Humans have been cooking food since the Stone Age, and there are plenty of good reasons why the practice has survived to this day.
Today, cooking is seen by many as culinary art. It is easy to forget that it played a major role in human development.
Cooking greatly increased the variety of foods available for consumption and decreased the amount of time spent seeking out ingestible raw foods. As a result, our bodies evolved to accommodate cooked food, from the shape of our teeth and jaws to the size and function of our digestive organs.
Eating cooked food allows our bodies to digest and absorb more nutrients than eating raw food. Indeed, there are certain nutrients in some raw fruits and vegetables that are almost impossible to digest or absorb unless they are cooked.
Lycopene, for example, is a phytonutrient that gives protection from some forms of cancer. It is much better absorbed by the body from cooked or processed tomatoes than from raw ones.
Another phytonutrient that is more readily available for absorption when cooked is lutein found in corn. Similarly, carotenoids found in red, yellow, orange and many dark-green leafy vegetables are a good source of vitamin A, and they are much more easily absorbed when cooked.
The three basic food groups—carbohydrates, protein and fats—are a lot easier to digest and absorb cooked than raw. Imagine eating rice in its uncooked state, or steak and eggs, for that matter. Meals would not be a pleasant experience.
Cooking food dramatically improves its taste and aroma, too. The Maillard reaction, which is a chemical process that uses heat to turn food brown without the use of enzymes, makes food smell and taste better.
Also, eating food raw takes a significant amount of energy for chewing and digesting. Just compare the effort required to eat a raw carrot versus a cooked one—eating uncooked foods is not an efficient delivery system for the fuel an active body needs.
Apart from taste and digestion factors, cooking food is a healthy choice. Heating food kills bacteria. It can also make it easier to preserve food. Storage of cooked food is convenient and prevents spoilage.
No doubt, then, that cooking has given us a very special place in the food chain. It has also helped define us culturally through our cuisines. How much less interesting life would be without the joy of cooking.
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