It’s not very often you come across new science related to the history of cooking meat, possibly because it’s such a widespread human activity–especially in the summer–that everyone takes it for granted.
Also, we’ve been doing it a very long time. As I wrote in a column four years ago:
“Evidence…suggests our hominid ancestors were using fire in a South African cave called Swartkrans 1.5 million years ago.
“Researchers…analyzed burnt bones found in the cave 20 years ago…They found that among the more than 250 bones (probably antelope) were some so thoroughly burned they must have been put in a wood campfire…Other bones were only slightly heated, which seems to indicate that the meat on them had been roasted–making Swartkrans the site of the world’s first known barbecue.”
Nobody knows how quickly our ancestors went from using fire for warmth, light and protection from Things That Go Bump In the Night And Then Eat You to cooking meat. It’s not the sort of thing it’s easy to find firm evidence for.
However, an intriguing tidbit (so to speak) of information came along this week, with a new study that shows that our closest animal relatives, the wild apes, share the human preference for cooked food.
Harvard University graduate student Victoria Wobber, her advisor, Richard Wrangham, and a third colleague gave a number of captive apes a choice between cooked and raw food.
Chimpanzees definitely preferred cooked carrots, sweet potatoes, and beef over the raw versions. (They didn’t seem to care whether their apples or white potatoes were cooked, possibly because cooking doesn’t really change those items very much.)
The researchers also tested some bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. They didn’t express a preference for cooked vegetables as much as the chimps (though when they did, their tastes were similar); however, they definitely preferred the cooked beef.
Previous research has shown that cats favor cooked meat (though it’s not necessarily good for them) and rats like cooked starch.
Cooking makes meat easier to eat, and also tastier. If I may return to my column of four years ago (can you self-plagiarize? And will it make you go blind?):
“Cooked meat is easier to eat because the heat alters the protein molecules in the meat. In raw meat, proteins molecules are wound up in coils, formed and held together by bonds. Heat breaks these bonds, allowing the protein molecules to unwind. Heat also causes the muscle fibers in the meat to shrink and shorten, by driving out water and causing the protein molecules to recombine or coagulate. This process of breaking, unwinding, and coagulating is called denaturing.
“Cooked meat is more flavorful for a couple of reasons. One is the Maillard reaction,” (a.k.a. “browning”) “which occurs when the denatured meat proteins recombine with the sugars that are also present…
“Fat also contributes to the flavour. Animals, like humans, are made up mostly of water, and so water is the most prevalent component of meat. Most of the flavour-carrying molecules are repelled by water. Instead, they dissolve in fat, so as the water is driven out and the fat melts, flavour is released into the meat.”
The great apes’ preference for cooked food probably indicates that our ancestors started using fire to cook with almost as soon as they had fire (which initially they probably only had when they came across it in the wild in the aftermath of a forest fire; they would then nurture it as long as they could, carrying hot coals from place to place).
Today, of course, there are many people who tout the benefits of vegan or vegetarian diets, and some who want to go whole hog (sorry) and eat only raw food.
Best be careful: a study at Oxford University has revealed that people on a meat-free diet are six times more likely to suffer brain shrinkage as they age because of a lack of Vitamin B12, which is most easily obtained by eating meat. For those on a meat-free diet, yeast extracts are a good alternative source.
Personally, I’m sticking to eating cooked meat. Vegetarians are free to call me a chump.
Or a chimp.