Future of the non-cooking human
Bijgewerkt op: 25 jun.
What would be the consequences of outsourcing all of our cooking?
Ever since humans learned to handle fire to cook our food instead of eating it raw, we've invented all sorts of creative ways to make this process easier and more efficient. A way to get the most energy out of our food while spending the least. One of the earliest ways to prepare meat was to cook it directly on the burning embers of a fire. That already had significant advantages over eating it raw, but tougher cuts of meat were still a challenge to chew and digest. Our prehistoric ancestors invented a technique where they heated stones in a fire and then placed them in an animal stomach or other type of container. The meat or vegetables would be added and stewed into a deliciously tender and more energy-conserving meal. Techniques like these allowed us to get more energy for our food, contributing to the growth of our brains. It also left more time for us to develop our intellect and social skills. Small groups started growing into complex societies, and we began to form the base for the modern homo sapiens we are now. Even today, we keep looking for new ways to quicken our energy intake with inventions such as the gas stove, the microwave, or even meal shakes that offer complete nutrition in liquid form.
Today in western countries, we usually spend less than an hour in the kitchen, where it used to be multiple. Outsourcing (parts of) our cooking is generally accepted. But will we miss something if we don't cook anymore? Will we lose a part of ourselves? Or will we finally be free of this endless burden called cooking? Is cooking essential for being human?
Just as there have always been ways to make cooking easier, there have always been arguments against taking shortcuts. In the 1950s, social demands for housewives were very high, and women were expected to take good care of their husbands and children. This also meant cooking a tasty, nutritious, and complete meal for the family every day. Preparing lazy food like "stamppot" or cooking with canned items was heavily looked down upon or met with contempt. Did she even care about her family if she didn't put any effort into their daily dinners?! In a Dutch ad for Trixy jelly pudding, the company promises their product to stay a secret between housewives and them. Before the '50s, the jelly pudding was seen as an exceptional luxury food because it was labor-intensive and difficult to make.
Later, when women started working part-time or full-time jobs, this taboo on convenience started to decline. Food products like freezer pizzas and microwave meals began appearing in supermarkets. With the arrival of new products and technologies, several of these shortcuts shifted from lazy convenience to the norm. Convenience food is seen as a sensible choice - to gain time for work or leisure. Nobody is even thinking about spending hours boiling pork bones to extract the gelatin for a dessert pudding. Despite this, there is still a lot of looking down on younger generations for their laziness and inability to cook for themselves. But this process seems unstoppable. Eventually, home cooking could remain a hobby for some instead of the norm for all.
Of course, you could argue that we have been lazy cooks ever since we started buying our food at the supermarket. We don't farm and slaughter our own animals and don't grow our own vegetables. Buying pre-boiled eggs may seem ridiculous, but how many people still want to peel their peanuts? And how lazy is buying pre-peeled garlic cloves when we wouldn't even consider purchasing an unplucked chicken?
Why we cook less
The biggest motivation to cook less is time. Or the absence of it. Now that both men and women are working full-time jobs, there is no time left to spend hours in the kitchen daily. In the supermarket, ready-made meals or pre-packaged recipes are the most straightforward options because the vast array of cooking ingredients may make it even harder to choose the right ones. On top of that, the abundance of cooking shows and food porn on social media makes us feel like cooking beautiful and tasty food like that is impossible to achieve at home. We'd rather pay someone else to do the work for us than try it ourselves and possibly fail.
The downsides of outsourcing cooking
Buying more processed food, from canned meats to pre-cut vegetables, does have its negative side effects. The further away we go from how food looks when it grows or still walks around, the less we understand from where it came. And it makes us ignorant about the process needed to get to that product. We'll automatically feel less of a bond and responsibility to it, which leads to unsustainable buying and more waste. Of course, there is also the issue of all the unnecessary (plastic) packaging, which I'm sure everyone is familiar with by now. And then there are also the degrading working conditions for food deliverers.
Because we don't know what goes into our pre-made pasta sauce exactly, it's hard to determine if it's healthy or not. For the time being, home-cooking seems to be the best choice for your health. At least if you don't want to spend a lot of extra money on healthy takeout options or expensive meal kits. Maybe prices will level out a bit more in the future, but it seems unlikely. Even if we are prepared to pay that premium price, we still don't get much to say about the content of our meals. Restaurants and ready meals may still add more salt and fats simply because it tastes nice. So it's possible that healthy eating will not become the norm but more of a luxury for wealthier people. Comparable to journalism and news platforms, where you pay extra for "healthy," better-researched news, as opposed to information on social media where it's free but uncontrolled and difficult to verify.
