Whether or not you eat meat, you have to acknowledge that meat plays a big role in society, meals, and lives – including this killer sausage sandwich I got in Treviso, Italy. People gather around the grill on the Fourth of July, grilling and awkwardly greeting family members they haven’t seen since last year. On Thanksgiving, the turkey inevitably causes sadness, pain and suffering as the unfortunate person in charge bastes and bastes and bastes until the holiday spirit is all but washed away. Thankful for turkey? Maybe… or maybe we should just eat stuffing. But why do we eat meat? Why do we cook it? And, what happens if we don’t? Let’s break it down.
- Humans started to eat meat about 2.3 million years ago, which was a significant change in diet. Interestingly enough, you can begin to see changes in markings on fossilized bones of animals – from the tooth marks of whatever predator snacked that day to the less natural looking cuts of tools. This change in diet allowed us to get an explosion of energy – which allowed our brain to gobble up extra energy and grow and evolve. The very act of eating meat contributed to human evolution – and created humans as we know them.
- In general, we cook meat for two reasons: health concerns and ease of digestion. Obviously there are exceptions to the cooked meat rule – including tuna tartare, sushi, and carpaccio – so humans can certainly eat raw meat and fish without deathly repercussions. Let’s dig in.
- We cook meat because our bodies aren’t tuned up to digest raw meat or any raw food – even raw foodies in our world today are often underweight. Take a cat, for example, that can munch on raw mice, birds and forest friends. They not only have a different set of teeth (I know this for a tried and true fact – my cat also tries to munch on me), but they also have different sets of digestive enzymes and processes dedicated to getting the most they can out of raw meat. Additionally, they have much higher levels of acid in their stomachs – so any pesky bacteria get no chance to invade. Humans can digest raw meat – but we don’t pull nearly as many nutrients out of it as when it’s cooked – and our low-level acid stomachs leave us vulnerable to attack.
- Speaking of attack…while some meat is carefully curated to avoid nasty bugs and parasites hiding within – a lot of the meat we produce isn’t, and must be cooked in order to keep us safe. A variety of parasites die once you cook meat through – rendering the meat completely safe to eat. Some of these parasites include Cryptosporidium parvum, Cyclospora cayetanensis and Trichinella spiralis, to name a few. In addition to cooking simply to kill parasites – when we cook food we alter the chemical structure and it tastes better. When you smell cooking meat, baking brownies or even brewing coffee, it probably smells pretty darn good.
Most of you probably knew there was a reason we cooked meat – or were terrified by your moms about washing the chicken cutting board – but now you know some definitive reasons why we cook meat, and our our evolutionary history was affected because of it! Wicked. Here’s some links:
- The USDA breaks down foodborne illnesses and their causes
- The Smithsonian tells us why cooking made our brains so darn big and roasts raw foodies in the process: Fire Makes Us Human
- The nitty gritty on digestion of meat, what chimps eat, and why one researcher wasn’t too keen on joining in.