Book Review: Catching Fire, How Cooking Made us Human

It’s the cooking stupid.

Stop worrying about what you’re eating and listen up to Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, who hypothesizes that we evolved as humans once we started cooking our food.

Catching Fire, How Cooking Made us Human is not another fright book about our food, another wacko diet book, nor is it one of those unintelligible scientific studies. Wrangham writes the way a stream flows, inserting information without stopping for a lecture. Best of all he has a sense of humour.

He lays out his thesis without fanfare. In the fifties, eating meat was accepted as the impetus that pushed humans ahead of animals. In the sixties, the French anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss described cooking as providing humans with a psychological edge over animals. Now Wrangham provides the biological view: “cooking (food ) increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from from our food.”

This then is the key to our development. Cooking softens food, makes it easier to digest and so releases much needed energy, particularly to the brain.  Our brains are only 2.5 percent of our body weight, but they are energy guzzlers, using around 20 percent of our energy budget. “Cooking” writes Wrangham “helped make our brains uniquely large providing a dull human body with brilliant human minds.”

Brain grew, gut shriveled.  Wrangham’s account of our puny digestive system is hilarious, starting with the all important mouth.  “Chimpanzees can open their mouths twice as far as humans, as they regularly do when eating. If a playful chimpanzee ever kissed you, you will never forget this point.”

So where’s the old caveman diet of grass? Raw food, a current fad, makes you healthier but you will have less energy, and life is mostly concerned with energy (women on raw food diets have been found to stop menstruating.) “So from an evolutionary perspective, if cooking causes a loss of vitamins or creates a few long term toxic compounds, the effect is relatively unimportant compared to the impact of more calories.”

One of those toxic compounds, Acrylamide, one of the Maillard compounds  which give food an appealing brown sheen, became the poster chemical in 2006 when it was found in commercially produced potato chips (among many other foods). Animal tests showed it to be carcinogenic. Dangerous to humans?  “The cooking hypothesis  suggests theat our long evolutionary history of exposure to Maillard compounds has led humans to be more resistant to their damaging effects than other mammals are.”

Finally, the food industry hasn’t plotted to kill us as so many food warriors insist. “Cooking launched a dietary commitment that today drives an industry. The popular foods cooking in giant factories are often scorned as lacking in micronutrient, having too much fat, salt, and sugar, and having too few interesting tastes, but they are the foods we have evolved to want.”  (italics mine).

So we eat too much of it. The result. Obesity. Question is how much should we scale back and return to eating indigestible foods?  Won’t we lose our energy?

It’s up to the industry which, unlike nature, responds to our demands. That is if we make the demand.

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