Cooking may also be very beneficial for developing certain life skills. Combining certain flavors, choosing a recipe, searching the fridge and pantry for ingredients, making a list, cooking ingredients in the correct order, and improvising all require creativity and planning skills. Preparing food also teaches us about nutrition, what goes into a healthy meal, how much of what ingredient is beneficial, and the importance of a varied diet. It may even help develop social skills and collaboration if you cook together. And even if not for developing all these abilities, cooking is an excellent tool for bringing people together and fighting loneliness. There are all kinds of culinary initiatives, like those for refugees, the elderly, or the mentally or physically disabled.
On top of that, our current wealth and resources may not be as stable in the future. Today, we are already facing food shortages due to the war in Ukraine and ongoing droughts. Other factors like the covid pandemic, severe weather events, and pollution will all play a role in what we'll be able to cook and eat in the future.
Human – the ape that started cooking
According to some scientists, handling fire and cooking our food is what shaped us into modern humans in many ways. Since 1960, it has become widely accepted that the missing link between prehistoric apes and the evolution of Homo Erectus was the Habiline. They are associated with the first use of carved stone tools like knives and handaxes. This evolutionary step has accounted for a change in diet, leading to the bigger brain size: meat consumption. Though these early prehumans couldn't hunt large prey, they presumably got their fill of meat from scavenging and stealing kills from smaller predators. Between 1.9 and 1.8 million years ago, the first Homo Erectus started emerging, the first real step toward modern humans. Multiple theories exist about what allowed their brains to grow even larger than their ape-like ancestors. Hunting for more meat, more intelligent tool usage, or simply natural selection could all have been the cause for this growth. But in 1999, British anthropologist Richard Wrangham proposed the "cooking hypothesis," which states that Homo Erectus evolved from Homo Habilis because of fire mastery and cooking. He later expanded on this theory in his 2019 book Catching Fire.
Sufficiently high temperatures killed bacteria and parasites in meat, making it a healthier and smarter choice, survival-wise. The longer "shelf life" also meant they needed less time for hunting and gathering the otherwise fast spoiling food.
Artificially lengthened days caused by keeping fires left more time for other things. These early humans were able to socialize more, form bigger groups and start to develop a spoken language.
Chewing raw food takes a lot of energy. Using fire, it suddenly became possible to transform tough meat or fibrous vegetables into something easy to eat and digest. It saved energy and provided more energy at the same time. Our guts became smaller, and our bodies converted the calorie-efficient food into fuel for our growing brains. We became better at communication and kept developing our hunting skills and other survival strategies. Small communities were able to grow into complex societies. Cooking may even have been the cause for more easily sharing the food, resulting in a massive impact on our social behavior. Making fires at night also deterred predators, making it possible for early humans to sleep on the ground instead of in trees. We didn't need our long tree-climbing arms anymore, and it became more beneficial to walk upright for easier hunting and gathering. So we can see that our diet has been the basis for developments in our bodies, brains, and cultures.
In his book "Catching fire," Richard Wrangham states that: "The steady rise in brain size between big evolutionary jumps can be accounted for by a series of improvements in cooking techniques. "When Charles Darwin called cooking "probably the greatest [discovery], excepting language, ever made by man," he was merely thinking of our improved food supply. But the idea that brain enlargement was made possible by improvements in diet suggests a wider significance. Cooking was a great discovery not merely because it gave us better food, or even because it made us physically human. It did something even more important: it helped us make our brains uniquely large, providing a dull human body with a brilliant human mind."
Our bodies react and adapt to the food we eat, and it is no secret that how we eat also impacts how we live. We're eating softer food than ever, losing the need for a strong jaw to chew. The wisdom teeth often get cramped in the back, causing them to shift and rotate to strange positions, causing more harm than good. Today, some people are already born without them. According to some studies, the high amount of salt in our diet may also cause us to be born with lower blood pressure. Looking at the amount of high-energy food we consume, with plenty of carbs, protein, and fats, You would expect our brains to grow and develop even further, especially in this information-dense age of the internet and new technologies.
