The ever-evolving world of nutritional awareness has created a new debate that will be the topic of our discussion today. Within the keto-carnivore and paleo communities, nobody questions whether meat is essential for human health, but new questions are emerging regarding the optimal way to consume our most precious resource. The debate hinges on whether to cook our meat or to go full caveman and consume it raw.
It seems very attractive to mimic the nature that surrounds us, wolves and bear certainly don’t cook their meat, even the brilliant dolphins and octopi of the oceans consume their prey raw. Are we humans any different? Is our biology and physiology so far removed from animal nature that we need to cook our meat? And just because we have the intelligence required to make a fire, does that mean we should throw our food into it?
This topic contains many variables: nutrients in red meat including vitamins and amino acids, the digestibility of meat raw versus cooked, potential carcinogens of cooked meat and contamination of raw meat. So, let’s hop in and make some sense of it.
People that promote a raw diet operate on the assumption that cooking removes something fundamental from our food. In meat we find almost every single essential nutritive component of a healthy diet. This includes saturated fats, cholesterol, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Which, if any of these nutrients, are lost when we cook?
Let’s start with the vitamins. Meat and animal organs like liver contain both of the water-soluble vitamins, B and C. When exposed to high temperatures these vitamins are affected and greatly reduced in concentration. This detail is especially pertinent for people following a strict carnivore diet because of the inherently low levels of vitamin C in animal products, and thus a potential for creating scurvy. Okay, so the water-soluble vitamins are reduced but, how about the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K2? Fortunately for people who love a cooked piece of meat, the fat-soluble vitamins are far more heat resistant and survive much more readily. This comes with one caveat though. The fat-soluble vitamins are contained within the fat, and cooking meat creates an opportunity to lose this needed fat and thus a lot of these vitamins. Fortunately, there is an easy solution, make sure you hold on to the rendered fat and reintroduce it to the meat when you are ready to eat. You can also save this fat for cooking your other foods. Tallow, which is rendered beef fat, makes an excellent and very stable cooking oil which is solid at room temperature.
This brings me to my next point. When in a ketogenic metabolic state, you need high levels of fat for energy production. In addition, cholesterol is essential for every tissue in your body, this means that you want to recover any lost fat in the cooking process anyway.
As far as minerals are concerned, they are considered heat stable. The valuable zinc, iron, and selenium found in animal products are preserved after cooking.
Now let’s look at protein. Some people argue that raw meat is more digestible, and proteins are more readily absorbed, while others argue the exact opposite. Unfortunately, this topic is a bit opaque and there are no absolute answers that I can offer, but there seems to be a stronger argument on the side of cooking meat for digestibility. When heat is applied to a protein, it loses its carefully formed shape, and in a way becomes predigested in the cooking process. This is work that the body does not have to do, and the path to releasing absorbable amino acids is simplified, and thus absorption happens more easily. Some raw food advocates also claim that enzymes that are contained within the meat helps with digestion, and that these enzymes are ruined through the heating process. Again, this is a tough issue to tackle and there is very little research to draw upon, but some common sense may be warranted here. Our stomachs have an extremely acidic pH and it is more than likely that most, if not all, of these enzymes would be destroyed before they could render any complement to our digestion. So, it looks like cooking may be winning in regard to protein digestion.
Now let’s look at something I like to call the meat nutrients. These are so important they deserve a sizable portion of our time today. And let me preface this next section by saying this is a big win for the raw meat people out there. Red meat, which in our typical supermarket can be found as beef or lamb, contains high levels of the nutrients taurine, carnosine, carnitine, and creatine. These nutrients are closely associated with the structure of the amino acids that make up proteins and are ubiquitous in our body. They are essential for the proper functioning of nearly every system found within the human body. From our eyes, to our bone health, to the function of our brains and on, meat nutrients are a major factor in the difference between the slow degenerative disease state and the state of optimal health. Through cooking meat, we lose the majority of these chemicals. Let’s look at some of these in more detail.
From a study from 2012, concerning taurine a researcher tells us that “Considering its broad distribution, its many cytoprotective attributes, and its functional significance in cell development, nutrition, and survival, taurine is undoubtedly one of the most essential substances in the body.” This is obviously a powerful statement, and a surprising one, because not too many people are aware of this chemical other than its inclusion in certain, garbage energy drinks. But the research is startling and extensive. Epidemiological studies have found that populations around the world with the greatest lifespans also consume high levels of taurine. It has been found that taurine helps to prevent diabetes and obesity and helps mitigate the negative effects of these two conditions. Taurine helps to reduce the hardening of arteries. It helps to strengthen and expand the life of heart cells. Taurine improves exercise performance, both by increasing muscle contractility force (aka strength), and helps cycle lactic acid out of cells which results in improved endurance. Probably the reason for its common inclusion in energy drinks. The list just goes on and on. For instance, taurine can completely reverse tinnitus. It protects against age related eyesight loss. In fact, it is so essential that if cats do not consume enough in their diet they will go blind. Taurine can prevent seizures and prevent liver disease. It’s essential for the proper use of the electrolytes, which include magnesium, potassium, sodium, and calcium. Taurine has anti-cancer properties, can control hypertension, it increases bone density and reduces the risk of fracture. And as far as your brain is concerned it helps with anxiety and depression while improving cognitive function and memory.
