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Could Humans Live on a Chimp Diet?

One of the myths spread by raw foodists is that we’re fruitarian creatures. As proof of this, they cite the chimpanzee, with whom the human being shares a considerable amount of DNA.

The idea is simple: chimpanzees live on fruit. Therefore we can also live on fruit.

For many years, I spent my winters in Costa Rica. I’ve had the chance to observe what monkeys eat in the wild.

What always puzzled me is that whenever I saw the fruits these monkeys ate, they still looked far from edible to me. Whenever I tried to eat them, I found them to be quite repulsive. Think of trying to eat an unripe persimmon (and not the kind you can eat raw!)

So we should ask ourselves: what kind of fruits do chimpanzees eat?

Professor Wrangham, in his book “Catching Fire,” writes:

“Evolutionary adaptation to cooking might likewise explain why humans seem less prepared to tolerate toxins than do other apes. In my experience of sampling many wild foods eaten by primates, items eaten by chimpanzees in the wild taste better than foods eaten by monkeys. Even so, some of the fruits, seeds, and leaves that chimpanzees select taste so foul that I can barely swallow them. The tastes are strong and rich, excellent indicators of the presence of non-nutritional compounds, many of which are likely to be toxic to humans—but presumably much less so to chimpanzees. Consider the plum- size fruit of Warburgia ugandensis, a tree famous for its medicinal bark. Warburgia fruits contain a spicy compound reminiscent of mustard oil. The hot taste renders even a single fruit impossibly unpleasant for humans to ingest. But chimpanzees can eat a pile of these fruits and then look eagerly for more. Many other fruits in the chimpanzee diet are almost equally unpleasant to the human palate. Astringency, the drying sensation produced by tannins and a few other compounds, is common in fruits eaten by chimpanzees.”

(…) Astringency is caused by the presence of tannins, which bind to proteins and cause them to precipitate. Our mouths are normally lubricated by mucoproteins in our saliva, but because a high density of tannins precipitates those proteins, it leaves our tongues and mouths dry: hence the “furry” sensation in our mouths after eating an unripe apple or drinking a tannin-rich wine. One has the same experience when tasting chimpanzee fruits such as Mimusops bagshawei or the widespread Pseudospondias microcarpa. Though chimpanzees can eat more than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of such fruits during an hour or more of continuous chewing, we cannot. “

The Myth of the Garden of Eden

It’s this idea that human beings once lived on a natural diet of fruits and vegetables, but have been corrupted by the discovery of fire, and later agriculture and civilization.

The human body has adapted to a cooked food diet

The diet eaten by raw foodists is “cooked” in the sense that it is optimized for providing enough calories in a concentrated form, one that would not be possible otherwise.

Professor Wrangham writes:

“It makes sense that we like foods that have been softened by cooking, just as we like them chopped up in a blender, ground in a mill, or pounded in a mortar. The unnaturally, atypically soft foods that compose the human diet have given our species an energetic edge, sparing us much of the hard work of digestion. Fire does a job our bodies would otherwise have to do.”

Why do you think that blending is so popular in the raw-food world? Why do you think that green smoothies are such a craze? Why is juicing popular with raw foodists? They are all techniques to “cook” food without heat.

I do believe that a raw food diet can work when we use some of these tools.

But, in my opinion, it would be almost impossible to live off raw wild foods. Even the modern raw-food diet is “unnatural.”

Therefore, it’s important not to spend too much time judging such and such health practice as “natural” or “unnatural,” because in itself, it doesn’t mean much.

What’s more important is to realize whether a diet or activity is healthful, regardless of its “naturalness.”


Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets.