One of the great breakthroughs we humans made in our evolution was cooking. When it happened, we simply don’t know, but we are quite sure it was already part of our culture 250 000 years ago.
A body of scientists believe we learned to cook two million years ago and that this is the crucial factor that drove our transition from primitive Homo habilis to Homo erectus. It is a plausible theory that would explain how we developed an ever-bigger, calorie-demanding brain, while our jaw and teeth grew smaller and our big australopithecine gut shrank.
A leading proponent of this theory is Richard Wrangham, whose Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009) is circumstantially persuasive. Unfortunately, he lacks the hard archaeological proof, but that is not surprising — traces of a steak cooked and eaten 1.9-million years ago at a temporary campfire will be tricky to find. Some evidence for the controlled use of fire has been proposed for burnt bones found at Swartkrans dating to 1.5-million years ago.
Being the only animal to cook its food places us at a distinct advantage. Cooking tenderises food, improves digestibility, vastly increases the calories we obtain and reduces the energy we expend digesting our food. Cooking may destroy some vitamins, but not always and not enough to outweigh the caloric benefit. More betacarotene is absorbed from cooked than raw carrots. Cooked tomatoes give us far more lycopene (one of nature’s most powerful anti-oxidants) than raw tomatoes.
The discovery of cooking was probably accidental. Some hominid dropped a piece of meat or a tuber in the fire and noticed it smelt and tasted better and gave him more calories. Meanwhile, wild animals are awash with worms and amoebas from their uncooked diets.
Raw foodism started as a fad in the United States. Woody Harrelson is apparently one acolyte. It spread to New Agey and herbivore circles in the United Kingdom, where the first raw restaurant opened in 2005 in London. It was the kind of place where you leave your shoes at the door and eat raw flax crackers. The movement is now belatedly catching on in South Africa.
If you have poor eating habits and frequently consume junk, fast and pre-prepared foods, then you should definitely increase your raw food intake. But if you convert to raw foodism, as a greenhorn you should be aware of the serious health risks it can entail. Unpasteurised milk is an unsafe idea. Serious outbreaks of salmonella are regularly caused by contaminated vegetables and not meat. To impose a raw food diet on children is a potentially lethal experiment.
The Giessen raw food study conducted in Germany on more than 500 long-term raw foodists made disturbing findings. Half the women developed amenorrhoea. Responsible adherents agree that raw foodists should take vitamin supplements, in particular B12. Raw foodists often proselytise with mumbo jumbo such as ‘body alkalinity” and Kirlian photographs comparing the auras of cooked and raw tomatoes. Then again, I don’t believe in Santa, the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny, so perhaps one should treat my scepticism with caution.
The more militant advocates of raw food make some idiotic claims. Let’s get this straight: cooked food is not bad for you — the healthiest specimens on and off our planet, from Olympic athletes to astronauts, prefer cooked food.
My favourite among the absurd claims is that our immune system perceives cooked food as an intruder and sends out legions of white blood cells to defend us against it. Then there’s the ridiculous enzyme claim. We kill the enzymes in food when we cook it, which is not only murderous to our karma, but also means we lower our ‘enzyme potential’, whatever that is. Actually, our enzymes try to digest whatever we swallow, uncooked or cooked, food or not, and it’s a process indifferent to the minuscule enzyme content in the raw produce.
One thing though, raw vegan foodists are thin. Research shows people who have been strict adherents for more than 10 years found them to have below-normal bone mineral density. The most appealing thing about this diet, and virtually the only thing that is scientifically verified, is that you can eat endlessly and not worry about putting on weight.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am an eager omophagist. I eat a lot of raw food, but stuff mostly frowned upon by raw foodists — steak tartare, Parma ham, prosciutto, rollmops, carpaccio, smoked salmon, ceviche, sashimi and oysters. I regularly pig out on pesto, coleslaw, green salads and crudités. I love guacamole and mayonnaise (both of which are revolting when cooked).
The raw foodist’s kitchen has no stove. Instead, they use a food processor, juicer, blender and dehydrator. Technology helps grind up into manageable quantities the otherwise gigantic volume of raw produce they would have to spend all day chewing through themselves.
Even though much of it is mushy and cold, they do create some incredible gourmet dishes. Nori rolls with sprouts and salad fillings make delectable sandwiches. Maca powder, hemp seed powder and spirulina are favourites. A staple is the smoothie that combines fruit and a green leaf veg, such as spinach. Local product is embraced with enthusiasm, such as buchu and aloe juice. And then there’s chocolate — raw chocolate made with unroasted cacao beans and cold-pressed virgin coconut oil, sweetened with organic blue agave nectar (heated, but below 60°C) and vanilla pods.
Find out more:
– Superfood Superstore, 13 Bell Crescent, Westlake Business Park, Tokai. Tel: 021 702 4980.
– Kwalapa Organic Wholefoods Store, 31 Newlands Avenue, Montebello Design Estate, Newlands. Tel: 021 687 9314
– Honest Chocolate sell their products at various outlets. www.honestchocolate.co.za