Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Paleo Grill

Politics invades pretty much everything nowadays, and few things more than food, as the recent court decision over NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on “big gulp” sodas reaffirms. Arguments rage over GM crops, organic foods, veganism, fried foods, fat content, caffeine, junk foods, pasteurization, and so on. Many of us are not content just to follow our own preferences, so we carry the fight into the legislatures. We want to pass laws on others’ consumption because… well, because we’re right and those other people are wrong. Some are more live-and-let-live about it – even if this means, in some instances, live-and-let die – but that is a political position, too.

One of the currently fashionable food regimens – and one that faces numerous legal restrictions, especially with regard to dairy products – is the Raw Food Diet. It is pretty much what it sounds like. Cooking is out. Vegetables, milk, eggs, and meat are served raw. Some raw foodies are vegetarians, but most are not. They argue that cooking destroys nutrients, causes weight gain, introduces dangerous chemicals (notably char) into food, and “processes” food in a way that is fundamentally unnatural. Opponents of the diet cite the dangers of E. coli, salmonella, and other dangerous bugs; they say that pasteurization was adopted for a reason. They also note that some very healthy foods such as beans and lentils can’t be digested properly without cooking

There is something to both perspectives, and I’m not inclined to stop anyone who cooks or who doesn’t cook. I’d like to lift restrictions on selling raw unpasteurized milk to anyone willing to take the risk of drinking it. Nevertheless, it may be an error to consider uncooked foods more natural. They are natural, true enough. Paleo peoples ate many things raw (as we still commonly eat fruits and some veggies), but there is substantial evidence that, in human evolutionary terms, raw foods are not more natural.

Chris Organ, evolutionary biologist at Harvard: “This is part of an emerging body of science that shows that cooking itself is important for our biology; that is, we are biologically adapted for cooking food.” The oldest undisputed barbeque pit dug up by archaeologists is a mere 400,000 years old, though this still predates biologically modern humans. Harvard researchers, including Organ, reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, point to dental development in human ancestors as far back as 1,900,000 years ago as evidence the practice is much older. Their analysis supports an argument made by Richard Wrangham a couple years ago in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Other apes, including our chimp cousins, spend a lot of time eating and chewing in order to extract calories from raw food. According to the researchers, chimps spend a third of the day at it. Modern human hunter-gatherers spend only 5% of their waking hours doing the same. Unsurprisingly, teeth reflect the difference, with heavy duty chimp molars and small delicate human molars. Humans also have weak jaws, small stomachs, and intestines only 60% the length of other great apes. Humans don’t need to chew so hard because cooked food is softer; our smaller simpler digestive system is more than adequate for our needs because cooked food gives up its calories far more easily. The reduction in tooth size shows up very early among our ancestors. Largely on the basis of dentition (and rib structure, which indicates gut size), Organ said, "We think that Homo erectus and Neanderthals were spending about as much of their day feeding as we do, which implies that they were both cooking." In short, cooking techniques are intertwined with hominin evolution.

This Sunday I plan to fire up the charcoal grill (a midsummer day’s scheme) with the usual suspects invited. The burgers, steaks, and corn-on-the-cob that will get tossed onto it may not be particularly healthy. But evidently they are natural – or at least as natural as raw ones would be. Homo Erectus might not have recognized the particular meats and veggies on the grill – all of them have been modified vastly from ancestral species by farmers and pastoralists in the past 10,000 years – but he would have recognized a cookout when he saw one. I like to think our conversation will be a bit more advanced than his, but perhaps it’s best not to get one’s hopes up. Also, I’ll strike a match to light the fire, rather than rub sticks the paleo way.

Quest for Fire (1981)


  1. Ok as I was reading your post, I immediately thought of "Quest for Fire" and there it was. Well done sir!

    I've always enjoyed a good cookout, and prefer most of my carnivorous intake to be of the cooked variety. But there is something to be said for sushi. Sushi, a Sapporo and a classic samurai film. That's some summer fun right there. :)

    1. I've gotta grant you sushi. I've never tried Sapporo beer, but I'll take your word for it.