Humans have been cooking food for at least tens of thousands of years. The presumed reason why cooking took root in nearly all human cultures is that cooked food is easier to digest. However, cooking food can also generate toxic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which would not be found in the uncooked version of the food. Considering that humans have been eating cooked food for such a long time, I am wondering whether humans evolved any adaptations to eating cooked food, e.g., that certain types of foods, when cooked, are more toxic to our closest relatives (great apes) than they are to humans, because we have more ability to metabolize the toxic compounds.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'd say that tens of thousands of years is too short a time on an evolutionary timescale to develop any adaptations. On the other hand, social learning did take place, in teh sense of learning of what can and cannot be eaten, how it should be cooked, etc. One could thus make an interesting study of how local cuisine has evolved via selection (what is available and edible), random drift (accidental trials and ideas whiel cooking), and other evolution-like forces. $\endgroup$ – Vadim Jan 15 at 8:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Vadim its really not, just look at the evolution of lactose tolerance in human populations that kept cattle. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 29 at 4:29
  • $\begingroup$ Fair point. Indeed, if domestic animals had enough time to evolve into new species, so could humans. It is still not clear what are the evolutionary pressures here: I'd rather expect more random drift than adaptation. $\endgroup$ – Vadim Jan 29 at 6:25

Humans are incredibly good at processing maillard compounds, which include both beneficial and mildly toxic byproducts of cooking. Humans are better at breaking them down than other animals. This is presumed to be an adaptation to eating cooked food. Malliard reactions are also a good indicator of when most plant and animal products are safest to eat via cooking, (browning) which may explain why humans on average show a preference for them or even adaptations to detect them. we are also learning that one place animal testing may be problematic is in dietary tests becasue of this.

extra reading on hominid adaptations to diet

  • $\begingroup$ Adaptation implies selection. In other words, the claim is that those uncapable of digesting cooked food would have lesser chances of survival. On the other hand, more random drift is quite possible. A somewhat similar case is the increase of the number of women in need of cesarian section - it is not a adaptation to an evolutionary pressure, but result of removing such a pressure. $\endgroup$ – Vadim Jan 29 at 6:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Vadim no a trait to be better at doing something is also is also an adaptation. very few adaptations have lethal alternatives, they are just better than the alternative. humans are better at digesting cooked food than any animal tested, due to known unique enzymes, that is adaptation. onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/evan.21498 $\endgroup$ – John Jan 29 at 14:08
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptation What you are saying that people became better at digesting cooking food (adapted) without any insensitive to do so. What could be an adaptation is if people began using cooked food, because they are better at digesting it. Also, the link that you provided emphasizes the role of the gut mircobiome, which is in a big part acquired during lifetime (apart from what we get at the birth, which is still not genetic). $\endgroup$ – Vadim Jan 29 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Vadim NO, incentive does not mean do it or die. incentive or in biological terms "advantage" comes from well having an advantage. If Jon is better at digesting cooked food that Bob he has a distinct advantage, he is getting more nutrients and fewer problems from the same foodstuffs. Cooking was a part of the hominid diet long before Homo sapien evolved. Also only one link refers to gut microbes, that is the one that lists many factors. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 29 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ advantage in evolutionary terms means producing more offspring - either by living longer or by doing it more frequently or in bigger numbers. If Bob produces as many miserable Bobs as Jon happy Jons, neither has particular advantage. $\endgroup$ – Vadim Jan 29 at 17:14

There seems to be evidence that cooked food intake regulates different genes than raw food in mice. Apparently these genes also tend to be human specifically expressed (more precisely, their overlap is more than expected by chance) [1]. While this is not a dramatic finding, it does show association between cooked food and genomic changes that evolutionary adaptation implies.

As for toxicity of certain edible foods to non-human primates, I do not know the answer but I would not expect toxicity. Rather, high metabolic demand of humans might have required more protein based diet which is safer when cooked.

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4860691/


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.