The constant stream of information, entertainment, and social interactions to which we are subjected could probably use a better-adapted brain. Our current prehistoric brain excels at focusing on one thing at a time while being very aware if something happens in our environment. If there is a sudden sound or movement, it immediately draws our attention. This instinctive reaction was helpful for hunting prey or sensing danger, but in the modern world, it mostly means that we are quite easily distracted. Things like flashing advertisements, vibrating phones, and e-mail notifications constantly take our attention away from more important tasks. These constant distractions and our desire for continuous information can make us feel stressed out and unproductive. It can even impact social situations, like when you have to stop the conversation to google that one actor in that one Netflix show.
Speaking of social situations, I assumed that another reason our brains should be
getting bigger would be the new forms of interactions that we now have online. In prehistoric times, our higher-energy food and brain growth allowed for more complex social behavior. So to adapt to modern times with modern technology and communication would be a logical next step for human evolution. But it turns out that our social media aren't really that social at all, and there is a big difference between talking to people online or talking to them in real life. This phenomenon became even more apparent during the covid-19 pandemic. Overall, we spend less time with people in the "real world" because we spend more time on the internet. While scrolling, we passively look at other people's lives or stories instead of actively engaging. So even though the internet makes it possible to communicate with anyone, anytime, anywhere, it's only making us feel more lonely.
It's also a misconception that our brain needs to be larger for us to be "smarter." Neanderthals' brains were bigger than ours, and though the modern human brain is smaller, it's probably better adjusted to our way of living. Like smartphones, it may be that our smaller brain size doesn't make us less intelligent, just more efficient. The modern human needs to have way less skill variety than prehistoric times. Instead, we specialize in one specific work field and outsource the rest. On top of that, we now use books, computers, and the internet as extensions of our brains. We no longer have to memorize all of our knowledge if we can store it somewhere else, digital or physical.
We become what we eat
So eating more energy-dense foods will probably not help us become more intelligent. Instead, it's mostly making us unhealthy and fat. Our current sugar-rich diet is also a pretty recent development, way too short for making any substantial evolutionary changes. But, as we're living in an age of unnatural selection, technology could help us adapt to this diet or change it to become healthy and happy again. For example, it could help us find out what specific food to eat to be happy, feel energized, or concentrate on a difficult task. Or at what time we should eat those foods for the best results.
But maybe the most significant impact on our lives won't be based on what we eat but on how we do it. As I described earlier, there is a change in how we prepare our food. We outsource more and spend less time in the kitchen ourselves. I've already talked about how not cooking would impact our lives, but it also impacts how we eat and see our food.
This shift is visible in the number of cooking shows we watch, for example. Watching these shows result in a similarly satisfying effect to eating real-life food. This behavior is known as vicarious consumption. For some people, it can help satisfy their craving for unhealthy but delicious food. "Humans are great at simulating multi-sensory experiences using visual cues alone because one-third of our cortex is solely dedicated to vision," says Matt Johnson, California-based psychology professor and founder of the neuromarketing blog PopNeuro. "By seeing someone else cook and make delicious food, we can simulate and imagine what that food tastes like. We get to have a small piece of this enjoyable gustatory experience without any downsides, like calories or clean-up." But even though it may be enough for some people to stop them from indulging in real life, others may experience the opposite. The shows can activate a hungry feeling, making us eat more than we usually would.
We will probably keep on living our lives if we don't cook anymore. Cooking has been essential for how our modern brain and society shaped themselves. Despite this, we no longer depend on it, just like we now outsource many other things. Activities that used to be essential for survival got transformed into hobbies. And is that really that bad? Becoming unhealthy or even obese costs the government a lot of money. So even if politicians don't care about us personally, striving for a physically healthy society still makes sense. They could introduce extra taxes on unhealthy food, invest in new technology, provide personalized nutrition packages, or other rules and regulations to keep us fit. If the final result is being happy and healthy, will we be okay with diminishing control over what we put into our mouths? Or will it eventually lead to a dystopian scenario as George Orwell described in Brave New World? A world where we have no personal freedom or individuality? A life that the people in power completely control, and not yourself?
Realistically, cooking won't completely die out. For those who enjoy it, it's still possible to cook as a hobby or become a professional chef. The food we choose will continue to impact our way of living undeniably. Our culture, surroundings, and bodies will continue changing and adapting to our food choices. If cooking has made us into the humans we are now, what would happen if we let go of it? Would we lose an essential part of ourselves? What exactly our future is going to look like will remain to be seen. Hopefully, developments in the area of food and cooking will not be taken lightly. Food is an essential part of life, and how we choose to consume it forms the basis for how our societies and cultures are shaped.
Order as mentioned in the text
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