A Culinary Monoculture: How Cooking Makes Us Human

When you think of evolution, the credit for survival has been given to our ability to adapt to new environments and our growing intelligence and ability to retain knowledge and learn. In all factuality, I think the credit is given wrongly. Most of the credit should be given to the shift from raw to cooked food. In the book Catching Fire, author Richard Wrangham explores multiple theories and delves deep into the science of “how cooking made us human.” 

 

The author begins the story were it should, at the beginning. Our ancestors began as hunter-gatherers. As I describe it, they hunted for their supply of protein and gathered for a supply of fibers. Though once our ancestors discovered fire, everything changed. 

 

After the discovery of fire, our ancestors began cooking their food. Not only did this change how the food tasted, but it also changed how it was eaten, how it was conceptualized, and what exactly food was used for. In the beginning food was considered a necessity, but only because our ancestors knew if they didnʼt eat they would stop living. After the first cooked meal, things started to change. Food became more of a versatile offering than a survival need. It was not only used in “pairings,” what we would call weddings, but it also created what we know as a household, and the division of labor between genders appeared. There were also physical changes as well. 

 

 

 To quote Richard Wrangham: 

I think this is a very important fact to remember, especially when you compare our ancestors to our modern selves. The fact of the matter is, raw food is technically better for us than cooked food, but because our bodies have developed, adapted, and evolved to eat cooked foods, it is harder to digest raw foods. But if they are good for you then why not eat them? 

 

 

I decided I wanted to compare the pros of eating Raw Food vs. Cooked Food to get a better look at the matter. 

Once our humanoid ancestors began cooking their food, the 

human digestive tract shrank and the brain grew. Time once spent 

chewing tough raw food could be used instead to hunt and tend 

camp.


Cooked Food 

•Provides more calories. 

Pay attention to the last fact on the Raw Food list, you will feel satisfied faster. Basically when it comes to meat and fish, they have proteins that are converted into amino acids during digestion. Once the liver is satisfied it turns the extra protein molecules into glucides and fatty acids. This is stored as excess fat. But by lowering the amount of meat you eat, you lower the amount of protein you consume, therefor lessening the amount your liver is hurt. But this isnʼt the only benefit of eating raw foods. 

 

 

 

 Humans arenʼt the only oneʼs who seemingly benefit from eating raw 

foods. A special pet diet is being advertised as “being beneficial for dogs the same reason the raw-foodists advocate raw diets for humans: it is natural.” This diet is called BARF, or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. One man said, “You can always tell a raw-food dog; they look better, have more energy, are thin and vibrant.” After putting his golden retriever on a raw-food diet for a week, he could already see the dogʼs coat looked healthier and was soft and silky. Although animals can adapt to raw-diets, they tend to do better on a cooked food. 


Raw Food 

•Provides more vitamins and trace 

elements. 

•Contains fibers. 

•You will feel satisfied faster.

 

 

 

 Humans have adapted to cooked food. The advantages of eating raw 

foods are complimented by, what Wrangham calls, evolutionary benefits. He states that the digestive process accounts for a large amount of a personʼs individual “energy budget.” Richard Wrangham says: 

This goes back to the transition I was talking about from hunter-gatherer to cooked meals. And although fire played a huge part in this transition, evidence for the control of fire is inconsistent until 250,000 years ago. Once humans were able to control fire and use it to their advantage, cooking came into play. We can figure out when this was by looking at fossil records.

 

 After our ancestors started eating cooked food every day, natural selection favored those with small guts, because they were able to digest their food well, but at a lower cost than before. The result was increased energetic efficiency.


Once the anatomy of a human changed to accept cooked food, we can assume that cooking had become a daily ritual. This change also marks the time when humans had controlled fire to an extent that it was not going to be lost. Since the control of fire and the change of diet, humans have grown and adapted to prefer cooked food over raw food. Animals have also shown this. Evolutionary anthropologists Victoria Wobber and Brian Ware conducted a study on apes to see whether they showed a preference to one or the other. It seems that they will eat apples and sweet potatoes, either raw or cooked. When it comes to meat, potatoes, and carrots, the apes wonʼt eat the item until it has been cooked.

 


The Tchimpounga chimpanzees are an interesting specimen to look at. There is no record of the species having ever eaten meat before, yet when offered raw and cooked meat, the chimp preferred cooked meat over the raw. 

 

One very interesting case study is the case of Koko the gorilla who learned to communicate with humans. She apparently prefers cooked food over raw. Psychologist Penny Patterson asked her why. 

 

“I asked Koko while the video was rolling if she liked her vegetables 

cooked (specifying my left hand) or raw/fresh (indicating my right hand). She touched my left hand (cooked) in reply. Then I asked why she liked her vegetables better cooked, one hand standing for ʻtastes better,ʼ the other ʻeasier to eat.ʼ Koko indicated the ʻtastes betterʼ option.” 

 

Primates have sensory glands on their tongue just like humans. We can both taste the food, but where primates differ is they can perceive particle size and texture. These preceptors connect with the taste neurons in the brain, the amygdala and orbito-frontal cortex. When these neurons are set off, it allows the brain to make an assessment of the properties of food being consumed. 


 

 Richard Wrangham says: 

 

 This sensory-neural system enables primate to respond instinctively to a wide range of food properties other than merely taste, including such factors as grittiness, viscosity, oiliness, and temperature. 

The mechanisms that allow animals to asses the quality of raw foods 

directly apply to cooked foods and allow them to choose food of a good texture for easy digestion.


 

In 2004 it was discovered that when humans had a food of a certain 

viscosity in their mouths, specific parts of the brain were stimulated, part of the ʻtasteʼ cortex that registers sweetness. The responses to properties such as taste, texture, and temperature are mixed with responses to the sight and smell of food. 


 The main effect of cooking is to lessen the ʻdigestibilityʼ of proteins. There 

are many different theories on the caloric effect of cooking a food. Some 

nutritionists believe it has no effect, some believe it increases, some say it 

decreases. When you look at raw-foodists and the immediate rewards animals show, the answer is clear. The effects of cooking on energy gain are regularly and consistently positive. 


 

 Richard Wrangham describes our digestive system: 


 Our digestive system consists of two distinct processes. The first is 

digestion by our own bodies, which starts in the mouth, continues in 

the stomach, and is mostly carried out in the small intestine. The 

second is digestion, or strictly fermentation, by four hundred or more 

species of bacteria and protozoa in our large intestine, also known 

as the colon or large bowel. Foods that are digested in our bodies 

(from the mouth to the small intestine) produce calories that are 

wholly useful to us, But those that are digested by our intestinal flora 

yield only a fraction of their available energy to us--about half in the 

case of carbohydrates such as starch, and none at all in the case of 

protein.”

 


If you take all of this into consideration, the choice to eat raw food over cooked food is based on, not the caloric factor, but rather the starch and protein values. Raw food tends to contain more starch and protein then cooked foods. For example, if you eat a salad with no dressing and no croutons, it yields less protein then if you were to eat, say, a cooked beef patty. But if you eat a caesar salad with dressing, croutons, and grilled chicken you are gaining more calories then plain lettuce. 

 

 When all of this is put into perspective it is clear to have the best diet you 

should have a balanced diet. Studies have shown that you need a balanced diet of both raw and cooked food. To have a culinary monoculture will turn out not only to be unhealthy, but might even be harmful. In the words of Jean Anthalme Brillat-Savarin: 
 

“Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.”