Cooking – The Missing Link?
Many years ago in prehistoric times, our early human ancestors learned how to start and control fire, allowing them to cook foods which were previously only consumed raw. A recent theory speculates that the resulting dietary shift to cooked foods was responsible for the evolution of primitive ape-like creatures into modern humans. In other words, you are what you cook as much as you are what you eat.
Raw versus Cooked
While most foods have exactly the same number of calories and other nutrients whether cooked or raw, studies have found that consuming cooked foods allows our digestive system to more easily extract nutrients. For example, Belgian researchers found that humans can absorb only about 60% of the protein in a raw egg, versus more than 90% of the protein in the same egg, cooked. In addition, eating cooked foods requires less work from our digestive systems - if you’ve ever tried eating significant quantities of raw beans or root vegetables this will probably seem obvious. According to this and similar research, the cooking process acts as a kind of predigestion, which allows our bodies to more easily absorb nutrients and conserve energy.
Since cooked foods are more efficient to consume, the theory follows that the introduction of these foods allowed humans to develop smaller guts and jaws, freeing the energy normally spent on digesting for larger brains. The calorie and nutrient-dense cooked foods also meant humans could spend a much smaller fraction of their days gathering food and chewing. With more free time and larger brains, our species flourished with advancements such as agriculture, tools, and complex social networks.
According to proponent Dr. Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, “cooking is arguably the biggest increase in the quality of the diet in the whole of the history of life.” He published his findings on the evolutionary importance of cooked foods last year in the book, “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human”.
Despite all this, the raw food movement has been gaining popularity in recent years. As opposed to the theory that our bodies have evolved to eat cooked foods, raw foodists believe the human body was designed to eat raw plant foods (with “raw” generally meaning temperature not exceeding 115 F or 45 C during preparation – the sorts of temperatures found while sun drying). Switching to a 100% raw diet is probably impractical for most us, though there are a small number of restaurants that have begun to offer surprisingly delicious raw dishes, painstakingly crafted using food processors, dehydrators, freezers, and other innovative techniques.
While it’s possible that cooking was the evolutionary catalyst for the development of humankind as we know it, “what got you here won’t get you there”, as they say. Our lives have changed dramatically in recent years with the advances of agriculture, food storage, and transportation. These days, most of us are blessed (or cursed, depending upon how you look at it) with an overabundance of diverse foods available for us to eat. Our bodies, meanwhile, continue to function as they have for thousands and thousands of years, efficiently extracting energy from our ever-complex diets.
Have you tried “eating raw”?
Calorie Count co-founder Erik Fantasia and his girlfriend, Heather Curtis, are currently traveling through Central America as part of a trip around the world. You can follow their adventures online with Facebook and their blog.