Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Cooked vs. Raw

My roommate posed me the question yesterday, "How did eating cooked meat come to be more popular than eating raw meat?"

My initial internal response was "Because it was a more evolutionarily viable strategy" and then I realized the lack of satisfaction in an answer like that so I ventured out on a limb that ran along these lines.

There are two pieces of cooking food that would seemingly effect a primitive human's "decision" to eat meat that he left over his hot light.  The first is the reason with which we are most familiar; because it tastes so damn good.  I've eaten a fair amount of protein and I've run into few items that are far better raw than cooked.  The Maillard reaction is the browning that occurs (especially prominent in meat) when heat is applied to food items.  (This does make for a strange definition because can imagine other items in the world that we do not consider food can also brown but I digress.)  This reaction creates a large range of tasty flavors on our food that we as a race have come to love.

I do realize I'm oversimplifying the problem by only approaching direct heat contact to bare meat but to be honest I'm more certain of this method as viable for the early hunter gatherer.  I simply cannot see Early Man practicing sous vide or even boiling of some kind as I'm pretty sure the vessels necessary didn't show up until later and were put into practice because everyone was tired of barbecue-everything.

There is also a possibility that cooked foods' tastiness is not a universal constant, but rather a cultural mediation of a strategy that was more successful than gnawing down to bloody bone.

So we must look to the second piece of cooking food.  When foods are cooked they chemically change.  This change makes more nutrients available for human consumption as well as making these nutrients easier to access.  While it is true that in many vegetables and fruits that can be eaten raw this is not the case but again we're going to limit ourselves to meat because we still practice a fair amount of raw consumption of vegetables and fruits.  In this chemical change we see that not only are more pieces of a raw food edible but also that the food that is cooked is easier to eat.  A pound of raw meat would be a seemingly mean feat for the average consumer, but even cooked to a bleeding rare it would suddenly be a significantly lesser challenge.

Is this because the meat is now tastier?  Is it because our modern man's biology has formed in a society that practices cooking?  Maybe a human who had been consuming a raw meat diet would actually find the raw steak more palatable and his body chemistry more suited to breaking down the bloodied steak.

At this point it would seem we've come back to the question of cultural mediation.  Are we eating cooked meat because our parents have eaten cooked meat as their parents did and our cultural evolution has perpetuated this as a tradition?  Would we be eating all of our meat raw if some fluke had given a leg up to those who avoided the great Cooked Food Catastrophe?

It's unlikely.  Cooking food confers another important benefit in that it eliminates bacteria and parasites in the food.  This would make fresh raw foods healthier and allow raw food to be kept for longer.  This alone would be enough of an advantage for food cooking groups over raw food groups to keep food cookers ahead in the long run.

There is also an interesting tandem in using heat to cook things that shows up in accessing foods that cannot be eaten raw.  When the agricultural revolution took place it became commonplace to require a cooking environment for the many plant based foods that arose.  If acquiring heat was the hardest part of cooking raw foods we would expect to see more of it done in the presence of foods that required cooking.  As grain-based foods became the basis for rapid human expansion, cooking likely became culturally omnipresent in the cultures that came to dominate geographically.

This guy on reddit does a rather good job giving a more historical approach, biologically and humanistically.  He also brings up an interesting point about the omnivore nature of humans that I think speaks heavily to our tastes and the wide variety of foods that lie within.

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