C. Norman Shealy, M.D., Ph.D.

A review of the exciting book: CATCHING FIRE—How Cooking Made Us Human, by Richard Wrangham, Basic Books, New York, 2009

All vegans and raw food faddists will want to skip this article!! I have long argued that true veganism is unhealthy. And raw food faddists are often even more rabid than the vegans. Now, lacto-ovo or lacto-piscean diets can be healthy. The problem with vegan diets is that they lack B 12 and taurine, two essentials for human life. Dr. Wrangham, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard, makes an even more cogent argument for cooked food!

Perhaps the most startling facts are the importance of cooking food for its ease of digestion. William Beaumont. M.D. is best known for his work in saving the life of Alexis St. Martin, a man who survived a fist sized wound that left his stomach exposed. Beaumont observed visually the digestion of various foods and concluded that proper cooking softened food of all kinds easing digestion, and that proper chewing to make the food particles small was also essential.

Wrangham goes even further to argue that cooked meat was ESSENTIAL to the evolutionary development of the human brain! He even concludes that the decrease in vitamins caused by cooking is immaterial compared with the improvement in calories and digestibility! We know also that cooking can help release essential amino acids from meat.

Interestingly even gorillas in captivity prefer cooked to raw food. Rapid genetic changes can occur with significant food changes– see page 92 re finches in the Galapagos. In similar ways, homo erectus evolved from ape-like creatures with stronger arms than legs, larger intestines, larger teeth to provide an increase in cranial capacity by about 40%, largely because of fire, both for protection at night but also for cooking food. The increased brain size is specifically related to consumption of meat, especially cooked meat. Another 15% increase in brain size led from homo erectus to homo sapiens. This final evolutionary adaptation, Wrangham contends, was improved cooking from open coals to earthenware containers, improving the nutrient quality of the cooked meat. Do vegans have smaller brains?

Interestingly, cooking led to improved nutrition, but in humans it led to male dominance trapping women into a subservient role in largely patriarchal societies. Ultimately, cooking has also increased available calories so that excess obesity evolves when people become less physically active! We can “survive” on 100% plant food or 100% animal food. The ideal appears to be largely unprocessed food, much optimally cooked, and including some animal protein. Unfortunately, cooking alone cannot improve the quality of junk food. Sugar, white flour and artificial additives may taste good but they are not food!


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