Wow. That’s a lot of good this little-known nutrient can accomplish. Unfortunately for our vegan brothers and sisters, there is little to no taurine found outside of the animal kingdom.
Carnosine is considered a potent antiaging chemical. For instance, carnosine can reverse age-related mitochondrial dysfunction. Just like taurine it is found throughout the body and has broad implications in our state of health. It is a powerful antioxidant like taurine, it can remove heavy metals from the body via chelation. Similar to taurine it has neuroprotective effects and improves memory, in fact it helps prevent and treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. In addition, it is also useful in the treatment of epilepsy. Our immune system can be modulated by carnosine. If your immune system is hyperactive and you suffer from autoimmune conditions, then carnosine can help decrease this detrimental process. And on the flip side if you suffer from a depressed immune system, carnosine helps activate an immune response. Carnosine makes wounds heal faster, it improves bone integrity, and can prevent hearing loss. The list keeps going, but I won’t bore you with more details.
The next nutrient is carnitine. This is a common supplement that people take in order to improve results when losing weight. The reason for taking carnitine is because it is required in the transport of fatty acids into the mitochondria, thus improving fat utilization and energy production. But carnitine is not just limited to this one function, just like carnosine and taurine its effects are numerous. Just a few examples of its benefit include improved male fertility, improved sleep quality, and improved bone health.
And finally let’s take a look at creatine. This is a common supplement that people take in order to improve strength performance and is a common supplement included in pre-workout drinks for bodybuilders and other athletes. Creatine is primarily stored in muscle tissue in the form of phosphocreatine. It is a quick source of energy that is used during very short bursts of high intensity exercise. Not only does it improve performance, it also improves cognitive function and bone health, and it can help treat neurological issues related to Alzheimer’s, ischemic stroke, epilepsy, and brain and spinal cord injuries.
When considering our decision to cook or to eat our meat raw there is a discussion that exists regarding the safety of cooked meat. Raw food proponents may point to the carcinogens that are created when meat is exposed to high heat. These carcinogens include advanced glycation end products (AGEs), heterocyclic amines (HCAs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are produced when either proteins or sugars encounter high heat. These AGE’s cause oxidative stress in the body and can be a potential cause of cancer and inflammation. Even though this sounds scary, it turns out that putting a sear on a piece of steak may not be very dangerous. A study from 2001 demonstrated that when comparing vegetarians and omnivores, the vegetarians had much higher levels of internal AGEs, this result was not expected, it is postulated that high consumption of fructose is to blame because fructose undergoes something called a Maillard reaction in the body. Further studies have shown that fructose in fact does raise internal AGE levels. So, it seems there are greater dangers out there from AGEs compared to a cooked piece of meat.
As far as HCA’s and PAH’s are concerned, it is a similar story to AGE’s. Yes, they are considered carcinogenic and are oxidizers. But the actual amount on your meat is low compared to known toxic amounts. But it gets even better. If you add spices and herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, onion powder, or garlic as a rub or marinade the levels of carcinogens drop drastically, usually greater than 80%. The strong anti-oxidant properties of these spices neutralize the oxidative effects when cooking the meat.
One other potential danger to cooking meats involves the oxidation of fats that occur in the presence of high heat. Oxidized fats are toxic in the body and should be avoided whenever possible. PUFA’s (polyunsaturated fatty acids) are known to be easily oxidized, and we find a high concentration of these fats in chicken and pork. However, beef and lamb are different. Their fat content is mostly comprised of healthy saturated fats with far less PUFA’s. So, a possible strategy here could be to avoid chicken and pork altogether and stick to the red meats. Another strategy could involve the use of antioxidant spices and herbs, like we listed before, or to consume some antioxidant rich foods with your grilled chicken, these will help neutralize potential oxidizers.
When we are talking about the consumption of raw meat we inevitably need to consider the potential dangers associated with bacterial, viral, and parasite contamination. Cooked meat is going to reduce our risk of food borne illness. This is especially necessary if we buy our food from non-trustworthy sources such as supermarket chain meat counters. Ground beef has much more surface area exposed to potential contamination as opposed to the outer surface of a steak. So, eating your burger raw has more inherent risk than having a rare ribeye.
The risk of eating dangerous microorganisms is definitely a reason to cook meat, but in my experience, I have learned that being selective about your food sources outweighs the potential danger of consuming raw meat. Yes, I have gotten sick from store bought meat, that was handled by God-knows-who, and came from cows that may not have been raised in the most sanitary environment. But I have also consumed vast quantities of raw ground beef from a trusted source, our beloved Bar 10 ranch in southern Utah, and have felt no adverse effects.
In conclusion, be mindful of your procedure when choosing raw versus cooked. My summary is to mostly eat your steaks rubbed in antioxidant-rich spices, only seared on the outside with a very raw inside. And that if you are eating your ground beef raw, make sure it is from a trusted source. The lesson I have learned is that not all meat is created equal, find a local ranch that produces high quality, grass fed meat and support them. It is especially important that we form relationships with our local animal farmers because in the coming years, with the anti-human, vegan agenda being foisted upon us, they will need all the help they can get to ensure the longevity of our meat supply.