Wilderness Safety and the TRUTH about Wilderness Survival: Raw vs. Cooked
I tend to laugh at people like Bear Grylls and the cast members of Naked And Afraid or Alone when they bite into a RAW piece of meat/fish. The impression we’re supposed to get is that only a “real” survivor could do that. RUBBISH! It’s not real and it’s not smart!!
Before cultivation and domestication, some smart proto-human (probably a woman, of course) discovered that food tasted better when it was heated/cooked. So, not surprisingly, if it tastes good, you eat more BUT, heating the food ALSO changes the food to our advantage! Cooking actually increases the calorie value of some foods by not only making them more palatable, but by helping to break-down the foods making the nutrients more bio-accessible. Starches, for instance, like those in wheat, barley, potatoes, and so on, are composed mostly of two sugar-based molecules, amylopectin and amylose, which, when raw, are tightly packed and inaccessible to digestive enzymes. Studies have found that cooking gelatinizes starch, which means that amylopectin and amylose are released and exposed to enzymes. Thus, cooked starches yield more energy than raw ones.
For example, take the humble potato. Raw, they have two toxic chemicals (steroidal glycoalkaloids) solanine and chaconine which help them resist pests and pathogens. Eating a potato raw may cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and upset stomach. Still, 100 grams of raw potato = about 77 calories, but boiled = about 87 calories, and baked = about 93 calories! AND, you don’t have to worry about getting sick! No, heat/cooking doesn’t “add” calories, what it does is it breaks-down the potatoes’ composition so the toxins are neutralized, it becomes more digestible and as the potatoes are cooked, they lose water making the mass more dense with calories and those calories are made more “bio-available” meaning you get more from the same bulk. So with the time it took to cook them, it not only tastes better, and won’t make you sick (in a wilderness survival situation, cooking is usually ALSO advisable to minimize the risk of parasites and pathogens!), it may even make enough calories available to cover the calories you spent gathering them! THAT is efficient!!
Generally, you should not eat ONLY raw foods, or ONLY cooked foods, but a balance of both, at least 50% raw, but better between 66% to 75% raw (depending on the specific foods in question). Especially fascinating are the physiological studies on people who subsist only on raw foods. Raw-foodists are thin compared to those eating cooked diets given that, in most cases, they are eating domesticated foods with lots of nutrients, are processing them in machines like electric blenders, and of course, living as most do in the developed world, never suffering through seasonal food shortages (this alone should tell you in a long-term survival situation, you are better-off eating COOKED!). Yet despite all these advantages over anyone who might try eating wild foods raw, the average woman on a 100% raw diet may not have a functioning menstrual cycle and about 50% of women may entirely stop menstruating! When a raw-foodist’s reproductive system does not allow her to have a baby, even when her diet is composed of processed, high-quality, agricultural foods, the obvious explanation is she is NOT getting enough calories!!
CALORIES OF RAW vs. COOKED RED MEAT
But let’s face it, REAL wilderness survivalists will be looking for MEAT! And rightly so!! But while there has been a journal called “Meat Science” (yes, that’s a thing!) for more than 70 years and textbooks and multi-volume books called Meat Science, which study the production of meat all the way to the consumer’s mouth, that’s where the science appeared to stop until fairly recently. It seems the problem of how cooking affects the caloric value of meat has not been of much interest to meat scientists, much less to bushcrafters and survival fakes, frauds and pretenders!
To study how cooking (and processing, like pounding or chopping) affected calories, scientists turned to mice. They are a good species for this because their diet choices are similar to human food preferences. They like grains, roots, fruits and even meat; in the wild, there are even populations of mice that get most of their food by eating LIVE albatrosses! In one study, mice were given regular mouse pellets for six days at a time, interrupted by four days of eating sweet potatoes (starch) or beef. Half the time the sweet potato or meat was presented raw, and half the time cooked; half the time it was also pounded and half the time unpounded. They carefully measured the exact amount of food eaten by the mice, and then calculated the animals’ gain or loss of weight over four days as a function of the weight of food eaten, using both wet weights and dry weights of food to check the results. For both meat and sweet potato, they found when the food was cooked, the mice GAINED OR MAINTAINED MORE WEIGHT than when it was raw!
Although pounding/processing had very little effect in the experiment, processing/cutting the meat into smaller pieces WOULD allow the meat (or starches) to cook more quickly, thoroughly AND at lower temperatures (more on this later) so it not only gives you the caloric benefits of cooking, but helps preserve any nutrients that would otherwise be compromised by heat. In cooked beef for example, the muscle proteins, like the sugars in cooked starch, have opened up and allowed digestive enzymes to attack their amino acid chains. Cooking also does this for collagen, a protein that makes meat difficult to chew because it forms the connective tissue wrapped around muscle fibers. However, they do not know the exact mechanisms. What they do know, is the mice had a spontaneous preference for eating cooked meat over raw meat, and their choice made sense, given that they “survived” better on it.
So, the more highly processed AND COOKED your food (MEAT!), the more calories you get out of them. If you want to gain weight, make sure you eat highly processed and well-cooked meals. If you want to lose weight, do the opposite (in addition to exercising). You can eat the same number of measured calories, but if the foods vary in how finely they have been processed or whether they have been cooked, the calorie counts will not tell you what you want to know.
CALORIES OF RAW vs. COOKED FISH
Parasites are a natural occurrence, not “contamination,” they are as common in fish as insects are in fruits and vegetables. Parasites don’t present a health concern in thoroughly cooked fish, but parasites do become a concern when people eat raw or lightly preserved fish. But lets face it, you MAY be able to get red meat during a wilderness survival ordeal (maybe NOT), but IF you’re prepared, your MOST likely meat will be fish, and if you’re not at sea, that fish will likely be a trout of some kind. Have a look at these comparisons in trout, raw vs. cooked and you’ll see the smarter choice is STILL cooked rather than raw (the comparisons are with single fillets of comparable servings and the trout was cooked with DRY heat to avoid skewing the calorie counts):
Trout, mixed species, raw
Trout, mixed species, cooked
Trout, rainbow, wild, raw
Trout, rainbow, wild, cooked
Trout, rainbow, farmed, raw
Trout, rainbow, farmed, cooked
As you can see, eating fish raw may be more theatrical (for television) and less beneficial! In the end, and in a wilderness SURVIVAL situation, something is always better than nothing so if you have it, eat it! But IF you have a few choices and options, especially if you have fire, the SMART thing to do is almost always to cook your food! Still, to be fair, there are some fish/foods that do better raw, depending on the cooking method and the type of fish. Look at salmon, another fairly common fish to catch in some areas (these comparisons are with 3 oz. portions, and raw vs. baked or smoked to avoid skewing the calorie counts):
Atlantic Salmon, raw
Atlantic Salmon, baked
Chinook Salmon, raw
Chinook Salmon, smoked
Sockeye Salmon, raw
Sockeye Salmon, smoked
Although MOST foods (especially meats) are better, and better for you cooked, and the differences in calories between cooked and raw may not always be dramatic, EVEN IF they’re similar, as a rule of thumb the SMART thing to do is to ALWAYS cook ALL meats because cooking typically makes the food safer.