Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hot Meals

People often equate a "hot meal" with a nutritious one, but the temperature a food is served at has no bearing on its nutritional value. After it is eaten, it is all going to be processed as mush in the stomach at body temperature.

Some foods DO NEED to be cooked, but cooking is different than the temperature of consumption. Cooking changes the chemical composition of some foods, like meat, vegetables and potatoes, and makes them more easily processed by the digestive system. Cooking also sanitizes the food, reducing the chance of some viral and bacterial infections. Because it has been purged of live bacteria, cooked food tends to keep longer than raw food.

But there is no reason the food has to still be hot at the time you eat it. The preference for hot food (and food we expect to be served cold) is strictly one of culture and habit. Cold chicken is no different than hot chicken as far as the body is concerned. Some foods may seem unpalatable when they are not heated—e.g. fringed with congealed fat—but this may be a sign that the food isn't good for you anyway.

I propose that any food that is really good for you is probably going to taste good whether it is served hot or cold. (The same applies to ice cream or soft drinks: If it isn't palatable at room temperature, why would you eat it cold?)

Frozen food obviously needs to be thawed, because it is difficult to consume otherwise. Heating may also improve the taste of some foods, but taste itself is not something you need for good nutrition. This may be significant when you have access to quality food but no kitchen facilities. As long as the food has been previously cooked, immediate access to a stove or microwave oven may be unnecessary.

Because cooked food keeps longer, you can probably eat yesterday's chicken cold even if it has been left at room temperature. Cooked meat lasts even longer if you dry it—in a food dryer or an oven left on at low temperature—and can be safely consumed weeks or even months after drying. Therefore, even refrigeration can often be unnecessary as long as you consume or process raw foods shortly after purchase. As long as you have a facility to initially cook raw food—be it a microwave, hot plate or campfire—the whole rest of the kitchen may be unnecessary.

To our ancestors, who got their food from local farms and had few options for long-term storage, hot food indicated wholesomeness because it implied both cooking and sanitation. Today, however, we get much of our food from cans, cellophane packages and frozen boxes, where cooking has already taken place and sanitation is reasonably assured. Our ancestors would envy our year-round access to safe food, but we often complicate things when we insist on re-cooking our food to adhere to their ancient standards.

You may have a gag response when you try to eat cold a food that you are used to having hot, but you'll get over it. It's not going to kill you, and it will keep you alive just as well as the hot stuff.

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