered that, until utensils started hogging drawer space in the West 250 years ago, people’s top and bottom jaws lined up. The same happened in the Far East 900 years ago. He theorizes that outsourcing the role of tearing tough food into mouth-sized morsels has stunted the development of our lower jaws, causing the overbites most of us have today.
Let’s assess the possible cleanliness, social, health, and taste implications of eating with our hands.
We’re going to have to get mostly theoretical and practical because few scientific studies exist and those that do are flimsy as using a plastic fork for steak.
Is It Cleaner?
Icky Versus Dirty
It can feel dirty for many of us white-collared Westerners to fondle moist foods like curries or salads with our hands. But is it truly dirtier than eating with cutlery?
As long we wash our hands before eating, probably not. It’s probably cleaner. We know where our hands have been. Who knows what that cutlery has been up to and whose unfamiliar fingers have fondled it?
Family-Style Spit Swapping
Family-style finger food may be another story. Even if you saw your fellow feasters clean their hands:
- Washing hands won’t completely sterilize them. Resident flora sticks around. And,
- You don’t know where their mouths have been. Those mouths could be transferring who-knows-what back to their fingers and onto your shared platter.
Maybe this is good for your microbial diversity. I suppose it depends on who you’re sharing plates and swapping spit with.
Other Cleanliness Pros and Cons Eating With Our Hands
- Better general hand hygiene. The added incentive to wash our hands before and after every meal could foster better habits overall.
- Fewer dishes to wash. But more hands.
- Dirtier clothes. Tearing away with your hands and jaws increases the risk of shrapnel staining your shirt. Maybe even the shirts of innocent bystanders, if you’re a real animal about it.
Is It Healthier?
The tools we use to feed ourselves with affect how fast we eat and how much. For instance, one study found we eat slower and consume less with forks than spoons.
Whether hands are faster or slower remains to be studied and up for debate. Proponents of eating with your hands say it’s slower because you make more careful and conscious bites and are less likely to gorge distractedly. My experience so far bears that out. I also make smaller bite sizes when I eat salad or rice dishes with my hand rather than a fork or spoon.
But no champion speed eater has ever won using cutlery. So while eating “sit-down foods” like salads and curries with your hands may slow you down, it likely has the opposite effect for “take-away foods” like hot dogs, sandwiches, and pizza.
Eating with your hands is the only way to get at every nutritious bit of grit and gristle when eating foods like ribs, whole chicken, and shellfish. Vegetarians too can get closer to the cores of their fruit when nibbling around it rather than cutting or scooping.
Less Picky Kids?
Maybe if we encouraged kids to eat off the bones with their fingers more, they’d acquire a healthier taste for all bits of meat rather than a preference to cherry-pick the easiest, meatiest bits.
They might eat more vegetables, too. In First Bite, author Bee Wilson reports that small children at Finnish nurseries ate many more veggies when allowed to play with them, inspect them, and eat them with their fingers.
Bacterial and Enzymatic Bonuses?
Other blogs on the benefits of eating with your hands make unsupported claims that the enzymes and bacteria from our hands can help with digestion. Seems reasonable. But what they don’t mention is that if we neglect to wash our hands properly before it could speed up digestion too fast, if you catch my drift.
Also, as we already touched on above, there may be pros and cons to swapping bacteria with family-style finger feeding.
Does It Have Social Benefits?
Break More Bread?
The expression, “to break bread with someone” indicates there’s some bonding benefit to touching each other’s food. Swallowing food that has another’s fingertips—and whatever bodily bacteria jumped ship at contact—on it, is an expression of trust.
Maybe that’s partly why social ties seem to be stronger in European countries where breaking bread is common?
Finger Feeding Fosters Fondness?
Could feeding infants with our fingers possibly create a stronger parent-child bond than using forks and spoons? I’d say it couldn’t hurt (…until the kids’ teeth start coming in).
Maybe there’s something to be said about finger feeding each other later in life, too. One evening at a restaurant in Sri Lanka, where everyone except Kim eats with their hands, we witnessed what looked to be a first date happening beside us go from stolid to steamy when the guy offered a finger-full taste of his dish to his partner. She swallowed sumptuously, then returned the favor.
Give Anxiety the Fingers?
People who suffer from minor social anxiety may benefit from eating traditionally un-finger-worthy foods with your hands in a public place like a crowded cafeteria. It could be good practice at caring less what other people think.
But sometimes it matters what people think. The first meal with your romantic partner’s parents or lunch with a potential client, for example. In those cases, it may be wise to keep your finger feeding fondness to yourself.
Can It Affect Our Appreciation of Food?
As Alice Waters is quoted in an Atlantic article about eating with your hands, “The fork gets in the way.”
Tabling your fork for the extra touchpoint, we get from eating with our hands increases our perception of our food‘s texture and temperature. Plus, it unites our three most sensitive body parts, fingertips, lips, and tongue. This may enhance our appreciation and mindfulness of what we’re eating. At the very least, we’re less likely to scald our mouths.
The extra dexterity from using our fingers allows us to mix and match every bite with maximum precision for maximum enjoyment.
On the other hand, we’re better able to take more measured bites of tougher foods like steak with the help of a fork and knife.
When your hands are all over your food—and vice versa—we’re more inclined to keep them off our distracting devices. Maybe this will make us more mindful of what we’re eating.
Licking your fingers after our meals is an extra moment of mindful appreciation of flavor. Rituals such as this have been found to enhance our enjoyment of what we eat.
Finger licking is also a signal to the brain that we’re finished. This may make us less-inclined to get back to stuffing our faces soon after.
Five-Tined Fork Time?
I don’t know about you, but all this talk of stuffing my face is making me hungry. And I’m eager to give eating with my hands a shot. Not all the time. But more often than before.
As a final appetizer (or dessert), I’ll leave you with this paragraph I like from writer Keridwen Cornelius:
Eating with your hands is a sensuous indulgence, a meeting of soul and skin. Satisfying on a deep, animal level. It’s getting soaked in a monsoon, taking off your shoes and squishing wet sand between your toes, making mud pies, impaling raspberries on your fingertips and kissing them off one by one till your mouth is juicy and full. It’s squashing grapes underfoot, playing music instead of hearing it, slapping fistfuls of your first birthday cake into your mouth. The mutual giving and receiving between fingers and tongue. Primal and earthy and natural.
More Info on Eating With Your Hands
If you’re still hungry for more info on eating with your hands:
- The Science, Folklore, and Joy of Eating With One’s Hands. The best article I found online on the topic.
- Paper finding that people with high self-control get more pleasure and consume more when eating appetizers with their hands instead of toothpicks.
- Etiquette for eating with your hands in India, parts of Africa, and the Middle East.
Please let me know if you’re a finger food scientist with new discoveries.