Cardboard is full of calories, but you won’t gain weight eating it.
Wrangham and his colleagues have since shown that cooking unlaces microscopic structures that bind energy in foods, reducing the work our gut would otherwise have to do. It effectively outsources digestion to ovens and frying pans.
Wrangham found that mice fed raw peanuts, for instance, lost significantly more weight than mice fed the equivalent amount of roasted peanut butter. The same effect holds true for meat: there are many more usable calories in a burger than in steak tartare.
Yet the FDA’s methods for creating a nutrition label do not for the most part account for the differences between raw and cooked food, or pureed versus whole, let alone the structure of plant versus animal cells. A steak is a steak, as far as the FDA is concerned.
Industrial food processing, which subjects foods to extremely high temperatures and pressures, might be freeing up even more calories.
The food industry, says Wrangham, has been “increasingly turning our food to mush, to the maximum calories you can get out of it. Which, of course, is all very ironic, because in the West there’s tremendous pressure to reduce the number of calories you’re getting out of your food.”
In 2013, researchers in Jeffrey Gordon’s lab at Washington University tracked down pairs of twins of whom one was obese and one lean. He took gut microbes from each, and inserted them into the intestines of microbe-free mice. Mice that got microbes from an obese twin gained weight; the others remained lean, despite eating the exact same diet.
“That was really striking,” said Peter Turnbaugh, who used to work with Gordon and now heads his own lab at the University of California, San Francisco. “It suggested for the first time that these microbes might actually be contributing to the energy that we gain from our diet.”
Meaning it’s not just the calories in the food which matter. It’s how well your body can access those calories.