A Cerebral Thanksgiving: Cooked Food and the Human Brain

Source: Kjunstorm, biologycorner.

Early humans' discovery of cooked foods may have been a significant contributing factor in the development of their comparatively large brains.

Ashton Macfarlane

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As the last slices of leftover turkey are made into sandwiches, and the final pieces of pumpkin pie disappear tragically from the fridge, the Thanksgiving season has brought us another lovely celebration of family, fall, and food. But how frequently do we think about why we eat our food cooked? Most animals would dive into a raw turkey without ever worrying about pre-heating the oven to 325 degrees, or debating whether stuffing might cause the bird to cook unevenly.

Scientists at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro now suggest that early humans’ propensity to cook their food may have been chiefly responsible for the development of their larger brains, as compared to their primate counterparts.

Cooking, in its most basic, non-artistic form, begins the process of digesting the food we eat. It takes less energy to break down turkey that has been in the oven all afternoon than it does to break down raw turkey fresh from the farm, or suburban supermarket.

While humans are capable of metabolizing 100 percent of the nutrients available in cooked food, they can tap only an estimated 30 or 40 percent of those in raw food.

The researchers in Brazil, who conducted an extensive study on the brain sizes and eating habits of a variety of primates, propose that by learning to cook their meals, early humans could spend less energy in digestion, and less time in hunting and foraging. This economization of time and energy, as essential to early Homo erectus as it is to high school students today, allowed our ancestors more time to socialize, to innovate, and ultimately to stimulate their brains.

How early humans began to cook in the first place remains unclear, with an accidental discovery by dropping raw meat on the open fire lasting as a popular hypothesis.

The researchers calculated that, were we to eat our food raw, humans would need to spend nearly nine and half hours a day eating in order to maintain our current brain mass.

It would then be very challenging to endure Mr. Roisen’s strict no-food policy, especially on block days, as an hour and a half of precious eating time would be lost in the pursuit of biological knowledge.

Orangutans, gorillas, and other primates that have significantly smaller brains per body mass than do humans, spend much more of their waking lives foraging for and consuming food. Orangutans spend around 7.8 hours a day either searching or shoveling. Gorillas spend an astounding average of 8.8 hours in the pursuit of nutrients each day.

While Thanksgiving Day may have seemed to present a nation of humans who do spend eight or nine hours either consuming or recovering from food, had humans not learned to cook, there would have been little time to spare for midnight Black Friday specials.

And that would really be a shame.

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17 Responses to “A Cerebral Thanksgiving: Cooked Food and the Human Brain”

  1. shoover on November 27th, 2012 12:08 am

    Very interesting article. However, one other question remains. We are always warned to be wary of uncooked food because it often contains deadly bacteria, yet other animals seem to consume raw meat with no problem. Are we just being extra cautious, as we tend to be? Or have animals built up more resistance to this type of bacteria? Or are wild animals more prone to death by bacteria infested meat than we know?

    Rachel Fox Reply:

    to answer part of your question Shoover, raw meat is only really dangerous when it hasn’t been stored properly or isn’t fresh.We are extra careful because our way of processing food has made it more likely that bacteria grow in it.
    People eat sushi (real sushi, I mean) all the time and it’s not dangerous because it hasn’t been sitting in the sun or out in the open all day. if you kill an animal and eat it fresh, most parts of it are fine and safe to eat, depending on the animal of course.
    Most things that are raw don’t automatically contain deadly bacteria. Eggs for instance, you aren’t supposed to eat raw because salmonella could be on the eggshell. But if you buy your eggs fresh they are less likely to have bacterial growth on them. Carpaccio is a dish usually of raw beef that is covered in lemon juice- the acid makes it a bad place for bacteria to grow.
    The fresher it is the less likely it is you will get sick. I’d assume the same goes for animals, though they probably have less sensitive stomachs.

    shoover Reply:

    Very informative, thank you!

  2. Ryan on November 27th, 2012 5:43 pm

    Very interesting to hear about a link between our brains and cooked (or uncooked) food. Not something we usually think about, but I’ve certainly wondered why we have to cook our food while other animals devour raw meat.

  3. Rachel Fox on November 27th, 2012 5:51 pm

    Does this only apply to meat? Because it is well known that fresh vegetables and fruits provide more nutrients than when cooked or frozen.

  4. Nicky H on November 27th, 2012 5:59 pm

    Great article, this is definitely a topic I was pondering as I stuffed my face with turkey, cranberry sauce and more delicious food. I wonder if I went on a strick raw-meat diet, would Mr. Roisen allow me to eat in his classroom?

  5. bwiener on November 27th, 2012 7:56 pm

    Very well written article, Ashton. This gets me thinking about how people on raw diets fare, and whether such an eating style is truly as beneficial as many claim it is.

  6. alai on November 27th, 2012 8:16 pm

    Great article! I’m curious what would happen if primates started eating cooked food. Also, I love the look on that gorilla’s face.

  7. egrose on November 28th, 2012 6:35 pm

    This article is very interesting! I never knew that eating cooked meat had such a huge evolutionary effect on humans and the human brain. Great job!

  8. rgordan on November 29th, 2012 3:52 pm

    Great article, but I’m still confused: Is the greater amount of nutrients in cooked food directly related to brain size, or is it the extra time humans have that has over time led to a larger brain?

  9. Nolan Martin on November 29th, 2012 7:47 pm

    Fascinating article! I had no idea that cooking food was so effective for absorption of nutrients. This only adds to my confusion, however, with the small but growing popularity of raw food diets.

  10. jacob pfau on December 1st, 2012 6:10 pm

    That’s a question i had too, also is anything lost my cooking food? I’ve heard some vitamins may vanish in cooking.

  11. Will Hanley on December 3rd, 2012 12:17 am

    Raw meat is never a good idea if you’re thinking about your health. Tons of bugs and bacteria can be found in raw meat that would have been killed if it were cooked. I really wonder how the human race survived before they found that out.

  12. David Schmitt on December 3rd, 2012 4:15 pm

    An interesting tangent is that apparently, humans’ brains are now shrinking as we become more able to store our thoughts online and in writing. Who knows, maybe our brains will shrink back to the size of gorillas’.

    greid Reply:

    Maybe as our intelligence diminishes, that of the bonobos and chimps will increase, and they will evolve to fit our niche as we evolve to fit theirs! In a few billion years, of course.

  13. sparish on December 6th, 2012 5:55 pm

    A very nice article. But while we can use 100% of the nutrients of cooked food, doesn’t food also lose some of its nutrients when cooked too?
    I also liked the reference to Roisen, bringing some humor into the article 😉

  14. josephrabinovitsj on December 7th, 2012 7:52 pm

    Now when I eat my Thanksgiving dinner I will feel both pride in the meal and my evolutionary superiority.

A Cerebral Thanksgiving: Cooked Food and the Human Brain