Cooking: Helpful or only a Hindrance?
by CFP Intern Gwen Schoch
Picture the standard kitchen. What’s in it? The bare essentials: A refrigerator and freezer, sink, stove and an oven. How did these essentials come to be? Refrigeration preserves foods for longer, as lower temperatures decrease the rate of biological processes. Water is essential for survival. The stove and oven don’t have such obvious reasons for their place in the kitchen. Why cook? Some raw foodies would tell you cooking stands in the way of you and food, however, there are a plethora of reasons why cooking is an integral part of the human food culture.
All living organisms depend on nutrients of some form. However only humans formally cook. Why? Richard Wrangham explains in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, eating meat allowed a difference to develop between the early primates and habilines (Homo habilis, a now extinct ancestor of humans), however, fire permitted the evolution of Homo erectus. This article is more concerned with the shift to Homo Erectus. Cooking had to change or enhance the food in order to produce an evolutionary advantage.
This evolutionary advantage comes down to energy or calories. Wrangham claims, “cooking gelatinizes starch, denatures protein, and softens everything. As a result of these and other processes, cooking substantially increases the amount of energy we obtain from our food”. In other words, the digestion process begins before food enters the body.
People worried about losing weight want to decrease their caloric intake, but going raw doesn’t simply cut calories, rather it increases the amount of energy the body needs to digest food, as well as decrease access to essential nutrients. Digestion is the process through which nutrients are harnessed by the body through enzymatic breakdown.
Enzymes in the human body have limits. Using starch as an example: certain raw starches are indigestible as enzymes cannot breakdown the tightly wound polysaccharides. However, cooking the polysaccharides produce a molecule accessible to the body’s. Nutrient deficiencies are seen in those eating entirely raw. Wrangham considers the results of a study done by Giessen that found that “the more raw food that women ate, the lower their BMI and the more likely they were to have partial or total amenorrhea (lack of menstruation)”. Other studies have demonstrated that individuals on raw diets have access to less vitamin B12, as well as good cholesterol. 
The cooking question doesn’t only concern weight and energy, but health. There are a surplus of perspectives to view this question through, but one large issue facing society today is cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, lycopene rich diets can decrease likelihood of some cancers, including prostate, lung and stomach. Cornell’s Rui Hai Liu studied lycopene levels in raw and cooked tomatoes, concluding that their lycopene levels increased by thirty five percent after cooking.
Cooking, or denaturation, can be beneficial, to a point. In today’s society, the food culture has gone so far in the direction of processed foods (I even hesitate to call it food in this context), that it is only natural for there to be a backswing: the raw movement. With everything in life, there is a balance to be found, and it is different for every individual. To make educated decisions about how to prepare your own food, check out the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference at http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/. This vast database will provide information on food composition depending on preparation.
1-5Wrangham, R. W. (2009). Catching fire: How cooking made us human. New York: Basic Books.
6Subramanian, S. (2009, March ) Fact or Fiction: Raw veggies are healthier than cooked ones. Scientific American Retreived from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=raw-veggies-are-healthier.
American Cancer Society. Find Support and Treatment. http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/ComplementaryandAlternativeMedicine/DietandNutrition/lycopene
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