Nutrition and historical food books

These books about all things gastronomical offer plenty of food for thought

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Richard Wrangham, Profile Books, £15

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The received wisdom is that humans didn’t learn how to tame fire and cook until relatively recently – around the same time as the ascent of modern man, and certainly long after the origins of Homo sapiens.

Only a few hundred generations ago, our ancestors were eating uncooked flesh. Richard Wrangham challenges this view, and argues a new hypothesis – that it is cooking which made us human.

Richard Wrangham is a real expert in his field, which includes being a professor of biological anthropology, and particularly of primates. His arguments are pretty convincing. He looks for societies which don’t cook, and finds… none.

Then he looks at people who are involuntary non-cooks (eg shipwrecked people), and also people who make the deliberate choice to be raw foodists.

The nutritional and medical evidence he uncovers is compelling: humans get sick if kept on exclusively raw food diets, unless they have the benefit of an excellent food supply to sustain them and hi-tech, modern kitchen equipment to prepare the food properly. The ‘raw food = natural’ argument has no substance, and plays no part in human prehistory. 

So when did humans become cooks? Prior to the point where we became ‘human’, it seems, from the time of Homo erectus (who predate small-jawed, brainy sapiens like us). Our physiology, short digestive systems, dentition, even our big brains have co-evolved with cooked food, so we are now dependent on it.

The benefits of cooking include easier absorption of nutrients, less time spent gathering and preparing food, and of course the requisite changes in our behaviour that have made us the social, collaborative animals we are today.

Yet the book raises as many questions as it attempts to answer.

If raw food is nutritionally inferior to cooked food, why do nutritional values for foods suggest otherwise? The answer, he suggests, is that scientific evaluation of calories, vitamins etc doesn’t take account of the effort required to ingest foods which are not softened and broken down by cooking. Like any good set of hypotheses, these ones are set up to be knocked down.

Guy Dimond, Time Out London Issue 2055: January 7-13 2010

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