Thursday, June 11, 2009
Why we cook
Middle class folk from industrial countries don't worry too much about the major macronutritient diseases that kill millions (mostly children) throughout the world. Instead, we continuously argue about the proper proportions of macronutrients - our carbohydrates, fats, and proteins - the form these should come in, and how best to prepare them. So we have low-fat diets, Atkins diets, various flavors of vegetarianism (those that consider fish vegetables and those that consider fish animals), various flavors of carnivorous diets (red meat v. no red meat), vegan diets, the paleo diet, raw food diet, etc., etc,. etc.
Too much to blog about in one post but I will make one comment on any diet that purports to be "natural" or more in tune with our "nature" or "evolutionary past". The health claims of these diets assume that humans have not evolved since the pleistocene, that is, back when we were gathering nuts and scavenging lion kills on the African savannah. But there is a huge new research program in human evolutionary genetics that documents pervasive genetic adaption over the last few thousand years. The poster child of this phenomenon is the recent evolution of the regulation of the lactase gene, which has allowed both northern europeans and some africans to adapt (via natural selection) to the behavior of drinking milk from farm animals, as adults. Marlene Zuk has a nice essay from the NYT science section from earlier in the year. Note that the recent, accelerated genetic evolution theory is not uncontroversial (although certain instances like the lactase regulation is, indeed, uncontroversial). If you are interested, John Hawkes frequently blogs about this stuff and since he works in this field, his views merit close attention. In his most recent blog, John mentions Richard Wrangham's most recent book that is receiving a lot of interest: "Catching Fire: How Cooking made us Human". A seed interview with Wrangham about his book is short and sweet.
I've put this book on my list, but what I'm really curious is what (if any) selection has occurred in response to cooking?