Hello and welcome back.
Thank you for following all the theory and investigations so far on whether the foods we eat are natural and ethical. Basically, if you look at this post, you will see that we are left with not too many food groups.
However, in order to capitalize on the nutrition to be found in these wonderful foods, and also to create some variety, the question is, is it healthy to eat cooked food?
Does cooking destroy food?
Raw foodists say it does, as above a certain temperature (104 to 118 degrees F or 42 to 46 degrees C – there is disagreement about the exact temperature) enzymes are killed and vitamins destroyed, making the food less nutritious. Some also say that food becomes toxic if it is cooked (1).
However, some sources believe that certain foods when cooked release more nutrition than when eaten raw. Tomatoes and some other red fruits contain lycopene (a powerful antioxidant that protects against free radicals) which is increased when the food is cooked. Other foods such as carrots, mushrooms, cabbage and spinach produce an increased quantity of antioxidants (carotenoids and ferulic acid) when cooked.(2)
Cooking also neutralises lectins (which are indigestible and can damage the gut lining) found in legumes.
So, on the face of it, it looks as if eating a selection of raw and cooked foods will give us the best range of nutrition.
Is eating cooked food natural for humans?
We also have to consider whether it is natural to eat cooked food. My theory has been based on the human primate in the wild with no tools or cookware other than a rocks sticks and fire. Why did I include fire? Is it natural? Basically, no. None of our closest cousins: gorillas, chimps, baboons and monkeys, cook their food.
Are we going to make an exception? I think there is good reason to, since, at the time humans were using rocks and sticks to help them gather food, they were also using fire.
According to a recent study (3) humans were using fire to cook food one million years ago. The evidence is in the form of charred bones and vegetable matter. Another study suggests that humans were using pottery to cook food 20,000 years ago (4). Apparently, the first type of food to be cooked in pots was fish soup.
Does the passage of so many years make cooking a natural process? Perhaps not, but humans who found themselves far from the tropics for various reasons had to harness fire to keep warm in order to survive. Some had to rely on foods that fire made more digestible or easier to eat.
So, we will consider some forms of cooking in the interest of humans having evolved to survive using fire.
How did ancient humans cook food?
Paleolithic humans cooked food by suspending it over fire or creating a form of oven using heated stones.
One can easily imagine that once humans had discovered how to harness fire, the next thing they would have discovered was that stones heated in the fire could be used to cook food. Have a look at the Hangi cooking method which is still practised by the Maori people in New Zealand:
Humans also learned to use heated rocks in an earth oven for cooking meats and vegetable foods such as potatoes and starchy fruits like pumpkins:
Mesolithic humans used utensils such as earthenware pots, built by hand and hardened in fire. These vessels would have been used to cook food mixed with or immersed in water.
This video shows Zulu women cooking millet porridge in an earthen pot, over an open fire:
Pots were made out of clay which was hardened in fire, as in this video:
As you can see, the amount of effort involved in making pots would have had to have been offset by the benefits of cooking food.
Some foods would have been ‘cooked’ in the sun or on sun-heated stones, in hot climates. This would have included Essene bread, tomatoes, fruits, fish and meat, not so much for making food more digestible, but to preserve it.
Grains and legumes would have been fermented, crushed or sprouted, or all three, before being cooked in the sun, in a pot over a fire or in a heated stone oven. One of the most ancient foods created like this was flat bread in Egypt (2000 BCE) (5) and Essene bread, known to have been the staple diet of the Essenes, a Jewish religious group (6).
Essene sprouted sourdough bread is still made today using modern methods, and is served either ‘raw’ (dehydrated) or baked in an oven. This video show you how to make baked, sprouted, fermented Essene bread:
Grain is easily digestible once it has been sprouted and fermented. Sprouting and fermenting grains helps humans digest them as this process neutralises the glutens, lectins, enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid that keep grains whole, so that even when they are passed through an animal’s digestive tract, the grains can still sprout and grow into plants.(7)
Why did humans start to cook food?
Cooking would have been a way for humans to make the foods they gathered easier to eat and digest. An example would be the meat of larger animals. Imagine that earlier humans would have come across animals that had already died or been killed and had dragged these to their caves to eat them. Since they had no knives to cut the meat into pieces small enough to eat, they would have found that putting the meat into the fire made it easier to rip through the skin and eat the flesh.
Many people these days follow what is called the palaeolithic diet, which advocates that humans eat a diet of animal protein, fruits, vegetables and no grains. This makes sense with respect to what a human can gather and prepare to eat without specialised tools. But, there is a limit to how much meat palaeolithic man would have eaten. As we discussed previously, humans are not equipped to hunt down and eat animals without the aid of tools and weapons. They also do not have the teeth to cope with biting through animal skin to get at the flesh beneath. Therefore, the majority of their food would have been fruits and vegetables, just as in the diets of our cousins, the apes. (8)
But, we know they did eat the meat of large animals. How did they get it? Here is a video of some Sudanese people chasing lions off a kill so they can steal the meat. Although they have used a large knife to cut off a haunch, this still shows that this would have been one of the easier ways to get the meat of a large animal:
Here is another video showing some San people chasing cheetahs off their kill and stealing it, using no weapons other than sticks.
So, the only meat palaeolithic man would have had in his diet would have been that found by scavenging, stealing off wild animals, or hunting smaller creatures that he could catch with quite some effort and far less danger than stealing it from the big cats. Palaeolithic man was mainly vegetarian, but would have probably cooked the meat he could get.
Seafood taken off rocks as well as fish caught by trapping was far easier to eat and more palatable when cooked. This video shows how ancient people would have trapped fish:
Which types of cooking are the least harmful?
Now that we’ve included cooking in our natural, ethical system of eating, we need to be sure of which methods cause the least harm. It seems that the cooking methods that will cause humans the most harm are (9):
- Grilling over an open flame, especially if food becomes blackened
- High heat pan-frying and deep frying
The high heats associated with these types of cooking change the structure of the food which can make it toxic.
The least harmful methods are:
- Slow baking
Note that nearly all of these involve cooking with water.
So, in conclusion, when I post recipes up, they will be tagged according to our investigation here, that is, raw or cooked according to which method provides the most nutrients and makes the food more digestible, and the cooked recipes will be created using only the least harmful methods and utensils.
Are you a raw foodist? Do you agree that cooking is beneficial to some degree, or not?
Next post: Does the blood-type diet work?